Chris Watson


Birds of the Darwin Region by Niven McCrie and Richard Noske

Review, birdingChris Watson

While it seems another El Niño is looming, the flow of good Australian natural history books is far from drying up. This is perhaps most true for books about our birds. In recent years we’ve welcomed Dolby and Clarke’s Finding Australian Birds, Fraser and Gray’s Australian Bird Names and the re-release of Alec Chisholm’s classic Mateship with Birds to name just a few. All of these are exciting examples of passionate advocates for Australia’s birds, putting their heads together and sharing accumulated knowledge with an eager audience.

This recent release from CSIRO Publishing, is no exception; it’s astonishing. It’s the sort of book that makes you excited about being a naturalist. For the many who are already familiar with the authors’ other work, this will come as no surprise. McCrie is perhaps best known as the author, with James Watson (no relation), of that other beloved Top End treatise, Finding Birds in Darwin, Kakadu & the Top End. A founder of the prime online reference for Top End birders, the NT Birds newsgroup, he has also been a well-loved tour leader for visitors to the Top End over many years. Richard Noske’s prolific scholarship of birds in northern Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific is well established. He was senior lecturer in biology at CDU for some 26 years, authored, with Graham Brennan, another work of great interest to northern birders, 2002‘s Birds of Groote Eylandt, and is the current chief editor of the journal of Indonesian ornithology, Kukila.

Laurie Ross' eye-catching Rainbow Pitta adorns the cover. One of the easier to see of this typically elusive family, and still relatively easily found around Darwin.

Happily, it’s a fairly common practice in Australia for local experts to work up a guide to the birds of their town, region, or patch. Such experts are, typically, deeply knowledgeable long-term residents, enthusiastic about recording for posterity all of the vagrant records, seasonal movements, and breeding ecology of the birds of their locality. You don’t have to look far to find self-published guides to this town or that shire. Sometimes these are simply brief pamphlets produced under the photo-copying budget of the town council, but range to more elaborate spiral-bound affairs produced with funding from local field naturalists’ clubs or Landcare groups. McCrie & Noske’s Birds of the Darwin Region, seems likely to become the yardstick by which such guides are measured.

The executive summary for this collaboration? If you’re a birder, ecologist, or you’re at all interested in the natural history of Australia’s north, you’ll want this book.

Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly a labour of love from two long-term residents of the region. Indeed, a book of this kind is only made possible by authors with the intimate knowledge of an area that comes from living in it year round. There are some noteworthy absences from the species list, which serve to remind you of the limited geographic scope of the book. No Variegated Fairy-wren (the treated area doesn’t extend as far as the sandstone country); no Chestnut-backed Button-quail; no Masked Owl; no Dusky Moorhen. Maybe some of these occur in the vicinity of Darwin but clearly none have been confirmed within the treatment area.

The species accounts are accompanied by seasonality charts, and distribution maps. The region is divided into a grid of 64 cells with explanatory notes at the front of the book detailing the number of surveys providing data for each cell.  

The research the authors have done in confirming or discounting records is, no doubt, all but exhaustive. There is an ‘unconfirmed species’ section toward the back for those few birds lacking sufficient substantiation for their occurrence to be admitted without question. Otherwise, the records in the list can be considered ‘gold standard’; thoroughly referenced… and what references. For keen NT listers the references pages of this book alone will be a crucial reference.

McCrie & Noske have done an extraordinary service to Australian ornithology, in compiling, organising, and vetting the observations and publications of the many naturalists who have studied Darwin’s birds in the past. To this end, there’s also a ‘history of ornithology’ section in the front of Birds of the Darwin Region, giving deserved acknowledgement to those who went boldly (recklessly?) before onto the mangals and mudflats, before the days of that great ruiner of lenses, Bushman’s Plus™ tropical strength insect repellent.

The species accounts are wonderfully in-depth without being academically soporific; authoritative while managing to be almost conversational in style. Each account is highly readable. Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly focused on the birds of this one defined area, but as many of these species occur across northern Australia, and even farther afield in some cases, it will have relevance far beyond the bounds of Darwin as well.

Without even going past the waterfowl there are numerous examples of what makes this such a valuable and readable reference. The species account for one of the Top End’s iconic species, Magpie Goose, runs over four pages. It not only contains the expected information about its life cycle and habits around Darwin, but some interesting insights into how local policy and community attitudes can affect a species. Recreational hunters, indigenous hunters and mango growers all influence the movements and site use of this species which, in turn, can influence the health of areas used by the birds.

NT waterfowl hunting season: Anger over 34 geese carcasses dumped near rural property

Still among the waterfowl, what about that most infuriating of ducks – Garganey? This ‘Artful Dodger’ of ducks has certainly eluded my Australian list as skilfully as the Dickensian urchin. I first lived full-time in the NT from 2006. In the 26 years preceding 2006, Garganey was recorded in 20 of them, including a staggering 125 birds at Leanyer in 1991. From 2006 to 2014 (the cut-off for entries in this book) it was seen by… no-one. Well, not quite. No-one except for my arch-rival in NT listing, Mick Jerram, who spotted 3 of the birds on the Katherine River in 2008. The perfect grip.    

Birds of the Darwin Region with some other familiar volumes for size comparison. There is a lot in this book. 

Birds of the Darwin Region boasts many truly enlightening factoids; things I’d never read anywhere else before. Take this sterling opening sentence to a species account for example: “Although among the smallest of the world’s swans, the Black Swan’s neck is proportionately longer than in any other, giving it a uniquely elegant silhouette.” My favourite though, is at the other end of the book, in the species account for Canary White-eye: “It has the ability to prise open small flowers… by inserting its somewhat wedge-shaped bill into the floral tube, then gaping, behaviour known as zirkelning.” In the landmark textbook of our pursuit, Ornithology (3rd edition), the author Frank B. Gill lists only four entries in the index under the letter Z: Z sex chromosomes; zeitgebers; zugunruhe; and zygodactyl. Zirkelning? Nowhere to be found. For this alone McCrie and Noske have my admiration.

Finally, Birds of the Darwin Region draws on records from a number of databases; the NT Fauna Atlas, Eremaea Birds (and latterly Eremaea eBird) and the Darwin Bird Atlas project among others. I suspect it’s highly likely that anyone reading this will have contributed observations to one or many such databases, and you can be justifiably proud in pointing to this book as the fruit which is ultimately borne by such citizen science projects.

Darwin is deservedly renowned as one of the top birding destinations in Australia, which places it high in the running worldwide. With Birds of the Darwin Region, Niven McCrie and Richard Noske have cemented their place in any future history of Top End ornithology to be written, and provided an indispensable reference for visitors and researchers for many years to come.


Buy it from Andrew Isles.

Mysterious Princess of the Western Deserts

Twitching, Research, birdingChris Watson

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

The Princess Parrot Polytelis alexandrae, is a staggeringly beautiful animal for a variety of reasons. It’s a fractal bird. There's a new layer of contradiction, conundrum and surprise revealed at each level it’s examined: the long, long tail, the males’ odd little wing spatules, the dissonant colour scheme, the preference for an extremely unpredictable desert habitat, the wide-ranging movements. Even the fact that it is common in captivity but so difficult to observe in the wild gives a strange familiarity to a bird which is seen by only a lucky handful of people most years.

Marble Gum Eucalyptus gongylocarpa, along the Connie Sue Highway, WA: a known favourite for Princess Parrot nesting.

If you’re like most birdwatchers, the first place you will observe this species is in an aviary. With luck, it will be a bird of the wild colouration rather than the product of aviculturists’ bizarre fascination with breeding unnatural colours into birds; apparently they’re particularly fond of blue Princess Parrots. Weirdos. The real bird lives in scattered populations out in the wilds of inland Australia. Even the remote inland city of Alice Springs is a solid day of driving on unsealed bush roads from any of the habitat where the bird is seen with anything that could be termed 'regularity'.

Viewed sitting on its perch in an aviary, the dissonant colours of the parrot will probably seem at odds with a bird supposed to be at home in the sandy deserts of Central and Western Australia. This is most likely due to the observer’s lack of familiarity with these environs. For those yet to travel there, the Western Deserts are as surprising as the creatures that call them home. If the word ‘desert’ traditionally conjures bleak images of dusty, desolate plains and bare rock, then no habitat could be more unexpected. The range of the Princess Parrot covers a wide swathe north/south along the border of Western Australia with South Australia and the Northern Territory, from the top of the Canning Stock Route south of Halls Creek WA, down to around Neale Junction in the Great Victoria Desert. Being anywhere in this part of the country is far from a guarantee of seeing the bird, but this is where they lurk.

The blue skies near Neale Junction WA, a well-known locality for Princess Parrot, on a more cloudy afternoon.

The palette out here is rich beyond anyone’s expectations; the sand is a deeper and more lustrous red than you think, the trees are a lusher and more verdant green, the grasses a saturated golden yellow. Due to the interplay of contrasting colours and how they’re processed in our brains, the skies here are literally among the bluest on Earth. Following rain the flowers appear in every colour. So crypsis is relative. If you’re a nightjar wanting to blend in with decomposing leaf litter, then mottled browns, blacks, and greys are fine. But to survive above ground level in the riot of colour that is the Western Desert demands something a bit more… Matisse.

A pair of Princess Parrot enjoying the mid-morning sun during a winter visit to Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Newhaven Reserve west of Alice Springs in 2012.

So when it is at home, the Princess Parrot’s lime green shoulders vanish into the fresh growth on a Desert Bloodwood. The powdery pinks and sky blues are by turns shaded and brightened in flight by the reflected hues of earth and sky. And then there’s the thing you’ll never get from a caged bird: the jizz. That ineffable but distinctive movement and posture that is unique to a species. Like its congeners this is a high-speed mover. When the deserts dry and the water holes are distantly separated, the birds are capable of covering the necessary distance in short order. Counter-intuitively for a bird with such a long tail, it has the strange habit of perching along a branch. Not always. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of pictures of them perching in the conventional fashion with their elongated rectrices spearing earthward at a right angle to the branch, but they are often observed with those feathers laid flat along the length of the branch – almost frogmouth-like. Perhaps another concession to crypsis? Maybe all the Polytelis parrots do this, I’m not sure. I’ve seen Regent Parrots do it, but I’ve never seen Superb Parrots.

....sitting quietly in a Desert Bloodwood Corymbia opaca. Very easy to miss. I wonder how many birds like this I've driven straight past over the years. 

In any case they’re a special animal. Certainly they deserve their reputation as our second most-desired bird after another desert parrot, the perennially unfindable Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. There are many senior Australian birders who are yet to mount the necessary expedition out west to see Princess Parrot in the wild, and many who have and still missed the birds. Even for those who live in the outback, those who in most years may stumble on Grey Honeyeater, Grey Falcon, and various grasswrens, all merely from frequenting the right habitat, will still be unlikely, and consider themselves very fortunate, to see Princess Parrots – just ask Richard Waring.

As someone who has been exceedingly fortunate and seen these birds on numerous occasions, I can certainly vouch that it is worth the immense effort to get out and spend some time looking. Since 1996 I’ve probably spent a total of many months in Princess Parrot habitat, and only seen the birds on 5 occasions, but even without Princess Parrots, it is entirely worth the cost and time to get out there and look around.

It is an enriching experience. This is birding as it was always meant to be. Once you see this country it becomes part of you.

This is your chance. Alice Springs’ resident birding guide Mark Carter and I, are headed out to this magnificent country in September, to give a bunch of visiting birders their best chance at seeing these birds in the wild this year. Other than having a good chance at finding wild Princess Parrots, we should see plenty of other desert wildlife along the way. At time of writing there are only a couple of positions left on this trip so you’ll need to bite the bullet and get in quick. If it’s a part of the country you are yet to explore, I encourage you to take this opportunity if you can. All the details are on Mark’s website at THIS LINK HERE.

Expeditioners can expect many similar vistas. This is the Sandy Blight Junction Road near the Schwerin Mural Crescent, WA.

Further reading:

As mysterious as the Princess Parrot is, there are researchers out there peeling back the layers and revealing more about its extraordinary life cycle. There are few papers in peer-reviewed journals documenting the ecology of wild birds but this paper is the most recent and will give you a starting point for further literature searches.

The breeding and foraging ecology and abundance of the Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) during a population irruption. Chris Pavey et al.


Birding Central Australia #6

birdingChris Watson

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva

Here after 13,000km flight

Perhaps not much to look at, but the bird in this picture has arrived here in Alice Springs all the way from the northernmost reaches of Siberian Russia or Alaska. To avoid the frigid northern winter, migratory birds like this Pacific Golden Plover, undertake flights as long as 13000 kms. Most birds will make at least one refuelling stop along the way in places like the Saemangeum in South Korea, and the Yangtze River estuary in China. A few birds, however, have been shown to make non-stop flights of up to 9000 kilometres, flying for 7 days or more without touching down. 

Researchers have only just begun unlocking the secrets of these amazing long distance endurance and navigation skills. It seems that they might shut down one half of their brain while flying. This means the other half can effectively “sleep” while the bird is on those marathon flights across oceans.

50 million migratory birds navigate from the Arctic to Australia and back again each year using the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Some are barely the size of a budgie.

A lucky few will call Alice Springs home for the summer, until the stars tell them the time is right, and they will head back northwards once more.

Sightings this week: 

-          Barn Owls everywhere. Lots of reports of these night birds out at night hunting rodents

-          8 Glossy Ibis, 4 Pelicans and 2 Nankeen Night-heron at Lake Mary Ann in Tennant Creek

-          Danny from Bush Bus spotted some Bustards and young Emus while negotiating floodwaters on the Lasseter Highway during the week

Birding Central Australia #5

birdingChris Watson

Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella.

An elegant little bird and a long distance champ

The migrants have arrived!

A variety of the migratory birds that desert us during the colder months are arriving back in The Centre in good-sized flocks. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at our long-distance migratory champions, but the star of this week is a migratory bird, within Australia.

The magnificent Australian Pratincole spends the cooler months in the northern reaches of the continent and then makes its way southward for the summer months. This one was giving me some great views at the sewage ponds here in Alice. This bird is in full breeding plumage with bill and gape flushed bright red, and a rich, chestnut brown developing on the breast.

An elegant little bird, it has earned itself a swag of different names due to its distinctive foraging behaviour, including; Australian Roadrunner, Australian Courser, Arnhem Land Grouse, and Swallow-plover to name but a few.

Keep an eye out for more of these birds turning up along roads as we head into the summer months. The continuing fine weather has produced some great bird sightings this week, and here are just some of the highlights.

Sightings this week: 

-          80 Plumed Whistling-ducks at swamps 40kms along Tanami Rd

-          2 Australian Bustards near turn-off to M’bunghara community on the Gary Junction Highway

-          A single Flock Bronzewing 2kms past Kunoth Bore on the Tanami Rd

-          A Pacific Golden Plover in a mixed flock with lots of other waders including Sharp-tailed and Wood Sandpipers, at the sewage ponds

-          3 immature Banded Stilt have appeared at the sewage ponds, possibly from the historic breeding that has occurred this year at Lake Torrens in SA

Birding Central Australia #4

birding, HerpingChris Watson

Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps.

Reptiles on move

The warm weather has begun with bird activity beginning to drop during the hottest parts of the day. Our reptile friends are becoming active with the warmth though, and I have seen a few big Western Brown Snakes out and about, along with plenty of Mulga Snake and Yellow-faced Whip Snake, so when you’re out bird watching this week… watch your step.

Other things to look out for include the wonderful Bearded Dragons and Thorny Devils that are showing up on all the roads around town at the moment. These icons of the Red Centre are getting squashed by the dozen, so really keep your eyes on the road when you’re out driving during the week.

Thanks to everyone that has been sending me their bird sightings over the last few weeks, it is really building into a great record of this fantastic season.

Interesting Bird Sightings:   

-          Susan Heckenberg has been lucky enough to find a family of four Barn Owls in her back yard in Braitling. Keep your eyes peeled as they may be roosting in trees around this area

-          I saw three magnificent Brolgas by the roadside near the turn off to Ali-Curung community

-          There seems to be an invasion of Feral Pigeons establishing a nice home for themselves in the sheds at The Ghan depot

-          Big flocks of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos seen about town with 150 near Jessie Gap and another 80 on the Tanami Rd

-          Three Black falcons on the power lines near the start of the Tanami Rd