Australian Ornithological Services P/L

Alice Springs birding tour report

25 April to 2 May 2016

Philip Maher


It was an unusually warm week for late April with the maximum temperature hitting 34.4 C. Generally,, the dry conditions made for tough birding around Alice. Santa Teresa and the Tanami Road in particular were hard going. Still we managed some good birds. Conditions were better at Ormiston Gorge where we did well. We had luck south of Alice but worked hard for our target birds around Erldunda in dry conditions. About a 100 km west of Erldunda reasonable rains had fallen, some recently, and it was here we had our best birding for the whole tour.

24 April: I spent the best part of the day scouting out the Tanami Road, primarily looking for grey honeyeater, which can be tough to find. This proved to be the case again this year and despite searching several localities where I had seen them previously, I didn't see a tail feather. Crestfallen, this was the first time I had been unable to locate one pre-tour. It seemed like the further I went down the Tanimi Road, the dryer it got. Twenty to thirty kilometres out, the mulga was almost totally devoid of any birdlife. This didn’t auger well for the tour. Still, I managed a couple of good birds in the first 10 kilometres or so, seeing a single ground cuckoo- shrike that appeared to be carrying either food or nesting material. Also along here was a lovely group of about ten Bourke’s parrots feeding on the ground.

Day 1.
26 April 2016
Santa Teresa Road and Alice Springs Sewage Treatment Works.
We set off after breakfast out the Santa Teresa Road. In town, south of the Gap, we had a small group of red-tailed black-cockatoos feeding on the roadside. I think this is the first time I have seen the species within Alice township. Roadside birding on Santa Teresa was productive and we picked up a few pairs of mulga parrots and white-winged fairywrens, although no males, and a stop at the first rocky hills produced grey-fronted honeyeater, as well as hooded robins and variegated fairywrens. So far so good. We set off into the spinifex in the stony hills with three birds in mind, dusky grasswren, rufous-crowned emu-wren and spinifexbird.

It proved quiet out in the spinifex. Very little rain had fallen in the last couple of months. After an hour or so, we eventually saw movement in the spinifex  that proved to be a spinifexbird, and after a little time and effort we managed to get good scope views of two birds sitting in a bush above the spinifex. We continued our search for a short time before concluding that we had seen all we were going to see at this locality, and with some degree of success we made our way back to Alice for lunch.

Trisha had set up lunch in the picnic area at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. Here we got the delightful western bowerbird. Recent work on the garden beds must have upset the bowerbird and he had shifted his bower a short distance from where it had been for many years. It is now in a much more exposed position. After enjoying his antics at the bower for a while, we headed for the STW. Out at the sewage works we met up with Rob a visiting birder from Darwin who was coming in on our key. The only problem was our key didn't fit the lock. Eventually a Power Water guy came with the right key and let us in. I must say we looked very smart in our high visibility vests (now a requirement for visiting the STW). I felt like a real worker, or a politician!

The ponds were quiet this year. The water levels looked good for migratory waders but very few were present. The only migratory waders we saw were a single sharpie and a few red-necked stints. A single adult male chestnut teal was the most unusual duck and there were plenty of pink-eared ducks. A rather grubby looking yellow-billed spoonbill was also present, not so common here. The avocets were quiet and there were a few black-winged stilts including some immatures. Plenty of black-fronted dotterels and a handful of red-kneed dotterels were seen as well as little grassbird. Lots of white-winged fairywrens were seen but still no coloured males. No black falcon was seen hanging around the tip on this occasion. It had been a very hot day so we said goodbye to our newfound birding mate, Rob, and headed for home. We dined at Casa Nostra, an institution in Alice.

 Day 2
27 April 2016
Tanami Road
We had my mate, Paul Newman, along for the day. Paul was keen to see the grey honeyeater. I thought it was going to be a battle given my experience of a couple of days ago on the Tanami Road. So with some trepidation we headed off out the Tanami. We stopped around where I had seen the ground cuckoo-shrike on my reccy but there was nothing about. However, we had only travelled a couple of kilometres up the road when a pair of ground cuckoo-shrikes flew up from the roadside. We hopped out with the scopes and had some great looks at this wary bird. Well at least we had one good bird! A couple of handsome dingoes were viewed We stopped a little further up the road where I had found the Bourke’s. Not a Bourke’s parrot to be seen but we had a nice lot of bush birds. Birds recorded here included hooded and red-capped robins, southern whiteface, rufous whistler, grey shrike-thrush, mistletoebird, splendid fairywren, grey fantail, yellow-rumped, chestnut-rumped and inland thornbills and the one we really wanted, slaty-backed thornbill. The slaty-backed were restless and kept on the move and we followed them for about thirty minutes allowing everyone satisfactory views. As is usually the case when it is dry, there was very little calling. We saw a lovely group of sittella. The sittellas around Alice are in the transition zone between white-winged and black-capped (orange-wing patch) with the white-winged north of Alice and the orange-winged south of Alice. This group, however, was a mixed bunch with some having a little chestnut in the wing but the majority having largely white wing patches. They were rather quiet and we watched these delightful little birds for some time.

We started searching seriously for grey honeyeater now but there was neither sight nor sound. We moved on to another locality were I had seen grey honeyeater two years ago (nesting) but came up with the same nil result here. We did see some more slaty-backs here but again they were restless and difficult to see. It was time to head back into Alice for lunch where Trisha had another great lunch waiting for us at the Olive Pink Gardens. We did a turn around the gardens after lunch just in case there was a grey honeyeater lurking in tour midst but no such luck. So it was back to the Tanami for another bash. We went a bit further down the road this time but it was every bit as bad as I thought it was going to be. On one occasion we walked for close to an hour in the mulga and two of us were lucky enough to see a single bronzewing pigeon. A couple more attempts like this produced similar results. We tried another spot for banded whiteface but we again came up birdless. It was obvious by now that a grey honeyeater was not going to be on our list today and it would take a miracle now for us to get one on the tour. Still miracles can happen! Notwithstanding, we had seen some good birds for the day.

We went Vietnamese for dinner. Alice's Restaurant, Alice Spring’s own little bit of South East Asia is about eight kilometres out of town. It's nothing if not a surprise. Naturally, Arlo Guthrie’s famous song was the main topic of conversation.

Day 3
28 April 2016
Alice Springs to Glen Helen to West MacDonnell Ranges
Our first stop this morning was Simpson’s Gap. It was cool in the Gap but by the time we left a warm northerly breeze was starting to slip through the Gap and we were in for another abnormally hot day. The black-flanked rock-wallabies were a treat in the gorge, chasing each other about over the rocks. Not many birds about though and as the tourists were starting to show up it was time to move on. We had a couple of stops in the ranges but added nothing new to the list so we continued on to Ormiston Gorge for lunch. We walked around the campground looking for spinifex pigeon and located a pair just as they were walking back up into the spinifex. There were quite a few birds about the campground and we managed to add brown honeyeater to the list, feeding in flowering mistletoe. After we enjoyed Trisha’s splendid lunch, we headed back to Glen Helen to take a break as it was warm and the birds quiet. However, there was no resting for the intrepid Sandra and she was out and about looking for birds. She came up trumps with a lovely group of little woodswallows down towards the gorge. They were perched on the same dead branch where she had seen them about twelve months before. They looked cute in the scope cuddling up together. A couple of white-necked herons, an uncommon bird in this part of the world, were also feeding along the waterhole.

We headed off to a nearby patch of mature spinifex where I have been seeing rufous-crowned emu-wren for the past ten years or so. It is only a small area of mature spinifex about 500 m long by about 200 m wide. It was very quiet and hardly a bird could be heard and I thought 'here we go again'. We had not been searching long when we saw a shape disappear into a clump of spinifex and we managed to lure it back up. Damn spinifexbird. We had a good look at it and continued our search for the emu-wren. We went right through the spinifex once and started coming back around the other side with nothing more seen and the air filled with a deathly silence. Halfway back the other side a small bird was seen feeding in a mallee tree. On closer inspection this turned out to be a red-browed pardalote. We had a great look at this delightful gem before continuing our hunt. (All the time we watched it the pardalote did not utter a sound). The vehicle was in sight now as we had almost circumnavigated the patch of spinifex and I must admit I was starting to wish I had a Plan B. Just then sharp-eyed Robert saw a bird dive into the spinifex, I caught a glimpse of it and I thought maybe spinifexbird, however a couple of  birds appeared again briefly and Sandra said, ‘they've got long tails’. Rufous emu-wrens! They were moving generally in our direction so we held firm and enjoyed some splendid views of two adult males and at least one female (we were unsure if there were three or four birds in the group). We were with them for close to twenty minutes and during that whole time not a single call was heard. The birds were obviously not in breeding mode. It is unusual to see an emu-wren without hearing them call first so I think we were lucky to see them. With that great success we headed back to Glen Helen for a great meal in the restaurant. It was a nice warm night so Sandra and I decided to go for a spotlight drive looking for reptiles. There was not a lot about but we did manage a fine specimen of Stimpsons python crossing the road in the stony hills.

Day 4
29 April 2016
Glen Helen- Ormiston Gorge to Alice Springs

After a hearty breakfast cooked by Trisha in the camp kitchen at Glen Helen, we headed for Ormiston Gorge hoping to get the last of our skulkers, the dusky grasswren. On the drive into the gorge we had a lean but handsome dingo right beside the vehicle. He was obviously used to people. We pulled up along the road and started walking down towards the start of the Pound Walk. Our first good sighting for the morning was a couple of delightful spinifex pigeons on a rocky outcrop beside the road. While feasting on them a couple of painted finches flew in, landing nearby. We immediately lost all interest in spinifex pigeons and had eyes only for painted finches, such is the fickle nature of birdwatchers. Others joined the painted finches as they came in to drink in a nearby pool, mostly in pairs. All up, probably about ten painted finches came in over about thirty minutes. I was particularly pleased to see the painted finches as they have become very difficult to see about Alice in recent years. l wanted to try for the grasswren before it was too hot and so proceeded down the Pound Walk to an area of rocky gullies where I had seen grasswrens before. Eventually we located a pair but they were timid and kept their distance. We gave up on them after a while and retreated back towards the road.

On the way back we had a lovely lot of grey-headed honeyeaters which came up close. Also, at this locality we had a single black-chinned honeyeater of the beautiful golden-backed race, the only one seen on the tour. A beautiful light phase little eagle circled overhead, also the only one seen for the tour. So much for getting the grasswren before the day heated up, it was now almost midday and close to 35 Celsius! I decided we'd have one more desperate attempt before lunch but it meant quite a hike up the escarpment. Two of our party opted out but the rest of us made haste up the escarpment. We didn’t have to go too far before a group of three dusky grasswrens appeared in a rocky gully beside the trail. This group was not at all timid. In fact, they were bold and came up very close. Astounding as it was the middle of the day. We made our way back down the track well pleased with ourselves to enjoy another of Trisha’s memorable lunches. Post lunch we had another look about the campground and waterhole and you had to be careful not to stand on the spinifex pigeons that seemed to be everywhere underfoot.

 We headed back into Alice seeing a couple of pairs of cockatiel along the road, the only ones seen for the week.

Day 5 
30 April 2016
Alice Springs to Eldunda
First up this morning, we went out to the Telegraph Station Reserve to look for redthroat. In the carpark Sandra's keen ears heard a western gerygone calling and we soon located it. We normally see them in the mulga on the Tanami Road but this year they were seemingly absent. This was interesting in that they often co-inhabit with grey honeyeater, which was also missing from the Tanami mulga. In the redgums along the river we heard our only striated pardalote for the tour. This species seems to be incredibly scarce about Alice nowadays. For the first time we also heard the glorious sound of dingoes howling at the Telegraph Station. The dry conditions about Alice have apparently pushed the dingoes in closer to town. After a short search in the stony hills we located a pair of redthroat and with some nice views of the male singing his delightful song. Cohorting with the redthroats were inland thornbill and splendid fairywrens.

Pleased with our haul at the Telegraph Station we headed to the south of Alice. Not far out we made a stop in the acacia woodland where I had seen white-browed treecreeper on my last visit. We only walked out a few hundred metres when we located a pair of treecreepers. I thought the habitat look okay for grey honeyeater so we gave it a shot. Unbelievably a short time later Mary Ann thought she could hear a grey honeyeater calling. We tracked the call down and hallelujah a grey honeyeater materialized. What a joy it was to behold this most bland of all the honeyeaters. We couldn't believe our luck!  As is often the case it was in company with a western gerygone and they appeared to like each other’s company with one following the other to another tree and vice versa. There appeared to be only one of each species present.

This is the first grey honeyeater I have ever seen south of Alice. Ecstatic, we continued further south.Trisha had another great lunch waiting for us at the desert oaks roadside stop down towards Eldunda. We shared the roadside stop with the Alice Springs Cycling Club that was cycling out to Kings Canyon over the long weekend. One of the cyclists came over and wanted to know if we were twitchers! Seems like all birdwatchers are twitchers nowadays. I should have but didn't disabuse of the notion.

We continued on south towards Eldunda with the country looking drought stricken. I had to stop in the blue bush country three times before we finally managed to get a few banded whitefaces. Some full-colour male white-winged fairywrens were also seen near the whitefaces. We started seeing our first budgies. They were in flocks of about ten and they were all flying east without stopping. Apparently the word was out that there had been rain somewhere to the east. In the acacia country closer to Eldunda we started looking seriously for chiming wedgebill. At our first stop we heard them calling and l thought, 'beauty, we'll soon have these guys'. We tracked them down easily enough but apart from a few tantalizing, glimpses they refused to show themselves. When it is dry this species can be very secretive, much more so than its close relative, the chirruping wedgebill. We gave up on this group and tried to find a less timid one but this didn’t prove so easy. We heard another one or two calling but they got the better of us and we decided to call it a day and leave them for the morning.

Trisha cooked dinner for us tonight at Erldunda and I think everyone agreed it was the best meal of the tour. It was another warm night tonight so Robert, Sandra and I went looking for reptiles out on the road. Unfortunately most of them were roadkill. In the first few kilometres we found three or four thorny devils. I think these had been run over during the day as they are largely diurnal. The daytime temperatures had been around 35 degrees C so they would have been out and about. Next we found a gecko which had not long been run over. I suspect it was probably pale knob-tailed gecko Nephrurus laevissimus. What a shame. A bit further up the road we found a couple of live geckos. These proved  to be fat-tailed geckos Diplodactylus conspicillatus which I don't think I had previously seen on this tour. We didn't stay out long as it had been a tiring day.

Day 6 
1 may 2016
Erldunda to Alice Springs
After another of Trisha's hearty breakfast we headed back north to do battle with the chiming wedgebills. We located a group fairly quickly and approached them with caution. However, they took off like scalded cats and refused to be seen. We did a big walk around looking for another group but couldn't find one, seeing only crested bellbirds and white-browed babblers. When we got back near the car we heard the same group calling again that we had chased originally. We decided to have another go at them and after some frustrating glimpses one decided to give itself up and sat up in an acacia and sang long enough for us to get it in the scopes. What a battle; it must have been the toughest bird to get a clear view of on the whole tour.

After our success we headed out west of Erldunda towards The Rock. A  pit stop at Mt Ebenezer produced a small group of white-breasted woodswallows. The country looked better when we got out about eighty kilometres or so. Obviously there’d been more rain out this way. We started seeing a lot more flocks of budgies and zebies. The budgies were feeding so we had great views of this delightful little bird. Mulga parrots were also seen along the road. We lunched again under the beautiful desert oaks and again alongside the Alice Springs cycling club.  We’d been leap-frogging each other for the past two days. After lunch, we continued west and the birding just got better and better. About a 100 kilometres west of Erldunda we had our best birding of the whole tour. There were birds everywhere you looked. They mainly comprised budgies and zebies but there was good numbers of crimson chats (all in non-breeding), black- faced woodswallows, crested bellbirds, rufous whistlers, southern whiteface, hooded and red-capped robins as well as a small flock of pied honeyeaters. Our one and only white-winged triller for the tour was also seen here. Across the road in some flowering mistletoe we had a few white-fronted honeyeaters. It really was a magic spot and showed the folks what the inland can be like after some reasonable rainfall. With all the budgies and zebies about it was bound to attract some raptors and sure enough as we neared the vehicle a couple of brown goshawk were seen interacting with each other. It was time to head back towards Alice. However there was still more to come as we had not gone far when an immature spotted harrier flew alongside the road. What a magic day!

 2 May 2016
Post tour
On our way to the airport we added one more bird to the list when four Major Mitchell's cockatoos flew up from the bed of the Todd River. I think the first I have ever seen in the town limits. I had been surprised we had not seen them out towards Glen Helen or down Erldunda way.

Trisha, drove the support vehicle, an Avis Toyota 4WD, made five of our seven early breakfasts, all picnic lunches and dinner at Euldunda in less than ideal conditions. (The BBQ was about 400 metres from where we were eating; the BBQ area seating being occupied by our co-travellers, the lyca lizards from the Alice Springs Cycling Club). I drove a Thrifty twelve seater commuter bus. We stayed all up five nights at Aurora Alice Springs, with one nightmare noisy night; one night at the incredibly scenc Glen Helen (so peaceful) and where the meals are excellent; and one night at Erldunda's Desert Oaks Resort.

My reconnaissance for the tour led me to believe I was in for a hard week but things improved as the week progressed. The group made this tour a pleasure to lead. It comprised George and Mary Ann from Washington State, who had spent a day with me in Deniliquin a couple of years ago; Robert and Krystyna from the Adelaide Hills who have done a couple of big inland tours with us; their delightful daughter, Sally-Ann from Melbourne, quite new to birding but is a natural, and Canberrian, Sandra, one of our most regular and valued clients.