Trip Report: Alice Springs (Australia), August 31 - September 5, 1997

Murray Lord, 6/17 Cecil Street, Paddington, NSW 2021, Australia;

Chris Gladwin and I spent six days birding around Alice Springs in the first week of September 1997.

This trip report is on a site-by-site basis, and the sites are almost all detailed in Richard and Sarah Thomas' Where to Find Birds in Australia, which should be consulted for further information on how to get to them.

I recorded 97 species in the six days. Chris recorded a couple more than me.

Kunoth Well

We visited this spot several times. At first glance there didn't seem to be an awful lot of birds present, but the strange thing about the place was that every time we went back there we would add a couple of new species to our lists. Between the two of us we visited the site on five different occasions, so don't expect to see all the listed species in one brief visit.

The well itself was surrounded by huge numbers of Zebra Finches. Note that the tiny little pond near the water tanks isn't the one you are looking for -- it lies a little further afield. We saw White-backed Swallows there, a Major Mitchell Cockatoo, and several Cockatiels.

Most of our birding was on the road to the youth camp, with Chris particularly keen to see a Grey Honeyeater. Basically we birded both sides of the road but mainly the west, from the Tanami Road to about 5.5 km along the road.

The first brief visit yielded such things as Diamond Doves, Bourke's Parrots (2), many Masked Woodswallows overhead, Black-faced Woodswallows, and a possible White-browed Woodswallow amongst the Maskeds. On the Tanami Road between Kunoth and the Stuart Highway I saw Red-backed Kingfishers, a Spotted Harrier and three Ground Cuckoo-shrikes which flew across in front of me and then allowed me to get the telescope on them for good views.

Subsequent visits yielded some of the same species, as well as Inland, Chestnut and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Hooded and Red-capped Robins, two White-browed Treecreepers and at least five Little Button Quails. The button quails were in twigs around the bases of bushes, and like all quails were impossible to get good views of. Look out for the diagnostic white flanks when they fly off. We saw no sign of Slaty-backed Thornbills or Inland Dotterels.

All this time we were trying hard to get Grey Honeyeaters. They had been seen a month beforehand, and we had a tape of them. Whilst looking, Chris saw a female Redthroat, and we wondered how many people tick them off as Grey Honeyeaters. They even have the same white tip to the tail, and it is not a bird you would even think of if you went there thinking of Grey Honeyeaters only.

I never saw a Grey Honeyeater, but Chris, who stayed a day longer than me, did. It was 2.8 km from the junction with the Tanami Road, on the right (west) side of the road, and two hundred metres away from the road. Chris heard it calling, at 2:30 in the afternoon. So the use of tapes had been a waste of time, although in fairness other people have successfully used them there. Bear in mind that either one or both of us had been there for something like fifteen to twenty hours before one was found. And I'm sure if it had called when we were anywhere nearby we would have heard it.

A compass is useful when visiting Kunoth.

One day we drove about 30 km west of the Kunoth turnoff. It didn't yield much of note except for five Ground Cuckoo-shrikes.

Alice Springs Sewerage Farms

This spot is well worth a visit. It is reached by taking the first turn to the right after you head south through Heavitree Gap from Alice Springs. If you take the short road to the left just as the settling ponds become visible you come to an entrance for birdwatchers, complete with visitors book.

Highlights on the ponds included several Wood Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, a Red-kneed Dotterel, Whiskered Terns, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Black-tailed Native-hens and Red-necked Avocets.

One local specialty that can be found nearby is the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. You have to go exactly 5 km west of the fenced-off area at the end of the bitumen road. This involves skirting around the north of the fenced-off area. It is a single lane dirt track, and in parts it looks difficult to get across the dips and holes in a normal car. However, we went very slowly and got through without any problem.

After 5 km you will see small spinifex covered hills about 100 m north of the road you are on (basically small ridges running parallel to your direction of travel). Walk off into them and wander round. You will need to be very patient. I think the slightest amount of wind makes them impossible to hear, and that's the only easy way to locate them. We saw a pair.

Alice Springs Desert Park

This recently opened wildlife park is well worth a visit. It has an excellent selection of rare Australian inland mammals (including Numbats and Bilbies), and an extremely wide selection of inland birds in aviaries.

Caged species included Inland Dotterel, Australian Pratincole, Striated Grasswren, Cinnamon Quail Thrush and Banded Whiteface.

A few good wild birds can be seen in the grounds, including Crested Bellbirds, Crimson Chats, Red-backed Kingfishers and Red-browed Pardalotes. I ticked off Spinifex Pigeons here in rather strange circumstances -- one was sitting on the ground talking to a captive one in a cage. I only noticed it wasn't in the cage when I realised there were two layers of netting between where I was standing and it. It wasn't an escapee, as it was unbanded and several others were around.

Simpson's Gap

We had two visits here, and got Dusky Grasswrens each time quite easily. They were at the top of the rock scree on the left as you approach the gap.

We also got a Painted Firetail quite easily in the early afternoon. A single female came down to drink at one of the small puddles in the creek bed. We suspect that if that one bird hadn't been there at that moment it would have taken quite a while to find this species. Dawn is supposedly the most reliable time to get them at this site.

Black-footed Rock Wallabies were seen here, and we saw some very strange Pied Butcherbird behaviour. Three birds were together, and one was rolling another onto its back and pecking it quite hard all over. The victim made no effort to escape. The presence of the third bird, an immature, seemed to us to rule out it being unusual mating behaviour.

Our second visit was at dusk. I wanted to try for a Spotted Nightjar, and with no information to go on it seemed as good a place as any. No luck on that front, but we did see an Australian Owlet Nightjar, which started calling from the trees in the creekbed just near the carpark.

Ormiston Gorge

A long pre-dawn drive saw us at Ormiston by 6:45 am. As promised, Western Bowerbirds were around the campsite. We set off on the Pound Walk, in the anticlockwise direction (which involves walking back in the direction you drove in initially).

Our two target species on the walk were the Spinifexbird and the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren (we hadn't visited the Sewerage Farm at this point). After only a short distance we got the Spinifexbird. It was as the track climbed up the left side of a narrow valley, only a matter of a few hundred metres from where the gradual ascent started. Initially we heard its call, and ended up getting good views after playing a tape briefly.

The scenery on the Pound walk was certainly the best I saw in the Alice Springs area, and shouldn't be missed. A couple of Dusky Grasswrens were seen as we climbed up to where we could see over into the Pound.

The only information we had for the Emu-wren was from Thomas, but we had no luck. Hooded Robins and Red-browed Pardalotes were amongst the birds we did see. The most memorable birds though were the Spinifex Pigeons. We had close views of several displaying to each other as we walked around, and when we got back to the carpark they were all over the place. I got some great photos -- you could approach to within two metres of them quite easily. We saw over forty in all.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

We had a look here too for Thomas' Emu-wrens without success. They could well have been present, but it was quite windy and we would have had little chance of picking them up.

On the way back from these sites we stopped at a bore just before where Larapinta Drive and Namatijira Drive meet, and saw a Mulga Parrot, two Major Mitchell Cockatoos and two Ground Cuckoo-shrikes.

Erldunda and Surrounds

Another long pre-dawn drive saw us 21 km north of Erldunda at dawn. After spreading out and walking a few hundred metres west from the highway, we started hearing high-pitched calls that we thought were Cinnamon Quail Thrushes. Eventually we got a distant view of one. As Chris and I stood behind the only cover, a bush that came up to thigh height, it appeared to get interested in us. I think it was a result of my jacket sleeve making a rubbing noise on my coat. Anyway, this Quail Thrush ran straight towards us for about fifty metres, stopping only about ten metres away and giving us a great view. We saw at least two others in our time at this site.

Banded Whitefaces proved a bit harder to get, but eventually we found a group of three. In the distance we could hear Chiming Wedgebills calling. We followed the call and eventually found them, but I think we walked about 1500 m from where we first heard the calls to where the birds were -- the call carries a very long way. They were quite wary and didn't let us get too close, but at least they were co-operative in sitting in exposed positions.

We had measured where 21 km from Erldunda was and saw the pair of trees Thomas referred to. However, some English birders tried a spot about 1 km south of where we tried on the same day, and said they could see the two trees, but one had died and fallen over. But they got the Quail Thrush and the Whiteface there. So I think they are all over that area, and a kilometre or two each way shouldn't matter.

At the Erldunda shop a Major Mitchell Cockatoo was having a great time washing in a particularly dirty looking puddle not far from the petrol pumps, getting its clean pink plumage all dirty.

We drove to a spot 20.4 km west along the road to Ayers Rock and walked to an area on the northern side of the road that Chris saw from the car and thought might be good for Orange Chats. We had no luck on that front, but got Crimson Chats, Southern Whitefaces, White-backed Swallows, and a calling Pallid Cuckoo. The area is best described as a small lagoon area with no water. The vegetation, samphire and saltbush, is different from the surrounding area. And if anyone finds a windcheater lying somewhere in the middle of it all, I'd like it back, please.

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; December 1, 1997