Up the Birdsville and Back

Chris Sanderson reports from the outback bird surveys run by the lab in 2012. This was the second of our annual surveys and we are hoping to keep them running for the long term.

In June this year some friends and I took part in a bird survey on the Birdsville Track.  Our adventure spanned from Adelaide in South Australia all the way to Birdsville in Queensland, and in the process we saw many of the amazing animals the centre of Australia has to offer.

It started, as many adventures do, with an early morning departure.  As we headed to the airport before dawn, we discussed all the things the we could possibly see on the trip.  Everyone agreed Letterwing Kites would be a highlight, and beyond this we all had a list of things we hoped to see.  Having done a major and very successful trip to this area in 2010 I had only two birds in the area that would be new for me: Night Parrot, and Gibberbird.  Despite this I was determined to get some good second views of things, and maybe come across some interesting other species along the way.

The surveys started in the southern Flinders Ranges, headed north, turned north-east at Marree, and headed all the way along the Birdsville Track to about fifty kilometres past Birdsville.  Along the way we stopped every sixteen kilometres and walked about five kilometres of habitat to survey the birds.  Have you ever driven through an amazing landscape on your way to somewhere special and said “I wish I had time to do this slowly, just get out and explore the landscape”.  Well that’s what we did, and it was amazing.

The Flinders Ranges

We began and ended our trip in the Flinders Ranges area.  Our first survey site was a dried out creek bed surrounded by the rocky, scrubby habitat that is typical of the western side of the Flinders, but looks completely desolate when you first lay eyes on it.  Far from it, our first morning of surveys had Elegant Parrots, Australian Ringnecks, Cinnamon Quail-thrush and Redthroat.  As we pushed further north we began seeing more raptors, particularly Brown Falcons and Black Kites, and other inland birds became more common, such as the abundant Orange Chats.   A single White-fronted Chat and a pair of Rufous Fieldwrens were a final prize as we left the Flinders on our way north.

On returning, we had completed our surveys, and allowed for some quality time to be spent checking out the area.  Having helped the others on the trip to see many new birds, I was able to set the itinerary for our visit.  We had just enough time to do two things I’d wanted to do in the Flinders Range for a long time.  The first was to see Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies, and the second was to find the fossil stromatolites for which the park is famous.  If you are ever in the northern Flinders Ranges, I can’t recommend the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail enough.  The fossil stromatolites were well signed and easy to find.  They may not look like much, but they are among the oldest known fossils in the world.  These particular ones are about 650 million years old, but some stromatolites date back to 3.45 billion years ago! There are plenty of other things for the geologically-minded traveller to salivate over on the trail, but for those who favour more recent life forms, the Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies are another definite highlight.

On entering Brachina Gorge, and knowing that the wallabies should be around, it took us about 5 minutes to find our first group.  We thought we had pretty special views of these animals, but a little further down the trail, and we came across another area with a fence and some interpretive signs.  The fence said don’t cross so as to not disturb the rock-wallabies.  We said “what rock-wallabies” as we scanned the hilltops.  Then something moved about five metres away from us.  Wow, there were about twenty Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies right by the road, completely oblivious to our presence!

The rest of our time at the Flinders Ranges was productive, with lots of other macropods (Common Wallaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo and Red Kangaroo all together), Redthroat, Elegant Parrots and lots of woodland birds.  Sadly we missed out on the Short-tailed Grasswren at Stokes’ Hill, a surprise as most people seem to get them fairly easily.  The rainy, foggy morning probably didn’t help, but it did allow for some spectacular photography, and some great views of Wedge-tailed Eagles drifting through the mist.

The Birdsville Track

After leaving the Flinders Ranges behind (for the first time), we continued our surveys through Lyndhurst, Marree, and onto the Birdsville Track proper.  We started encountering stony gibber plains, another seemingly barren habitat that is actually teeming with life.  With recent rains, many of the gibber plains were flooded and still held water on claypans all along the track.  We came across thousands of Orange Chats, and Cinnamon Quail-thrush were at nearly every site we visited.  We found Inland Dotterels at a few sites (mostly flying away at a distance, but we did get some good views), and some small flocks of Flock Bronzewings.  My highlight was clearly seeing my first pair of Gibberbirds.  They aren’t the most exciting of Australian birds, but they are beautiful in their own right, and the pair we saw first were in crisp breeding plumage, with bright yellow faces and rumps, strutting around the gibber like they owned the place. Near some dams we also found our first Black and Pied Honeyeaters, another sought-after pair of birds from the centre of Australia.

We also began to encounter sand dunes, and to keep an eye out for Eyrean Grasswrens.  Sadly we weren’t able to get any good views of this shy but locally common species until we were all the way to Birdsville, but we did see lots of great birds and many beautiful wildflowers on the dunes during our surveys.  One sad thing about the sandy areas on the surveys was the number of rabbits we saw.  My last trip in October 2010 we saw barely any rabbits, and very little sign of rabbit activity in the region.  This time we saw hundreds, and evidence of many thousands.  It is clear the effects of the calicivirus have ended, and the centre of Australia is in for another plague of rabbits, with a commensurate increase in the number of foxes and cats.

Mungerannie Bore

One of the most welcome sights after three days without a shower or bathroom on the Birdsville Track is the Mungerannie Roadhouse.  We stayed there twice on our trip, and were glad for the accommodation both times.  The roadhouse is one of the most iconically “Aussie” pubs you will ever see.  There are weatherbeaten akubras attached to the walls and ceilings, photographs of floods and fires on the walls, and cold beer on tap (as long as the truck has made it through this week).  There’s even some of the famous vehicles driven by Tom Kruse, the legendary mailman of the Birdsville Track http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Kruse_(mailman) “parked” out in the front yard of the roadhouse.  Behind the camping area there is a hot spring which is pumped out into a bore drain.  This permanent wetland acts as a refuge all year round for waterbirds in the area.  My first visit had many more species, but was in a much drier year (and hotter time of year), however this time we still had a few species of waterbirds we didn’t see elsewhere on the trip.

The highlight of the Mungerannie Bore, and indeed the whole trip, was finding a colony of Letterwing Kites.  Not at the bore, but nearby on the Birdsville Track, we were lucky enough to come across a huge flock of Black Kites, which we stopped to count.  Looking at where they had flown from a dense clump of trees beside water, I thought “that looks like the last place I saw Letterwing Kites”, and sure enough, a quick binocular scan brought up a white bird of prey with a huge black smudge around the eye.  In all there were eleven Letterwings that we were able to count, sitting on at least five nests.  We stayed near the colony one evening to see what would happen, Letterwing Kites being nocturnal and all.  Just before sunset the adults all took to the air and spent the whole of twilight circling around above us.  As it finally got too dark to see, we started hearing screeching coming from the nests.  What was actually happening was some of the adults had slipped off and caught themselves some prey, and had brought it back to the nests to share with their chicks.  We finally tore ourselves away from what was a wondrous experience, and headed back to the roadhouse.  On the way we were in for one final treat.  A Long-haired Rat bolted across the road in our headlights, and not one but TWO Letterwing Kites came screaming down beside the car trying to catch the poor rodent.  We never saw the end of the battle but I presume it didn’t go well for the rat.

Birdsville and surrounds

After over a week camping Birdsville was a welcome interlude.  On top of the surveys we had left to conduct we managed a few side-trips that let us see some very interesting things.  A drive out to Big Red, the dune at the edge of the Simpson Desert was a fantastic choice.  We had a wonderful morning one the huge red sand dune with birds of prey circling overhead and Eyrean Grasswrens (finally!) hopping at our feet.  The wetland at the base of the dunes was full, with thousands of waterbirds flying around the area. On the drive back to town we had our largest flock of Flock Bronzewings on the whole trip, maybe a couple of thousand birds that zipped back and forwards across the road and came quite close to where we were standing.  To the east of town we were stopped by floodwaters, an odd storm that cut off the Strezlecki survey team at Innaminka for several days.  Where the creek had flooded the road we had big flocks of Budgerigars, up to two thousand birds in a single flock and probably as many as ten thousand all up.  South of Birdsville we got lucky and found Grey Grasswrens beside the track, though they didn’t show well.  Still, to find such a challenging bird within five minutes of stepping out of the car felt pretty good!

The highlight of Birdsville though, and of the whole trip for me, was our sighting of a pair of Grey Falcons hunting to the east of Birdsville.  We had to cancel our surveys for the morning because of a thick blanket of fog over the whole area, an extremely unusual event for Birdsville.  We had stopped at a small lignum swamp and decided to try our luck looking for Grasswrens on the way back to town.  Sadly we didn’t find any, however as I walked to the edge of a small wetland I flushed about thirty Black-tailed Native-hens.  As they scrambled for cover a pair of birds of prey hurtled out of the fog towards me.  It took me a couple of seconds to recover from the shock, but I realised pretty quickly that I was watching a pair of Grey Falcons execute a perfectly timed ambush, dropping out of the fog onto the panicked Native-hens.  At one stage one of the falcons flew straight towards me, only pulling out of its dive mere metres in front of me.  Watching the synchronised chaos of a pair of Grey Falcons zipping around in front of me is one of the highlights of my life, and one I don’t think will be surpassed ever again!

So there you have it.  Our trip up the Birdsville and back was a highly successful, interesting and thrillling trip.  If you get the chance to go there, don’t hesitate. And remember, if you can take the time to get off the beaten track, explore a little bit, you never know what you might find.