Chris Watson

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