20 — 25 April 2014 Alice Springs birding tour daily notes
Philip Maher www.philipmaher.com/

2015 Alice Springs birding tour itinerary

Alice Springs 2014 checklist of species seen

18 April 2014: Trisha and I flew Melbourne to Alice via Adelaide. The country looked good from the air with pools of water dotted along creek lines and in depressions through the desert country from Adelaide to Alice.

19 April 2014 Reconnaissance: I headed out the Tanami Road first thing this morning on my own. The country is responding to recent rain with lots of birds about. Black-faced woodswallows drew my attention to a small group of southern whitefaces and large flocks of crimson chats, budgerigars and zebra finches. A pair of mulga parrots was seen further along at a waterhole by the road. Further again, there were several flocks of masked woodswallows, more budgerigars and crimson chats as well as a pied honeyeater, brown falcon and a pallid cuckoo.

I walked across to some thick mulga where rufous whistler was calling and noted a small grey bird flitting about in the mulga — a western gerygone. I was hoping for grey honeyeater. Following the gerygone was another small grey bird, which was a grey honeyeater. This bird was soon joined by another grey honeyeater. Nice to get this hard bird so easily, in contrast to last year's tour when we didn't see one until the 11th hour. What a difference a good season makes! Driving on to my usual grey honeyeater locality, another pair of grey honeyeaters was located in a timely fashion. There was a large group of splendid fairywrens about, mostly in eclipse but one coloured bird; as well as inland and chestnut-rumped thornbills and red-capped robins. A hobby, not so evident on a communications tower, was spotted while I was looking for grey falcon. A rufous songlark was seen along the road. Returned to town just before midday to collect tour participants from the airport.



20 April 2014 A.M: We headed out Santa Teresa Road in quest of emu-wrens. It was a beautiful clear morning with no wind. First birds encountered were, like yesterday morning, black-faced woodswallows in company with crimson chats, budgerigars and zebra finches. Crested bellbirds called at every place we stopped. Having arrived at our destination, we had only ventured forth a couple of hundred metres when we saw our first lot of variegated fairywrens, with one partially coloured male. Movement on the adjacent ridge proved to be a male rufous-crowned emu-wren, sitting atop a stick, singing. Having descended into the valley and up the other side, it took us about 15 minutes to re-locate the bird and get great looks. As we only saw a single male, I suspect the female was on a nest nearby. We were re-living the sighting when Michael noticed movement nearby on the stony ground, which materialised into a pair of dusky grasswren.We had started looking for spinifexbird further along the valley when we came across another pair of dusky grasswren. While observing these birds, a pair of white-backed swallows appeared overhead. We also had a couple of pairs of grey-headed honeyeater. I've not seen spinifexbird at this locality now for about three years.

P.M: Ilparpa ponds, Alice Springs waste treatment plant: Water bird numbers were down due to the recent rain and pools of water elsewhere but there was still a good variety of birds present at the treatment ponds. Migratory waders present were sharp-tailed, wood and common sandpipers and in the nonmigratory wader category, there were red-kneed and black-fronted dotterels, black-winged stilt and a pair of red-necked avocet. Three yellow-billed spoonbills, two whiskered terns and both ibises were noted. Ducks included ten freckled ducks, grey teal, pacific black, hardhead, ten pink-eared duck and a shoveler. The freckled ducks included three males with some red at the base of the bill. A wedge-tailed eagle flew up into a dead tree with a freshly killed black duck in its talons, watched by an interested group of little crows. Little grassbird and Australia reedwarbler were also seen.

We called into the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens for a quick look at the Western bowerbird and its bower before calling it a day.



21 April 2014: Headed back out the Tanami Road.
Pulled up for black-faced woodswallows with their usual companions. Further along the road there were massive flocks of budgerigars in burnt mulga country. Continuing on, and full of confidence with the easily got grey honeyeaters of a couple of days ago, we pulled up at the first spot I had them on Saturday's successful reconnaissance mission. A pair of circling black-breasted buzzards was the first species we saw, and then a wedge-tailed eagle. We searched for three-quarters of an hour for the grey honeyeaters without success. We did see a couple of pairs of mulga parrots but not too much else so we headed off to the next grey honeyeater locality. En route we got a pallid cuckoo and several flocks of masked woodswallows, with the usual coterie of species. Bravado diminishing, it took a good half hour to locate the passerines that Saturday's pair of grey honeyeaters had been consorting with, i.e., splendid fairywren, red-capped robin and rufous whistle, and joining those species today, a grey-shrike thrush and a family of hooded robins. On our approach a possible Burns' dragon Amphibolurus burnsi scaled a mulga tree. It would be well out of its range if it was a Burns dragon (suggestions welcome — see photo at the end of this report; thought not to be Gilbert's dragon Amphibolurus gilberti or dwarf bearded dragon Pogona minor). A regal skink was also seen in the mulga. After an hour of searching, we had excellent views of slaty-backed thornbill, inland thornbill but no grey honeyeater. We lunched in the field and decided to try our luck down the road a bit. While there were very few birds present at the next stop, there was a pair of grey honeyeaters in company with a rufous whistler. We studied them for a while, although they weren't overly co-operative. Heading back towards town, we called into a spot where I'd previously seen banded whiteface and we soon had three birds amongst the bluebush. On the adjoining plain, there were about a dozen banded lapwing. A nearby dam had half a dozen pink-eared duck, couple of red-kneed dotterel and a black-tailed native-hen. We got a diamond dove and a couple of male pied honeyeaters, with one singing, in mulga that had some flowering eremophila. At another dam, there were about a dozen or so cockatiels drinking. The birding today was not the walk in the park I'd expected but we got there in the end.



22 April 2014: We called in to Simpson's Gap en route to Glen Helen. A couple of black-flanked rock-wallabies amused themselved, and us, playing fisti-cuffs among the rocks of this stunning geological formation . Not long after moving on, we had a collared sparrowhawk along the Hugh River. Near Ellery Creek, a large interactive group of raptors was seen: a pair of hobbies harassing up to four accipiters, at least two, if not all, being brown goshawks. Not far away, a little eagle circled. Driving in to Ormiston Gorge we saw several western bowerbirds and another black-flanked rock-wallaby. A walk before lunch got us a pair of red-browed pardalotes in the redgums along the creek. As we were leaving the lunch spot, a spinifex pigeon toddled down on the road in our path and then a second one appeared. We checked into our rooms at Glen Helen Resort, rested up for an hour and then headed out to search the nearby spinfex for spinifexbirds. A pair duly found, we returned to Ormiston Gorge looking for painted finches (to no avail) but on the way out observed a hobby irritating a pair of Major Mitchell Cockatoos. We did see a nice ring-tailed dragon Ctenophorus caudicinctus. Back to Glen Helen Resort for dinner before heading out spotlighting. We were hoping for spotted nightjar but instead got a common toadhopper Buforania crassa — a lovely flightless grasshopper, and two species of snake, one a Stimson's python and the other a curl snake.





23 April 2014: The mournful howl of dingos could be heard around Glen Helen Resort before sunrise. After breakfast we birded around the lodge briefly, getting diamond dove and variegated fairywren before heading northwest, returning to the spot we had seen spinifexbird yesterday so Alan, who hadn't come out with us, could see it. The temperature was only 13°C so it was surprising to see a mulga snake (king brown) cross the road. Mission accomplished with the spinifexbird, and white-backed swallow and budgerigars noted, we headed to Redbank Gorge, stopping for a red-backed kingfisher perched in the distance and found a pair of them. This stop proved to be birdy with a pair of red-browed pardalotes with a juvenile bird, weebills (the first for the trip), an immature crested bellbird and crimson chats. While driving in to Redbank Gorge, a beautiful adult spotted harrier soared overhead and was joined by a brown falcon. Walking down to the gorge, lots of grey-headed honeyeaters were seen but not much else. The gorge was full of water. Still no painted finches. After lunch, we headed back to Omiston Gorge, seeing another pair of hobbies on a communications tower. As we walked up the side of the gorge, we got another pair of dusky grasswrens. The only other bird of note on the drive back to Alice was yet another hobby at Hugh River devouring a small bird.




24 April 2014: First up, we birded the Telegraph Station, primarily looking for redthroats. On arriving, we had Grey-crowned babblers near the carpark. Up the hill, there was a large group of passerines feeding: hooded robins, yellow-rumped thornbills (new trip bird), inland and chestnut-rumped thornbills, weebills and striated pardalotes, and then a pair of redthroats, with the male feeding the femaie. Several black-flanked rock-wallabies, including a mother and baby and several euros were seen. We returned to the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens very briefly to show Alan the Western bowerbird's bower before heading south, out the Stuart Highway where, not far from the airport, there were waves of budgerigars being shadowed by a black falcon. Whistling kite and kestrel were also in the mix.

We were heading towards Urldunda when we stopped at a gibber plain where I had seen inland dotterel in 2010 and lo and behold, there was no less than a flock of fifteen inland dotterels! Travelling further south, we noticed some movement in the roadside mulga and turned up three chiming wedgebills and a group of white-browed babblers. We checked into the Desert Oaks Resort at Urldunda before heading towards Uluru in the late afternoon. Our only other notable sighting was a huge flock of Major Mitchell's cockatoo drinking at a dam and feeding nearby. There were more than a hundred birds in the flock but impossible to get an accurate count because of the distance and some being in trees while others were feeding on the ground.




25 April 2014:
Erldunda: We breakfasted in the camp area of the Desert Oaks Resort before heading towards Curtin Springs. Not far west of Erldunda we could hear an Australian raven calling, which was a new bird for this trip and for our Alice Springs tour generally. This sighting, I think, would be at the western edge of its range in the Northern Territory. Stopping briefly at the spot that we saw the hundred or so Major Mitchell's cockatoos yesterday, we could see about ten feeding in acacia bushes. Close to Curtin Springs we spent a couple of hours searching the sand dunes and spinifex for the desert race of striated grasswren, without success. Very few birds were present, with only singing and spiny-cheeked honeyeaters seen. We did see some great reptiles including a magnificent dragon, the central military dragon, and Brook's wedge-snouted Ctenotus, a delicately marked skink that matched the desert sand. The dunes were etched with the tracks of lizards and snakes. Lunch was at a less than salubrious roadside rest stop on Lasseters Highway. Turning north down Luritja Road we searched around the blue mallee for grey-fronted honeyeater, with no luck. At one spot in a patch of mulga there were four species of thornbill: yellow-rumped, inland, chestnut-rumped and slaty-backed, feeding together as well as western gerygone. Turning east on Ernest Giles Road and about 20 kilometres down, we started getting budgerigars (and the ever attendant hobby) and a swag of other species in an area that seemed to have had better rainfall than Erldunda. At a swamp along the road, a hobby snatched dragonflies above the surface of the water and there were fifty or so pink-eared duck and grey teal, as well as white-necked herons, hoary-headed grebes and a pair of greenshank, a new trip bird and another new tour bird. Our only other sighting of note was four beautiful, healthy dingos crossing the road. Back in Alice at about 6.15 pm.



2014 tour summary

Alice Springs was having a better season this year with about three inches of rain falling a couple of weeks before we arrived. It was green everywhere and there was water in many waterholes and creeks. Less rain had fallen around Erldunda and birds were scarcer there than around Alice. The daytime temperature varied from 27° to 31°C over the week, with only the gentlest of breezes.


Although the birding was generally good about Alice, few birds seemed to be breeding despite the recent rain. Many species that we’ve found to be common previously were scarce or absent. We’ve seen no common bronzewings for the last two years and this year, no peaceful doves and only two diamond doves. Masked woodswallows were present only on the Tanami Road with none seen around the ranges or south of Alice. Trillers and rufous songlark were only seen on the Tanami Road and only then in low numbers. Budgerigars were about in good numbers on the Tanami Road, and to a lesser extent the ranges. Apart from flocks on Ernest Giles Road, there were no budgies far south of Alice; and none at all down Erldunda way. In fact, there were no migratory birds to speak of south of Alice — odd given that they had had some rain.


Black-chinned honeyeater and peregrine falcon were both missed after been easy to find in last year’s harsh conditions. Strangely, no sittellas of either subspecies were seen despite this year's better conditions; nor any orange chats or grey fantails.


Fifteen inland dotterels, the first seen since 2010, were a great find.


New species for the tour were white ibis, common greenshank, yellow-billed spoonbill, whiskered tern and Australian raven. The ibis, spoonbill and tern were recorded at the waste treatment plant, the greenshank a small swamp off the Ernest Giles Road and the raven west of Erldunda. Australian raven must be scarce in the area because it’s not a bird, given my familiarity with it, which I could have overlooked previously.


The last two years of drought have driven most of the waterbirds out of the permanent waterholes in the gorges with not a single cormorant, darter, or egret seen. Swamphens and moorhens were gone, after having been present for several years at the permanent waterhole at Glen Helen.


All the tough birds such as rufous-crowned emu-wren, dusky grasswren, grey honeyeater, spinifexbird and banded whiteface were relatively easy. After being absent last year, both pardalotes were back with red-browed being quite numerous.

Several species of reptile were added to the list, testament to the seemingly never-ending biodiversity of this fantastic region — after rain!

Thanks to Dave Webb for helping with reptile identication.