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Alice Springs to Uluru Tour Report
The inaugural trip, Alice Springs to Uluru via Glen Helen Gorge and the Mereenie Loop road proved to be a very successful adventure for the eight people who participated. The weather was great, the company terrific and there were plenty of birds with 136 species being seen within the 8 days of this trip through the desert regions on Central Australia. The Big Wet of 2010/11 that brought tremendous regrowth to the deserts regions of Central Australia has now dried out and in some places we passed through, there had been recent grassfires that had blackened the landscape, but as some birds forage in newly burnt out areas, there were some advantages when it came to seeing more birds on the ground. The morning of our first full day (9/9) was spent in the east McDonnell Ranges, with stops at Emily & Jennie Gorges, Corroboree Rocks and Trephina Gorge. The highlights of this area was seeing the only flock of Budgerigars on the trip, Zebra Finches, Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoos,great views of a hunting Spotted Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Rainbow Bee-eaters and many bright blue male Splendid Fairy-wrens in all their spring colours! Diamond Doves were found to be common, and our first of many Grey-headed Honeyeaters were seen at Corroboree Rock. The afternoon was spent at the Alice Springs Sewerage Treatment ponds, and we were overwhelmed with all the species present. Migratory waders like Common, Wood and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers had obviously recently arrived along with a pair of colour-banded Red Knots. There were thousands of ducks mostly Great Teal and some Pink-ears, many Coots, a flock of 12 Orange Chats, and other Australian migrants like Australian Pratincoles and Sacred Kingfishers.

The next two days were spent in the West MacDonnell Ranges, visiting Simpsons Gap, Serpentine, Ormiston, Redbank and Glen Helen Gorges and exploring the wetlands along the Finke River, while staying two nights at the historic Glen Helen Gorge Lodge. Overall, seasonal conditions were good here, there had been some recent rains, and the highlights included finding a pair of Dusky Grasswrens at Simpsons Gap; Baillon’s & Spotted Crakes, Buff-banded Rail, Great and Intermediate Egrets in the Finke River wetlands; 3 Ground Cuckoo-shrikes, Black-fronted Dotterels, Crested Bellbirds and Little Woodswallows in Redbank Gorge; Red-backed Kingfisher & Little Button-quail at Serpentine Gorge and Pink Cockatoos at Ormiston Gorge. The time spent at the Glen Helen Lodge gave us all an opportunity to catch up on the aboriginal cultural history and European settlement history of the Region.

Dusky Grasswren by Christine Melrose
The next day (12/9) we were off along the Mereenie Loop Road to Kings Canyon, hoping to see Princess Parrots enroute but knowing that none had been reported in the area since their major breeding event had finished at the end of 2010. Unfortunately more than half of the country along the 200 km road had recently been burnt in grass/bushfires so that there was little to see in many places. However we did get to see more Red-backed Kingfishers, a party of Grey-fronted Honeyeaters, Hooded & Red-capped Robins, Zebra Finches, Mulga Parrots and good numbers of Nankeen Kestrels and Brown Falcons, obviously there were still plenty of grasshoppers and mice around! We stayed overnight at the Kings Canyon Resort, and marvelled at the sunset on the canyons in the evening, and the sunrise in the canyons the following morning! Just as we were about to go for a walk next morning, we were enthralled by a flight of 177 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos ( of the isolated race c.b.samuelsi), flew in lines over our rooms and headed for some favourite feeding ground. Elsewhere in the Resort grounds Spinifex Pigeons, Ringneck Parrots, Crested Bellbirds and a Sacred Kingfisher were found and new birds added were to our list!

We spent the first part of Tuesday (13/9) exploring the Gorge Walk at Kings Canyon, where we had great views of more Spinifex Pigeons, Zebra Finches, Hooded Robins, Diamond Doves, Ringneck Parrots and Grey-headed Honeyeaters. From here we moved along to Kathleen Springs where we added Brown Goshawk and all had great views of Red-browed Pardalotes, a bird often heard but very hard to find! Finally we left the ranges and headed to Yulara Resort at Uluru accross the Mulga, Grass and Saltbush Plains of the Region. We stopped on the way to check out the birds which included Black-breasted Buzzard, Masked Woodswallows, Red-capped Robins and more Little Button-quails and paused to see Curtain Springs Roadhouse, Mt Connor in the distance and some of the salt lakes of the Region.

Uluru at dusk with the group
Wednesday (14/9) was spent on a day trip to Katatjuta National Park and the Docker River Road. One of the first birds we saw as we left Yulara, was several pairs of Crimson Chats feeding in flowering Eremophilas beside the road. There was a quick exit from the coach to see these birds and more were seen in the same vicinity later in the day. Another Red-backed Kingfisher was seen at the Katatjuta Lookout. A large group of Brown Quail and many Crested Bellbirds were a feature of the Katatjuta NP car parks while Little Woodswallows coud be seen hawking over the Gorges, and Western Bowerbirds, Zebra Finches and Little Button-Quail were found around the bases of the mountains. We drove along the Docker River road for about 15 kms looking for birds along the way and here we found the highlight of the trip, a small flock of 6 Bourke’s Parrots, along with two Budgerigars and two Mulga Parrots all roosting together in a low tree to escape the heat of th sun! Also found in this area was another Black-breasted Buzzard, twisting and turning in the sky and showing off his lovely underwing bullseye pattern as well as a pair of Brown Goshawks, and we had great views again of breeding plumaged male Splendid Fairy-wrens.

The last morning was spent visiting Uluru itself and taking the Kuniya Walking track to the waterhole and other walks around the northern section of The Rock! Here we were able to renew our acquaintances with an Australian Hobby that was harassing the birds at the waterhole. We watched the Grey-headed and White-plumed Honeyeaters bathing in the waterhole, as well as the Black-faced and Little Woodswallows flying up the gorges and walls of the Rock. Once again a Black-breasted Buzzard joined our group and delighted us with his flying skills. From here we left for the Uluru Airport where we said our farewells to each other and thanked our driver and local Guide, Lee Major who did a sterling job in catering for our meals, and shared his prodigous knowledge with us of the local aboriginal culture, the wildlife and plant life of the Region. For Rae, Jane, Joan, Ian, Duncan, Robin, Christine and Bernice it had been a time of great birding experiences, new birds to add to their life lists, and to enjoy the the scenery and wildlife of this part of the Central Australia Desert at a time when it was looking at its best!

By Alan Morris Ornithologist for FTB.

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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer