The group convened at the Elkira Motel on Saturday afternoon and headed out to the Desert Park, spotting Galahs, a Black Kite and Magpie Lark on the way. At the entrance to the park, a small bird with white in its tail flew across our path (Southern Whiteface, perhaps?) and we set off in search of it. There were Zebra Finches and Yellow-rumped Thornbills on show, and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and a Red-browed Pardalote called.
Once into the park, there was plenty to see amongst the beautifully landscaped plantings of the desert rivers, sand country and woodland communities. Singing and White-plumed Honeyeaters darted between the Eremophilas and the air rang with the calls of Crested Bellbird and Chiming Wedgebill. The day's bird list was later divided between wild birds (which received a tick) and caged birds (marked with a 'C') as we entered a number of the exhibits to view the avian inhabitants of the red centre. Among those species marked with a 'C' were Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Painted Finch, Princess Parrot, Black-chinned Honeyeater (the Golden-backed form, performing laps of the Desert Rivers exhibit) and Red-tailed Black-cockatoo. The nocturnal house proved fascinating, and the Spinifex Hopping-mice particularly were in great form, dashing and jumping athletically across the sand.
The following morning we headed out along the East McDonnell Ranges, picking up Whistling and Black-shouldered Kites and Black-faced Woodswallows along the roadside. Our first roadside stop of the day yielded Inland Thornbill and a little later, Red-rumped Parrots (a nice surprise!). At Corroboree Rock, it was a little cool and correspondingly quiet: a pair of Hooded Robins was a treat, plus good views of a Mistletoebird (in a Harlequin Mistletoe) but no Painted Finch, despite the abundance of Spinifex.
At Mount Benstead Creek, the Yellow-throated Miners were drawing attention to themselves and we got to grips with the differences between them and their close cousins the Noisy Miners, observing their white rumps in flight. A Pied Butcherbird joined the fray and Striated Pardalotes, too. Beneath the rock-face, Weebills were calling and as we returned to the bus, we got good views of a Western Bowerbird, his beautiful pink nape flashing in the sun.
On the way into Trephina Gorge, we made a brief stop for a Hooded Robin, then followed a calling Red-browed Pardalote, trying to get a view of this frustratingly cryptic bird, and stumbled on a Grey Fantail. At the carpark, Peaceful Dove was calling and flew in for a better look. Walking up the gorge, we followed a pair of Grey Shrike-thrushes plus another female, identified by her streaky throat. In the mulga above the gorge, Inland Thornbills ducked and weaved through the foliage.
Heading back towards town, we stopped for swallows and found Variegated Fairy-wren instead - a bonus to see one male in breeding plumage. Olive Pink Botanic Gardens was packed with people attending the Eco-fair and the cafe was doing an amazing job of keeping up with the lunch orders. Grey-crowned Babblers joined us, as did Ringnecks and Spotted Doves. Rita discovered the Western Bowerbird's bower nearby.
Simpson's Gap was our afternoon destination, and it proved a popular spot! We managed to tempt a Dusky Grasswren down from the hills and spotted a Willie Wagtail at the pool. As the crowds dissipated, the Dusky Grasswrens became braver and at one point we had 4 hopping around us on the footpath!
Cassia Hill was our final stop of the day where a pair of Mistletoebirds chased through the mulga.
Monday morning we headed north-west, picking up a Little Crow, Magpie and Crested Pigeon on the way out of town. At the Tanami Road turnoff, a brisk walk brought us the usual Singing Honeyeaters and Hooded Robin, plus White-browed Babblers and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, and a calling Torresian Crow (with its tenor 'nark', opposed to the Little Crow's Baritone 'unk'). Further on, we stopped for a pair of Red-backed Kingfishers sitting on the power line and a Pipit, hopping across a bullock carcase!
A walk through the mulgas to the Spinifex beyond brought us a swag of Zebra Finches, Southern White-faces and Yellow-rumped Thornbills. A Crested Bellbird made a brief appearance, hopping between the tussocks.
At Kunoth Bore, the water had disappeared but the Hooded Robins were there to greet us! A flock of Cockatiels vanished behind the tree line and on the way out, we got magical views of a pair of Mulga Parrots (minutes after the guide had assured the bus that we wouldn't be seeing them on this trip...).
Hamilton Downs was the next stop and well worth it for lovely views of a pair of Red-capped Robins hunting beneath the Mulgas. There were Inland Thornbills here, too, and at the Eremophilas further down the road, plenty of Singing Honeyeaters taking advantage of the nectar.
Back into town for lunch at the Telegraph Station, serenaded by Red-browed Pardalote and with Tree Martins flitting overhead. A female Wallaroo was waiting for us in the car park and a Central Bearded Dragon skilfully avoided the bus' tyres on the way out.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the STW, a smorgasbord of waterfowl and waders! Black Swans, Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes, Pacific Black Ducks and Grey Teal at the first ponds, plus a Long-toed Stint skulking amongst the rocks, Black-winged Stilts and a large flock of loafing Red-necked Avocets. Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels and Red-capped Plovers skittered along the edges of the ponds and we chased calling Little Grassbirds all the way to the hide. Finding some shade here, we sat for a while, waiting for the Fairy-wrens to show themselves. Returning to the gate, we found a small flock of Little Corellas on the south side while Bernice and Janene picked up Orange Chat on the north side.
Tuesday morning and it was time to head westwards to Glen Helen along the West MacDonnell Ranges. On the Glen Helen Road, the Mallee was in flower and Grey-headed Honeyeaters were taking advantage. At Ormiston Gorge, a small flock of 9 Spinifex Pigeons came running to greet us, giving perfect views of these delightfully-coloured birds. On the edge of the campsite to the west, there was a great deal of activity as Brown Honeyeaters vied with Grey-headed, Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters for the nectar in the Eremophilas. Heading out onto the Larapinta Trail, we finally got a view of the elusive Red-browed Pardalote and saw the back of a Spinifexbird as it scarpered into its favourite grassy tussock! Up onto the hills and Brian pointed out two passing Major Mitchell Cockatoos. The mature Spinifex gave way to recently-burned tussocks, so we abandoned the hunt for Painted Finch and returned to the pool at the gorge to see Australasian Grebes and White-necked Herons hunting in the water. On the way back to the carpark, a Western Gerygone led us around a mulga bush.
At Glen Helen we walked down to the reeds after lunch and picked up two new species: a Purple Swamphen, which appeared to be constructing a nest, and Australian Reed Warbler, darting in and out of the Phragmites.
Our next stop was the Ochre Pits with their remarkably swirling coloured rock and a Firetail Skink! Splendid Fairy-wrens hopped through the Spinifex as we returned to the bus. On our way back to town we stopped for a raptor: a Black-breasted Buzzard flew overhead, its black wing-tips and white blaze unmistakable in the afternoon light.
Finally, we had one last look at Simpson's Gap, reacquainting ourselves with the Dusky Grasswrens and spotting 5 Black-footed Rock-wallabies on the boulder scree above the river bed.
On day 5, we headed south on the Santa Theresa Road, where the road works proved a blessing in disguise...first we picked up a Spotted Harrier, cruising overhead, then one small flock of Budgies, then another, then a swarm crossed the road ahead of us! Where were they heading? Janene spotted some water over to the left and we crossed the road, to the horror of the men in high visibility gear, to a small dam created to provide water for keeping the dust on the road at bay. It was proving far more useful to birdwatchers, however, enticing not only Budgerigars but lots of Honeyeaters, Crimson Chats, Cockatiels and a pair of hunting Hobbies. The men in high vis were bemused but tolerant!
At the Spinifex ridge, we began searching for Rufous-crowned Emu-wrens. It was very windy and, if there were any Emu-wrens around, they were sensibly lying low. Wedge-tailed Eagles soared overhead and White-winged Fairy-wrens darted between the tussocks. Downslope, a family of Pied Butcherbirds were carolling in the Mallee.
Heading back towards town, we stopped for a walk towards a gully of Ghost Gums: a mixed flock of Southern Whiteface, Yellow-rumped and Inland Thornbills flew ahead of us and a male Rufous Whistler, with the pale breast of the inland form, made a welcome appearance.
Santa Theresa Quarry looked promising and we chased White-browed Babblers through the Mulga. Even in this arid landscape there was fungi around: the dark vegetable caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sp.) was spotted emerging from the dusty red earth. On the way to the Maryvale Road, a Red-backed Kingfisher was spotted on the powerlines and White-browed and Masked Woodswallows flew overhead.
Our lunch stop was at Ewaninga Rock, where a curious female Rufous Whistler watched us munch on sandwiches. After a circuit of the rocks and pteroglyphs, we headed south again, with a change of seating arrangements as the guide was sent to the back of the bus and Brian took over shotgun! The vegetation was noticeably different: Blue Mallee at Ewaninga Rock then Desert Oak further on, the juvenile trees like hippy poplars, the mature trees strikingly majestic. We stopped at some sandhills, where the White-backed Swallows swooped and in flew a small flock of Varied Sittellas (the black-capped form). The guide cleverly discovered a couple of Little Button-quail, which she flushed from the Spinifex for all the group to see.
Further on, a roadside dam proved very productive with a flock of 16 White-backed Swallows hawking for insects over the water, Red-capped Robin, Crimson Chat and White-winged Fairy-wrens hopping through the scrub. We arrived at Maryvale, much to Janene's surprise, then turned around in search of the Mount Peachy Road, which gave us our only views on the trip of Red Kangaroos, a pair. At our brief stop at the road house on the Stuart Highway, a couple of Emu eyed us off from behind a fence.
Our final morning started at Gosse Street and the Telegraph Station Trails. It was very cool in the shade and the birds were only just getting warmed up as we began to climb the hill. Black-footed Rock-wallabies were sunbathing on the hilltop and Red-browed and Striated Pardalotes were clearing their throats. As the day warmed up, more and more birds appeared: Mistletoebird, Singing, Brown and White-plumed Honeyeater, Whistling Kite and Little Crow. We headed towards a patch of Mulga, in one final attempt to track down a Redthroat. Then, a Redthroat called! It flew overhead and we followed it across a small gully. Bernice decided it was one gully too far and she would wait for us. We tracked down the Redthroat and were treated to a fine vocal performance and beautiful views.
Heading back to the bus, we saw our old mate the Hooded Robin, and then headed out to the STW for one final try for the Orange Chat. Tree and Fairy Martins sat on the fence, watching our progress. We headed straight for the large northern pond and the guide picked up some movement on the shoreline: female Orange Chat! As the group converged on the optimum viewing spot, the male made an appearance - perfect. Then it flew across our path and into thick vegetation around the opposite pond, at which point Stephen admitted he hadn't seen it! A Pelican and Silver Gull capped off the bird list and we farewelled Alice with a total of 101 birds.
By Tiffany Mason guiding for FTB