Six days - Five Grasswrens - Four States

Monday October 11, 2010

The year 2010 will long remain in birders' memories as one of the best years ever for outback birding. Following years of drought, rain had been falling in the outback since November '09 and seemingly didn't stop. Every few weeks another major front dumped inches and inches of rain in the parched deserts resulting in conditions, described by one Aboriginal elder, as 'never seen before by white people'. Creeks flowing for months on end; inter-dunal swales retaining water well into spring; carpets of purple, pink, yellow, white and red wildflowers; and of course, bird activity second to none. The downfall of all this water was that many of our tours had to have last-minute changes to the itinerary due to road closures and flooding. Nevertheless, thanks to the ingenuity of our staff we almost always found a way to the birds!

The October Southern Birding Services Five Grasswren tour, with 8 participants and 2 guides, departed from Adelaide in the morning of 11 October and again, the threat of rain was looming in coming days. We were forced to compress the outback component of the tour by one day but nevertheless this trip was, according to the participants, ‘fantastic’ - ‘fabulous’ - ‘amazing’ etc...!. Highlights were all five Grasswrens (yes including Grey!), Inland Dotterel, Australian Pratincole, Letter-winged Kite, Bourke's Parrot, Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Ground Cuckoo-shrike, Chestnut-breasted Whiteface, 4 chats including Gibberbird, etc etc.... 

Daily account

At our first stop along the coast north of Adelaide (SA) on October 11 we spotted the rosina race of Slender-billed Thornbill. Further north we saw a small group of Banded Stilt, including immatures, which had most likely come from the 100,000 strong colony in Lake Torrens. After two hours of searching we had great views of a Short-tailed Grasswrens in the Flinders Ranges. In the spectacularly rugged Brachina Gorge,  endangered Yellow-footed Rock-Wallabies appeared as on cue, and a little later, two pairs of Grey-fronted Honeyeaters were quietly feeding in a big gum tree.

The next morning, 12 October, we set off early searching the plains and hills along the Strzelecki track, and within 10 minutes we were watching a party of Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces! Unbelievable.... there were at least 10 birds here, including immatures, a sign of a good breeding season. One of the participants had tried 7 times before and failed to see these very rare and localised birds. We also had great views of a singing Rufous Fieldwren; three Cinnamon Quail-thrush; and Thick-billed Grasswrens dancing around a sand mound. Further up the Track Rufous and Brown Songlark, Chirruping Wedgebill, flocks of Zebra Finches, Crimson and Orange Chats, Diamond Doves, Budgerigars and Cockatiels provided excellent photo opportunities. A Gibberbird was flushed from the road, then observed at close range. After a steady walk trawling through the white, vegetation-covered sand dunes euphory overtook many as two Letter-winged Kites flew over our heads, then landed in a nearby tree. Camera shutters clicked non-stop... the first memory cards were already full and the tour was only two days old! We came across two family groups of Inland Dotterels, and Australian Pratincoles allowed close views and photographs. We seemed to flush a Little Buttonquail every time we went for a walk, and while driving, saw more Cinnamon Quail-thrush, and Gibberbirds, as well as the odd White-backed Swallow. 

The next morning, October 13 we explored red sand dunes and found Eyrean Grasswren after about an hour. Windy and drizzly conditions meant the birds were keeping a low profile, only occasionally popping up on a dead shrub allowing distant but identifiable views. Arriving in Tibooburra (NSW)  we found to our shock road south, our only route out, was already closed due to rain. Over lunch a cunning plan was devised to twitch Grey Grasswren and still get out before more rain would fall. We headed up to an area of swamps in the vast Bulloo River overflow (Qld), driving through what would normally be pretty bare gibber plains, now resembling English meadows. Insect larvae exposed in the bare sand of the very recently graded road attracted great numbers of Australian Pratincoles. To the group's great excitement, small flocks of Flock Bronzewing were flushed more than once. Upon arriving at the swamp, we found it - not surprisingly - inundated. Within minutes of searching the lignums on the dry edges, a Grey Grasswren was found, followed by 3 more. Good scope views were had by all. In the meantime he road south was open again, so we went to Packsaddle Plains Roadhouse. A good meal, good company, good birds - no surprise it was a party-like atmosphere at dinner time!

A pre-breakfast stroll the morning of 14 October yielded a nice pair of Bourke's Parrot which allowed excellent views - a tick for many. Soon thereafter two Ground Cuckoo-shrikes flew past and were later found foraging on a grassy field. In the Casuarina and Pine forests lining the road south we found small numbers of the beautiful Major Michell Cockatoo. At Wentworth, at the junction of Australia's great rivers, the Murray and the Darling, were both brimming with water - quite a difference from previous years. Little Friarbirds, Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Yellow Rosellas were some of the species we found here as well as a Nankeen Night-heron. 

It had been raining all night and the next morning (15 October) so we continued on to Hattah NP (in the pouring rain) we set off searching nearby spinifex for Striated Grasswren in the rain. An obliging pair of Chestnut Quail-thrush was observed and after about an hour we heard, and then saw, a Striated Grasswren, singing to its' heart content, camera shutters clicked overtime. The rain intensified and we drove to Loxton (SA) where we had good views of Regent Parrots along the Murray River.

The last day (16 October) Gluepot was closed so we spent picking up as many 'Mallee' species as possible in areas surrounding Waikerie and the River Murray. At Morgan we found Chestnut Quail-thrush, Redthroat, White-winged Triller, Crested Bellbird and a White-browed Treecreeper - a tick for some. At Brookfield we added Shy Heathwren, Varied Sittella, Gilbert's Whistler and a pair of very obliging Southern Scrubrobins. On the way to Adelaide we caught up with Musk Lorikeet which had eluded us until then. At the end of the day, participants agreed that it had been a very successful, jam-packed tour. 



Land Birds 8 species
Chestnut-breasted Whiteface (Aphelocephala pectoralis) 10 Mt Lyndhurst
Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) 4 Strzelecki track
Cinnamon Quail-thrush (Cinclosoma cinnamomeum) 3 Mt Lyndhurst
Grey Grasswren (Amytornis barbatus) 2 Bulloo river overflow, N of Tibooburra, Qld
Gibberbird (Ashbyia lovensis) 2 Strzelecki track
Bourke's Parrot (Neopsephotus bourkii) 2 Packsaddle Plains
Eyrean Grasswren (Amytornis goyderi) 2 Near Cameron Corner
Short-tailed Grasswren (Amytornis merrotsyi) 1 Stokes Hill, Flinders Ranges