Chris Watson

Red Centre

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

We Don't Climb

OpinionChris Watson

Nobody should be climbing Uluru*.

That’s what I thought when I first contemplated the dilemma – to climb or not to climb - in 2006 and nothing has changed.

DON'T PUSH THE RED BUTTON.

What did you just think of? There’s an interesting phenomenon in human psychology, closely linked with negative suggestion, called reactance. It’s that ugly, irksome little voice in your head that urges you to step on the lawn as soon as you see a sign that says, “KEEP OFF”.

We'll return to Uluru in a minute. I promise there is a point here. Stick with me.

In essence, reactance is a response to a perceived limitation or the threat of removal of choice, and it has the potential to make us act against our own best interests. In the clinical version of the experiment, a person, often a child but not necessarily, is sat in a room with a big, bright red button on the wall. The administrator of the test leaves the subject alone in the room with a single definite instruction – DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. In almost every case, the subject will press the button. Sometimes there is an incentive involved as well; a bag of sweets or a quantity of cash if they simply DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. They’ll still press it. Derren Brown upped the ante by leaving a subject alone in a room with a fluffy kitten in a metal cage that would be electrified, killing the cat, if she pressed the button. He even offered her a pile of cash, in addition to the fact that she’d be sparing the kitty’s life, if she would simply not press the button for 5 minutes once he left the room. I won’t spoil the ending. The point is that it can be a very strong response. It has been well-studied in relation to childhood development, parenting and teaching but it can even have relevance to international relations.

Blood & Guts: dispatches from the whale wars, is a fascinating account of the antagonisation of the Japanese whaling fleet by Sea Shepherd. In it, Sam Vincent concludes that Japan isn’t so much pro-whaling as it is anti-anti-whaling. The claim is that Sea Shepherd were pushing at an open door by going after the Japanese whalers. It was already an industry in steeper decline than the populations of the animals it pursued and the market for the meat was niche, at best, and dwindling. But when Sea Shepherd came onto the scene and started niggling at the last remaining vestiges of the dying industry, the whalers dug their heels in. Faced with overwhelming opprobrium from the West and the harassment by Sea Shepherd, they chose to keep on whaling. This was a move that was counterproductive, destructive and expensive, and it saw Japanese whaling persist long past the point at which it was no longer a profitable industry; pure reactance in action. The façade of whaling as research was always as thin as rice paper, and the continued whale harvest was really just a middle finger to those who were telling them to stop; specifically to Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd might have seen an end to Japanese whaling years earlier had they simply… not bothered. Sea Shepherd provided the big red button that invited pushing.

It’s an interesting example and I recommend the book. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty sure that this infantile response has a part to play in our bizarre reluctance to close Uluru to climbing, and certainly with some peoples’ fixation on climbing, especially once they’re told they shouldn’t.

Prohibition really does bring out the worst in us doesn't it?

Nobody should be climbing Uluru.

I sat and watched, troubled, as the line of tourists marched along the chain, up to the top, then back down the same way. There’s an inherent, generally harmless, futility in the human urge to climb things but the fact that so many people, particularly Australians, have no compunction about climbing Uluru is, for me, a phenomenon infused with ennui.

From the widescreen vantage point behind the steering wheel of my bus parked at the base of Uluru, a similar tawdry scene would play out before me for many years to come. Shifting tides of cars and buses would ebb and flow around my quiet and fly-free little sanctuary. People would scuffle past looking for somewhere to empty their bladder; asking their tour guide if they’ll need water (always); shoes (of course); a camera (dunno – do you want to take pictures?) or a jumper (shit – should we just ring your mum?) Eventually they’d either climb up Uluru or head off on the roughly three hour walk around its base.

The climbers always had a bit of theatre to go through.

We all do things we know are bad; either bad for us, bad for some other poor sod or perhaps even bad for society in some way. We drive like reckless idiots, eat bad food or drink too much or too often and we buy shoes, cars and countless other goods that almost certainly required the exploitation of more than a few hapless individuals before coming into our possession. We justify these behaviours to ourselves in one way or another. Generally, the degree to which we’re aware of the ramifications of our choices is in inverse proportion to the ease with which we can rationalise them. At the base of Uluru there is a single gate allowing access to the climbing route to the top. To get through that gate you have to walk past a wall of signage with the same information written out in sextuplicate, each time in a different language. On each panel the language is similarly polite. To paraphrase the precise wording: Anangu* don’t climb Uluru. This is a very special sacred place for Anangu. Anangu request that you choose not to climb also.

No prohibitions. No fist-shaking. No threats of any consequences whatsoever. Just a polite request that you don’t climb – both for your safety and Anangu peace of mind. For many, it’s the big red button they just can’t resist.

There can be few people who arrive at the base of the climb without already being aware of the Anangu wish for people to shun climbing. It’s prominently featured on the walls and signs in the information centre at Yulara where every tourist stays during their visit. It’s on the walls at the Cultural Centre inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta* National Park (UKTNP) before you reach Uluru. It’s written on the ticket that you have to buy at the entry station and it is written on the detailed visitor guide that you receive when you buy that ticket. If they’re doing their job properly, it will also have been related to every visitor by their tour guide, long before they reach the car park.

It may not be on the tips of the tongues of the international travel agents selling people Red Centre holiday packages, but somewhere between boarding a plane and getting all the way out to Uluru the news will have reached most ears: the Traditional Owners would like people to stop climbing Uluru.

For some, perhaps it’s the politeness of the request that throws them. We’re used to signs telling us things in definite terms – stop, keep left, no smoking. The situation at Uluru hands the choice back to the reader: walk around Uluru if you’d like to respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians or, alternatively, gratify your own desire to climb up and disregard this polite request from your hosts altogether. Please yourself.

Some would scurry back for furtive chats of clarification with their tour guide. Some would pace along perusing each panel of the sign intently as if they actually spoke Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian. Searching for a loophole. Others had clearly made their choice well in advance and marched directly from the bus, past the huddled groups still wrestling with the dilemma, to commence their scramble up the gentlest slope of the old inselberg.

But the glorious indifference of the sign at the base of the Uluru climb leaves no wiggle room for climbers to rationalise their choice. It’s a wonderfully binary proposition and any attempt to argue shades of grey into the picture can be easily refuted with any number of obvious analogies and thought experiments. At mosques, synagogues and chapels around the world there are entreaties and expectations regarding decorous behaviour, respectful reverence and various clothing prohibitions or stipulations. At most of these places, such conditions are not optional and, if it came to it, would be enforced. But what if they weren’t?

Surely a reasonable person wouldn’t kick a football around in a church or wear dirty shoes in a mosque would they? (Incidentally, I don’t have the slightest bit of respect for, or belief in, any of the vast array of closely held human superstitions that lurk under the misnomers of spirituality or religion. Whether they were concocted last century, last millennium or before the Holocene interglacial, none have any claims on truth and most are divisive, destructive and counter-productive to the aims of human prosperity and well-being. In 2016 you’d have to be wilfully ignorant of massive swathes of human history and scientific advancement to think otherwise. Not surprisingly then, given my opinion on religion and other spiritual hokum, it’d be hard to find a more strenuous critic of the Catholic Church than me. But I still know that it’s appropriate to sit quietly in a church. Mind you, my tour guiding career spanned the previous Papal visit to Australia and we were very busy running charter tours to Uluru for church groups from around the globe…. they all climbed. But I digress.)

My itinerary always brought me to the Mala car park (where the climb begins) straight after sunrise. I’d walk along the base of Uluru with my guests for the first hour, providing them with interpretive ditties on local flora and fauna, Anangu customs and of course the rock itself. After the first hour I’d leave them so they could follow the path around the rest of the base walk at their own pace and without me talking at them. More importantly, this meant I could go back to the bus, eat an orange in peace and maybe grab forty winks. Bliss. This was how I came to have a front row seat for all this climb nonsense a few times a week, for five years.  

Of course, some of my guests would double back to climb up Uluru if it was open. UKTNP regulations require that tour guides inform guests of the desire of Anangu Traditional Owners that their wishes be respected and guests choose to not climb Uluru. This was something I took seriously and I always went out of my way to help people understand all the relevant issues, but I had a wildly varied success rate. Even so, averaged over five years I’d say fewer than 10% of my passengers chose to climb Uluru.

Notably though, my success rate with Australian passengers was lower. Ask a Red Centre tour guide - you can’t tell Australians anything. During school holidays we would always get a lot of school trips; of the ones I guided 100% of students climbed up Uluru along with most of their teachers. Many had decided even before they departed school grounds that it would be the crowning achievement of the trip; the main reason for going. Many groups arrived with “Top-of-the-Rock” team t-shirts all ready for the occasion. Even when I worked through the teachers to try and suggest that the base walk was a better and more culturally sensitive choice, I was just spinning my wheels. Apparently, the “teachable moment” was not yet a thing.

It preoccupied me at the time and I still think about it whenever the topic pops up in the media.

How is this still a thing? A 50/50 result in a Fairfax poll with this many votes is arguably enough to say the country is still split on the question.

Recently, the question of climbing arguably Australia’s second most-famous icon (Sydney can have their opera house) and probably the world’s most recognisable rock, has been in the press again. A journalist friend, Jo Stewart, approached me for a few words about the topic after being approached herself by a shadowy young activist who had liberated ‘The Climb’ of a few lengths of its infamous chain. In her article for The Saturday Paper the man, speaking under the pseudonym John, stated that his main intention was to, “respect Uluru and bring it to the attention of Australians”. Sitting here barely two weeks after that story went to print, you’d have to say that he has achieved his goal.

Following Jo’s piece, the Fairfax papers ran a story following up on a statement from Australia’s own “Greatest Minister In The World”, Greg Hunt. Despite most of the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan 2010-2020 for the permanent closure of the climb being met, Hunt’s office decreed there were, “no plans to change current arrangements.”

Then The Monthly online ran a pithy piece by Sean Kelly, which covered off on a few of the obvious points that make the climbing of Uluru such an important issue for Australia to deal with if it’s going to have any hope of claiming even a modicum of success in its pursuit of reconciliation.

If The Apology was the low-hanging fruit of reconciliation politics, the closing of the Uluru climb is ripe for picking.

And to torture the analogy further, fruit left too long goes rotten.

It would be a simple ban to put in place. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, Uluru is unclimbable without gear around most of its circumference. The few access points that might be climbable are well-known and monitored; once an illegal climber reaches a certain elevation they stand out like a sore thumb. On a bare rock, watched and photographed by thousands of people every day of the year, you’d have to be The Predator to avoid detection.

Sufficient policing measures are already in place to enforce the ban; the climb is closed for a variety of ceremonial and meteorological reasons for roughly a third of the days in most years already. It’s also closed between sunset and sunrise. There have been numerous examples of individuals or small groups flouting these closures over the years, even trying to land a plane on top, and they have each been ably dealt with by the existing roster of Parks Australia wardens and NT Police from the nearby towns of Mutitjulu and Yulara.

The chains and existing signage could be removed in a single busy afternoon. Done. Climb closed.

Let's make it permanent. Pic. RichiH Wikicommons.

Waleed Aly has written superbly recently about some of the reasons why Australia has such a troubled (and troubling) relationship with its original inhabitants. There’s not a lot I can add to his keenly-observed analysis, but nowhere in Australia is the uneasiness and casual disregard of that dysfunction on more brazen and daily display, and more openly ignored, than the procession of climbers up the side of Uluru.

The most perfunctory Google search throws up countless images and galleries and blogs about climbing Uluru. If Australian people want to be fair dinkum about reconciliation, then we need to come to a national recognition of this behaviour, not as any sort of achievement to be celebrated and publicised but as un-Australian and aberrant; embarrassing even. I think the closing of the climb is inevitable at some point, but given the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan, not to mention the ongoing offence to Indigenous custodians, it’s already long overdue.

Stuff it, with a vote coming up, why not make it an election issue? We shouldn’t be settling for leaders who tinker with these matters as mere adornments to their careers and self-advancement. These matters affect whole communities and, in the end, shape our national thinking.

ANZAC Day will shortly come and go with huddled observances around the country uttering that eternal three word mantra in memoriam - Lest We Forget. There's another three word phrase which is deserving of inclusion in our national demotic, if not our national consciousness...

Nganana* tatintja wiya. With those words Anangu say “we don’t climb”.

Neither should we.

 

* - these Western Desert words contain a retroflex which is usually indicated by a line beneath the relevant letter(s) - my publishing software doesn't allow me to insert this.  Uluru should have a retroflex on the 'r', Anangu on the first 'n', Kata Tjuta on the third 't' and nganana on the third 'n'. You can learn more about Western Desert pronunciation at this link.

 

Brown Falcon and Thorny Devil - predator and prey

Herping, RaptorsChris Watson

Thorny Devil Moloch horridus, a face only a naturalist could love?

With Thorny Devil weather soon to be upon The Red Centre, I thought it timely for a re-posting of this ditty from 2011. This is an old post from the Birds Central blog archives dated 4/10/2011.

The Brown Falcon Falco berigora, may be the most common raptor encountered around central Australia; it is certainly the most common of the Falco species. It has been the cause of many mis-identifications due to the broad range of plumage colours that the species exhibits, dependent on age and sex. The bird in these pictures (below), taken on Owen Springs Reserve near Alice Springs, is toward the paler end of the spectrum which likely indicates that this is an adult male. The plumage appears darker in younger birds and may be so dark as to be mistaken for black in certain light conditions. The adult birds, with their very pale underside might be mistaken for the rare Grey Falcon F. hypoleucos, and the younger, darker birds are prime candidates for confusion with the Black Falcon F. subniger. One of the easiest field marks to look for in both cases are the feathered legs. Both the Black and Grey Falcons have fully feathered legs, whereas the Brown Falcon has completely bare, and slightly longer, legs - all the better for chasing terrestrial prey. The Grey Falcon is also distinctive for its bright yellow feet and the Black Falcon for its longer tail.

Brown Falcon Falco berigora. Note the yellow cere and orbital ring; features sometimes cited as diagnostic features of Grey Falcon which could clearly create confusion for inexperienced observers.

The Black and Grey Falcons are specialised bird hunters with a preference for taking their prey in mid-air. The Brown Falcon however, while it will also hunt and kill birds, is beautifully adapted for taking advantage of a plentiful food source in arid Australia - reptiles. Small lizards in particular, are a staple of its diet.

This bird had been hawking grasshoppers in the smouldering remains of a fire, hence the jaunty blade-of-grass fascinator.

 Around central Australia one of the commonest small lizards is this bloke. This is a famous Centralian resident, surprisingly common, but often missed due its highly effective camouflage. Both the colouring and texture of its skin make this animal exceedingly difficult to find among the sandy scrub of its home. The animal here (below), also on Owen Springs Reserve, is in its defensive posture. By adopting this pose, with the head tucked down as low as possible exposing the "false head" on the back of his neck, he hopes that a marauding Brown Falcon will attack this fatty, expendable decoy, rather than his real head. If that gives him time to scarper into the undergrowth, he will be very difficult to find indeed. Once these critters move from the open road into any sort of vegetative cover... they vanish. It's an impressive party trick.

Hunkered down, hoping you'll choose to attach the wrong head.

Up close, you'll notice an intricate network of grooves and channels running around and even across the scales. The characteristic spikes have longitudinal grooves converging toward the tip. These scales can collect dew on misty mornings, as can the feet when they are in contact with wet ground. They can channel this moisture across the reticulated grooves by capillary action where it can be absorbed through the skin. The mouth is tiny and the Thorny Devil is (as far as I am aware) incapable of biting. Their diet consists entirely of small black ants of the genera Pheidole andCampanotus

A different individual striking a more strident and characteristic pose.


All of these things combine to make the Thorny Devil one of my all time favourites. An animal that looks absolutely terrifying, but is more or less harmless (unless you're an ant), and almost defenceless. It wasn't looked on quite so kindly by early naturalists. It still has to carry that awful specific name horridus, and the generic name Moloch. This is a name with diabolical literary associations stretching from the days of the old testament, to John Milton's Paradise Lost, and even more recent pulp fiction. Moloch, in scripture and Milton's masterpiece, was first among the demons in Pandaemonium and a great warrior in Satan's army. Dan Brown (yes, he of The Da Vinci Code) gave a nod to Moloch by naming the main villain in his latest book The Lost Code, Mal'akh. Anyway, the bibical Moloch was supposedly known for his fondness of gobbling down Canaanite children like jelly-beans. When naturalists, apparently well up on their scripture, first observed a Thorny Devil poised above a line of ants sucking them into its mouth, one after another, it must have rung a bell.

The Brown Falcon on its hunting perch; how you'll most often see them in Central Australia. Note the unfeathered tarsometatarsus (lower leg) just visible.

The best way to find one is to cruise slowly along a quiet road that passes through sand country and stay alert. These little lizards are often basking on, or making their way excrutiatingly slowly across, the road when the weather is warm enough. Even in the middle of the road they are so small, well concealed, and unexpected that the majority of them end up being squashed. This is a great tragedy as this animal is one of the real postcard characters of inland Australia and something that all visitors hope to see during their stay. Many is the time I've heard a tourist wondering aloud where all these famous Thorny Devils are, when the chances are that they will have driven past at least a dozen of them between Alice Springs and Uluru, and probably twice as many squashed ones; on one drive I counted 22 between the Lasseter Highway and the King's Canyon Resort 170kms away. So in good weather, at the right time of day (mid-morning and late afternoon), you can expect one perhaps every 10kms! This is a great reason to slow down, sharpen your eyes, and try to lessen our Thorny Devil road toll.

Another aid to the Thorny Devil's crypsis, is its curious chameleon-like walk. It lurches and jerks its way across the sand it has been observed many times before, like a tiny wind-up toy. It's a puzzling strategy but I suspect it limits the amount of flat-out movement, which is the most likely thing to catch a predators eye. As you can see in the video below, if this lizard was moving across leaf litter or thick grass, the movement might easily be overlooked as leaves or vegetation moving in the breeze.


If this wasn't enough they have one more trick up their spiky sleeve. Thorny Devils have what amounts to a thumbprint, of sorts, on their bellies. All Thorny Devils can be identified to individual level by the subtle differences in the patterns on their bellies, much like the fluke patterns of Humpback Whales. As the small gallery below demonstrates, no two are the same (I have a few hundred of these belly snaps - honestly, none are the same). 

So there you go. The next time you see a Brown Falcon loitering about some sand country in Central Australia, it is very likely a Thorny Devil that is on the menu. Happy herping!

NBThank you to Paul McDonald and Stephen Debus. Paul's 2003 paper, which I was previously unaware of, shows that plumage and bare part colour variations in the Brown Falcon previously attributed to different "morphs" are most likely indicators of age and sex

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.

 

Forest Wagtail - BARC Submission for an Australian Mainland First

TwitchingChris Watson

This post is a result of a few requests that I've had about producing a rare or vagrant bird report for submission to the BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee (BARC).

In fact, I've only had cause to make a single submission to BARC and that was in the fairly celebrated case of the Forest Wagtail that was present in Alice Springs during 2013. There have probably been few, if any, other BARC submissions that have been so straightforward. Leaving aside for a moment that many of the members of the committee had actually travelled to Alice Springs to see the bird themselves, it was a long staying bird which was very site-faithful and was an outstanding photographic subject. After a few months of being viewed by dozens of birders, with who-knows-how-many-thousands of photographs taken, there was no doubt as to its identity and this submission was really just a formality to get the observation on the official record. 

As such, this report is perhaps less detailed than one that you might produce for a bird which is less straightforward to ID (a Lesser Black-backed Gull say), but if you ever have occasion to write such a report, you might find that the research, and the process of consulting with experts is part of the enjoyment of the exercise.

The BARC website has all of the resources and instructions that you might need to guide you through the process and I've always found the members of the committee to be approachable. If you are fortunate enough to find a vagrant species, or a rarity listed on the BARC review list, I'd urge you to take the time to produce a report, however brief, to ensure that our national list is as accurate and up to date as it can be.

So for the interest of those who have requested it, below is the original submission in its entirety. I've copied it over with just a few minor formatting changes but otherwise intact. The original photographs that were included with the report can be found at the bottom of the text.

 

 

Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus at Alice Springs, Northern Territory, April - September 2013

 Submission to BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee, 16 February 2014

  CHRISTOPHER WATSON(1), WILLIAM CORMACK(2) & ANNE CORMACK   

 Preface 

A Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, was identified at a private residence on Cromwell Drive, Alice Springs, Northern Territory on 4 May 2013. The bird was reported to have been present (noted as unusual but otherwise unidentified) since 29 April 2013, but had not been noticed before this date. It was present in the area, and observed at this site by at least 52 visiting birdwatchers from all states of Australia (Will Cormack pers. comm.), and was last seen on 1 September 2013. This is an account of the occurrence, which is believed to be the first record of the species for mainland Australia, following a single photographed record from Christmas Island, 17 May 2009.       

Habitat 

Well-watered private garden with thick lawn at the rear of the house and terraced garden sloping up sharply to the rear of the property with a variety of flowering bushes and a large Date Palm Phoenix dactylifera, shading the eastern side of the garden. The neighbouring properties on either side had less well-watered and vegetated gardens with extensive paved areas. The back of the property is joined with crown land consisting of low acacia scrub containing buffel grass Cenchrus ciliaris, Witchetty Bush Acacia kempeana, and a variety of native grasses (Aristida spp.) on a rocky knoll. North-east of the crown land, roughly 100m from where the bird was observed, is the seventh fairway of the Alice Springs Golf Club providing extensive areas of open, well-watered grass. 300m to the south-west of the property, is the tenth fairway of the course, which has a 250m long water trap. 500m to the south-west is the golf club’s main water feature, an artificial lake approximately 120m at its widest, which is frequented by numerous cormorants, herons, coots, ducks, and other waterbirds.

Sighting conditions

The day that the bird was first positively identified was a fine, still morning, with clear skies and approximately 27°C. The sun was getting high, providing fairly good viewing from all directions. As the bird continued to be observed in following months, it was viewed during a range of climatic conditions, typical of central Australia for the time of year. Temperatures ranged from overnight lows of 2.6°C to daily maximums as high as 35.1°C. Approximately 15mm of rain fell during 12 and 13 May, with a further 47.2mm falling by the time of the final record of the bird. 

Optical aids used

8 x 42 binoculars and a Canon 5DII camera with a 100-400mm f5.6 lens.

Additional Observers

Will Cormack and Anne Cormack, the residents at the property who first noted the bird’s presence, were both present at the time of identification and had seen the bird the previous day as well. They both agreed with the identification of the bird. Before the possibility of Forest Wagtail was presented, they had already rejected the possibility of any of the vagrant species of wagtail (Motacilla sp.) known to have already occurred on mainland Australia and depicted in the Pizzey & Knight field guide, based on lengthy clear views of the bird on this date and the previous day. All three observers are 100% confident of the identity of this bird.

Will and Anne Cormack can be contacted on their home phone: XX XXXX XXXX

Physical Description of Bird

1)    A single live bird was present. 

2)    None of the observers have sufficient experience with the species to accurately estimate age and sex, but in comparison to field guide images it appeared to be a sub-adult bird, due to a less pronounced second white bar on each wing. No sexual dimorphism is suggested or depicted in the available field guides (Robson 2002, Robson 2005, Svensson et al 2009). 

3)    In both size and general shape the bird appeared to be broadly similar to wagtails of the genus Motacilla that WC and CW have observed on numerous occasions in Alice Springs, Zimbabwe, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

4)    We were unable to determine any details of moult due largely to a paucity of reference material. The crown of the head was a dull grey-brown which continued down across the scapulars and on to the upper back. The upper portion of the folded wings had some of the same grey-brown colouration of the upper back, but the remainder of the wing was a dark black colour with strongly contrasting white markings visible at two points while the wing was folded. The upper tail appeared to be a similar grey-brown but the underside of the tail was pale – almost pure white. 

The belly and sides were a similar clean white. The breast was also a clean white colour but with two strongly contrasting black bands – the lower of the two incomplete (coming part way across the breast but not meeting in the middle.) Above the upper black breast band, the throat was a clean white. There was a clear, broad supercilium that joined the upper portion of the bill and extended back well past the eye. There was a strong grey-brown line passing through the middle of the eye and the ear coverts were a very slightly buff, off-white colour. 

5)    The upper mandible was dark grey and the lower mandible was a pale, perhaps slightly fleshy colour. The iris appeared to be a very dark brown colour. The legs and feet were a very pale fleshy pink.

6)    The bird was not heard to call at all during the initial observations. It was later heard to call very occasionally by WC and other observers and was described as sounding vaguely similar in character to the call of Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum (Will Cormack and Rohan Clarke pers. comm.).

7)    The bird was predominantly terrestrial in its habits but was twice seen to perch in the lower branches of acacia shrubs. The first time the bird flew up to perch approximately 100cm from ground level in the branches of a Witchetty Bush, where it stayed for approximately 2 minutes. The second time, it flew in to perch in the branches of a different bush of the same species about 30cm from the ground in the neighbouring yard, but still visible through a chain-mesh (cyclone) fence. 

The remainder of the time the bird walked slowly around the garden except for one flight from the western to the eastern side of the garden (approximately 25m). Only the flush was seen of this flight as the flight path was obscured by terraced garden beds, but the bird was relocated in the opposite corner of the garden. The bird was not heard to call in flight.

When the bird was stationary it swayed its tail constantly from side to side in quite a gentle, but continuous, motion – not at all as vigorous as a Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys or a Grey Fantail R. albiscapa, with which all observers are familiar. It occasionally picked something from the ground, and it once picked at some low seeds hanging from a grass stalk, but it did not appear to eat anything and did not persist in these behaviours. 

The only other birds detected in the garden during the period of the observations was a Mistletoebird, heard in a nearby tree but not seen, and 3 Australian Ringneck Barnardius zonarius, which flew through the garden calling at a height of some 10m above the ground level at the rear of the house. None of these birds appeared to disturb the subject.

Potentially Confusing Species

This bird could conceivably be confused with any of the Motacilla wagtail species were it not for the distinctive breast markings, strongly contrasting black and white wing markings, and the constant lateral tail motion. 

If this bird was seen briefly or in flight, on shape and size alone it might be easy to confuse with any of the Motacilla wagtail species. However, having viewed this bird through binoculars at ranges as close as 7m, with the bird walking slowly on the ground and at times stationary, for approximately 50 minutes, we are confident that the characters described above can safely eliminate all of the Motacilla wagtail species.

Documentation

This description was written from memory while consulting the 407 photographs taken during the observation period. Three sequences of high-definition video footage were also taken with the same camera, totalling 1min 51secs of footage, which amply depicts the behaviour and tail motion of the subject. Five photographs have been attached to this submission, which we believe provide sufficient material for a positive identification, but further photographs and video footage can be provided on request.

A brief clip of HD video footage of the bird can be viewed here.

Acknowledgements

Mark Carter, Tim Bawden, and David Stowe each assisted with identification of early images of the bird posted to social media. Mike Carter and Samantha Hopley provided helpful comments on a draft of this submission.

References

Pizzey, G., & Knight, F. (2012). The Field Guide To The Birds Of Australia. Sydney: Harper Collins.

Robson, C. (2002). Birds Of Thailand. London: Princeton University Press.

Robson, C. (2005). Birds of Southeast Asia. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., & Zetterstrom, D. (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide To The Birds Of Britain And Europe. London: Harper Collins.