Chris Watson

Gecko Canoeing & Trekking

Grasswren Grand Slam in Record Time

Birding, TourismChris Watson

There’s a well-known saying among birders, particularly among those who live near the coast: seabirders are real birders. Anyone who has spent a day on the blue paddock trying to compare the bill dimensions of prions while dodging the sluicing chunder from birders of more delicate constitution as the floor rolls under your feet and the salt spray mists your binocular lenses will understand that it’s a claim not without some justification.

In Australia though, it’s arguable that there is one other type of extreme birding that may lay claim to also being the domain of “real” birders: grasswrenning. That’s a word now.

I’ve heard it said that any old duffer can notch up a list of a few hundred species in Australia if they simply do some pretty basic birding and visit a handful of different regions. International birding tours sometimes rack up Australian bird lists of 400 or even 500 species in just a few weeks of busy birding and a few internal flights. But a good measure of an Australian bird list, and of the true birding grit of the list-owner, is the number of grasswrens on the list.

The grasswrens in the genus Amytornis are a group of birds which are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They’re among those bird species which can look drab or boring in a field guide but which routinely knock your socks off in the field when they are up close. If you’re lucky enough to get a prolonged look at any species of grasswren in the open, their plumage reveals all sorts of subtleties that you won’t have anticipated.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, adult female.

There are anywhere between 10 and 14 species recognised, depending which taxonomy you follow. None of them live in particularly accessible places and most live in decidedly remote and difficult terrain. Most of them favour the shin-ruining spinifex grasses; a group of plants with the distinction of being both figuratively and literally, a complete prick. The ones that don’t live in spinifex, live in clumps of similarly dense and unfriendly vegetation. They range from some of the hottest and driest deserts to the humid and monsoonal tropics. They’re mostly furtive, shy, and able to disappear from view in their chosen habitat leaving a birder feeling completely gormless in the infuriating knowledge that the birds are all around, at close range, but completely hidden from view and unlikely to reveal themselves.

A few species favour rocky slopes with either loose scree underfoot or large boulders that only a rock wallaby, and the grasswrens themselves, can safely negotiate. Some are endangered and disappearing from their already restricted ranges as a result of fire, feral cats, land clearing, or combinations of all three.

Grasswren habitat: harsh, beautiful and remote. Cane grass on dunes of the Simpson Desert is home to the Eyrean Grasswren A. goyderi.

So in summary: they’re small, rare, fast, furtive, superbly cryptic, hard to get to, hard to find, and hard to see if you do find them. And this is their charm. They’re a real birder’s bird.

Well-known South Australian ornithologist and tour leader Peter Waanders recently hatched a plan with two of my Northern Territory off-siders. It was a plan that was nothing if not ambitious and, frankly, had some questioning Peter’s sanity – to see all species of grasswren in a single tour. It’s audacious. If ever a leader was going to be able to pull-off such a feat of birding brilliance, Peter’s name would be near the top of the list. His guiding outfit, Bellbird Tours, is already best-known for running the regular 6- and 9-grasswren tours which plough through the dry interior of the country each year and only rarely miss any of their targets. His dry country tours also have an enviable strike rate with other highly-sought desert delicacies like Grey Falcon and Letter-winged Kite.

To cut a very long story short – they did it.

In an achievement which must be a historic first for Australian birding, Bellbird’s Great Grasswren Air Safari saw all 11 of the currently (widely-accepted) species of grasswren in just 14 days [and I think they may have seen one of the proposed splits as well which would take their total to 12 species by Clements taxonomy]. In fact, the news of their final tick, White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi, came through the day before the tour ended so they actually saw every grasswren species in 13 days.

For anyone familiar with traveling in outback Australia, you’ll understand what an extraordinary achievement this is. By car, aircraft (both fixed-wing and helicopter), and finally on foot, the intrepid band crossed the entire continent. With crucial assistance from Red Centre expert Mark Carter and Top End bird-finder and River God, Mick Jerram, they nailed the tricky central and northern species.

In under a fortnight, they found and saw an entire endemic genus; a genus of our most infamously challenging birds. I’d be surprised if there is anyone else who has ever completed this coveted full house in less than a month. Well done one and all and congratulations Peter, Mark and Mick – only other tour leaders will ever understand how nerve-wracking a tour like this can be.

A Short Digression

Amid all the back-slapping and the celebratory Darwin stubbies though, there’s another consideration. An important aspect of an initiative like this is that it demonstrates the productive symbiosis that can exist between research and tourism. This is a partnership which is well-established in numerous locations internationally but has yet to be widely-explored in Australia.

Some grasswren species are infrequently recorded and their distributions are imperfectly known. Many of the species which are seen each year are recorded at the same sites; well-known sites where public access is granted and the birds are known to be present. Tours like this don’t just provide an opportunity for birders to get difficult species on their lists. They also provide the means for experts (and all of the leaders on this tour are certainly that), to visit different areas, both during the tour and on reconnaissance visits during preparation. During these visits, birds are sometimes found at new sites. Breeding activity is sometimes noted. Previously occupied sites might be discovered to have been abandoned or habitat destroyed. Non-target species are also noted and atlas surveys are completed. All of this is crucial observational data which is coming from country rarely accessed by researchers from professional research organisations because visiting is prohibitively expensive.

Research and data collection of this nature being funded, directly or indirectly, by tourism is something we really ought to discuss more often and support wholeheartedly.


Well done again to all involved and particular congratulations to Peter, Mark, Mick and the team at Bellbird Tours for pulling off the grip of the year.


The heart of the Never Never

TourismChris Watson

This piece was first published in Great Walks' Annual Bumper Edition in January 2016.

Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing &Trekking led us clear across the Top End's two famous national parks.

Great Walks spent a week hiking in Arnhem Land and came back the wiser.

Halfway up a precipitous scramble in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, a foot slips somewhere above me.

“All good Mick?!” I call up the cliff face. A pebble bounces past and into the dark pool at the base of Motorcar Falls, 30 metres below. The reply comes quickly, “YEP! No worries. Come on!” Mick has found a way. Mick Jerram is the nuggety former Royal Australian Air Force PT instructor leading us on a walk that will take us across some of the most spectacular and rarely seen parts of the Arnhem Land Plateau.

We eventually strain and scramble our way to the top of Motorcar Falls to be rewarded with views across the entire region known to Jawoyn traditional owners as Yurmikmik – named in onomatopoeic homage for the call of the White-throated Grasswren which calls this area home.

From Motorcar Falls we trek along Yurmikmik ridge, stopping just once to evade an aborted charge by four Water Buffalo. We retreat to the safety of a nearby rock pile and the buffalo vanish into the scrub as quickly as they had appeared. Further on, a hiker’s boot disturbs a rock. From underneath, a harmless Children’s Python makes off to avoid the disturbance. Bird song surrounds us, and the trees are alive with movement. We count the number of different birds we can identify as we go along and the list tops fifty species before we arrive at our first camp on Kurrundie Creek.

Heading upstream

We can swim in the pools surrounding the falls here; we are above the level at which Saltwater Crocodiles may occur following the wet season.  Walking upstream takes us onto the terraced sandstone plateau. We pass bemused denizens of the sandstone like the prehistoric-looking Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon. Small groups of these plump, pin-headed birds scatter from the terraces as we approach.

We pause to scrutinise rock art galleries. Mick proves here to also be adept at interpreting the ancient daubs of Jawoyn ancestors. He identifies animals and ancestral beings for us, while leaving silence enough for our imaginations to travel. It’s impossible not to make comparisons between our journey, and the journeys of those people who have walked this country in eons past. The temptation to label such places as wilderness, denies the clear reality that, as wild as it is, this is a cultural landscape; a human place.

Continuing deeper into the sandstone country, the terraces erode to minarets and the fissured rock becomes a labyrinth capable of absorbing and disorienting the unwary navigator. We cross the watershed and camp by the flowing waters of Dinner Creek.

The landscape transforms here. Water cascades down sandstone falls every hundred metres or so. The sound of moving water is the constant soundtrack to life. This is remote country, and it feels it. By starlight we search the riverbanks for wildlife. Euros (bulky hill kangaroos) bound along the rocks. In a crevice, again adorned with ancient artwork, we encounter another endemic inhabitant of this region, a Northern Giant Cave Gecko.

Northern Giant Cave Gecko

Timeless landscape

Setting off in the morning it seems logical to assume it’ll be an easy walk from here on; a simple matter of following the watercourse down to its confluence with the South Alligator River. But walking in this landscape is rarely so straightforward. We skirt around ever larger falls until we’re stopped by the main falls on Dinner Creek; a 20 metre cascade with sheer rock on either side. We’re momentarily stupefied by the prospect of a lengthy walk to get around this barrier when Mick yet again finds a way. He spies a navigable scramble down a re-entrant to one side of the falls, and after a wary descent, we’re on the floor of a gorge straight out of Jurassic Park.

We pick our way along the river bed, and it feels as though few other people have had the privilege of visiting this magical hidden gem of a place. Ferns cover the water’s edge. Huge Black-banded Fruit Doves zip across the gorge overhead searching for ripe figs.

A regional endemic - Black-banded Fruit Dove

In due course we have to start taking care to avoid the dark waters that are now almost certainly home to salties. Having seen only 4 other hikers during our six day walk, it feels like we have emerged from a very special part, of one of the Northern Territory’s truly special wild places.

Just one of the extensive network of Top End routes that await discovery by keen hikers, Yurmikmik is only possible with permits and a talented, experienced and accredited guide. It connects the numerous trails within Kakadu NP with some of the lesser-known routes through Nitmiluk NP on its southern border. The walks here (the Jatbula Trail and many routes making their way up to the headwaters of the Katherine River) are rapidly earning a reputation for being among the best marked and “off-trail” walks in the country.

The permits required to complete these walks, far from being a troublesome barrier, should be seen for what they are: a welcome measure to protect an area of world-famous cultural and ecological significance and sensitivity. In every sense of the word, walking in such parts of the NT’s Top End is a privilege, and an experience never to be forgotten.


The Jatbula Trail features magnificent waterfalls tumbling from the high sandstone escarpment. These feed into creeks surrounded by shady monsoon forests and the rock outcrops of the escarpment providing great opportunities to view ancient rock art, and cool off with great swimming spots. It’s a medium to hard walk and you’ll need to be able to carry a full pack over rough ground. The majority of people walk the trail independently however more people are starting to use guides. There are emergency call devices (ECD) and checkpoint book registers along the way. More info


Kakadu National Park

Located 240km east of Darwin in Australia’s tropical north, Kakadu NP is Australia’s largest terrestrial national park. Kakadu covers almost 20,000 sq km and is a place of enormous ecological and biological diversity. It extends from the coast and estuaries in the north through floodplains, billabongs and lowlands to rocky ridges and stone country in the south. These landscapes are home to a range of rare and endemic plants and animals, including more than one third of Australia’s bird species and one quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species.

Nitmiluk National Park

This 292,800 ha national park is owned by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people and jointly managed with NT’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. Some of the park’s features include spectacular dissected sandstone country, broad valleys and numerous, significant cultural sites. The deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River is the central attraction of the park. The park’s main entrance is 30km northeast of Katherine via a sealed road. Katherine is located 310km south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. Leliyn (Edith Falls) on the western side of the park is reached by turning off the Stuart Highway 42km north of Katherine then following a sealed road for a further 19km.

Need to know

The walk was conducted by Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing & Trekking, Ph: 1800 634 319,