Chris Watson

Mark Carter

Owlet-nightjar ant-eating behaviour

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, basking in daylight at a roost hollow. Front-facing eyes, super cryptic, super creepy and, apparently, prodigious ant-eaters.

Recently, I had an interesting encounter on a photographic tour I was leading in Central Australia.

I’ve read about the foraging tactics and diet of Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, before, most memorably in the work of Dr Lisa Doucette. An article Dr Doucette wrote in The Bird Observer back in Feb 2011, really stuck in my mind. In that piece, she detailed the differences in the dietary composition between birds studied in the semi-arid ranges of Central Australia and the wet eucalypt woodland of NSW’s Northern Tablelands.

The bit that really stuck with me was the following paragraph elaborating on the fact that the largest portion of the desert birds’ diet (31% by volume) comprised… ants.

“Catching ants, an abundant, reliable taxa, active even at sub-zero temperatures, would require less energy and time to obtain.

Flightless worker ants that primarily forage and nest on the ground were the dominant prey type in the Australian Owlet-nightjar’s diet overall. This strongly indicates that the Owlet-nightjars are foraging on the ground following trails of ants and exploiting nests, not simply using a “perch-and-pounce” approach to capture large terrestrial prey. Relative to other species of nightjar, owlet-nightjars have longer legs, making them far more agile on the ground and better enabling them to exploit terrestrial prey.” - Dr Lisa Doucette, Foraging tactics of the Australian Owlet-nightjar, THE BIRD OBSERVER, No. 868, Feb 2011, p.6-8.

This astonished me for two reasons primarily: I’d never thought of Owlet-nightjars as being even remotely long-legged and; ants seemed an unlikely prey item for an animal equipped with a beak that appears best adapted for catching airborne prey. (Now, looking at my photo of the beastie above, I should have been more observant - it clearly has a decent set of pins.)

It was illuminating.

I never thought I’d witness this curious behaviour, not least because even in Central Australia where the birds are incredibly common, despite hearing them on most nights out in the scrub, I didn’t see them very often at all. The mental image of an Owlet-nightjar perched on the ground over a line of ants like some weird gigantic feathered Thorny Devil was incongruous. But it happened.

The more-famous Central Australia ant-eater, the Thorny Devil, Moloch horridus.

Wandering up the path from Ellery Creek Big Hole to the car park on a warm evening in March, I was startled by the sight of an Owlet-nightjar on the edge of the path in front of me. It was surprised by my intrusion at first but I retreated slowly leaving it in the edge of the torch beam and it shortly turned away from me and continued what it was doing. What it was doing, was straddling a line of ants making their way along the edge of the concrete path and, literally, decimating them. It was repeatedly and frenetically pecking at the line of small black ants, gobbling down the hapless insects.

I’ve no reason to think that these observations are unique but still thought it worth documenting them here in case they are of any use or interest to anyone conducting further research on the species. Unfortunately, my camera was equipped with a fixed 50mm f1.2 lens for star photography so my captures of the encounter are disappointing to say the least. After a couple of almost worthless record shots I sprinted to the car for a zoom lens but was crushed to return and discover that the bird had flown.

Record shots = you *really* had to be there.

Still, it was a distinct privilege to sit with that bird for those few seconds and gain this firsthand insight into this surprising behaviour.

CBW

 

PS: I was leading this private photographic tour for Mark Carter Birding & Wildlife. We had numerous one-off wildlife encounters like this, and were able to perfect our star photography in a number of scenic locations over successive clear, dark nights. If this sort of thing is up your alley, you should get in touch with Mark and see this astonishing region with someone who knows it best. http://www.birdingandwildlife.com/

Your Deserts Need You

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Desert birding - this is the year

Lately I’ve been back in the desert. Sometime soon, you should head to the desert too. Whether you’ve never been before, or you’re a veteran Outback traveller, this year, as a birder, you ought to get out there.

My recent trip was the first of what will hopefully be a series of trips to collect data for a research degree I’m undertaking. This first one involved myself and my colleague in most desert escapades, Mark Carter, leaving Coolangatta and heading west with no itinerary other than reaching Alice Springs in ten days or so. The only mission was to fill in a few blanks on the desert map that neither of us had visited and to try and see what few lifers might be lurking there for us. Chief among these were a few species of grasswren.

There was a dual purpose for finding the grasswrens: neither of us had seen most of them and my research involves obtaining good quality audio recordings of Dusky Grasswrens across central Australia so any recording encounters with congeneric species would be useful practice.

The most obvious thing we noticed as we barrelled west of the divide and into the arid zone of the NSW/QLD border districts, was how much lying water was on the country. From the very first afternoon we drove through large thunderstorms. At Cunnamulla, roads to the north and west were all closed forcing us to head south and miss some of the best Grey Grasswren country out toward Innamincka. But we still made it to a flowing section of Cooper Creek where Mark was able to give his kayak its blooding on a proper desert river.

This is where Burke & Wills went wrong: they should have brought a kayak.

Heading south brought us into the range of the intriguing NSW race obscurior of Thick-billed Grasswren so all was not lost yet. This is not intended to be a comprehensive trip report so to cut a long and all-too-familiar story short: we dipped. Consecutive days over 40 degrees, a dearth of recent observations and inexperience recognising the bird’s habitat certainly contributed to our dip. These factors and the ever-present threat of being rained-in kept us moving southward after a fairly full day of gibber bashing.

The afternoon weather was regularly foreboding...

From Port Augusta the punishing temperatures eased but the rains continued. We had success with the Western Grasswren near Whyalla and found the birds in good voice and reasonably approachable for photographs and recordings despite quite a gusty day. The Thick-billed Grasswrens showed themselves ever-so-briefly further up the track near Coober Pedy and then we kept pushing north to Alice Springs and Dusky Grasswren country with a few days up my sleeve to make some more recordings.

The one constant of this trip was our (or at least my) inane commentary on the amount of water we were seeing. Most of the numerous bridges across the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs had water flowing under them and those that didn’t, recently had. The Palmer River was flowing strongly, the Finke crossing at Henbury was swollen as it had been for some weeks, and every clay pan and gravel pit was brimful. Every gibber plain from Tibooburra to Idracowra looks more like a golf green than the bleak Martian vista they usually resemble. Mobs of Emu were encountered the whole way through and, as evidenced by a juvenile bird even showing up on the beach at Shoalhaven Heads, Inland Dotterels have clearly bred very well across their range. These captivating little shorebirds were everywhere.

Emus on the 16th fairway near Tibooburra.

In all my years knocking about The Outback I’ve never seen it like this. Even the wet years of 2010-2011 didn’t manage to spread the pulse of life as far across the landscape as the last 6 months of wet weather in Central Australia have done.

Many of the roads across The Outback have only recently started to re-open after lengthy closures and many will need a fair amount of repair work done. The country will need to dry a bit and birds will continue to breed up but, by May, birding should be hotting up just as the weather is cooling down.

Ormiston Gorge at the moment: ringing with the chatter of breeding Budgerigars in every tree with the songs of Dusky Grasswrens cascading over the cliffs and hillsides.

Mark and I are heading off on another desert expedition in May. This time we're covering the Great Victoria Desert and parts west in search of a few birds that will be new to many birders’ lists: recent western splits like Naretha Bluebonnet and Copperback Quail-thrush are both high on the target list and we’ll be on constant look-out for other specialties in this region like Scarlet-chested Parrot, Sandhill Grasswren, flocks of wild Budgerigar, and Princess Parrot. Boom years like this don't come around too often and if nobody is out there to witness the spectacle of it all a great opportunity will have been missed. We aim to get out there during the peak of activity as birds are coming off multiple consecutive breeding cycles and the weather is at its most agreeable. We'll be seeking the above-mentioned bird species, but we'll also be looking to document and photograph all manner of fascinating and uncommonly encountered desert wildlife and flora before the inevitable drying, the burning, and the long wait for the next period of such frenzied productivity.

Sunset over Willochra Plain - hard to beat.

This 10 day expedition leaves Alice Springs on the 24th of May (all the details can be found over on Mark’s website here) and it'd be great to have you along. We only have a few seats left so don’t muck around – get in touch! We look forward to seeing you out there.

CBW

Journey to the center of the (birding) world

BirdingChris Watson

“This is an annual event held over three days and represents the biggest bird jamboree in the world. It takes place at the nature reserve of Rutland Water, but seeing birds is not a high priority.” – Birders: Tales of a Tribe by Mark Cocker (p.27)

You never know who you'll bump into! Moppers with the great champion of British natural history, Bill Oddie.

For most of the year, Egleton, in the East Midlands of England, is a sleepy village with a population that is yet to creep over a hundred. But if census data was ever taken in mid-August that population figure would change. Drastically.

Egleton lies on the western shore of the Rutland Water Reservoir; a large man-made body of water that supplies much of the water to surrounding areas. And each year in August, The Rutland Water Nature Reserve hosts the British Birdwatching Fair, often known simply as Birdfair. As Mark Cocker’s description makes clear this is the single largest gathering of birders, twitchers, birdwatchers, frog freaks, bug-trappers, wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists of all ilks on Earth. Over three days it regularly attracts between 20,000-30,000 attendees with as much as two thirds of those attending in a single day. To say it’s an extraordinary event sells the experience massively short. It’s variously touted as the wildlife event of the year and the Glastonbury of Birdwatching; neither of which is an exaggeration.  

Need a ludicrous bird box for the back yard? You'll find it at Birdfair.

In the humid late summer weather there are dozens of marquees set up by folks from all industries related to wildlife and conservation from over 100 countries around the globe. Australia’s Northern Territory stands side-by-side with Ugandan operators peddling trips to track the Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve. The Falkland Islands stand boasts pictures of steamer ducks and penguins while tour operators from the Orkneys tout trips to see their northern counterparts (and they always have a dram of the local produce under the table for friendly faces). There are prominent authors conducting book signings (dear god the BOOKS!) and interviews throughout the day and as you meander through the marquees you stand a good chance of rubbing shoulders with natural history luminaries like Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Chris Packham, Mick Jerram and Mark Carter. They’re all regular attendees.

...no, seriously these are all fully-functional bird nesting boxes.

Then there are the numerous opportunities to learn. The entire weekend has lectures running concurrently across three marquees from leaders and experts from every part of the world. You can spend your entire day going from lecture to lecture and the diversity of subject matter is too dazzlingly to cover here. When you tire of the throng, the reserve has numerous feeder gardens, world-class hides and mile after mile of trails and ponds to search with Common Kingfisher, nesting Western Osprey and a variety of other interesting birds often around. (I’m told they have a Long-tailed Duck there at the moment and I’m hoping the bastard stays put until I can get there.)

Ludicrous. 

Then there are the gear stands. We all know birders like gear and Birdfair is probably the only opportunity on Earth to compare all the gear in a single location, side-by-side. Canon, Zeiss, Swarovski, Bushnell, Leica, Nikon… you name it. Pretty much every brand of optics from the budget to the budget-blowing has its entire product range on display, on tripods, on the shores of the nature reserve for you to get your grubby mitts on. It’s easy for most birders to disappear for half a day in the optics marquees alone.

And there’s always the beer tent if it all becomes too much.

On top of all this, the British Birdwatching Fair is a major fundraiser for conservation causes around the world. Last year it raised, through auctions and direct donations, £320,000 in a single weekend. Since 1989 it has raised a total of £3,996,152, so it’s is safe to say that it will have contributed well clear of £4 million to conservation programs around the world by the time Birdfair 2016 wraps up this Sunday.

Just a Leopard wandering past the wildlife crime stand. The UK has a dedicated police unit for the prevention and prosecution of wildlife crime. We have a long way to go in Australia.

The first time I visited I found it an almost overwhelming onslaught of information and new friendships to be made. More than any other event I've attended it gave me a profound sense that birders everywhere are part of a massive global community. We might sometimes feel remote from this community as we go about our birding activities on our own patch, but at least once a year it is good to be reminded that you're a member of this extraordinary tribe. This year will be my fourth visit to Birdfair, my first non-“work” trip, and I’m as excited as ever. A friend living in Oxford has kindly planned her wedding for the weekend following Birdfair providing the perfect excuse to combine the two.

If you want to talk turkey with the Outback experts you have to drop in on the NT stand. There's free stuff and prizes!

So, friends I’ve met at Birdfair in years past, I hope to catch up with you again. And for those of you who haven’t yet been, it’s high time you made plans to get over for this unique event and mingle with your tribe.

See you there!

 

Support The Grip

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.

CBW

The Princess & Lady Luck

Herping, birding, Tourism, Citizen ScienceChris Watson

“Remember it’s all luck.

… understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.”

Tim Minchin, UWA graduation address, September 2013. Watch the entire thing on Speakola.

 

Congratulations. Well done. Great work. The sorts of things that birders say to each other all the time. But what do we mean by these things?

I’m just back from co-leading and driving for Mark Carter Birding & Wildlife’s Princess Parrot Expedition into the deserts west of Alice Springs. I’ve driven countless hundreds of thousands of kilometres through these deserts over the years, and I love it. The driving that is. A lot of people see driving as the unfortunate chore that must be endured to get to the places we go to look for birds, but I’ve always found it as much a part of the appeal of birding as the cheese scones and coffee-breaks. Driving, particularly, I would argue, in the desert, is cathartic. It’s great time to ruminate on things. If you’re fortunate enough to have pleasant travelling companions, it is the perfect opportunity to chew over ideas and hear a few stories from other peoples’ lives.

So I got a lot of thinking done on this trip.

The stark honesty of outback road signage.

Mostly, I got to thinking about luck. There’s something in Tim Minchin’s shared nugget of wisdom that I think birders, all of us at one time or another, tend to gloss over. Despite the hackneyed image of the conventional birder as something of a swot – studious, scholarly, minutely researched – there is a central role for luck in the pursuit of wild things. Good fortune, malesh, kismet; call it what you like. It can’t be denied.

Perhaps we tend to put it to one side because when we find a bird, we want to be able to suggest that it was our superior understanding of the bird’s relationship to its habitat that led us to it. Or perhaps it was our peerless vision, knowledge of bird behaviour and plumage characters that enabled us to pick it from a vast flock of similar birds. Without a doubt, that is certainly the case some of the time. Perhaps even most of the time.

There are some species that are site faithful and fussy about the type of habitat they will occupy and foods they will consume. So if you’ve done your reading and have the chops to distinguish healthy habitat from disturbed in the field, then maybe you really can target and track down a bird. If you’ve got the eyes and the experience behind a scope to pick a lone Little Stint from a flock of 10,000 Red-necked Stint, you have my admiration and it would be only a curmudgeonly fool that would deny your skill. But even then… if there isn’t a vagrant Little Stint in the flock you can look all day and see nothing but Red-necked Stint, so there is still an element of luck. We can all agree, however, on the clear difference between that scenario and some duffer walking into his mate’s back yard to stumble on a Forest Wagtail. Whatever that duffer’s knowledge of the species may be, he didn’t truly find the bird did he? If anything, the bird found him; or perhaps they met each other halfway. Such is the nature of many vagrant ‘finds’. While the above scenarios might fairly be described as great finds, the latter is probably more accurately termed a ‘discovery’.

Where does that leave other species that aren’t vagrant, may not even be rare, but are yet nearly impossible to find? Perhaps a species that might be nomadic? What about a species that has a massive possible (or actual) home range that exists entirely within remote and difficult terrain? By now you can see where I’m headed with this.

Just for once, I’m not on about the Night Parrot either. But as you bring it up, it illustrates the point about luck quite neatly doesn’t it? Very few people have had anything but the most profuse praise for John Young’s tenacity, skill, patience, and hard work in tracking down that bird. But in acknowledging that, we also have to acknowledge (and John has said as much in his many talks) that there were numerous strokes of luck along his journey of discovery as well – feathers on the wire, the dead specimens, being in the right spot to hear and record that historic first call. It’s the ultimate intersection of skill and good fortune.

But the other side of that coin is just as undeniable. There were several, if not dozens, of similarly talented, highly skilled and educated researchers, bushmen and ornithologists out in the field and poring over maps and papers at home or in museums and laboratories, across the outback and around the country, looking for the Night Parrot and what did they come up with?

Zero. The centre of a doughnut.

"There's no grip here; just a dip that'll make you wish you were born a herper."

Are they all just hacks and duffers? All of them? Surely not. In fact, among them are some of our most senior arid-zone ecologists, including some who are now in the thick of it, participating in the ongoing research into that species. Despite all their experience, study, bushcraft and years spent scouring the bush, they just didn’t have luck on their side.

But before we disappear up our own fundaments in a maelstrom of epistemology, there's a piece of wisdom that Mr. Minchin failed to pass on. For every neat aphorism there is an equally tidy and contradictory platitude. Some of you will already have thought of a pertinent one here. You make your own luck. Yes indeed. Through hard work, diligent study, astute networking and imaginative connection of apparently disparate data, you may increase the likelihood of success in various endeavours. But, again, we’ve covered this. Life isn’t fair. History is filled with talented, hard-working, deserving people who had all the facts and still just missed out.

So we have to acknowledge the role of luck in our successes and our failures.

This is a concept we need to popularise in birding. Despite the swaggerish title of this blog, anyone who has met me will vouch that it was chosen in the most ironic spirit of self-deprecation. The whole idea of the birding grip off is, I hope, clearly farcical and best reserved for use only amongst the very best of friends. You can scour your Dolby & Clarke and pick apart your Thomas & Thomas but in the end, with a nod to the caveats discussed earlier about identification of healthy habitat and the like, finding birds has as much to do with good fortune as your knowledge of the field guide. If you’re prepared to contest this, you should take care; you may be leaving yourself wide open to public ridicule every time you dip. And there will be many dips. Oh yes. There will be dips.

A natural born Dipper.

What has any of this got to do with Princess Parrots, I hear you ask? I’m glad you brought it up. My central thesis is this: nobody finds Princess Parrots.

The distribution map for Princess Parrot from the Department of the Environment. Easy, just look in the red bit right?

The distribution map for Princess Parrot from the Department of the Environment. Easy, just look in the red bit right?

There’s a pernicious rumour that the Princess Parrot falls into that class of birds that, with the right knowledge, equipment and your jaw set at the right angle to depict heroic and imperturbable single-mindedness, you may go forth into the wilderness and find. Furthermore, there is a wild fantasy harboured by some in our midst, that one can just nip out to Neale Junction or Jupiter Well and catch them dozing in the Desert Oaks. It's a simplistic 'just add water' approach to arid land birding. To the more sober among you, this is as ludicrous as it sounds. Nonetheless, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to disabuse you of this illusion.

As I wrote earlier, I recently ‘nipped out’ to Jupiter Well with Mark Carter and a small party of Australian listing heavy-hitters to give them a chance at ticking off this Australian-breeding mega. Truman Capote once wrote that, “…failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour”. If that’s so, then this was a tasty trip, and not just because of Mark’s form at the camp oven. (The man lived two years in North Africa and evidently picked up a thing or two about knocking together a fierce lamb tagine.) The abridged version: in 7 days ex-Alice Springs, spent fudding about Jupiter Well, Lake Mackay and parts west, we didn’t see a single Princess.

The trip was meticulously planned. As the mad bastard who conceived of this trip in the first place, all credit for that planning has to go to Mark. We received exceptional permits to camp in the region and head off-track to get up to Lake Mumu (freshwater) and Lake Mackay (salt and at the time, dry). These permits were a critical difference between this trip and most other visits to the area, and took a good deal of organising. A transit permit is required to traverse the Gary Junction Road, but this is precisely as it sounds – a permit to pass along the road corridor and nothing else. Technically, stopping for anything other than answering the call of nature is against the conditions of the permit. Certainly it doesn’t permit camping anywhere along the road. So, the Gary Junction Road transit permit limits you to a single crack at Princess Parrots in the vicinity of Jupiter Well, then you have to continue on your way.

We also had permission to head off the Gary Junction Road to investigate the localities of other recent sightings of the species, away from Jupiter Well. The most recent sighting that we were aware of was Richard Waring’s encounter with 19 birds on the Gary Junction Road near Walangurru (Kintore, NT) in April 2015.

Other than that, there really wasn’t a lot more to go on. It was a bold move by Mark to put on a trip seeking such a notoriously unreliable bird. Everyone on both sides of wildlife tourism knows full well that there are never guarantees, but from the guide’s perspective there is still an immense amount of pressure and a deep sense of obligation to show people everything they hope to see.

From fairly early on in the trip it was clear that conditions were dryer than we had anticipated. Insectivores were everywhere. We saw some very large mixed flocks of Masked and White-browed Woodswallow in association with a moth emergence. In the same area we were counting White-winged Triller by the hundred as they passed through following abundant swarms of insects. We saw groups of Varied Sittella, usually a very unreliable bird in Central Australia, at almost every place we stopped to bird. But granivores were all but absent. A few Zebra Finch flitted here and there if water was at hand, the occasional small mob of Budgerigar ripped through overhead, but that was about all we saw from the seed-eating guild.

Despite passing through some of the most extraordinarily well-managed spinifex sandplain that Mark or myself had ever seen, there was just nothing eating seed. It didn’t bode well for parrots. The mornings and late afternoons were spent at listening posts hoping to pick up the distinctive sounds of The Princess, or slow-cruising tracks interrogating every Desert Oak and Bloodwood. During the warmer part of the day we covered more distance and investigated a few different habitats. We walked some dune fields, checked out leaky water tanks and open water sources and scoured the horizon until we went cross-eyed. If there were Princess Parrots in the area, I’m confident we would have seen something. With so much time in the area, with so many pairs of eyes and ears set to the task – we’d have seen them if they were there. My own feeling is that they just weren’t in the area.

So to the painfully obvious question – where are they?

If they were out there, they certainly weren't showing themselves.

If anybody knows, they aren’t saying. If you look on a map you’ll see that Jupiter Well and Neale Junction, the two most routinely cited ‘occasionally reliable’ locales for the bird, are not actually that far to go. The usual precautions for remote travel in desert regions apply, but with the right car, communications gear and the right attitude you actually almost can ‘nip out’ from Alice Springs to Jupiter Well. It’s really only one big day of driving to get out there (and a similar trip from Kalgoorlie to Neale Junction in WA). It’s by no means a doddle but it’s within the capabilities of any birder with outback driving experience. If there were birds out at Jupiter Well with anything approaching the reliability that the birding grapevine might suggest, there would be carloads of birders departing Alice Springs every single weekend. The fact that there isn’t, says everything we need to know.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, with the wild ecology of the Night Parrot all but ‘in the bag’ thanks to John Young and the ongoing research being conducted by the team at “The Queensland Site”, the movements of the Princess Parrot is a strong contender for the title of Australian ornithology’s new holy grail. How you go about researching a bird that moves with apparent ease across such a large chunk of the continent will be decided by someone smarter than me, but if I had to guess I suspect it’ll come down to another John Young-style effort. There are few hi-tech approaches that seem likely to yield results. An individual or small team driving the country confirming presence or absence at various points and making feeding and breeding observations seems as good an approach as any. The literature on the species is sparse and we can only hope that an individual or institution will step up soon to fill in the blanks.

So we missed The Princess, but as Jack Black’s character in The Big Year says at the end of the eponymous travails, “…we got more. More… everything”. It was extraordinary and life-affirming just to be out there amongst it. It’s a very new-age, Dennis Denuto sort of sentiment, but it really is the vibe of the thing. Setting off into the desert on a wildly ambitious adventure of pure discovery, could hardly have been more exciting and the results more edifying. Only the cold and dead of heart could have felt otherwise. We saw parts of the desert that even seasoned travellers of the arid lands have never visited. We slept in the soft sand amid whispering Desert Oaks – the wind harps of the Western Desert. We spent perfect, still mornings birding among thronging flocks of feeding woodswallows, chats, and trillers. We saw Brolga reflected in the disc of a freshwater lake between red sand dunes with the sun setting on our backs. We stood on the shores of Lake Mackay, an expanse of salt rivalled in size by few others on the continent and seen by few non-indigenous visitors since the days of Warburton, Giles and Beadell. We tracked the wanderings of innumerable nocturnal mammals across the sand in the crisp mornings. We encountered iconic desert wildlife like Thorny Devil and the endangered Centralian Carpet Python.

Atop all of this, during a fairly dry and quiet period in the desert life-cycle, we still managed to see more than 100 species of bird including cripplers like Banded Whiteface, Sandhill Grasswren, Chiming Wedgebill, Crimson and Orange Chats, Painted Finch, and Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo.

It’s a big list, with a lot more than just a parrot-shaped hole.  

It’s a list to be proud of, despite the parrot-shaped hole.

 

*****

 

A short, meandering postscript. In seven days of driving there are a lot more thoughts that can be neatly summarised in just a few hundred words.

As well as the nature of luck and its relationship with birding, another common topic of energetic conversation in my car was the obvious, but rarely mentioned, relationship between scientific discovery and commerce. Exploration has often been funded by wealthy benefactors or sponsors. Increasingly, we can cast wildlife-seeking tourists in this role without fear of overstating things.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when pelagic trips leaving Australian shores were a pretty specialised and exceptional event. In recent decades this has been changing gradually and now there is barely a weekend that goes by without pelagic trip reports from one or more trips reaching our inboxes. While these trips are still mostly costed so they reach the break-even point rather than generating serious profit, it is the patronage of birding tourists that keeps them going. Our understanding of seabird diversity in Australian waters has increased along with the frequency of pelagic birding trips. Anyone who has been on these trips can attest that the organiser/leader is usually someone with a deep knowledge of pelagic wildlife and a keen interest in the collection of data. This is as clear an example as you could want of tourism directly providing the means for data collection and scientific research. We pay to get out to the shelf and see some albatross and petrels and an inquiring mind is provided with the means to get into the field and access the populations they need to observe and sample to further our collective understanding. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s not limited to pelagics either. Anyone who has birded in Africa or Central or South America is likely to have encountered numerous examples of local communities supplementing (and even replacing altogether) sometimes destructive subsistence industries with the income provided by wildlife tourists to see preserved habitat and the specials animals within it. Angel Paz and his extraordinary knack for habituating various species of Ecuadorian antpitta, springs immediately to mind. Whatever your stance on feeding wild birds, Angel has become deservedly famous for rendering once near-invisible birds, accessible and easily-viewed for paying visitors to his cloud-forest reserve, which may otherwise have been levelled long ago for crop-farming. How would you go about seeing lekking Andean Cock-of-the-Rock if it weren’t for the numerous protected stake-outs of known lekking sites for this astonishing species?

It’d be good to see an elevated and enlightened discourse develop around professional bird and wildlife guiding in Australia. Professional bird guides in Australia have often been on the receiving end of some fairly thoughtless and small-minded criticism in the past. This is by no means prevalent, but common enough to be troubling. Just as pelagic trips have drawn back the curtain on pelagic wildlife in Australian waters, there are a number of exceptionally talented and highly-skilled individuals who have been doing the same on terra firma.

Whether it's pelagics on the blue paddock or expeditions inland, someone has to go looking or we never learn anything.

Particularly to those who have pioneered the difficult business of inland birding, we owe a great deal of thanks. The birds are hard and the country even harder but the rewards are obvious. It’s a staggeringly large continent that we live on and there are still many, many blanks on the map. Mark Carter is by no means the only guide offering birding trips in our vast deserts, but it took chutzpah to take on a bird like the Princess Parrot – the sort of chutzpah that will inevitably pay dividends. Diamonds owe their value to their scarcity and this is just as true for birds like this. An encounter with the bird is priceless, but even to search for it brings ineffable rewards. If I had my way, Mark would be rewarded with a flood of inquiries for subsequent trips. Trips like this are the beginning of understanding. In an age where dedicated research funding is as elusive as some of the animals it might be spent studying, citizen science and tourist-funded expeditions are where we will get our baseline data.

SPECIAL THANKS

No expedition of this nature comes together without help from many quarters. The country we visited looked fantastic and credit must go to Traditional Owners and ranger groups for their efforts managing this large area. The country is administered by the Ngaanyatjarra Council and their staff were helpful at every step of the permit application process. The wonderful folks running the store at Kiwirrkurra were always smiling and welcome, despite our regular demands for fuel and service at irregular times - thanks a million, you should all know how important you are to regional tourism. And the same goes to the friendly folks at the store at Watiyawanu (Mt. Leibig).

Thank you all - your blood's worth bottling. 

Species Lists

Birds (in roughly the order seen)

  1. Magpie-lark
  2. Galah
  3. Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater
  4. Little Crow
  5. Black-faced Cuckooshrike
  6. White-plumed Honeyeater
  7. Yellow-throated Miner
  8. Willie Wagtail
  9. Pied Butcherbird
  10. Zebra Finch
  11. Black Kite
  12. Black-breasted Buzzard
  13. Whistling Kite
  14. Rock Dove
  15. Australian Ringneck
  16. Crested Pigeon
  17. Singing Honeyeater
  18. White-winged Triller
  19. Peregrine Falcon
  20. Brown Falcon
  21. Collared Sparrowhawk
  22. Black-faced Woodswallow
  23. Crimson Chat
  24. Black-chinned Honeyeater
  25. Grey-headed Honeyeater
  26. Australian Hobby
  27. Western Gerygone
  28. Red-backed Kingfisher
  29. Rainbow Bee-eater
  30. Australian Magpie
  31. Crested Bellbird
  32. Rufous Whistler
  33. Chiming Wedgebill
  34. Banded Whiteface
  35. Australasian Pipit
  36. Red-browed Pardalote
  37. Little Button-quail
  38. Variegated Fairy-wren
  39. Australian Bustard
  40. Striated Pardalote
  41. Black-shouldered Kite
  42. Budgerigar
  43. Varied Sittella
  44. Rufous Songlark
  45. Weebill
  46. Major Mitchell's Cockatoo
  47. White-backed Swallow
  48. Masked Woodswallow
  49. White-browed Woodswallow
  50. Diamond Dove
  51. White-necked Heron
  52. Mistletoebird
  53. White-fronted Honeyeater
  54. Black Honeyeater
  55. Little Eagle
  56. Brolga
  57. Red-necked Avocet
  58. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
  59. Orange Chat
  60. White-winged Fairy-wren
  61. Sandhill Grasswren
  62. Brown Goshawk
  63. Red-capped Plover
  64. Nankeen Kestrel
  65. Spotted Harrier
  66. White-faced Heron
  67. Australian Reed Warbler
  68. Black-fronted Dotterel
  69. Grey Teal
  70. Wedge-tailed Eagle
  71. Great Egret
  72. Tree Martin
  73. Ground Cuckooshrike
  74. Hooded Robin
  75. Little Grassbird
  76. Hoary-headed Grebe
  77. Australasian Grebe
  78. Tawny Frogmouth
  79. Little Pied Cormorant
  80. Australian Spotted Crake
  81. Australasian Swamphen
  82. Southern Boobook
  83. Eurasian Coot
  84. Southern Whiteface
  85. Grey-crowned Babbler
  86. Yellow-rumped Thornbill
  87. Mulga Parrot
  88. Pink-eared Duck
  89. Grey Shrike-thrush
  90. Dusky Grasswren
  91. Painted Finch
  92. Western Bowerbird
  93. Inland Thornbill
  94. Slaty-backed Thornbill
  95. Red-capped Robin
  96. Splendid Fairy-wren
  97. Spinifex Pigeon
  98. Masked Lapwing
  99. Australian Owlet-nightjar
  100. Sacred Kingfisher
  101. Brown Honeyeater
  102. Little Woodswallow
  103. Grey Fantail
  104. Fairy Martin

Reptiles

  1. Gehyra purpurascens
  2. Bynoe's Gecko
  3. Sand-plain Gecko
  4. Carlia triacantha
  5. Blue-tailed Ctenotus
  6. Centralian Blue-tongue
  7. Long-nosed Dragon
  8. Central Military Dragon
  9. Central Netted Dragon
  10. Thorny Devil
  11. Central Bearded Dragon
  12. Spiny-tailed Monitor
  13. Pygmy Desert Monitor
  14. Gould's Sand Monitor
  15. Centralian Carpet Python