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Birding Adventures in the Australian Outback

By Rebecca Wheatley

The Adventures of an Integrative Ecologist

For 16 days this July, I had an adventure in the Australian outback. It had a road trip. It had camp cooking. It had sand dunes and scrubland and bush walks and hot springs and country towns and dragons and a marathon, and it had birds – lots and lots of birds.

An everlasting daisy.
Cloud formations over Big Red
(Nappanerica), the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert.


To be specific, I was lucky enough to be included on a remote field trip to survey birds in inland Australia for Dr Richard Fuller’s Spatial Ecology research group. I accompanied Master Birders Claire Runge and Nick Leseberg for two weeks of surveying along the Birdsville track, starting in Adelaide, South Australia and ending up in Birdsville, Queensland. I was primarily the expedition’s chef and scribe, but by the end of our trip I believe I had earned the rank of Novice Birder, seeing a total of 67 “lifers” (birds I’d never seen before) and starting a bird list of my own.
Falcon (Falco berigora) taking flight.


group of Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia
) chilling and preening at a highway petrol station.

By combining the results from their long-term surveys with remotely sensed data on weather and climatic conditions, the Fuller lab aims to determine how the distribution of birds in Australia’s remote regions is altered by climatic change. The surveys conducted along the Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks will also help us figure out exactly what birds are out there and where they go as the seasons change.

A Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) at dusk, preparing for
a night of raptorish activity. Letter-winged Kites are uncommon and nomadic,
and sighting numbers are further decreased by their nocturnal life history.


The Gibberbird (Ashbyia lovensis),
a type of Australian chat only found on the gibber plains.


As we made our way across the country, we saw some amazing things. Some nights were spent camped out on gibber plains, without a single shrub in sight – a situation that was far more comfortable than you might imagine. In the mornings we found Gibberbirds, smooth-snouted earless dragons, and lots of old hand tools made by indigenous people long ago. We also found a nesting Inland Dotterel, faithfully sitting on her eggs until we unwittingly almost walked over her, when she leapt up and played the bird with the broken wing until we’d moved away.


Smooth-snouted Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis intima) making itself
look big. Most of the insects and reptiles out on the gibber plains are well

Nesting Inland Dotterel (Charadrius australis), sitting
steadfastly on her four, well-camouflaged eggs.
Other nights we camped at Artesian hot springs, lush with vegetation and bird life. Here we got to hang out with Pied Stilts, White-breasted Woodswallows, Black-fronted Dotterels, Whistling Kites, along with hundreds of Galahs who shacked up for the night above our tents.


Morning at an artesian hot spring.


A Pied Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus) fishing in an artesian hot spring.

It wasn’t just the fauna that amazed me – the adaptations of the plant life to such a harsh environment blew my mind. We surveyed at salt plains that looked like a scene from the bottom of the sea, or a kind of terrestrial coral reef. We trekked amongst the saltbush, including the chenopods with their spectacularly aggressive seed pods (seriously. Those things hurt!), Acacia and Eucalypt woodlands and Spinifex grasslands. We also found some furry trees along a riverbed, which turned out to be Acacias with minni ritchi, a type of reddish-brown bark that continuously peels back from the stem.

Samphire (Tecticornia sp.), a salty succulent that comes in all different
colours and shades and looks kinda like a sea anemone.


With its leaves and flowers in
different shades of green, with its huge succulent seed pods – I have no idea
what this plant was, but it was beautiful.


An Acacia with minni ritchi (a type of
bark that continuously peels back from the trunk and branches, giving the tree
a furry appearance).


Despite the beauty of the places we were travelling through, there were some chilling reminders of some of the problems the ecosystem out there faces. The number of rabbits we saw was absolutely astounding – sometimes it was all I could do not to roll an ankle in the massive tunnel networks they’d created throughout some areas of the landscape. We also saw a disturbingly high number of prints from feral dogs, cats and foxes, all of which pose a massive predation threat to the small birds, reptiles and mammals that live there (especially ground-nesting birds like Lapwings and Dotterels). In addition, the degradation of the land by cattle and sheep was extremely obvious at many of the sites we surveyed.


Fox prints in the sand. Foxes are an
invasive animal in Australia, and along with feral cats and dogs they pose a
major threat to small mammals, reptiles and birds.


The skull of a small mammal, half
buried in the ferrous oxide-rich dirt.


All of these things made me appreciate how fragile the balance of the ecosystem is. The research the Fuller lab is carrying out is not only important in determining how climate change will affect species distributions, but it also will help us determine where rare species like the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface and the Letter-winged Kite occur, and therefore which areas we should focus on conserving. We live in a beautiful world, with an amazing amount of biodiversity even within our harshest environments. It would be a shame to lose that biodiversity due to lack of knowledge and understanding.


Dusk and tracks (from Nick!) on Big
This trip was a fantastic experience for me, and one that I know many people will never get to have. I am extremely grateful to the Fuller
lab for including me on this research trip, and to Nick and Claire for making it so much fun. Thank you for the adventure!
Nick, Claire and I in front of our
trusty 4WD at Wild Dog Hill in Whyalla Conservation Park. Image credit: Claire


A Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aguila audax) circling in the sunset at
Stoke’s Hill.

Reproduced with kind permission from Rebecca Wheatley’s The Adventures of an Integrative Ecologist.

All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.