Eric Dinerstein William C. Young
FIELD NOTES FOR AUSTRALIA
July 4 - August 7, 2003
Friday, July 4 to Friday, July 11
Cooma and Canberra
I left my home in Arlington, Virginia, a little before 4 in the afternoon on July 4 as many Americans were celebrating Independence Day. I was about to fly into an area near Australia's Snowy Mountains in the winter. Because of the holiday, my flight from Washington to Los Angeles was only a quarter full. My seat on the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney had two empty seats to the right, so I could stretch out and sleep. The plane arrived in Sydney on time, and the first species I noticed was a White Ibis flying over the airport as I took the shuttle bus from the international to the domestic terminal. This species sometimes is called the "Sacred Ibis" and is not the same species as the White Ibis of the New World.
I made my connection to Canberra, and everything went smoothly until the plane approached Canberra airport, which was fogged in. We circled for a long time and made several passes. Eventually, the pilot flew back to Sydney to refuel, which is less than an hour away. We refueled with everyone still on the plane, and then flew back to Canberra. By this time, the fog had lifted to allow a landing. We arrived at about 12:30 in the afternoon rather than 9:30 in the morning. My friend Diana was waiting at the airport, we picked up my luggage and drove 90 minutes south down the Monaro Highway to the home where Diana and her mom Betty live in Cooma. The name Cooma comes from the Aboriginal kuma or coombah, which means a big lake or swamp. During our drive to Cooma, I became reacquainted with some familiar Australian birds, such as Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, a Brown Falcon, Straw-necked Ibises, Masked Plovers, Australian Magpies, Pied Currawongs, and Welcome Swallows. We arrived after 2 pm on Sunday, July 6 (about midnight Arlington time). Door-to-door, the trip from Arlington took more than 32 hours.
Diana and I would be in Cooma for about a week before flying to Townsville to join a three-week desert safari led by Oz Tours. I spent Sunday and Monday getting settled, catching up with Betty and Diana, and resting after the long journey. Betty and Diana are accomplished gardeners and have planted a broad variety of native plants in their yard. These plants attract a lot of birds, including Eastern Spinebills, Crescent and White-cheeked Honeyeaters, Crimson Rosellas, and Pied Currawongs. I saw a New Holland Honeyeater, which Diana said is unusual for the area. One day, I watched as a White-browed Scrubwren bathed, aggressively throwing water out of the bird bath. I saw the little chevrons on its wings. The yard is frequently visited by flocks of Silvereyes, who like to feed in groups. A couple of the Silvereyes had more rufous on the flanks; they might have been of a different race than the others. The yard has European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Rock Pigeons, invasive species whom the British brought to Australia as well as the United States.
Seeing large colorful parrots as common backyard birds seemed strange. I enjoyed watching the rosellas playing on a loose wire near a shed in the yard next door, trying to perch and then hanging on as they were about to go upside down. When Diana and I went to Canberra the night before we flew to Townsville, we stayed with Liz and Tim, her sister and brother-in-law. Tim gave me a book he had written in 1979 called How Did Things Start?, which explains the origins of many names and words. Included is the origin of "rosella". The bird was originally called a "Rose Hill parrot", after a settlement built for Governor Phillip in Paramatta. The name eventually became "rose hiller" and then "rosella". The young Crimson Rosellas in Cooma are green, but the young of the race around O'Reilly's in southern Queensland are similar in coloration to the adults.
The best parrot sighting in Cooma came on Thursday when I was hanging laundry. I heard Gang-gang Cockatoos creaking — a sound with which I became familiar after hearing it many times when I stayed with Graham and Sue Pizzey at Heathlands in 1995 and 1996. I went a few doors down the street to see if I could find the Gang-gangs. A woman came out of her house and asked what I was looking for. She invited me into her yard, and the cockatoos were in a tree, feeding on nuts. The female has reddish barring on her breast. The male has a red crest — some feathers appeared to be flipped up. The pair was about 15 to 20 feet up the tree, and they seemed too preoccupied with eating to be bothered by my presence. That evening, I called Sue Pizzey to see how she was doing. She mentioned that a revised version of Graham's field guide was scheduled to come out around Christmas. When I told her about the Gang-gangs, she said that they had not been at Heathlands for about five years.
On Tuesday morning, Diana and I went for a walk in the nature reserve near her house. I had a chance to review some of the difficult identification groups. Cooma has both Australian and Little Ravens, which can be told apart by voice. The Australian Raven's call sounds like the laugh of Phyllis Diller, while the Little Raven reminds me of a bleating sheep. I had forgotten how much I dislike trying to identify thornbills until I began to see them again. The Striated Thornbill has a striated head, while the Brown Thornbill has a scalloped head. They dart around quickly, so these subtle fieldmarks can be difficult to see well. Both species have striations on the breast, but the Striated has a dark eye rather than a red eye. Diana said the Striated Thornbill is more likely to be high in a tree. The Buff-rumped Thornbill is somewhat more distinctive looking, with a yellowish tinge. It forages low in trees or on the ground.
This was my fourth trip to Australia (my previous ones were in 1995, 1996, and 1999), and my second trip to Cooma. I was much more intrigued by the trees than the birds. Australian trees seem to have far more character than the trees in Virginia — more twisting trunks and limbs, and a lot of variations in bark color. We walked through an area that had a lot of wombat poo, which is found in little square pieces, usually on rocks. It does not smell like dog poo. We never saw any wombats. My favorite birds of the morning were a male and female Scarlet Robin. The male has a similar color scheme to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak in North America — black back, white on wing and face, and brilliant red on the breast. The female Scarlet Robin is a washed-out version of the male. They hop together. We saw lots of Australian Magpies, mostly of the white-backed variety. Pied Currawongs are vocal and evident, as are Magpie-Larks. We saw a Red-necked Wallaby, who has red on the neck and white on the face.
On Tuesday afternoon, we walked along the Murrumbidgee River near Cooma. We saw two Australasian Grebes in winter plumage; they had rufous sides, and they looked lighter than birds in breeding plumage. A couple of Eurasian Coots swam with the grebes, and we saw about six Australian Wood Ducks.
A lot of Superb Fairy-Wrens flitted around; all of the males were in eclipse plumage. We saw a group of about ten males with blue tails. Usually, one dominant male was in a group. The females are white underneath and have red through the eye; they tend to chase other females away.
We saw a female White-throated Treecreeper, which had rufous on the side of her neck. She worked low on a tree. A few Eastern Yellow Robins hopped near us in a confiding manner. We saw quite a few White-browed Scrubwrens on or near the ground; they have a white eyebrow, white throat, and white marks on their wings. We heard a Grey Shrike-Thrush singing from a tree and later saw it drop to the ground. It is a chunky bird, and its call note sounds ventriloqual. We heard the farty call of the Restless Flycatcher and then saw the bird perched. We heard a Common Blackbird and got a fleeting glimpse of one. We had a good look at a Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, a lovely bird with a black mask and lots of yellow around the head and throat. During our walk, we saw a couple of rabbits. In America, rabbits are regarded as cute and benign, but seeing the ones in Australia are considered a destructive invasive species.
Before going home, we stopped at a tree that is in a painting that Diana had given to me. We drove past a cemetery, where we heard some disrespectful kookaburras laughing. From the car, we saw a herd of more than 15 Eastern Grey Kangaroos. Among them was a Swamp Wallaby, who had grey on the face, red on the body, and was noticeably smaller than the kangaroos. At dusk, six Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos landed in a tree by the side of the road. Seeing them caused me to remember the GIS of their deep wingbeat and elongated body. Females have white/grey bills, while the bills of males are darker. Both sexes have yellow on their cheeks.
On Wednesday, Diana, Betty, and I headed south on the Monaro Highway through Nimmitabel and then toward Bega and Merimbula on the coast. On the way, we had a close look at a male Musk Duck, one of my favorite species in the world — at home, I have a painting by Diana of Musk Ducks. The male preened with his tail raised. The center shaft of his tail feathers looked yellow, with white near the shaft. I saw mottling in his feathers that was much more pronounced than in the field guides. He swam in circles, with his head tucked and one eye open. We saw many other waterfowl species, including Australian Wood Ducks, lots of Black Swans (many standing in fields), one Australian Shelduck, two Hardheads (who looked large), Pacific Black Ducks, and a few Australasian Shovelers (who looked very rufous). Mallards were at an area called Lake William, swimming with bastard domestic ducks. We saw both species Chestnut and Grey Teals, some in large flocks. The Chestnut Teal has a white mark on the flank and a lot of white on the wings in flight.
We saw many other water birds. The Hoary-headed Grebe is not as rufous as the Australasian Grebe, whom we also saw. We saw Great, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants. The Great Cormorant has a distinct facial pattern. The Little Pied Cormorant is compact, with a black-and-white plumage pattern resembling an alcid. We watched Australian Pelicans land, looking as if they were water skiing. Silver Gulls swam near some other pelicans looked like tiny chicks, making me realize how huge pelicans are. We drove past Cattle Egrets in a field. At Merimbula, we saw a Little Egret, who had two nuptial plumes and yellow at the base of its bill. It was standing with a Great Egret. Nearby was a flock of Pied Oystercatchers — we heard them peeping. We saw a few Black-winged Stilts, one White-faced Heron, and both White and Straw-necked Ibises. The White Ibis has red skin on the back of its head. We saw a sleeping Royal Spoonbill, who has black legs. We saw a lot of Eurasian Coots and Purple Swamphens, along with one Dusky Moorhen. The back of the swamphen is black. The Masked had spurs on their wings, with a black cap and black sides of the upperbreast.
We saw quite a few raptors. We saw a White-bellied Sea-Eagle at Merimbula. From the car, I saw a distant harrier with a dihedral flying low over a field, but I could not see enough field marks to determine the species. We saw a couple of Whistling Kites, a Brown Falcon, and a Nankeen Kestrel.
The land birding at Merimbula was excellent. We saw a lot of Bell Miners. Congregations of these birds can be destructive to local birdlife (as described in Graham Pizzey's A Garden of Birds), but they still are glorious to hear. I saw a perched Little Wattlebird, who has a white tailband. I heard a Red Wattlebird and thought I heard a Lewin's Honeyeater, a call I became familiar with at O'Reilly's Rainforest Lodge. Diana pointed out the calls of a Wonga Pigeon, Satin Bowerbird, Common Blackbird, Grey Butcherbird, Yellow-rumped Thornbill and Eastern Whipbird, but we did not see any of these species. I saw the lime-green on the wing of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. We saw Rainbow Lorikeets, Galahs, Crimson Rosellas, and quite a few Eastern Rosellas, who have a white cheek and lime-green underparts. We saw a flock of Yellow Thornbills and one Brown Thornbill. A Jacky Winter was sitting erect; its black tail had white edges. We saw Superb Fairy-Wrens, Laughing Kookaburras, Willie Wagtails, a Restless Flycatcher, and a grey fantail. Other birds included a few Grey Shrike-Thrushes, Australian Magpies, Magpie-Larks, Pied Currawongs, Australian Ravens, and Welcome Swallows.
Thursday, July 10, was our last full day in Cooma before heading to Canberra. As I was hanging laundry on the Hill's Hoist, a White Ibis flew over. In the afternoon, we drove to Mount Gladstone, which offered a panoramic view of the entire area, including the Snowy Mountains and the Monaro Valley. While there, we heard a Grey Currawong, but I didn't see it. I recognized the song of the Brown Thornbill; we encountered one group who was fussing and scolding. I still had trouble seeing the scalloping on the head.
The next morning, Diana and I said good-bye to Betty and headed to Canberra, from which we would be flying out the following morning. On our 90-minute drive up the Monaro Highway, we encountered a bit of rain, but the weather eventually cleared. When we reached Canberra, we saw some of the areas that had been burned by the recent terrible fires, including at the zoo. We went to the Botanical Gardens, which are quite lovely. I was especially excited to see a Wollemi Pine, a 200-million-year-old species that had been rediscovered in the Blue Mountains in 1994. Enclosed in a cage, it looked like an artificial Christmas tree with broad and wide needles.
I was interested in the trees in the gardens, but we also saw quite a few birds. Some large, plump Common Bronzewings foraged on the ground; I saw the white facial pattern. About 100 Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos flew around — earlier in the day, we saw a flock of about 30 as we bought petrol in Cooma. We talked to a researcher who said that since the recent bush fires, she has seen large numbers of the cockatoos in the gardens, a phenomenon that was not nearly as common before the fires. The fires destroyed huge tracts of the cockatoos' food trees, which was why they were congregating in such numbers in the gardens and nearer towns. We also saw a flock of more than 30 Gang-gang Cockatoos at the gardens — they probably were there for the same reason. On the drive up, we saw a flock of more than 1,000 Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in a field.
Some of the birds in the gardens were quite tame. A White-browed Scrubwren hopped around about a meter from our feet. This and other scrubwrens at the gardens had many bands on their legs. We earlier had seen a bird flashing bright pink legs in the rain forest section of the gardens, and it turned out to be a scrubwren with pink bands on its legs. I read an interpretive sign about Crosbie Morrison, a famous Australian naturalist about whom Graham Pizzey had written a biography. (Graham had given me a copy.) Near the sign was a Red Wattlebird in a tree — I saw the tail band and the yellow belly. I heard a Rufous Whistler singing his sweet Georgie song and a Spotted Pardalote singing its three-note song that reminds me of the first three notes of an anti-war song called "Melt the Guns" by the British band XTC. Common Blackbirds were in the garden, as well as a lot of Eastern Spinebills. We had a close look at a male White-throated Treecreeper, which did not have rufous on the upper flank like the female we had seen three days earlier. We saw Brown and Striated Thornbills and Eastern Yellow Robins and heard a King Parrot calling.
After we had walked through the Botanical Gardens, we headed toward Lake Burley Griffin and a few other spots in Canberra. We saw an immature Rufous Whistler, showing rufous on its wings. We saw four Laughing Kookaburras and noticed how large their bills are. One kookaburra was digging in the ground, and I saw the barring on the tail of another. We saw a lot more Superb Fairy-Wrens, but still no bright blue males — all were in eclipse plumage. The Australian Magpies were of the black-backed race. We saw a White-plumed Honeyeater near the lake. Diana said she did not see this species often, but we would see a lot of them at many of the stops on our desert safari, because they are one of the most common inland honeyeaters. We saw and heard a Darter at the lake. We saw Pacific Black Ducks, Australian Wood Ducks, Black Swans, Eurasian Coots, Purple Swamphens, and an Australian Pelican. I saw the white butt on a Dusky Moorhen. A couple of Little pied Cormorants were perched on a branch. People were feeding Silver Gulls.
In the late afternoon, we drove to the home of Diana's sister Liz and brother-in-law Tim. Common Mynas were outside the house — the first I saw on the trip. We had dinner at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in Dickson. When we went back to the house, Tim gave me a couple of books he has written, one of which was about Banjo Paterson's High Country; it provides a wonderful overview of the history of the area where Diana lives.
Saturday, July 12
Canberra to Townsville
Packing for this trip was a challenge. Evening temperatures in Cooma got down to around freezing, although the daytime temperatures were surprisingly pleasant. Daytime temperatures in Townsville were warm and humid, even though the nights were chilly. Temperatures in the Outback were pleasant during the day but could be very cold at night. Today was a transition day on which we moved from the chilly south to tropical North Queensland. Early in the morning, Tim drove us to the airport in Canberra. The weather was rainy, but we did not have trouble with fog. We caught a plane to Brisbane that left about 9 a.m. At Brisbane Airport, we met our friends Margaret and Michael, who also were coming on the desert safari. Michael and Margaret had been on the 1999 trip I took to Cape York, and we also had been together at previous Bird Weeks at O'Reilly's Rainforest Lodge. As we waited for our flight, we saw Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins near the runways. The martins had white rumps and no trace of a light head like the Fairy Martin; the head and neck were uniform in color.
We arrived in Townsville, found all of our luggage, and took a taxi to the Mercure Inn, the headquarters hotel for our trip. Birding on the hotel grounds was good. We saw a half dozen Darters in a tree with a few Little Pied Cormorants. We saw an Australian Pelican, a Great Egret, lots of White and some Straw-necked Ibises, Eurasian Coots, Black Swans, Australian Wood Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, and some ugly Muscovy Ducks. We saw a flyover Spotted Harrier, which had a reddish breast, bright yellow legs, a dihedral, and dark wingtips. We saw Peaceful Doves, who have a small blue eyering; we also heard their doodle-ooo song. We saw Rainbow Lorikeets at the "magic hour", when the late afternoon light makes colors look the most saturated. In the nearby trees were squabbling Helmeted Friarbirds and a pair of Blue-faced Honeyeaters — one with a bright blue face, the other an immature with a greyish face. Quite a few Fuscous Honeyeaters flitted about. They had yellowish wings, but some did not have a visible white mark on the side of the neck — they might have been immatures. In the same area were Brown Honeyeaters, who are smaller and have a yellow mark behind the eye. A couple of White-breasted Woodswallows flew over, showing a white belly and a dark tail with no white marks. The white eye of a Torresian Crow stood out. Common mynas were common on the hotel grounds, as were Magpie-Larks.
Shortly after we arrived at the hotel, we ran into our friend Dave from the Brisbane area. Dave had been on the Cape York trip in 1999. The fact that the five us were all friends who previously had been on a trip with our two leaders, John Young and Scotty Templeton, substantially reduced the amount of icebreaking that is typical on a birding our. When Scotty saw right before dinner, his first words after I said hello were, "I see you haven't lost your accent." I was the only American on the tour. At dinner, we met the other ten participants. Four were birders from the Gold Coast — Desley, Lyn, Terry, and Denise. All were close friends who had been on a 2001 trip to Cape York with John and Scotty, as had Rick and Barbara from Tasmania. Two of the participants were a couple named Margaret and Peter Levick, who knew me, Diana, Michael, Margaret, and Denise from previous Bird Weeks at O'Reilly's. The other two participants were Wendy and Winnie, both from the Brisbane area. John and I had not seen each other in four years, so we sat together at dinner and had a chance to catch up.
After dinner, we went to a conference room and saw John's new video Shadows of the Desert, which features the Grey Falcon and other species we would be looking for over the next three weeks. Many of the locales in the video were ones that we would be visiting. John also has done a film about the Red Goshawk called Ghosts of the Forest, and he was working on one called Call of the Stormbird, which features the Common Koel and other species.
Sunday, July 13
Townsville to Winton, 580K
Our trip got off to bad start with the news that Denise had been rushed to the hospital the night before. She was still in the hospital when our bus left on Sunday morning.
The bus was a nearly new 18-seat, four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Warrior, with a big unicorn horn in the front for communication signals. It was very comfortable and roomy, and it offered good lines of sight. Our cook Jim drove a separate chuckwagon vehicle, which also hauled our tents, chairs, and supplies. Having a comfortable bus was important, because over the next three weeks, we would be traveling more than 5,200 kilometers, which is a lot longer than the distance between the East and West Coasts in the United States and a bit longer than the distance from Cairns to Perth. Regulations for trips such as this require that the drivers take periodic breaks, so we never rode in the bus uninterrupted for much longer than a couple of hours without stopping for tea or to stretch our legs. Jim usually drove ahead of our bus to set up tea, lunch, or dinner. How Scotty and Jim always managed to rendezvous in a landscape lacking signs and obvious landmarks remained a mystery to me throughout the trip.
At our first stop shortly out of Townsville, we saw a Great Bowerbird on a utility pole. He raised the pink feathers on the back of his neck as he threatened some mynas. I saw Little corellas, one of the most common parrots on the trip, have a lime underwing like Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. In the same area, a Nankeen Kestrel flew by, who was light underneath. We rode through areas outside of Townsville where cattle are raised. I saw an Australian Bustard from the bus, and Scotty later commented that he had seen a couple of dead ones on the road. Some Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos flew by.
We stopped for tea at Charters Towers, an old goldrush town 134K from Townsville. At the park where we stopped, we saw more than 50 Little Red Flying Foxes; most were hanging in trees, but some were flying. We heard the beautiful minor-key song of the White-throated Gerygone and saw some; they have yellow underparts and red eyes. The trees had Rainbow Lorikeets, Pied Butcherbirds, Magpie-Larks, lots of Silvereyes, and a Brown Honeyeater. We saw Figbirds of the race vielloti, who have a grey throat. I saw some who were yellow below. The females are barred like an oriole and do not have red around the eye like the males. I had a fleeting look at some Scaly-breasted Lorikeets as they flew and landed.
We saw a road train, which is a large tractor truck hauling multiple trailers; this one was hauling four trailers. We began to see large flocks of flying Budgerigars. The termite mounds we passed were much smaller than the ones I had seen in Cape York. We rode past trees containing the nests of Torresian Crows. The nests are medium-sized and seemed a bit smaller than the nests of American Crows. John said that in trying to identify corvids, ravens have hackles and a larger humped bill; also, the plumage tends to look more smoky on a raven and shiny on a crow, assuming the light is good enough to see such differences.
We had lunch at Hughenden, which is 246K from Charters Towers and 380K from Townsville. We saw a lot of mimosa trees, which are an invasive species — only Zebra Finches try to nest in them. We saw sandalwood trees, which are taller than mimosas. Terry pointed out the red flowers of a native legume plant. We saw Yellow-throated Miners; they have a whitish rump in flight, while Noisy Miners have a grey rump. We heard the pyew pyew pyew call of a Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo. Some Galahs were doing a wire dance similar to one done by the rosellas in Cooma.
From Hughenden, we saw habitat with a lot of Mitchell grass. The area did not have termite mounds. Along the way, we saw an Emu, Willie Wagtail, and Wedge-tailed Eagle. A common sight of which I never tired was flocks of budgies glistening as they banked in the sun, sometimes revealing their golden wingstripe. We stopped in a couple of places to look at woodswallows. The Black-faced Woodswallow looks chunky, has a short bill, and a dark body. Later we saw White-browed and Masked Woodswallows. The White-browed is dark, while the Masked is much lighter. Some Budgies were with them. We saw two Crimson Chats on the road, but they were too distant for me to see them well.
We originally planned to camp at Opalton, but we ended up 141K short. We camped in a crowded caravan park in Winton. The camp had a huge kettle of Black Kites soaring overhead. Right behind our tents, I saw a woman with binoculars. Her name was Diane, and she was camping there with her family. They were from Canberra and had been on the road a long time. Later that evening, John told us about finding feathers of the extremely rare Night Parrot in the nest of a Yellow Thornbill a number of years ago. The identification of the feathers was confirmed by DNA analysis. [Ten years later, John made headlines around the world when he showed photos and a video of a Night Parrot he had found in Queensland. It was the first confirmed report of a living Night Parrot since 1912.]
Monday, July 14
Winton through Opalton to Yabby Creek, 290K
The Yellow-throated Miners were singing at our Winton campsite before dawn. On the mornings when we left a campsite, John would lead us on a short walk while Scotty and Jim packed the gear. On this morning's walk, John showed us a Crested Pigeon sitting on an old stick nest of a Yellow-throated Miner. The nest of the Yellow-throated Miner is elongated. We also saw a mud cup nest of a Magpie-lark with chicks in it. A big flock of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows swirled in the air, and some of the birds landed in a tree. The White-browed Woodswallows looked much darker. A White-breasted Woodswallow perched on a wire and later showed a white rump in flight. Shortly before we left, I saw Black-faced Woodswallows perched on a wire. The Pizzey guide said that some are dark-vented and others white-vented — I remembered this because I like the word albiventris. Some of each were on the wire. Nearby, a White-plumed Honeyeater was stealing nest material from a Yellow-throated Miner's nest. The honeyeater's nest was in the crotch of a leafy branch.
On the 141 kilometer drive to Opalton, we stopped in an area with a small pond. We were in mulga habitat, which is dominated by acacia trees and clumps of spinifex grass. We saw a male and female Hooded Robin. The male had a white slash at the top of his wing. The female was brownish in some of the places where the male was black. I saw a Red-browed Pardalote, my first new bird of the trip. It had a colorful face, but the red on the brow was difficult to see. Like other pardalotes, they nest in a hole in a mud bank. A Black-fronted Dotterel walked along the edge of the water. Zebra Finches flitted about. They nest in the thorny acacia trees in the area.
We traveled on unsealed roads made of packed red dirt. While they were not as smooth as paved roads, both Jim and Scotty said these roads were substantially better than the ones in Cape York. We saw termite mounds again, some of which looked like little people — one resembled a Buddha. I saw my first Cockatiels of the trip. John pointed out a distant Ground Cuckoo-Shrike doing a stutter flight over some trees. We stopped on the road and saw three young Crimson Chats in a tree. They were not in breeding plumage and appeared brownish, with a crimson rump. In the same bush was a young Orange Chat, but I did not get a good look at it. Zebra Finches were flying around in the same area. We saw a nest of the Grey-crowned Babbler, which is much bigger than the nest of the Hall's Babbler.
We stopped for tea in an area with Hall's Babbler nests, which contain a lot of fairly large sticks. This species is totally associated with the mulga. I had a quick look at a pair of Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrushes. I saw the female better than the male. The male had black on the throat, but the female did not. I could see that she was light underneath, and she seemed to have a greyish head. They blended with their surroundings well and walked at a quick pace. I saw an Inland Thornbill, which appeared pale and plump. Wendy spotted a Red-capped Robin, but I did not see it.
We arrived at Opalton at 12:45. At the Opalton sign is a discarded toilet bowl with a cactus growing from it. Nearby is a dilapidated dunny. When I was walking with Diana, she squeaked up two Grey-headed Honeyeaters from a nearby bush. They had a grey head, black mask, yellow breast with streaking, and a yellow swoosh that bordered the bottom of the mask and hooked around the ear. This medium-sized honeyeater was a new bird for both of us. We saw two Brolgas fly over; these cranes are sometimes found in inhospitable inland areas. Two mystery grey birds flew over. They were too small to be Galahs, and their flight was too direct. When Diana and I rejoined the group near the bus, we saw three Rufous-crowned Emu-Wrens on a spinifex clump. The male has a blue breast and a rufous cap. On the ground, they skitter like mice. They hide in the base of a spinifex clump and stay still, making them difficult to see.
The bird we most wanted to find was a Grey Falcon. Australia has an estimated 400-500 pairs, making it one of the world's rarest raptors. John thinks the number might be closer to 300 pairs, about the same as the number of Red Goshawk pairs (250-300). The Grey Falcon has a shallow wingbeat that is like the Black Falcon, but slightly deeper. John explained that the Brown Falcon has a wingbeat that is slower and deeper than either the Grey or the Black. Brown Falcons are the most common falcons in this area.
We drove to a picnic area for lunch. After we ate, Diana spotted six Spinifex Pigeons on the ground. These plump gorgeous birds have a split crest, a bright red eye, and both a thin black and a thin white line on the breast. The race in this area has a white belly — the northern race has a buff belly. One of the males stood erect, raised his rump, ran and displayed.
In the afternoon, we rode through a lot of areas where the land appeared black — it actually was covered with small stones that reflected light. We stopped in an area with mulga. We flushed a Spotted Nightjar, and I saw where it landed, allowing a long look from the front and side. It had a large grey head, black wingtips, black cheeks, spots on its folded wings, and white on its wings in flight. Earlier, we had a long look at a Splendid Fairy-Wren of the race melanotus, who is sky blue rather than dark blue. Describing the intensity of the blue is difficult; the only comparison I could think of is from a Trinidad naturalist who described the Morpho butterflies as "shooting blue laser lights at you". I previously had seen this species in the Victorian mallee, but I could never see it too many times. According to Olivia Judson's book Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, each ejaculation of a male Splendid Fairy-Wren contains eight billion sperm, compared to only 180 million from the average human. A Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater flew over, and it appeared bigger by half than the Grey-Headed. A small Caper White Butterfly flew by. A Little Eagle flew over and I saw the M pattern on its underwing; it had a dihedral and a square tail. We looked for Striated Grasswrens with no luck. John showed us how to look in the dusty top layer of the walking paths for grasswren footprints, because they cross these paths on foot. From the bus, we saw two beautiful Eastern Ringnecks of the Cloncurry race; Cloncurry is a town near Mount Isa. These parrots were iridescent green on the back and yellow underneath — much brighter than in the field guides. This is one of the lighter colored races of ringnecks.
We camped at Yabby Creek, 149K from Opalton and 290K from last evening's camp in Winton. Later in the trip, Jim explained to me about yabbies. They are freshwater crayfish that are a bit like small lobsters; the carapace can be up to a few inches, and the entire body twice that long. You catch them with a piece of meat (or soap with fat) attached to a string. When we arrived at the camp, the first person I saw was Diane, who had camped behind us last night. We talked for awhile about what we had seen that day. The campsite was pleasant. Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and Little Corellas flew over. Many White-plumed Honeyeaters were in the trees.
That evening, Michael showed me how to find due south by using the Southern Cross. You imagine a diagonal from two of the five stars in the cross intersecting a perpendicular from the two pole stars above the cross, and then drop a line straight down from where the two lines intersect. This navigation trick is of no use in the Northern Hemisphere.
Tuesday, July 15
Yabby Creek through Jundah to Windorah/Cooper Creek, 190K
I heard the ascending whistle of Whistling Kites at our camp this morning. Some Brolgas bugled, and I later saw one. I took a close look at the Zebra Finches, who are pretty birds with bright red legs, white bars on their black tail, and rufous sides. They sound like little squeeze toys. Diamond Doves were common, prompting Dave to call them "dime a dozen" doves. They have beautiful red eyes. In flight, the outer halves of their wings are rufous, like the Common Ground-Dove in the New World (which is in a different genus). In good light, its head looks grey, and it has small diamond spots on its wings. A male displayed to a female by lifting his tail into the air. A male Spinifex Pigeon had displayed in the same way yesterday, and later in the trip, I saw a male Crested Pigeon perform such a display. Two Red-winged Parrots flew by, but I did not see red on their wings. A Richard's Pipit ran by on long, pinkish legs. A Budgerigar was perched in a tree. Occasionally, I saw solitary Budgies, but this was uncommon. Seeing so many flocks of these sociable "pet birds" in the wild made me realize how cruel it must be to shut them alone in a cage. Also, the plumage of the wild birds seemed brighter and more vibrant than the caged ones I have seen.
We walked through an area containing spinifex grass. It tends to grow in clumps and then die in the middle, creating a doughnut effect. The blades are like pick-up sticks with sharpened points. We saw a Silver-leafed Cassia, which had a yellow flower that grew amid the spinifex. The area had Ghost Gums, which are a eucalypt with white powder on the bark. The powder comes off if you rub your hand against it. The Ghost Gum is the only white gum that does this. Aboriginals used the powder to decorate their faces and bodies for their corroboree celebrations. We saw a small hole with two nocturnal cockroaches; the hole was under a rock someone had kicked aside. Scotty said that if you cook the roaches, they taste like roasted almonds. He pointed out a stink beetle that squirts liquid when it is stressed — I saw one do this. There was a Zebra Finch nest in a tree that was about 15 feet tall. The nest had a side opening.
In this area, we saw the purple-backed race (assimilis) of the Variegated Fairy-Wren. The male has a brilliant blue back and red on the shoulder. Terry compared the blue to a Ulysses butterfly, which is similar in color to the Morpho. Another jewel of a bird is the Striated Pardalote. We saw the race with the black cap (melanocephalus), yellow throat, and yellow eyebrow. It was being chased by a Brown Honeyeater. We saw the dark form of the Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike — it has a generally dark appearance, and the black goes down the chest. It sat directly under a Red-backed Kingfisher, who had a striated head, black eyeline and red back.
The Nankeen Kestrel is 30-35 cm. with a wingspan of 80 cm. (considerably larger than the American kestrel, whose wingspan is only 58 cm.). The Pizzey guide lists Grey falcons as 30-44 cm., with the larger size reflecting the female. Hence, the male Grey Falcon is within the size range of a female kestrel, and both falcons have light breasts. We saw two distant light-breasted falcons in the morning who turned out to be kestrels. Later, we had a Grey Falcon false alarm with a couple of perched Galahs. Misidentifying falcons is easy to do; a friend in the US who has done extensive hawk banding and is extremely accomplished at identifying raptors sometimes calls Rock Pigeons "pseudo-grines", because of the ease with which birders can mistake a flying pigeon for a Peregrine Falcon. As a consolation, we saw a Grey Falcon nest — it was near the top of a tree and slightly larger than a crow's nest.
Desley and Terry were very knowledgeable about plants and trees, and I asked both of them a lot of questions throughout our trip. Lyn showed me an excellent book called Field Guide to Central Australia, by Penny van Oosterzee. It provides a comprehensive overview of the flora and fauna of the area we were exploring. Desley frequently pointed out features of the landscape as we were riding. This morning, we rode through an area with a lot of gidgee trees. They are short and have very hard wood. Desley said that the wood is good for fires and for making fenceposts. (At first, I misheard her and thought she said "bedposts"). Desley also explained that coolibah trees grow along watercourses. I was eager to see them after reading about them in David Hollands' book about the eagles, hawks and falcons of Australia. Coolibahs have bark at the bottom, but are bare toward the top. Desley pointed out a beautiful specimen when we approached Jundah. She also showed me a bottle tree with a smooth, bottle-shaped trunk; it looked as if it had been made on a potter's wheel. The most common butterfly in the area was the Lesser Wanderer. It is rufous, and the edge of its wing is black, with white spots. Terry said it is one of the few butterflies capable of surviving inland, along with the Caper White.
We stopped at midday in the town of Jundah. While waiting for the bus, I saw Little Corellas picking up mud from the ground. I noticed how much a perched Little Corella can resemble one of the white kites. When we got back into the bus, we rode through an area featuring a lot of red mesas. When riding through the open country, one frequently sees mirages on the horizon that look like large expanses of ocean. We occasionally passed Eastern Grey and Red Kangaroos. In one place, Wedge-tailed Eagles were eating carrion with crows. The eagles looked enormous by comparison. John said that ravens typically are found only along water; away from the water, one is more likely to find crows.
In the afternoon, about 50K west of Jundah, we went into an area with a lot of mosquitoes. I had a fleeting glimpse of a Red-chested Button-Quail who flushed from about 2 meters from me. I saw the flash of red as it flew. Shortly thereafter, I briefly saw a Little Button-Quail fly; it was very white below. We had been seeing a lot of Hall's Babbler nests. I finally had a brief look at the species through some branches — it was dark, with a white eyeline. They usually are found in groups of two or three rather than in large groups like the Grey-crowned Babbler. I would have preferred a longer look at the babbler and the two button-quails. I had a beautiful look at a Red-capped Robin — another gorgeous red robin. It reminded me of a cross between a Red-faced Warbler and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I had a fleeting look at a Chestnut-rumped Thornbill. John squeaked in a female Rufous Whistler, which perched about seven feet over our head; I saw the striation on her throat. I saw male rufous whistlers, who sang loudly and repeatedly. The most memorable aspect of this stop was seeing the huge trenches in the ground from abandoned rabbit burrows that had collapsed — the area looked as if it had been excavated with heavy equipment. One can hardly believe the scope of the destruction that this invasive species has caused until one visits an area such as this.
We camped at an idyllic spot in Windorah. As we approached our campsite in the late afternoon, we saw a sign that said, "Pet Pigs: No Shooting". White-winged Trillers flew in front of our bus. We also saw a White-necked Heron nest, which was small and made of loose sticks. At our camp, two Australian Pelicans swam in the area near where we pitched our tents. Some of our later campsites also featured swimming pelicans, who looked like elderly, scholarly swans.
On this trip, there was a lot of wordplay and good-natured teasing. One night around the campfire, Scotty handed out a list of species we might see on the trip. The list had a few typos, caused by long bird names spilling over to a second line; for instance, the Rufous-crowned Emu-Wren became the Rufous-crowned Emu. In my field notes, I abbreviated "Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater" as "Spiny Ch. HE", so it became the Spinach Honeyeater. A bird list we picked up at one of our stops had typos such as "Willis Wagtail" (which sounded overly formal) and "Pairy Martin". These mistakes inspired us to make up some of our own new bird names. For most of the trip, Michael called the Variegated Fairy-Wren the Vegemited Wren, and the Black-fronted Dotterel the Back-to-front Dotterel. Diana's confusion between the Chirruping and the Chiming Wedgebills resulted in the creation of the Chirruping Chimebill.
Wednesday, July 16
Windorah to Dig Tree at Burke and Wills Bridge, near Innamincka, 442K
On our morning walk, we saw that the Grey Shrike-Thrushes here have white on their face, and their song has a buzz at the end. We saw a shrike-thrush nest in a dense clump of mistletoe. As we walked up the road toward the town of Windorah, we saw the nests of Fairy Martins under a tall water tank — they are made of mud like Barn Swallow nests. Quite a few Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters were feeding in a tree that had bottle-shaped white blossoms. This species has a red bill and a peach throat. The same tree had White-plumed Honeyeaters. In Windorah, we saw a pair of perched Little Eagles. The female is larger and chocolate brown on top, with a slight crest. The male is smaller and white underneath, with white leggings. They probably were scouting for a nest site. An information center in the town had a Desert Taipan in a jar. As with most pickled snakes, it did not look especially fearsome, even though it is the deadliest snake in the world. (Taipans are treated with little respect by the Microsoft Corporation; the spell-checker on my American computer does not recognize the word "taipan" and suggests as one of the substitutes "tampon".)
Shortly after we boarded the bus, we saw Crimson Chats. The red pattern on the head is similar to a Red-capped Robin's, but the shade is different. We saw two Banded Lapwings, who have a prominent black cap and breastband. We saw Australian Pratincoles, who have a buffy head and breast and a black eyeline. They fly like a shorebird. The outer portion of their wings appeared dark in flight, a wing pattern I noticed on a number of inland birds. A Spotted Harrier flew low over a field. At one point, we stopped to allow 1,700 head of cattle to pass. Scotty explained the importance of not trying to race by; spooking the cattle can create serious problems for those who drive them, particularly in an area where water is at a premium.
We stopped for tea, or as the Australians call it, a "smoko"; Dave said the Aboriginal word for this is boort. We saw a Pied Honeyeater, who were about the size of the Grey-headed Honeyeater, but a little chunkier. It had a white slash on its wings, and the plumage resembled a White-winged Triller's. John said both the Pied and Black Honeyeaters tend to sit on dead branches at the tops of trees, but the Black is about half the size of the Pied. We heard the dripping faucet song of the Crested Bellbird and the bubbly minor-key song of the Rufous Songlark. We also heard the distinctive 5-note song of the Red-browed Pardalote, which I heard many times during the trip. John imitated the one-note whistle of a Red-backed Kingfisher, and the bird responded to each of John's whistles. We saw a Cloncurry Parrot, who has a dark back, yellow neck ring, and yellow on the belly.
We stopped for lunch at an area next to a gibber plain, a habitat that John Vandenbeld in Nature of Australia referred to as "one of the world's most desolate regions." It features sandy soil covered with small round stones called gibbers. I was unfamiliar with the word "gibber" before I began studying for this trip, and I mistakenly thought that the G was soft, as in the word "gibberish". I was teased for my mispronunciation. There were a huge number of meat ants where we ate lunch. Desley explained to me how to identify emu poo — it is a big flat blob of greenish runny mess, a bit like cow diarrhea.
After lunch, some of us walked across the gibber stones in a vain search for a Gibberbird. Back near the bus, we saw a Zebra Finch carrying nesting material to a knot hole of a branch at eye level. Whitefaces also build nests like this, but usually put feathers in them. The Zebra Finch nest has sticks at the opening to repel intruders. According to Dr. Tatiana, a male Zebra Finch will copulate three times in three hours and then run out of sperm; he will need five days to refill.
We rode through an area with a lot of deep red soil and short acacias that were shaped like umbrellas. There had been a lot of rain here lately, and parts of the track were muddy or had big puddles. The arrival of the rains induces birds and other creatures to mate. We made an afternoon stop along a creek and ran into what Dave described as an "orgy of Budgies". I saw Budgies mate three times. The last coupling seemed to last about a minute. Foreplay involved hopping around above each other. Budgies nest in hollows at the end of branches. In the same spot, we saw a Gibber Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis intima). It was only a few inches long, much of which was its banded tail. The lizard scrunched up its body and was well camouflaged on the red rocks.
As we headed toward our camp site, we saw a large flock of distant birds who might have been Flock Bronzewings, but they were too far away to identify. We arrived at camp along Cooper Creek, near the Dig Tree made famous during the Burke and Wills Expedition in the 1860s. Our campsite had a beautiful view of the creek, and we once again had swimming pelicans in plain view. After we pitched our tents, some of us walked to the Dig Tree. We saw a small brown bird on the ground and ultimately realized it was a Brown Treecreeper; this species spends more time on the ground than most other species of treecreepers. On the walk back, we saw a large feral cat running through the bushes.
The best news of the day was that Denise rejoined our trip. Her husband and son had driven her more than 1,000K from the Gold Coast to our campsite near Innamincka. Her hospitalization had involved a reaction related either to dengue fever or Ross River Virus, both of which she has had. (Scotty also has had both of these diseases.) Denise has an extraordinary ability for finding birds and other wildlife, and she became one of my closest friends on the trip.
Thursday, July 17
Cooper Creek near Innamincka to the Strzelecki Track to Camp Buzzard, 350K
Many of the days on this trip involved some sort of long hike, often over sandy soil. Some of the participants would be very tired at the end of the day and would say good-night to the group around 8:30 or 9. As such, some of them would wake up before sunrise and want to have a fire, both to keep warm and to have a cup of tea. Being a city boy, my experience with camping, pitching tents, and starting fires has been limited. However, this morning, I started the fire.
There was a Little Crow at our campsite. Little Crows tend to shuffle their wings when they land. After breakfast, John took us for a walk to the Dig Tree. On the way, we saw Red-rumped Parrots, who are small; the female is much paler than the male. Near the Dig Tree was a Brown Treecreeper at her nest in the hole at end of a branch. The female has a striated belly and a barred undertail. Down the creek, we saw a White-necked and White-faced Heron face off, and the White-faced Heron backed off.
We crossed into South Australia — my first time in this state. We remained in South Australia for more than a week. Just across the border, we stopped at Innamincka to refuel and to allow everyone to take a hot shower — a well-spent $2 coin. We drove onto the Strzelecki Track; at times, we had to drive next to it, because portions of it were underwater. The track was named after Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, a 19th Century Polish explorer. According to the book about the Snowy Mountains given to me by Tim, Strzelecki is given credit for being the first to climb Australia's highest mountain, Mount Kosciusko, which he named after a Polish patriot. However, based on Strzelecki's descriptions of the climb, he almost certainly climbed Mount Townsend, which is nearby and a little shorter. I have visited this area, and Mount Kosciusko is one of numerous peaks of similar height. One needs to consult a sign to pick out Kosciusko — one cannot pick out the tallest peak by sight.
Before lunch, we stopped at a wetland and saw Pink-eared Ducks and a lot of Pacific Black Ducks. We heard a Pied Honeyeater and saw a Singing Honeyeater fly by. I walked close to a Rufous Songlark and heard its beautiful song; I saw some of the rufous on his rump. The Budgies were not mating today, but they were kissing. Some Chestnut-crowned Babblers were on the other side of the water. They tend to stay in large groups and build big nests. Some hawks build nests that are equally big, but the hawks tend to use bigger sticks than the babblers. White-browed Babblers tend to stay in groups of two-to-three and build smaller nests.
At our lunch site, we saw an active Chirruping Wedgebill nest — a small cup containing two blue eggs with brown spots. The female is plain brown, with a crest and a white tailband. The nest was in the center of a small bush. The song of this species is not as exuberant and endearing as the repeated Didja get drunk song of the Chiming Wedgebill, which I had heard on an Australian birdsong CD. In the same area, we saw a female Brown Songlark, which was light below. Her tail appeared longer than the tail of a Rufous Songlark. We saw White-winged Fairy-Wrens in the area, including a male on top of a bush. The female-to-male ratio tends to be about 10 to 1. This species likes lignum grass and saltbush.
We saw a Black-breasted Buzzard, who has a big white window near the tip of each wing; the window is more overt than the window on the wing of the Red-shouldered Hawk in North America. Later in the day, John pointed out a Black-breasted Buzzard nest, a big cup in plain view at the top of a dead tree. It was made of sticks about as thick as a human thumb. We later saw more buzzard nests that were high, but not in the top of the tree. Seeing the nest reminded me of a strange story in David Hollands' book about buzzards who kidnapped kestrel nestlings and raised them in a buzzard nest. The nest also contained kestrel remains, which means that the buzzards might have been killing kestrels to feed to a brood of kestrels. John was familiar with the incident and said we would be in the area where it happened. Little Crow nests are smaller and typically below the top of the tree. John said that their eggs are green with brown markings, more elongated than round, and that a clutch might have about a half a dozen eggs.
We stopped at an area that had two abandoned nests of Wedge-tailed Eagles across the track from each other. One had six Zebra Finch nests below, and many finches were in the tree, some only a couple of meters from us. At the base of the other nest were the discarded vertebrae from past eagle meals. There also was Dingo poo below it. We later saw a light-colored Dingo with his tail between his legs — clearly not a dominant male.
As we rode along the track, we saw Red Kangaroos, including the females who are called "blue flyers". They are smaller than the males, with a bluish body and a red tail. Yellow and purple flowers were in bloom. We drove past trees that had been blown upside down like an inside out umbrella frame. We stopped to look at an old oil drilling rig — the central part of Australia is filled with energy and mineral resources. We saw the light phase of the Brown Falcon, who has a white breast; its wings have dark edges, like a kestrel.
As we approached camp, we saw a Mulga (King Brown) Snake, a lovely creature who was about 4-5 feet long. It had a yellow-green-and-black pattern, with a dark head. These snakes, who are among the most venomous in the world, hunt for rats at night and are not thought to be as aggressive as some of the other venomous snakes, such as the Western Brown. John got out of the bus, and the snake seemed to detect his scent; it might have been attempting to circle John before John got back into the bus. Some of us might have preferred to have seen this snake a bit farther from where we would be pitching our tents.
John and Scotty dubbed this area "Camp Buzzard", because of a prominent black-breasted buzzard nest in the area. This area on the Strzelecki Creek is also called Mundi Barcooloo, and David Hollands visited here when he was researching his raptors book. Camp Buzzard seemed an appropriate name, because when we arrived, about 500 black kites were swirling over our campsite. In the United States, a colloquial term for vultures is "buzzards". Australia has no vultures, and Black Kites fill the same ecological niche as an avian scavenger. A lot of flies buzzed around the camp, and I finished the day having swallowed only two.
After we pitched our tents, we took a walk along the creek. A flock of Red-necked Avocets was on the water. We saw a couple young Southern Whitefaces, who were drab. We found a large weevil with erect legs — it tipped over when we touched its body. We saw two Pallid Cuckoos; the immature has a black eyeline. Two Blue Bonnets flew over — brown parrots with red and yellow on their belly. I saw flying Cockatiels, who have a bright yellow face and white wing slashes. Across the creek, we saw some Budgies taking over the mud nests of Fairy Martins, prompting Dave to call them "Buggerigars". In the trees were the nests of processionary caterpillars; the nests are large bags that resemble wasp nests. John pointed out a nest hole of a Red-backed Kingfisher. He said that three smaller nestholes in the same bank had been made by White-backed Swallows. The late afternoon light accentuated the plumage on many of the birds. The bright rufous underparts of two Hobbies appeared to be orange. Later, a Black-breasted Buzzard flew over, revealing beautiful russet underparts.
Moonrise was not until 9:30, so we had an incredible look at the Milky Way. Because Scotty's 39th birthday was the following day, Lyn had bought a card and had everyone sign it. She also collected money for a present, which she gave to Scotty while we were sitting around the campfire. Later, John spoke to us at length about Red Goshawks. He said they prey on kookaburras, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Blue-faced Honeyeaters, and birds down to the size of a White-throated Gerygone. The female is bigger than the male. Their nests are preyed upon by Black-breasted Buzzards, who are about the same size as the female goshawk, but the goshawk is much more powerful. They make nests with sticks that they break off of trees. They do not pick up sticks from the ground. The male builds the nest with sticks, and the female is not present until the nest is ready to be lined — he builds, and she decorates. While he is building, he might not even know if she eventually will show up. John mentioned a greeting that consists of the male returning with food, and the female pinning him to the ground and taking it from him. Sometimes, the male will disappear for a couple of days.
Friday, July 18
Camp Buzzard to Arkaroola, 350K
During the trip, I discovered numerous differences between Australian English and American English. In America, to "luck out" means you had good luck. In Australia, it means you had bad luck. Our most sought-after bird today was the Grey Falcon, because it had been seen in this area in the past. This morning with respect to the Grey Falcon, we lucked out in the Australian sense.
I was intrigued watching the flight of a Galah. As it flew toward a landing area, it twisted and turned, alternately showing its grey wings and its pink underparts. Galahs also have the habit of raising their wings just before they land. Near the creek at our campsite, some of us walked to within a couple of meters of a perched male Rufous Songlark. The wind blew his tail down, showing the rufous base. John said they nest in a tussock on the ground rather than in a small bush such as the one in which this one was perched. As was the case last night, hundreds of Black Kites swirled in the air, and many were perched in trees. We saw more Red-necked Avocets on the creek and more kissing Budgies. I saw the belly bands on flying Hardheads. We walked close to a tree with a perched female Hobby; she had red fluffed feathers that stuck out when viewed from behind. She had a black mask, with a white mark that extended to the back of her head. Earlier, we saw a Brown Falcon perched low and close to a path on which we were walking. We saw a beautiful Spotted Harrier in flight, showing its black wingtips. Just before we boarded the bus, I saw at least four Weebills in a tree. We left at about 9 a.m.
We stopped for tea at Montecollina, which was cold and windy. We saw White-backed Swallows and a young Wedge-tailed Eagle, who was light underneath. Wedge-tailed Eagles become darker with age — the old ones are almost all black. Denise found a small aquamarine weevil. After we got back into the bus and headed farther down the track, John spotted a pair of Gibberbirds, who turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The field guides do no justice to these gorgeous little birds. The male is bright yellow below and brighter than the female. His back is a little darker. He has a long black bill and a small black line between his bill and his eye that makes the bill appear to be a continuous black line going into the eye. He has white on the wing. He ran along the ground and sometimes stood erect on the gibbers, stretching himself to full height as prairie dogs do when they suspect danger. Another name for these birds is the Gibber Chat, but they behaved more like pipits than chats.
We stopped for lunch in a shaded area near a water hole. On the ground were small paddy melons — round poisonous green fruits a little larger than a golf ball. In the afternoon, I had my best look yet at a Chirruping Wedgebill. The male's crest is like a narrow spike. He has white on his wings. John found a nest, but there were no eggs. We saw a witchety bush with yellow flowers; it is the plant that is attacked by the witchety grubs, who are eaten by Aboriginals. We saw White-winged Fairy-Wrens run along the ground. A male Brown Songlark sang from a perch, cocking his long tail. We saw a hole made by a trapdoor spider — it was about the size of a 10-cent piece and perfectly round. Scotty found an Emu leg; the foot was leathery, with three toes. We later found a shed Shingleback Lizard skin that was very lumpy.
In the late afternoon, we had lovely views of the Flinders Ranges. We watched as the colors of the mountain changed from red to purple to pink to blue as light conditions changed. Wispy clouds were above and delicate greens below. We saw some Wedge-tailed Eagles standing in a field near a dead Wallaroo. John said Wedge-tailed Eagles sometimes attack kangaroos, whacking them until they fall. We stopped by a rockface in the Gammon Range, and John found a perched Peregrine Falcon; he found it by looking for whitewash on the rocks, and the bird was about 30 feet above it. We then pulled into our campsite at Arkaroola.
The name of our campsite is based on the Legend of Arkaroo. In the dreamtime of the Andjnamutana peoples of the north-eastern Flinders Ranges, Arkaroo, the legendary serpent, descended from the Gammon Ranges, and in one thirsty draught drained Lake Frome dry. Thereupon with his belly full of salt water, Arkaroo dragged his sinuous way back into the Ranges, carving the great Arkaroola Gorge, and leaving a trail where he rested. Now sleeping in Mainwater Pound in the Gammons, his restless turning radiates waves of earthquakes that roll across Arkaroola to this day. In this simple manner the Andjnamutana people explain the drying up of Lake Frome, the erosion of the deep and sinuous Arkaroola Gorge with its string of magnificent waterholes, and the numerous minor earthquakes which have their origin in the movement along the Great Paralana Fault near the Gammon Ranges, scores of times each year.
Saturday, July 19
Arkaroola and Nooldoonooldoona
We didn't have to pack our campsite this morning, so we could enjoy a relaxed breakfast. A Willie Wagtail walked close to our fire. This species walks from side-to-side rather than in a straight line. A Grey Shrike-Thrush also came near the fire. He later hopped onto the windscreen of the bus and sang to his own reflection. Australian Ravens perched near our camp, and I saw their hackles. The eyes of the ravens looked as intensely white as those of the Torresian Crows I had seen at the Mercure Inn in Townsville.
On our morning walk near the campsite, we saw Mulga Parrots on the ground close to us; they had yellow over their bill, a yellow-orange belly, and blue on their wings. We once again observed the mixing of the races of Eastern Ringnecks. One had black on its head and an orange band on its belly. It had a long pointed tail and red over its bill. We later saw one who had much more yellow on the belly. The Weebill race here is duller and smaller, and the Silvereyes here have grey backs. We saw a Chestnut-rumped Thornbill at its nest; it is the only thornbill to nest in tree holes. It has chestnut on its rump and flanks. This species lines its nest with feathers. The nests are parasitized by Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoos. We saw a male Variegated Fairy-Wren of the purple-backed race. Dave spotted a distant Crested Pigeon nest in a bush. We saw a male Mistletoebird, who has a grey vertical line under its bright red throat. I saw him try to wipe sticky mistletoe seeds off his bottom.
We got into the bus and stopped at an area with an Australian Raven's nest, which is larger than a crow's nest. We stopped to view the Pinnacle Rock Formations, which include both a "momma" and a "baby" formation. There were grass trees on the top of the baby pinnacle. In this area, we saw a Grey-fronted Honeyeater. The yellow on side of its head appeared golden. It resembled the Grey-headed Honeyeater, but it lacked the black face and had more yellow on its neck. This bird, as with many other birds we saw on the trip, appeared much brighter than it was portrayed in the field guide. I'm not sure whether this is because the light in the Outback tends to accentuate plumage or because the printing quality of the field guides is poor.
In the afternoon, we drove past beautiful River Red Gum trees, which have red-and-white bark. We were going to a place called Nooldoonooldoona to look for Yellow-footed Rock-Wallabies. We saw one of these gorgeous animals. It had yellow legs with white garters. The face had one black and one white stripe. This animal looked small, shy, and gentle as it climbed down the rocks to reach the water for a drink. From the bus, we had seen Wallaroos, also called Euros, and they showed a lot of variation in color, varying from red to dark grey to black. They looked burly, and the males were darker and larger than the females. The nose seemed to be more prominent and pushed in than a kangaroo nose.
We stopped at an abandoned copper smelter that had been active in the 1870s. Nearby were signs warning dog owners about poison bait being used to kill Dingoes and foxes. We saw these signs in numerous places during our stay in this area. We later went to a hill that overlooked a large representation of a trilobite. As we were driving, John looked at a mountain face and said there should be a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest there. When we stopped the bus, he found it.
Sunday, July 20
Arkaroola and Flinders Ranges National Park
We froze our gibbers off last night. The temperatures dropped to –2 C. This morning when I went to the hand-washing basin by the chuckwagon, it contained pieces of ice. Arkaroola has been selected as a site for a research station for a project to colonize Mars, where the temperature can plunge to –125. At least it wasn't that cold last night. This morning, the Grey Shrike-Thrush was still hanging around our campsite, hoping someone would give him some cheese.
We drove to Flinders Ranges National Park near Wilpena. On the way, we saw Emus trotting through an open field. There were a lot of lovely specimens of red gums — the ones with the thickest trunks seem to grow in small depressions. We arrived at Willow Springs Station, an area where we probably would have camped had we known about it. We saw a Slender-billed Thornbill. We also saw the broad-tailed race of the Brown Thornbill, who has a broad tail, grey head, and eyeline. Some people saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows, but I did not. There were quite a few parrots in the area. The Elegant Parrot was a new bird for me. It was very yellow underneath and had a solid green back. The bird sat on a branch with its breast toward the sun, so the light green breast looked almost as yellow as the yellow belly. I could more clearly see the yellow belly on a Port Lincoln Ringneck who was standing very tall on a rock. We also saw a perched Red-rumped Parrot.
After lunch, we looked for Short-tailed Grasswrens. They are found in spinifex and prefer tussocks in gullies. These birds are about 7 inches — much darker than a pipit and much larger than a fairy-wren. As we sat on a ridge hoping to see one in a gully, one flew into a W-shaped tussock (the W might have stood for "wren"). It eventually flew to a rock, cocked his tail, and looked at us. He was streaked on his back and buff under his tail. On the way back to the bus, we saw a Shingleback Lizard. Denise, who works as a naturalist and is used to handling lizards and snakes, brought it over, and it stuck out its blue tongue. To the touch, the scales on this lizard are not as hard as they look. It had cartoonish little feet with distinct toes.
In the afternoon, we stopped at Mount Billy Creek to look for Gilbert's Whistlers. We did not see any, but we saw a Weebill. At a stop by the road, some people saw a Black-eared Cuckoo, but I did not. It was hanging around with Southern Whitefaces, a species it parasitizes. At the entrance to Flinders Ranges National Park, about 30K from Arkaroola, we saw a Redthroat, a small grey bird with a rufous throat. He turned his head in different directions and sang as he stood on the same spot on a branch. Redthroats like the same habitat as the Rufous Fieldwren. I heard a Rufous Fieldwren sing and saw one fly, but I never had a good look at it. Some Chestnut-crowned Babblers were in a tree, and I saw the chestnut on their crown when they turned their heads toward the sun. Later, we stopped at a lookout where we saw Lake Frome in the distance — the water clearly was not a mirage. At the lookout, I touched a soft small white plant growing in the gravel called Lamb's Tongue.
When we got back to camp, I saw that my tent had collapsed. The soil at the campsite contained a lot of rocks, so driving in tent pegs was difficult. On John's advice, I anchored two corners of the tent with heavy rocks rather than pegs.
Monday, July 21
Arkaroola to Mount Lyndhurst Station, 80K
We pulled up stakes and rocks, packed up our tents, and prepared to leave freezing Arkaroola. Some of the tents had ice on them. We were delayed in leaving, because the chuckwagon truck would not start. We saw a lot of wonderful wildlife while we waited. Across from the reception area, we saw about a half a dozen Yellow-footed Rock-Wallabies high on a rockface. Some seemed to be sunning themselves on the rocks. I saw one jump at another. The staff at Arkaroola didn't even know the wallabies were there. Near the reception area, we saw more Mulga Parrots. They were smaller than the ringnecks that were in the same trees, along with Singing, Spiny-cheeked, White-plumed, and Grey-fronted Honeyeaters. Down the hill from the reception area was a reproduction of an aboriginal relief sculpture. There was a directional sign for a place called Oppaminda Mudlamutna.
At a morning stop for tea, Desley showed me a small red flower that looked like an orchid — it was from an Emu Bush. We had lunch in Leigh Creek, where we stopped for supplies. I had more language trouble when I asked for a "sack" for a purchase. Some Americans use the word "sack" interchangeably for bag, but in Australia, a sack usually is very large, made of cloth, and used for hay and other bulky agricultural items. I discovered other language differences on the trip. What Americans call clothespins, Australian call pegs. American cookies are Australian biscuits. American dessert is Australian pudding. American pudding is Australian blancmange. The end of a loaf of bread is called a heel in America and a crust in Australia.
In the afternoon, I asked Scotty about a body of water we were about to drive by. At first, he did not see it. When he did, he veered off the road and drove toward it. It was the Leigh Creek Tailings Dam, about 30K before Lyndhurst. We saw 4 Great-crested Grebes, including a male in breeding plumage. There also were Little Pied, Pied and Little Black Cormorants, about a dozen Black Swans, Australian Pelicans, Silver Gulls, and Caspian Terns.
We arrived at Lyndhurst at 3:45. It is 460K from Innamincka, the point from which we had entered South Australia four days ago. At 4 p.m., we stopped for a short walk and saw a pair of Ground Cuckoo-Shrikes — elongated birds with a grey breast. In flight and while perched, they show lovely dark wings. We saw a Yellow-rumped Thornbill nest that was not in use; it opened on the side. A lot of corella feathers were on the ground.
We eventually arrived at our campsite at Mount Lyndhurst. The weather was sunny but very windy as we put up our tents (causing me to call the place "Mount Windhurst"). The wind died down by dinner. A lot of Little Corellas were in the area. One flew by and made a pitiful squawk. I felt like telling it, "Things couldn't be all that bad". At dusk, we heard a huge number of them squawking at once.
Tuesday, July 22
Today was one of the most exciting days of the trip. We sought one of the rarest passerines in Australia, the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface. Its range is limited to a small area of the interior of the continent. We also looked for Thick-billed Grasswrens, who are found in the same habitat. As we were about to get off the bus to look for them, we saw a pair of Cinnamon Quail-Thrushes at close range. The male has a black band on his breast, while the female has a grey band. These plump birds walk like quails.
We hiked across scrubby terrain and had beautiful looks at the whitefaces. One sat face on in the sun on the top of a bush, showing his chestnut band. Then we saw his chestnut back. John saw where one of the birds flew and found its nest in a bush. This was only the fourth Chestnut-breasted Whiteface nest he had ever found. Later, John found another nest. It was a dense cup with a large slanted entry, and it contained three tiny eggs that were brown on the bottom and cream colored on top — Diana said they reminded her of sugar-coated almonds with a dusting of cinnamon. Only a handful of people have ever seen one of these nests, and even fewer have ever seen the eggs. The nesting information in the Pizzey guide is based on only one nest record. By the end of the day, we ended up seeing about a dozen Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces — Michael commented that they seemed as common as muck. John said you normally don't see these birds in the open, but during the breeding season, they tend to sit on the tops of bushes.
When John found the first nest, Scotty went back to the bus (which was more than a kilometer away) to get his camera. A couple of minutes after he left, I thought it might be good to get a telescope to look at the whitefaces, so I set out to catch up with Scotty. I caught up with him at the bus. On the way back, we saw a male Thick-billed Grasswren. Scotty spotted the bird first. The two of us stood still in one spot as the elusive bird flew between bushes and walked/ran along the ground, always stopping behind a tussock. At one point, it perched in the open on a dead branch. Eventually, it returned to the area near where Scotty first saw him, perched on a rock, and gave us a full frontal view. It is much bigger and chunkier than a fairy-wren. When he cocked his long tail, the undertail looked rufous. I saw the striations on the throat. I thought I saw a trace of an eyeline, even though the field guides do not show one; because the bird was in bright light, I might have been seeing the light hitting some of the striations over his eye. According to Scotty, none of the field guides are especially good at portraying grasswrens, because these birds tend to be little observed. Before this trip, I had never seen any species of grasswren. One seldom gets a long and satisfying look at one. However, the best chance you have for meaningful observation is to do what Scotty and I did — stand still and wait for the bird to pop out. The larger the group of people seeking one of these birds, the less of a chance that any will get a good look.
After Scotty and I returned to the area with the whitefaces, I had a quick look at one in the scope. The bottom of the chestnut breastband was darker, which made the band look as if it had an edging. While walking across this terrain, I saw volcano ants; they make a mound that resembles a small volcano. Meat ants make a larger mound that lacks a hole in the top. I saw a bull ant, which is big and black and has a nasty bite. We walked across an area with rocks containing copper, quartz and other beautiful minerals. Some rocks had lichens, and we wondered how lichens could survive in such a dry and inhospitable habitat. Many of the rocks had heavy iron content. I saved one that was shaped like a boomerang and another shaped like a ring with a diameter of 5 centimeters.
In the afternoon, we returned to the same area, and John found a Thick-billed Grasswren nest. He said it is the shabbiest of the grasswren nests. It has a perching pad and a half dome. Denise and Michael then found a female Thick-billed Grasswren whom the entire group saw. I saw her cock her tail and run along the ground. Later, we saw a Rufous Fieldwren perched in the sun; it was smaller, with a much shorter tail than the grasswren. It also cocked its tail. John found an old Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater nest — a small cup in a bush. We saw a Blue Azur butterfly, who was tiny with a beautiful blue upperwing.
Before the trip, I never had seen any wedgebills. After observing them, I think they look and behave a lot like babblers. They sometimes run along the ground. After the trip, I read more about them. They are not related to the babblers. They are in the same genus as the Eastern Whipbird, whom they physically resemble. Both whipbirds and wedgebills are in the Corvidae family with crows and ravens. This family also contains birds as varied as the quail-thrushes, sittellas, choughs, Apostlebirds, shrike-tits, bellbirds, whistlers, shrike-thrushes, birds-of paradise, butcherbirds, magpies, currawongs, woodswallows, orioles, cuckoo-shrikes, trillers, fantails, monarchs, Magpie-Larks, and others.
We stopped at a damsite and picked up pieces of copper (green) and azurite (blue). We saw whitewood trees, which have small yellow-orange berries. Denise found a gecko who was about three inches long. It had distinct bands on its back and might have been a Bynoe's Prickly Gecko. It was near the web of a funnel web spider. We later stopped for a photo of Flinders Ranges as dusk approached.
There was a beautiful sunset behind our camp. The dark clouds in the sky appeared to be on fire. As the sun went lower, the clouds became like glowing embers that are red and eventually go out. Later in the evening while we sat around the fire, we felt a few drops of rain. During the night, there was heavy rain and wind. Rain was a major concern, because it could easily make some of the dirt roads on our planned route impassible. The night before the trip started, Scotty suggested that we could run into any type of weather, so bringing an umbrella might be a good idea. Today was the only day I had to use it.
Wednesday, July 23
Mount Lyndhurst to Farina, 95K
After we left our soggy camp, the sun came out. At a morning stop, we saw a Singing Bushlark doing a display flight, slowly climbing and then dropping quickly to the ground. During the flight, I saw the bird's short tail. We noticed some of the half-moon marks made by scorpions in the sand. We stopped at an Aboriginal ochre quarry, which featured beautiful red-and-yellow tones. While John walked around on the ridge, he lost one of the lenses to his reading glasses. Miraculously, Michael found it.
Later, we walked in samphire habitat, which consists of short bushes, some of which have reddish fruit. This is the habitat for the Samphire Thornbill, which has been split from the Slender-billed Thornbill. It also is the habitat for the rare Night Parrot, which nests in small bushes. We did not find the thornbill. John showed us a Peregrine Falcon nest hole under a rock ledge. We saw a Banded Whiteface nest — a cup about 6 feet up in a tree. It was not in a bush like the nests of the Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces. We found a large Shingleback Lizard who stuck its blue tongue out numerous times while opening its mouth wide.
We arrived in camp at Farina around midday. The weather was very windy, which dried our tents from this morning. We camped amid saltbushes, which have sharp thorns — we had to be careful where we walked. In the late afternoon, we walked in an area near the campsite that had mostly river gums. These trees have narrow leaves like a willow. We saw a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest. We also stood under a Little Eagle nest. The ground below was littered with carcasses and bones, including Bearded Dragon skins and the tail of a Shingleback Lizard. The nest was much smaller than the nest of the Wedge-tailed Eagle. Nearby, we saw a pair of Little Eagles flying. The male is smaller than the female and has a whiter breast. At one point, the pair came close to touching while in the air. Later, we saw perched White-breasted Woodswallows; they sometimes perch close together in a way that appears to be affectionate. The weather that evening was windy and blew our tents a lot. The sunset was like a golden flame on the horizon.
Between when we arrived at camp and our afternoon walk, it was too windy to bird, so we spent time preparing a practical joke on Dave. Earlier in the trip, some of us had heard Owlet-Nightjars calling during the night. Dave commented that he had never seen this species, even though the field guides say it is common. It is nocturnal and spends most daylight hours roosting in holes where it cannot be seen. As a joke, John suggested that we make a cardboard cutout of an Owlet-Nightjar, stick it in the hole of a tree, and try to fool Dave. Diana spent the afternoon making a cardboard Owlet-Nightjar. On our morning walk, Diana picked up two small shiny black stones for the eyes to create the illusion of eyeshine when we shined a torch on it. She drew an Owlet-Nightjar on a piece of corrugated cardboard and cut it to shape. She dug holes for the eyes and then chewed gum, which she used to stick the eyes into place. She sewed the top of the head shut — one could not see the sutures from a distance, but in the hand, the bird had a lobotomized appearance. Doing art in the bush is not easy, and one must make do with whatever resources one can find. John found a hole in a tree next to our chuckwagon, and he climbed a ladder to insert the bird when Dave was away. After darkness had fallen and everyone was finishing dinner, I excused myself to go to the loo, which was about 100 meters away. I came back with my torch on, and I shined it on the tree. I then called out, "John, there's a Boobook Owl roosting in a hole in this tree!" Had I said "Owlet-Nightjar," Dave might have suspected something was amiss. John rushed over from the table and said, "No, it's an Owlet-Nightjar!" Dave had his binoculars with him, rushed over, and yelled, "Got it!" About a minute later, when he realized the bird was not moving amid all the commotion, he figured out what was going on. He called us all a name, and John climbed the tree, retrieved the cut-out, and gave it to Dave as a souvenir.
Thursday, July 24
Farina through Marree to the Mungerannie Pub, 265K
We took our morning walk past the Farina ruins. Now a ghost town, Farina once was a bustling community settled early in the opening up of the Outback. It was surveyed in 1878, although people lived there well before that. Its name means "flour", as it was hoped the town would become the "Grain Capital of the North". Unfortunately the rain did not fall, so the wheat idea was put aside. The town then was developed as the head of the railway and the beginning of all the tracks beyond. Pioneers struggled in the hot climate to develop the town. Due to a lack of water and the establishment of the nearby towns of Leigh Creek and Marree, Farina was deserted by the 1960's.
We spent much of our morning walk looking for Inland Dotterels. Scotty had seen eight of them flying yesterday near our camp. They like claypans rather than rocky areas. They nest on clay and are difficult to see. We saw a Richard's Pipit, but no dotterels. We then rode to an area to look for Black Honeyeaters, Banded Whitefaces and Crimson and Orange Chats, but we did not see any of them. We saw the nests of a Crimson Chat, Banded Whiteface, Zebra Finch, and Chirruping Wedgebill. You can tell if the wedgebill's nest has been used, because the rim has been flattened down from the young standing on the edge and begging. We saw a lot of White-winged Fairy-Wrens, but none of their nests, which usually are low to the ground. The Banded Whiteface nest we saw was lower to the ground than the one we had seen previously, because this area did not have seven-foot trees like the other area. Later, we drove up a steep incline near Lake Harry — a breath-holding (trouser-changing) moment. The area at the top offered a pleasant view. Some people saw Flock Bronzewings fly by while we were up there. We saw a small pile of rocks that had been used by a Wedge-tailed Eagle as a perch — it had a lot of whitewash. On our drive from Farina to Mungerannie, we saw two bicycle riders on this desolate stretch of the Birdsville Track. They said they were traveling 60K a day.
Later in the morning, we stopped at a lake that had a lot of waterfowl. I saw three Freckled Ducks, the only native species of Australian waterfowl I had not seen. They were far away and looked like large dark ducks through my binoculars. I would have preferred a closer look. However, I had one good look at a sleeping bird through a scope. The field guides show this species to be uniformly dark, with its breast the same color as its back. The one I saw in the scope had a noticeably lighter breast, which troubled me. After the trip, I bought a 2004 Steve Parrish calendar with Australian birds, and the September photo features a freckled duck. The breast looks exactly like what I saw through the scope. We had good looks at Pink-eared Ducks, including the buffy undertail when they dabbled. We saw Grey Teal, Pacific Black Ducks, Hardheads, and Hoary-headed Grebes. Two brolgas on the shore towered over the waterfowl. Australian Wood Ducks stood on shore with a large flock of Red-necked Avocets. We also saw Masked Plovers and Little Corellas.
Our lunch stop was next to a tree with a Brown Falcon nest. A bird flew off the nest. We saw an Australian Magpie chasing a Little Crow. I found a Little Crow feather which had white at the base, which is common with many crows and ravens.
We spent the afternoon looking for Eyrean Grasswrens. This species is found only in habitat with canegrass. John found a nest in a canegrass bush. The nest is made of canegrass and stems of Poached Egg Daisies, which were blooming all over the place. If the Poached Egg Daisies are not in flower, the grasswrens will not nest, and there is no point in looking for the birds in that area. The nests are not in obvious view — Denise had just inspected the bush where John found the nest. The birds feed seeds to their young. I heard a thin one-note call that did not sound like a fairy-wren and was probably the grasswren. The grasswrens make footprints like two small ski marks. The dominant foot (usually the right) is slightly in front of the other. The following day, I saw tracks where the left foot appeared to be dominant. Grasswrens hop in the sand rather than walk. The marks are 12-15 inches apart. Grasswren footprints usually are bigger than those of fairy-wrens. If you look carefully, you can see faint imprints of the grasswren's other toes. Fairy-wren footprints are similar, but only 2/3 as long and not as deep. All grasswrens and fairy-wrens hop rather than walk. Fairy-wren footprints are level and do not have one foot forward. Dunnart footprints are deeper and level. Their feet are broader, and they need pads to stand upright. The Eyrean is the only grasswren that makes tracks in the sand, because none of the others live in sandy environments. Other grasswrens can be tracked in dust or dirt. Because of the number of false alarms of suspected Eyrean grasswrens turning out to be fairy-wrens, I began to think of the false alarms as "Feyrean Wrens". Dave got a quick look at a grasswren, but I don't think anyone else saw one that afternoon. While looking for the grasswrens, I was hit numerous times by shrapnel-like grasshoppers who whizzed through the air. Once, I got hit in the mouth. The area had a lot of wildflowers. The blue flowers were Cattlebush. The Poached Egg Daisies were white with a yellow center — in some instances, the yolks appeared to be broken. The Everlasting Daisies were yellow with a yellow center.
One of the most visually stunning moments of the trip was seeing two male Variegated (Purple-backed) Fairy-Wrens in the same bush with a male White-winged Fairy-Wren. Seeing one male fairy-wren is usually stunning, but three at once is almost overwhelming. John said that fairy-wrens form groups with about three males, one of whom is dominant. The males in the group might go off and fertilize females in other groups, which helps to diversify the gene pool. The Variegated Fairy-Wren female has red on her bill and face and a plain tail. The White-winged Fairy-wren female has a plain face and a blue tail. Both have black eyes, but the eye on the White-winged Fairy-Wren stands out more.
We saw a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest about six feet off the ground. John thought it might be about 50 years old. John said a pair of eagles will build about six nests and rotate among them from year-to-year. Chestnut-crowned Babblers build football-shaped nests that open on the side. They line their nests only with parrot feathers. I saw a young Zebra Finch with a grey bill. Scotty showed us some galvanized "big ass" burrs, which are much bigger and nastier than the burrs in America. He pointed to a bunch of them on a stalk. We saw a pair of Banded Whitefaces and saw the band on the breast. These birds behaved like the Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces, occasionally perching on top of a bush. Dave later found a nest in the area where the birds were perching. We saw a few Cinnamon Quail-Thrushes in the same area.
The bus entered the Birdsville Track on our way to the Mungerannie Hotel/Pub in the late afternoon. The Mungerannie Hotel/Pub is a bizarre place, with two live dromedaries standing in front of the shower area. In front of the hotel/pub are a stoplight and two parking meters as a joke, considering the place is in the middle of nowhere. The water had a heavy sulfur smell. A hot water bore was on the other side of the showers, and people use it as a natural hot tub. In the area near the bore was a tree full of Little Corellas; when the wind blew, I saw the pinkish base to their feathers. In the same area were a few Pied Stilts and Magpie-Larks along the shore. I also saw White-faced and White-necked Herons, Eurasian Coots and one Dusky Moorhen. The pub was renamed the Mongrel Pub (Lyn), the Mungo Jerry Pub (Dave), and the Mindfuckingully Pub (in an ad printed by the owner). A lot of old hats hung over the bar. In order to qualify, the hat's owner had to have worked on the Birdsville Track. There were photos on the wall, including one captioned "Get together for annual gibber count". We had dinner and drinks at the pub, and we slept indoors for the first time during the trip, giving us a respite from pitching tents. The place had great acoustics, with every sound from anywhere nearby was greatly amplified.
Friday, July 25
Mungerannie Pub to Kalamurina Station, 90K
There was a cacophonous dawn chorus of squawking corellas and Galahs. Welcome Swallows greeted us in the morning, perching on the air conditioners outside the sleeping rooms. Near the hot water bore, two brolgas flew past and bugled at first light. I later heard the three-note call of the Little Grassbird and the song of the Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike. Outside the dining room was a Crested Pigeon sitting on a nest with at least one nestling. Denise picked up a small gecko as we prepared to board the bus — it might have been a Tree Dtella.
We drove to a site where we finally saw an Eyrean Grasswren. It looked light underneath. It perched on a bush after Scotty and I saw it run along the ground. The weather was overcast, so the light was not good for observing fieldmarks. In the same area, we saw a Kowari hole — the opening is round with two marks at the bottom where they dig in with their feet. Scotty found Kowari droppings, which contained seeds and parts of a beetle. Sand Goannas make holes slightly larger and more oval than a Kowari's. Later, we saw a distant small honeyeater perch at the top of a dead tree — it might have been a Black Honeyeater. We saw a Singing Honeyeater and White-winged Fairy-Wrens.
We arrived at our campsite at Kalamurina Station shortly after noon. It is a beautiful site on Warburton Creek. The Diamantina River feeds into the Warburton Creek, which in turn feeds into Lake Eyre. We set up camp, had lunch, and did laundry. The air had a lot of flies as well as grass seeds shaped like stars. The bank of the creek was lined with lignum grass. While the trip was billed as a "desert safari", most of our trip to this point had been more in the Outback than the desert. In this area, we began to see sand dunes and desert habitat. Scotty said trees were disappearing in areas such as this because of heat, flooding, mistletoe, and other stresses. These factors are promoting the encroachment of the desert.
On our afternoon walk, we saw a tree that had both a Black Kite nest (tidy, compact) and a Whistling Kite nest (messy, less compact). Scotty found a White-plumed Honeyeater nest — a small cup near the top of a 20-foot tree. Many waterbirds were along the creek, including a flotilla of 18 swimming pelicans. We also saw Pink-eared Ducks, Grey Teal, Caspian Terns, and lots of Little Black Cormorants. We saw a Southern Whiteface nest at eye level in a hole at the end of a dead branch — a small stick nest. We saw a perched Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo and a Red-backed Kingfisher. I scoped a Lesser Wanderer and saw the spots on its head and the edge of its wings. Australia also has a butterfly called the Wanderer, who is the same species that Americans call the monarch. I heard the three-note call of a Common Greenshank; it sounded like the call of a Greater Yellowlegs. I saw some White-backed Swallows. A Pallid Cuckoo was singing at the top of a tree near our camp. John saw a large flock of corellas flush all at once and suspected a raptor — Grey Falcons have been seen in this area. However, we still did not see what John called the "smoke bird".
Dave, Scotty, Diana, and I later separated from the group and looked for Eyrean grasswrens. We saw lots of tracks, some of which had the left foot forward. We ended up having two sightings of Eyrean grasswrens perched on the top of bushes; they were in better light than this morning. We did not find any nests. Most of the hike this afternoon was through sand and over dunes. We walked across fired lake bottoms, which are a combination of baked mud and sand. We saw a hops plant, which had red leaves in a small bush. I brought a bleached bullock pelvis back to camp to hold down the mat in front of my tent. The pelvis looked like a mask, and it gave my tent a Georgia O'Keeffe feel. A few days later, Michael brought the pelvis to Big Red and photographed it on the red dunes.
After dinner, we sat around the campfire. The moon was almost new, so we were treated to quite a show of stars. Some people saw meteors and made wishes, including for a Grey Falcon. We heard Pink-eared Ducks calling from the creek. I kept the flaps of my tent up so that I could see the stars. In the wee hours of the morning, I heard Pallid Cuckoos and Masked Plovers.
Saturday, July 26
After breakfast, I scoped some relatively close Pink-eared Ducks and saw the pink ear. I also scoped a Blue Bonnet face-on. The red belly makes this parrot look as if it has been shot in the stomach. The red belly is far more prominent than the blue head markings from which it gets its name. I saw the evil pink eye of a Little Corella flying into the sun. In the morning, we birded along a drainage creek, and I saw the white throats on some Chestnut-crowned Babblers. We saw a Yellow-throated Miner nest, which was a small, round-bottomed cup with top entry.
We drove over to White Bull Bore at Kalamurina Station, about 70K from Lake Eyre. The water is 197o C and under pressure of 195 pounds per square inch. It steams and displays beautiful colors. A Red-backed Kingfisher flew over, and we saw the red on his back and the iridescence of his green plumage. His flight was arrowlike, with his body compressed, elongated, and straight. He then perched in the sun and uttered his one-note call. A Yellow-throated Miner flew into the same tree, and its bill looked golden. We had a quick look at a Swamp Harrier, and we saw a perched Brown Goshawk, but there still was no sign of a Grey Falcon. At one point, a flock of crows and ravens became agitated, but we did not see a raptor.
We saw a field with hundreds of Little Corellas, who seemed very "affectionate". Even in large flocks, one sees most of them paired close together on the ground or in trees. I saw some of them mate — the female crouches on the ground. We also saw flocks with 50+ Zebra Finches. We had tea next to a waterhole that had three Black-fronted Dotterels. One made a high-pitched call. Then two of them mated as an uninterested Masked Plover drank nearby. A Wedge-tailed Eagle flew over our heads; it was probably a young bird, because it had a lot of light wing feathers. We later stopped at a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest and saw lots of rabbit skulls at the base. Once again, we saw many Zebra Finches at the eagle's nest. One was carrying grass for a nest.
In the afternoon, Scotty stopped the bus at the crest of a road. We walked about 2K to the water, because Scotty was afraid the bus would become stuck in the sand. John found a lot more Eyrean Grasswren nests in the area, even though we did not see any more of the birds. John said we should look for a canegrass hummock with a small rise. Each male likes his own high area. They don't like tussocks with a hump in the middle, because predator mammals can get to the nest. Tussocks that are green in the middle and bent at the top are preferred. Also preferred are tussocks that are slightly separated from other tussocks, providing easy entry and escape. After you find the most likely type of tussock for a nest, you then should look for tracks and follow them until they get thicker. John first learned about tracks by wiping the ground clean and then observing what was making new tracks. He tried to learn to think like a grasswren. John showed us a newly-built grasswren nest made by birds just about to lay eggs. It was not a big nest relative to the bird's size. John pointed out the red rootlets that the birds always include in the top portion of the nest. The Eyrean is the only grasswren who uses such rootlets. After the birds finish laying their eggs, they pull the portion with the red rootlets over the top. John also showed us an active nest with three white eggs. He said the eggs usually are flesh-colored. This nest had the top pulled over, because the egg-laying was complete. John found five more nests, including one within two meters of our bus. In the same area, we saw a green skink with spots and stripes. There also was a Nephila spider (Golden Orb Spider) — a huge female in a web. Three people in our group were wearing Redback shoes, which left a spider imprint in the sand.
Later in the afternoon, we saw a light-phase Brown Falcon next to the bus — first on a tree and then on the ground. We saw the yellow cere and the pattern on the face and the back of the head. The leggings were white in front and flared brown in back. We returned to White Bull Bore and saw about 500 Little Corellas decorating the trees like Christmas ornaments. We then went to a waterhole to search for a Grey Grasswren, but had no luck. Denise gave me two grey feathers and jokingly said they were Grey Falcon feathers; John said that because of the light edges, they probably had come from a Crested Pigeon. We saw a perched Hobby in the afternoon sun; when it turned, I saw the red underparts. Late in the day, we saw two Red-capped Plovers on a claypan. I saw a male Cinnamon Quail-Thrush from the bus, who had a black breastband and a cinnamon back. In good light, the back shows a much richer tone than in the field guides. We saw a young perched Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike whose face was not yet fully black.
Many of us on the trip were amazed at how many times John seemed to know exactly where to stop to find a particular species. A lot of John's ability has to do with his understanding of the conditions of the foliage that birds like — conditions that an untrained eye would overlook. John said that seeing flying Black-faced Woodswallows usually means there also will be chats, fairy-wrens, and other birds in the area.
Sunday, July 27
Kalamurina Station to Birdsville, 389K
We started the day with what Dave dubbed the "Lignum Line-up". A group of us was standing in a row and looking at birds along the edge of Warburton Creek. I noticed that our shadows on a clump of lignum grass in front of us showed a line of discreet figures. I suggested that the shadows might make a good photograph, and Michael took one with his digital camera. John showed us an old Eyrean Grasswren nest he found while walking near our campsite. The top was pressed down from the young perching on it. It looked like a little straw bassinet. We could see the pieces of red grass in the top.
We had a long day of driving, traveling from Kalamurina Station to our campground in Birdsville, a distance of about 400K. We took an outside track, because the inside track was closed due to the recent rain. On the way, we stopped back at the Mungerannie Pub. We also stopped at an area with bulrushes to look for Yellow Chats, who sometimes are found in groups of about six. We did not find any. While there, I heard the three-note song of a Little Grassbird, but did not see one. I saw and heard Singing Honeyeaters. We later got out of the bus and saw a distant Orange Chat perched in a bush — they seemed skittish, and we might have had better luck had we used the bus as a hide. I saw the orange breast of the perched male, but he was too distant for me to see the black face.
John found a Blue Bonnet nest in a tree hole about two inches across and about 18 inches off the ground. The female was on the nest, making a croaking noise. She was deep inside the hole and not visible. John said the nests always are about knee high. The male had flown out after feeding her. John said that some females become stuck in the hole and cannot get out. There is not much room inside. The Blue Bonnet tree was in an area with a lot of lilies that were not in bloom. The flowers are white when in bloom. The seeds are like a cluster of cloves of elephant garlic.
We had lunch at Damprainie Creek at about 1 p.m. John said he had never seen this area so green and with so much foliage and grass. We had beautiful looks at 3 Galahs in great light, making the pink look very saturated. There were two males with dark eyes and one female with light eyes. I examined a few Galah feathers on the ground — pink is not a common color in the bird world. The dunes were getting redder as we drove north. We stopped to look at an isolated group of trees — the type of place you might find Letter-winged Kites — but had no luck. We saw an Australian Pratincole among the gibbers. The female had just come off a nest, which was a scrape, and she did a strutting distraction display. We later saw two pratincoles flying — their wings resemble a kestrel's. John saw a very distant large flock of flying birds whom he identified as Flock Bronzewings — I saw a distant swirl of black dots. We saw a female Gibberbird close to the bus, which was not as exciting as our previous Gibberbird sighting. There were a lot of beer bottles and litter in the desert. I also noticed the results of many people in four-wheel drive vehicles going off the road to do doughnuts and figure-eights.
At 4 p.m., we entered Diamantina Shire, returning to Queensland from South Australia. We arrived at camp in Birdsville, set up our tents, and showered. At a pond near our tents, Michael and I listened to a couple of Clamorous Reed-Warblers giving their long and complicated song that resembles a Northern Mockingbird's. We saw both birds fly, but never had good looks. Fairy Martins swooped to the pond surface to drink. Diamond Doves were outside our tents, and Peaceful Doves called in the distance.
Before and after dinner, some of us went to the Birdsville Pub, which was established in 1884. It is quite famous in Australia. Birdsville once was one of Australia's roughest and most hazardous destinations. Some people wanted to name it after J. Burt, who was the town's first landholder. He declined the honor, and Birdsville was suggested as a similar-sounding alternative.
I saw a hawk moth in my tent as I was about to go to sleep. A running joke during the trip was the loud noise made by people zipping and unzipping their tents during the night. Someone suggested that we be called the "Zipping Cisticolas". Rather than making a lot of noise with the tent zippers and disturbing people nearby, I let the hawk moth spend the night in my tent. When I opened the tent the next morning, the moth flew out.
Monday, July 28
Birdsville to Big Red, 35K
We left Birdsville at 10 a.m. for our short drive to Big Red. John and I, because of our common surname, often referred to each other as "Brother John" and "Brother Bill". This morning as we walked past each other in Birdsville, John said, "Hello, Brother Bill," and I replied, "Hello, Brother John". John heard someone on the street say to someone else, "They must be priests".
On the drive out of Birdsville, we had an excellent look at a female Inland Dotterel. She was plump like a quail, displaying a lovely combination of brown colors and facial markings. As we viewed the bird's back, Lyn kept calling, "Show us your chest", and the bird obliged, revealing her V pattern. The belly was brown, but the vent area was white. She probably had just come off a nest. Shortly before we saw this bird, we saw a flock of about 30 others flying.
We stopped at an area where John had filmed Letter-winged Kites the previous year. We saw two nests from last year, and they were much larger than the nests of Black-shouldered Kites. Most of the Letter-winged Kites in this area were wiped out by feral cats. The colony is down from about 150 pairs to 15 pairs. John said the way to find a colony of Letter-winged Kites is to look for a male perched at the top of a tree; other kites will be in the tree. In this area, Denise found a Tawny Frogmouth on a nest. The bird's throat looks exactly like tree bark. From behind, the frogmouth's tail feathers look like leaves. Small feathers stick up from the nose. The frogmouth moved her head but kept her eyes closed. The nest is a small cup. Only the female incubates, but the male usually stays nearby. White-breasted Woodswallows flew over, and we saw a Painted Lady butterfly.
We headed toward Big Red, which is one of 1,100 sandhills in the Simpson Desert. At 90 meters, it is believed to be the highest of its kind in the desert. The sandhills in the Simpson Desert run north/south for hundreds of kilometers and are covered with spinifex or cane grass. Right after Scotty unsuccessfully tried to drive the bus up the road that goes over Big Red, a Grey Teal flew by — they are cavity nesters. We saw Crimson Chats on the ground — the bright crimson males and paler females. A Southern whiteface nest was right across from where Jim had parked the chuckwagon.
While people were finishing lunch, I hiked to the top of Big Red — it was beautiful to look down the dune. There were more Crimson Chats in front of me as I walked up. After lunch, we saw a very dark Boobook Owl come out of a tree hole. The corellas and woodswallows were very agitated about the owl. We saw it perch, and John said it was the darkest Boobook he ever has seen this far west. We saw a pair of White-winged Trillers, but John could not locate the nest.
At about 3:30, everyone climbed up to the top of Big Red. From the top, if you looked in one direction, the sand was reddish, while in the other direction, it looked beige because of the way the light hit it. If you stuck your finger into the sand, the layer just below the surface was cool. Some of us were hit by a small sand devil, swirling and throwing grains of sand against us. I walked by myself down the other side of the dune, across a valley that was about a mile wide, to the top of the next dune. The middle of the valley was like a moonscape. There was a stretch with dried lake bottom. Another stretch had red stones. There was not much vegetation. After more than two weeks on a birding tour, I was able to escape to a place where I could experience total silence. I could hear my own ears. Occasionally, the silence would be broken by the sound of buzzing flies. To properly experience the desolation of the desert, one must be alone. On the climb back up the back side of Big Red, I saw a group of Banded Whitefaces in poor light — they were between me and the late afternoon sun. Later, I looked down on a White-backed Swallow. From the top of Big Red, we viewed a beautiful sunset, watching the sand change color every minute, becoming redder and then paler as the sun dipped below the horizon.
After dinner, Scotty built a bigger fire than usual. We saw amazing stars with a nearly new moon. Between the stars and Big Red, finding birds was a lesser priority today.
Tuesday, July 29
Big Red to Eyre Creek, near Bedouri, 120K
I heard a chorus of magpies at first light, which sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Corellas were on the red sand dunes. Terry said he had talked to someone who had seen corellas rolling down a hill. John said he has seen them kick boxing and swinging in a circle on the end of a rope. Shortly into our morning walk, we watched a female Galah rub oil from her preen gland on a section of a tree without bark. Doing this makes the tree so smooth that animals cannot climb up. I felt and smelled the smooth bark; it had a faint musky smell, which repels goannas. John said the way to find where Galahs are nesting is to look for a section of the tree where the bark has been chewed and smoothed. The Galah is the only parrot that lines its nest with leaves. Gang-gang Cockatoos also chew bark on trees, but they line their nests with sticks, and they do not put preen oil on the bark. The tree we were looking at had a nest hole on the other side from the smooth area, and there were three eggs in the nest. John said the Spangled Drongo smears fruit on a smoothed out section of a tree, and the fruit repels Weaver Ants (Green Tree Ants). He once observed ants refusing to come down past the section of the tree that the drongo had coated with the fruit, and the ants died.
We drove back through Birdsville, past Billabong Boulevard. I was wearing a new embroidered Birdsville t-shirt that I had purchased at a Birdsville store. We soon stopped at an area with Waddi trees. From a distance, they look like willows. They actually are acacias with long drooping needles that resemble spinifex grass. The scientific name is Acacia peuces, with the species name meaning "pine". The trees grow only on dry, barren ground on the fringe of the Simpson Desert in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and in a stand outside Boulia, which is a few hundred kilometers west of Winton. We saw some of their dried pods, which have black seeds. The pods are green at first and become brown. They dry and twist to release the seeds. If you look at the needles under upside-down binoculars, you can see veins. This stand of trees previously had a large Letter-winged Kite colony, with a nest in every Waddi tree. It also had Grey Falcons. As we walked around, we looked at two ant colonies. We saw a large soldier with small workers, who were carrying small seeds. Scotty dug out the pupa case of a large Ghost Moth at the base of a tree.
From the bus, we saw four more Cinnamon Quail-Thrushes — a male, a female, and two young. One of the young followed the male, the other the female. We saw an old Whistling Kite nest, with a Zebra Finch nest in the bottom. A White-necked Heron flew by, showing the two big white "headlights" on its wings. As we approached the area at Eyre Creek where we were going to camp, we saw a displaying male Musk Duck with his head back and tail up; in all, we saw three Musk Ducks. We saw Darters, whose kek-kek-kek call sounds like some of the North American rails.
Before lunch, we looked through a field of lignum bushes for Grey Grasswrens. There were a lot of yellow and purple flowers on the ground. John said the Grey Grasswrens tend to associate with Variegated (purple-backed) Fairy-Wrens. They tend to fly rather than walk among the bushes, because they usually live in habitats with water. John found a recently constructed Grey Grasswren nest. It was a ball with an opening in the front, made of sticks and decorated with leafy grass from the ground. It is one of the largest of the grasswren nests. The Grey Grasswren lines its nest with feathers it finds from other species. John later found the round support frame of a nest that had just been started. The nests are more likely to be in a bush with greenish leaves that is slightly set apart, allowing a quick avenue of escape. The grasswren's song is a single note. While looking for the Grey Grasswren, the ground we walked across was brown and cracked, like the top of a pan of brownies. Denise found an old Chirruping Wedgebill nest, but we did not see a grasswren.
We headed back to our camp at Eyre Creek for lunch — near the area where we had seen the musk ducks. In the afternoon, we went shopping in Bedouri, arriving around 3:10. About a dozen Fairy Martin nests were under the eaves of the main store. They consisted of a row of mud tubes, and one of them contained young. Nearby, I saw a Fairy Martin land on the grass, flatten itself against the ground, spread its wings, and sun itself. John said that other species engage in such sunning behavior. While driving in the afternoon, we saw a couple of Wedge-tailed Eagle nests in trees that were close together.
The purple flowers we had been seeing are saltbush. Scotty told me to lick one, and it tasted salty. We looked for the Grey Grasswren. We heard it, and a couple of people saw a large bird fly, but nobody could make a positive identification. We saw two pairs of Flock Bronzewings fly over. They have a dumpy grey body, but the flight is fast and direct. I never saw the face pattern.
Wednesday, July 30
Eyre Creek to Diamantina Gates National Park, 344K
We saw 24 Yellow-billed Spoonbills fly down the creek this morning at breakfast. They fly like ibises, and they landed in a tree. I saw adult Black-tailed Native-Hens, who had red legs, a yellow upper mandible, and red on the lower mandible. They had white streaks near the front of their wings. We saw a distant large flock of Straw-necked Ibises. A little later while we were walking along a road, Diana spotted four flying Flock Bronzewings. They flew towards us, and I saw the black-and-white face pattern.
We stopped at a bridge that had a Fairy Martin condominium underneath and hundreds of Fairy Martins flying in the vicinity. At the same area, a pair of Little Eagles were perched in a tree. An acrobatic White-plumed Honeyeater was building a nest. We left this area just before 10 to head to Diamantina Gates National Park. One of the species we most wanted to see, along with the Grey Falcon, was the Letter-winged Kite. These were the only two native Australian raptors I had not seen. John explained that Long-haired Rats eat Mitchell grass, and Letter-winged Kites eat the rats. The rats live in crevices in the ground. John showed us Long-haired Rat burrows. The openings are fairly large, because the rats are big. He said we might be a month too early to see the Letter-winged Kites. We had lunch at Dead Fish Creek. We then rode through desolate areas with a few treelines and a few mesas, but little else. We saw a lot of Red Kangaroos along the way, both males and the females.
John found an active Wedge-tailed Eagle nest in a yellowwood tree. One can tell an active nest, because it is lined with fresh leaves, some of which come over the edge of the nest. Despite the huge size of the nest, it is only a couple of inches deep. John explained that the Cain and Abel phenomenon — an older stronger chick eating a younger weaker one — is rare with Wedge-tailed Eagles. It happens in almost all nests of Little Eagles, about 90 percent of Brahminy kite nests, and about 10 percent of White-bellied Sea-Eagle nests. Pacific Bazas do it also. As with virtually every other Wedge-tailed Eagle nest we saw, a lot of Zebra Finches were nearby.
At an afternoon stop, we saw a number of Black Honeyeaters, who are small with a large hooked bill — a bit like a scarlet honeyeater in size and shape. The male raised his head each time he sang his single-note song. He has a big black V on his breast. About three pairs were on this territory. We saw a Brown Songlark on the ground. We walked into an area where John once saw a grasswren undescribed by science. It was like an Eyrean, with black lines through the eyes. We looked for grasswrens in this area. We saw tracks, but no birds. Lots of large paddy melons were on the ground — they were honeydew size, but more the color of a watermelon.
We drove into Springvale Station, which is 172,500 hectares. We set up camp at Hunters Gorge beside the Diamantina River at about 5 p.m. Once again, pelicans were swimming near our campsite. The Aboriginal word for the area is Mundewerra. A sign near our tents described the Maiwali tradition as follows: "Yarma Coona was the spiritual Earth Mother of the Dreamtime. She lived in the sky and later came to earth. All people were linked to an invisible thread that she held in her left hand. She controlled the lives of her people, and if they wandered away for any length of time, she would pull them on the strings of the heart to make them ache so much that they would come home (Touri). When a person died, the thread would break and she would throw out her spirit net (the sky) and gather the souls into her heavenly Touri. ‘This is Yamma Coona's Dreaming Place.'"
After setting up my tent, I had a wash and a shave in a bucket of river water. I gave Diana a Wedge-tailed Eagle's secondary feather that Peter had found on the ground. The feather was brown, with a white base. At the same time, Scotty gave Diana a bustard feather, which was beige, but had a remarkably intricate pattern when you looked closely. We heard Brolgas calling just after sunset, which was gorgeous, with just a tiny sliver of a moon rising over a mesa. After dark, we saw a lot of stars and some meteors.
Thursday, July 31
Diamantina Gates National Park to Lark Quarry, 205K
After breakfast, we saw a gorgeous pair of Red-backed Kingfishers at our camp. They showed much more red on the back than I had seen before. The female had a lighter crown and greyer plumage, which appeared to have green around the edges and on the tail. The male has a one-note call like the Black Honeyeater, and his body made a little spasm each time he sang. Near camp, we saw a large dark male Wallaroo standing on top of a mesa. I noticed that in flight, pelicans have the "white headlights" on their wings like the White-necked Heron. We saw a large flock of Diamond Doves — we could hear a loud chorus of them.
We had a good look at a male and female Black Falcon. I saw the shallow wingbeat, gliding flight, small head, dark body, long pointed wings, and a long tail. They can fly very fast. While riding, we saw 6 Brolgas fly low over a field. Later we saw a pair of Brolgas in a field — one was dancing near the other. Compared to yesterday's desolate landscape, today's landscape in the Mount Edwards area featured a lot of red rocky mesas. Some looked like truncated pyramids — a couple of people on the tour said it reminded them of the Monument Valley in in Utah and Arizona.
A flock of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos landed in a tree, showing the red on their tail as they alit. We saw a flock of about 40 Apostlebirds; from a distance, they look like American blackbirds, but a bit larger. At the place we stopped for tea, we saw Fairy Martins and Tree Martins flying together, which is a reason not to assume that a large flock of martins is composed entirely of the first species you identify. While riding in the bus at midday, a big dust devil swirled across the ground, and we drove through it. Last night's camp had a lot of Mitchell grass around it. By midday today, we were back among the spinifex. We also were beginning to see termite mounds again — I saw none in the desert.
We headed toward Lark Quarry, arriving at about 1 p.m. We had lunch outside the Dinosaur Footprints Museum. A lot of us went on the museum tour after lunch. There were three types of dinosaurs who left footprints — two types of theropods, who were two-legged meat eaters of the order Saurischia (lizard-hipped), and one type of ornithopod, two-legged plant-eaters of the order Ornithischia (bird-hipped). I have never had much of an interest in dinosaurs, but standing in a place where they had previously stomped around made them seem less remote.
The ground at our campsite was extremely rocky. After trying to pitch my tent, I gave up on the pegs and held down the corners with four large rocks. Scotty told me to put my suitcase on the windward side of my tent, which would make the wind less likely to get under the edge and blow the tent down. We took an afternoon walk into the spinifex. Most of the first part of the walk was pretty quiet. We saw no grasswrens, Spinifexbirds, or Painted Firetails. The Painted Firetail builds a small cup nest at the top of a spinifex clump. We did not find any of the nests. Denise found a Short-beaked Echidna, who looked a lot like a brown clump of spinifex.
Later in the walk, we saw a Black Honeyeater harassing a female Rufous Whistler. John saw this and thought there must be a nest in the bush. Instead, there were two tiny, recently-fledged Black Honeyeaters, about half the size of an adult. The female Black Honeyeater is pale. A male was flying around in the area. John thought the two fledglings were about 15 days old and perhaps only one day out of the nest. They sat very still so as not to draw attention to themselves. They probably would be fed by their parents for about another ten days. We saw Crimson Chats and Singing and Brown Honeyeaters. Denise and Terry found some Rufous-crowned Emu-Wrens. We tried to relocate them and had fleeting glimpses. We could not find a nest, which John said is a tiny cup at the top of a green clump of spinifex. When we returned to camp, we walked down a hill to a nearby dam to fetch water. We had close looks at Cloncurry Parrots and Black-fronted Dotterels. I heard a Crested Bellbird, but I did not see it.
Friday, August 1
Lark Quarry to Winton, 110K
After we took down camp, we went for a walk. I heard a Striated Grasswren and had a fleeting glimpse of it flying and running, but I never got my binoculars on it. We saw the remains of a Wedge-tailed Eagle who had been shot. The primary feathers were noticeably longer than the secondary I had given Diana a couple days ago. Dave found one of the feet — it had three forward toes and one backwards toe that looked like a grappling hook. We saw a recently-fledged Rufous-crowned Emu-Wren; it was tiny and brown and unable to fly. It skittered on the ground from tussock to tussock. We saw the three-toed tracks of an Emu.
We stopped and birded in an area with spinifex clumps. I missed seeing a male Spinifexbird whom John, Denise and Diana saw. I later saw a female sitting on top of a spinifex tussock. She had a hunched look, with a long tail and long legs. The female is a bit paler than the male. The eyebrow on the female did not look as pronounced as in the field guide. Diana and others saw a perched Crested Bellbird. John found an old nest of a Crested Bellbird — a small cup in the crotch of a tree, about 12 feet above the ground. The center of the nest had been pulled out. John also showed us a Red-browed Pardalote nest hole in a mud bank. It was smaller than the hole made by nesting Red-backed Kingfishers. I saw two footmarks at the entry where the pardalote perched before hopping in.
We later explored an area where John saw Hall's Babbler nests. We walked into the mulga and looked at nests in various stages of construction, but we did not find the birds. We found an intact Crested Bellbird nest that was more substantial and higher in the tree than the one we had seen earlier. We did not see any Splendid Fairy-Wrens, a bird associated with mulga habitat.
We arrived in Winton at about 12:30 and set up camp at the same caravan park where we spent the first night of the trip. Jim had arrived ahead of us. We planned to eat dinner at Tatt's Hotel (short for Tattersall's) in Winton that night, so he did not have to worry about cooking. To occupy his time until we arrived, he began to erect our tents. The only two he had finished by the time we arrived were Denise's and mine, so I did not have to put up my tent for the final night. I helped a few other people with their tents, and then took a shower. The toilets and showers were labeled for "Jackeroos" and "Jilleroos."
In the afternoon, we headed into Winton. We went to a museum devoted to the song "Waltzing Matilda," which was first performed publicly in Winton in 1895. The museum gift shop sold copies of the Banjo Paterson book by Diana's brother-in-law Tim that he had given to me. We did a bit of shopping, and I picked up some gifts for people back in the States.
Saturday, August 2
Winton to Townsville, 580K
There was a "dawg chorus" at about 3 a.m. — a lot of howling dogs at the Winton Campgrounds. It was a reminder that we were leaving the solitude of the Outback and returning to the noise of civilization. Magpie-Lark chicks begged for food near our campsite.
We began the long drive back to Townsville. From the bus, we saw large flocks of Budgies, some of them mixed with flocks of Black-faced and White-browed Woodswallows. While we were driving, two bustards came out of a gully and flew in front of the bus. I was in the back left seat and could see one bustard veer to the side, while the other was hit by the front left side of the bus. The incident was upsetting for Scotty, who was driving, and for some of us who saw what happened.
We stopped for a break in Hughendon. A Pied Butcherbird was on the sidewalk near where we had tea. We had our final lunch at White Mountain National Park, about 140K west of Charters Towers. It is in the Great Dividing Range, 550 meters above sea level. A lot of graffiti was on the rocks. It was here we said good-bye to Jim, who had done such a great job feeding us over the past three weeks. In the afternoon as we approached Townsville, Michael noted that the trees began to look much bigger. We also began to see more termite mounds. We stopped for a bathroom break in Charters Towers at about 3:15. We soon saw the first traffic light since the joke one at the Mungerannie Pub. We arrived back at the Mercure Inn in Townsville after 5. We said good-bye to Scotty and John, who had done such a remarkable job during the trip, both in showing us wildlife and letting us have a lot of fun. Later, a lot of us got together for one final dinner in the dining room of the Mercure.
Sunday, August 3
Townsville to Brisbane and Scarborough
Eight of us — Margaret, Michael, Lyn, Desley, Terry, Denise, Diana and I — were all on a late morning flight to Brisbane. John had told us about a house in Townsville where a Rufous Owl perches in the backyard. The eight of us hired a taxi to go to the house before we headed to the airport. Michael had made arrangements for our visit. When we arrived at the house, Ian, the owner of the house, took us to the tree and pointed to the owl. It was holding a headless possum in its big yellow feet. The owl had a dark face and large, intense yellow eyes. There was barring on its breast. It stood very upright, and the general appearance was sleek, tall, and mean. It looked as much like a hawk as an owl. Ian said he has seen the owl feeding on birds up to the size of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Galahs.
The taxi driver waited while we looked at the owl. He was mildly interested, both because taking eight people to see a large fierce owl probably was not an everyday occurrence for him and because his mother was a birder. While we were at the house with the owl, some people saw the race of the Black-chinned Honeyeater with a golden back. On the way back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, I saw four Indian Mynas on a median strip nodding to each other. Earlier in the morning, I had observed a White Ibis at close range and saw the red sheen on its head, the red armpit line, and the pinkish tinge to its legs.
Our flight to Brisbane was uneventful. Diana and I were going to stay with the Michael and Margaret for a few days at their home in Scarborough. At baggage claim, we said good-bye to our four friends from the Gold Coast and headed out to Scarborough. The weather was beautiful, and on the way, we saw about 20 Pied Oystercatchers on some rocks. When we arrived in Scarborough, Diana presented Michael and Margaret with two paintings she had done on leaves — a male and a female Gang-gang Cockatoo. Michael and Margaret had never seen Gang-gang Cockatoos in the wild; when they visited Cooma and stayed with Diana and her mom, the Gang-gangs were not around. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and trying to clean three weeks of desert dust and grit off ourselves and our possessions.
Monday, August 4 to Thursday, August 7
Scarborough and Brisbane
Our three weeks in the desert was grueling, so we were not eager to do anything exceptionally vigorous on our first full day back. We spent time doing laundry and looking at some of the photographs Michael had taken during the trip. It felt odd to be in a place where we could turn on lights and look at mirrors.
Michael and Margaret had some birds in their yard, including Blue-faced and Brown Honeyeaters. Michael fed meat to the magpies who came into the yard; the females have more grey on the back of the head than the male, and she is smaller. Spotted Turtle-Doves were cooing. I saw a Spangled drongo, with its notched tail, sitting on a utility wire.
Around 3 p.m., we headed to the Redcliffe Botanical Gardens, which are about five years old. We saw a young Spotted Dove on the ground and four Laughing Kookaburras on a utility pole. We also saw a Grey Butcherbird. Earlier that day, I heard a Pied Butcherbird.
Afterwards, we went down to Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane's largest wetland. The wetlands are not far from the airport, and I had birded there in 1999. We saw a lot of good birds on our walk. We saw a Grey Fantail spreading its tail, a Leaden Flycatcher wagging its tail, a pair of Rufous Whistlers, and a pair of Mistletoebirds. We heard a Scarlet Honeyeater and a Grey Shrike-Thrush. I noticed that Crested Pigeons in flight have a square tail. From a hide next to the water, we saw a gorgeous Brahminy Kite, who had black wingtips and a yellow bill. We saw a Striated Heron, Darter, Pied and Little Black Cormorants, a Whistling Kite, and Rainbow Bee-eaters. The tide was high, but the wetlands were dry from a lack of rain. We saw flyover Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets and Pale-headed Rosellas. A male Collared Sparrowhawk flew over; it is small, with a small head and a square tail. We ran into a party of Red-backed Fairy-Wrens, including a male in breeding plumage. The female was a darker brown than the fairy-wrens we had seen on our desert trip, and the song seemed longer and harsher than some of the other fairy-wrens.
While we were walking around the wetlands, we saw a big rainbow in the sky. The rainbow proved not to be a good omen. When we returned to the parking lot at dusk, we discovered that the Michael's car had been broken into. The thief stole Margaret's purse, which contained her credit cards, keys to two cars, $20 in cash, and many personal items. Also stolen was the case to her binoculars. The thief stole Diana's cloth bag, which contained her sunglasses and the notebook with all of her field sightings from the desert trip. They stole all of the service records for the car. And they stole my green backpack, which was on the floor of the back seat. It contained my notebook with all of my daily lists from the trip, my signed Pizzey field guide, my binocular case, a spare pair of eyeglasses, stamps I had purchased for my bird stamp collection, my electronic plane tickets for my flights home, my list of names and addresses of all the trip participants, and many other items. A car parked two spaces away also had been broken into. We looked around to see if any of the items might have been discarded near the parking lot, but we found nothing. We saw a suspicious looking car parked nearby with a green backpack in the front seat, but there was not enough light to tell if the backpack was mine. In retrospect, I think it probably was. We drove to the police station and filed a report about the crime.
On Tuesday, we had to take care of details with the police and the insurance for the car repairs, which would cost an estimated $800. We returned to Boondall Wetlands around midday to see if any of our possessions might be there. We searched thoroughly around the parking lot and in an area suggested by one of the employees of the wetlands — apparently, a lot of people have had their cars robbed in this area. While in the parking lot, I saw a lovely male Chestnut Teal. Most of my attention was devoted to looking for our lost items, but birders can never fully leave birding mode. I later noticed a Pale-headed Rosella with fluff in its mouth, probably using it for nesting material. While driving, we saw our first Black-shouldered Kite of the trip.
Ultimately, we gave up on finding any discarded items. We headed back to the police station for an update, but there was no news. Near the police station, I saw a male Crested Pigeon chasing an unwilling female with his tail upraised; I saw the pink sheen on his wing. We stopped at a mall, and I purchased a replacement Pizzey guide. I figured that having an unsigned one would be better than being upset about not having my irreplaceable signed one — Graham had died of cancer. At the same time, I purchased the new Michael Morcombe guide, which I do not like as much as Graham's guide, but which has a lot of information about nests and eggs. I checked at a couple of post offices, and they did not have the stamps I had purchased earlier in the trip.
That evening, our friend Diane from 1996 Bird Week at O'Reilly's came over to Michael and Margaret's house for dinner at about 6:30. As we were preparing to eat, the police called to tell us that a woman had found my backpack while walking her dog about 20K from Boondall Wetlands. If we could get to the police station by 10 pm, we could claim everything. Otherwise, the backpack would be sent to a found property office and would not be claimable for three days. Considering I would be leaving in two days, we decided to go right after dinner. I felt bad asking Diane to spend our evening with her by driving to a police station, but she was glad to help. When we arrived, we had to wait until the officer on the case returned. When he did, he brought out the backpack. The only missing items were Margaret's $20 and the cloth bag that had held Diana's belongings. There was blood on some of my possessions (including my Pizzey guide), undoubtedly from when the thief broke the window. Diana's cloth bag probably was used as a bandage or handkerchief. It was still awful what happened to Michael's car, but all things considered, the situation could have had a much worse ending. And Diana, who did not previously have a Pizzey guide, now had the copy I had purchased that afternoon.
Wednesday was the last full day before Diana and I headed back to our respective homes in Cooma and Virginia. Michael and Margaret drove us past the Glasshouse Mountains (one looks like a gorilla, another looks like the back of the grim reaper), past Steve Irwin's zoo, to Mary Cairncross Park near Maleny. This 52-hectare park features subtropical rainforest habitat similar to O'Reilly's. Rainforest is one of my favorite habitats in which to bird, and I was happy to be able do at least one day of rainforest birding before I left.
Around the parking lot, Brush Turkeys chased each other; one had a tag with #34 on its wing. Lewin's Honeyeaters were vocal and visible. We had a great look at a Little Shrike-Thrush, who was very russet underneath, with a pinkish bill and pink legs. We saw a pair of Wompoo Pigeons relatively low; I saw the grey head, port-wine breast, yellow belly, and yellow slash on the green wing. We saw both Eastern Yellow Robins and a Pale Yellow Robin; the latter had white on its lores and a fat-headed appearance. We saw a male Golden Whistler singing over our heads and a female Rufous Whistler in the foliage. The Large-billed Scrubwren is well named; the bill looks out of proportion to the size of its head. These scrubwrens like to forage in vines, moving upward. A lot of Yellow-throated Scrubwrens hopped on the rainforest floor. We saw Brown Cuckoo-Doves and heard their familiar Didja walk call. I heard a Noisy Pitta's Walk to work call, but did not see the bird. I had a couple looks at Eastern Whipbirds. A lot of the male whipbird calls were not answered by a female, but I heard some female responses later in our walk. Logrunners were scratching in the leaves. We saw two different pairs; one male fed a female, and another male turned over a small rock while a female scratched nearby. A King Parrot pair had a nest in the gap of the trunk of a tree. I had a too-close-to-focus look at a Brown Gerygone and could see its little white eyebrow. We heard Olive-backed Orioles and Green Catbirds, but did not see them.
We had a pleasant lunch in the town of Montville. As we ate, kookaburras stood guard in nearby trees, hoping to scavenge something left on someone's plate after a meal. As we walked around some of the shops after lunch, we saw a group of White-headed Pigeons at a bird-bath; they birds are noticeably bigger than Rock Pigeons. Rainbow Lorikeets were in some of the trees, along with Lewin's Honeyeaters and Noisy Miners. As we headed home, we saw a flock of black-cockatoos, but I could not tell if they were Red-tailed or Yellow-tailed. Near sunset, we rode past some pelicans perched on utility poles. Considering that pelicans are so big and heavy and ski to a stop when landing in water, Diana wondered how they landed on top of the poles.
On Wednesday night, our last evening together, we had a delicious meal at a restaurant called the Golden Ox. The next morning, we left for Brisbane Airport before 9. My flight was scheduled to leave at about 11:20 and Diana's at 1:20. It was difficult to leave after such an amazing trip. Toward the end of the desert safari, I heard a couple of the participants say how quickly they thought the time had passed. I felt just the opposite. Every day was so full of rich and wonderful experiences that I felt as if I had been there for three months rather than three weeks. As I was leaving, I thought about what a wonderful experience I had in Australia.