Simpson Desert Expedition April 2015
Participants: Mark Carter (guide), Penny Evans
Pre-dawn pickup from Penny’s accommodation then we headed out of Alice Springs along the Santa Teresa Road. Stopped at a location near the airport where Chiming Wedgebills bred in Spring 2014 and have hung around in the area. As the sun broke the horizon large Budgie and Masked Woodswallow flocks roosting in mulgas and flying overhead were to set the scene for the days ahead. In the distance unmistakable notes of another Wedgebill singing from its territory drifted to us over the shrubs. Our bird was quick to respond, blustering its way up the inside of the Hakea it was probably roosting in to a prominent position where he could deliver his striking song in response.
Next stop was a eremophila lined drainage where I had found a pair of confiding Cinnamon Quail-thrush on a prior trip. Unfortunately these birds had apparently moved on so we decided to check out a nearby dam in the hope of a Banded Lapwing. Large flocks of Budgies and literally hundreds of Cockatiel were coming in to drink from the muddy water. As we started scanning around for the Lapwings a raptor came screaming across the scene in front of us sending the small parrots into panic. The bird pulled up, wheeled close by showing us its pale grey body and wings with a dark tip, bright yellow feet and yellow cere. “Grey Falcon!” shouted Penny. It was indeed.
We watched the bird perform a couple more high-speed passes, at one point making us gasp in fear as it just cleared a barbedwire fence by millimetres. For Penny this bird was a lifer, and for me it was the first Grey of the year and gave some of the best views I’ve had of this species in some time. Finally our bird tired of the evasive budgies and mobbing kestrel it had attracted and moved off to thicker cover to the north west of our position.
Elated by that unexpected ‘mega’ we set off again in earnest. Roads were in good condition so it was easy going all the way to Santa Teresa. After a brief stop to enjoy a hunting Spotted Harrier we settled down into the long stretch of dirt road driving to take us out of the Central Ranges and into the Simpson Desert. Following the burnt ochre of the Arookara Range the vivid red of the Simpson’s long ancient sand dunes were a marked contrast. Our road settled into following a long swale and it seemed like no time at all until we were speeding through prime unburnt dunes. We pulled in beside a particularly fine specimen of a vegetated dune and set off to stretch our legs before breaking out lunch.
Conditions had been breezy in the morning but by this point it had become downright windy so we sought out a spot where the shape of the dune crest created a little shelter. After just five minutes I heard the distinctive contact call of an Eyrean Grasswren coming on the wind from a large stand of old canegrass. The bird fired off a brief burst of their unique bubbling trill but refused to budge from cover- I didn’t blame it as the wind was fierce by that point! We retreated back to the vehicle to eat lunch.
Next stop was the Mac Clarke Acacia Peuce Conservation Reserve, a small reserve on rolling gibber plain established to protect the Waddywood tree, an incongruous tall acacia with wood so dense that termites can’t eat it. This resilience was nearly the plant’s undoing as it was harvested by early settlers for fence posts and building timber until only a handful of the trees remained. Attracted by these trees- the only ones for many kilometres- Black Kites soared overhead and Kestrels hovered everywhere we looked. A familiar trill reached us through the wind and we located a pair of Banded Whiteface in a Waddywood sapling close by. I quickly got the scope set up and we enjoyed knockout views of these sweet little birds as they foraged among the gibber. Unlike most small passerines the Banded Whiteface (and the Chestnut-breasted species to the south) seem to actively enjoy windy conditions.
Further to the south we had a brief stop to fruitlessly chase some particularly yellowy-coloured chats which flushed from the roadside as we entered a dune swale swamp. This was close to a location where I found yellow chats in 2011 so I was keen to investigate further but unfortunately it was all too easy for these birds to ride the winds away from us before we could get a good view.
By late afternoon we rolled up to the historic Old Andado homestead. Last inhabited by Molly Clarke, a famous Territorian, the place is now kept running by her grandchildren as a museum and visitor attraction offering a remarkable glimpse of life as it was last century in a remote hand-built homestead. The interior of the house is as Molly left it when she finally moved to a retirement home in Alice Springs, a time capsule from an older Australia now quickly fading from modern memory. Attracted by the water remaining in the nearby swamp Zebra Finch breed here in numbers, and both Fairy Martins and Welcome Swallows nest under the elevated water tank. We established ourselves in one of the basic rooms provided for travellers and set off to explore the landscape around the homestead before the sun set. On some nearby dunes we quickly found some White-winged Fairy Wrens, the male leader’s cobalt and white plumage standing out against the glowing red sunset sand. Further on we again found a party of calling Eyrean Grasswrens which wouldn’t break cover despite the slackening winds. Finally we headed back to the homestead to eat dinner- a hearty beef and winter vegetable stew. As the last hues of dusk faded and the darkness really set in we got into the vehicle for some spotlighting. Hoping for Inland Dotterels we were repeatedly excited then slightly disappointed as dozens of Banded Lapwings leapt from our headlights. One hung around giving us excellent close views. Despite the cool windy conditions we found one reptile active, a Lucasium stenodactylum, a gecko known to take advantage of cooler conditions to avoid predatory reptiles which prefer warmer nights. We also had a fleeting glimpse of a Dunnart but couldn’t get close to it for a positive ID before it disappeared down a hole in the cracking clay in a dune swale. We returned to the homestead tired but happy, and lone Barn Owl screech called from the dunes as the moon rose over the horizon. The slackening wind gave us hope the next day would be good birding.
The morning brought calmer conditions. We set about breakfasting and packing up early. While I was on the roof of the truck securing our swags a series of familiar screeches broke over the nearby dunes. I shouted to Penny who was photographing the buildings “Major Mitchells!”. The family of 12 birds flew in with their tumbling slow flight, all squawking and swooping. A few settled in the tree beside my car and the rest lined the old Comet wind turbine just meters from the homestead. Our cameras came out and hundreds of photos were taken! Major Mitchell Cockatoos are not a rare bird in central Australia but they can be a tricky one to predict, living in family groups which patrol long stretches of rivers and don’t follow much of a daily pattern in their activities so a flock, especially one as friendly as this is always something to savour. Central Australia has the mollis subspecies of this bird- the principal difference being in the crest which contains no yellow colour, just a lush pink. After this welcome distraction we went back to packing.
I was again back on the roof of the truck when some fast moving specks zooming over the dune caught my eye. Short tails, wide powerful wings, deep chests and powerful direct flight- “Flock Bronzewings!” I called out and again Penny came running, camera ready. Four birds initially blasted overhead, two peeled off and headed north, the remaining two doing wide low laps around the homestead, obviously assessing the wisdom of landing to drink at the last remnant of the swamp near the house. One bird, a male, landed under the Athel Pine which the Cockatoos had just been in. The other came down on an outbuilding behind the house. On realising there were people around the male bird burst into the air again, made a few more passes then set off to the south. The remaining bird on the outhouse, a juvenile, came down to ground level and proceeded to walk leisurely to the remaining water giving us excellent views in the process.
By the time all this was over and we had finally packed the vehicle we were quite behind schedule but couldn’t be happier- what a start to the day!
We stopped at a dune near Old Andado homestead where I had seen Eyrean Grasswren before and sure enough as we crested the dune on foot a lightning-fast grasswren shape bounded past and over a ridge. We followed the party, often having having to use their distinctive tracks in the sand as they tried to elude us. We got good if brief views of a couple of birds as they posed in the open for half-second before rocketing off! These have to be one of the most athletic of grasswrens- very quick at covering open ground. The dune was productive for other wildlife. Several Ctenotus Skinks scuttled out of our way and even a Moon Snake Furina ornate was spotted basking briefly.
After another stop to enjoy a large feeding flock of Orange Chats we took the the Binns Track to Mt.Dare. The beginning of this route runs through some fine gibberplain country and we were alert for any possible Gibberbirds but a large number of Nankeen Kestrel in the area feasting on the large Grasshoppers which were everywhere probably put paid to that- the Australian Pipits in the area were few and looked very nervous!
Just past Mt Day heading south are some low rocky rises which looked to my eyes to be good Chestnut-breasted Whiteface habitat so we stopped here for a search. The Chestnut-breasted Whiteface is the hardest of the whiteface family to find and its generally considered to be a rare state endemic in South Australia. There are however scattered records from the NT and WA border and considering the bird’s low density, continuity of habitat and lack of observers picking one up on the NT side of the border isn’t unlikely. As we searched the trill of a whiteface reached our ears from distant scrub but with scope we could see they were Banded Whiteface again. As we walked the high frequency ‘seep’ of a Quail-thrush stopped me in my tracks. A little quiet observation revealed two birds, Cinnamon Quail-thrush, sheltering under a shrub. One, the male flushed and flew some distance but the female bird held its ground for a while allowing us good views.
About halfway to Mt.Dare the Binns Track enters Mayfield Swamp, an outlying part of the extensive Finke River floodout. The Finke River running some 600km from the West MacDonnell Ranges into the sands of the Simpson Desert is remarkable for many reasons- it is the last river in Australia to remain free of feral fish, and there are signs that parts of the river have followed the same course for many millions of years leading some to call it the worlds oldest river. I’d heard that Mayfield swamp had been flooded just a few weeks before and while the ground was a verdant green and the trees a lush emerald, no water remained. Great flocks of Masked Woodswallows sallied and hawked over the clearings. As we progressed south following the Finke we saw many other desert river species including breeding Budgies in tree hollows, a highlight being a Black-breasted Buzzard soaring low over us at one point.
We crossed into South Australia and almost immediately the landscape changed as we left the Finke and headed into bluebush heathlands. A few stops produced Crimson Chats and several singing Chiming Wedgebill. Just a few kilometres from Mt.Dare we stopped on a gibberplain to view huge flocks of budgies feeding on the scattered grasses, a spectacular sight.
Arriving at Mt.Dare we were greeted by White-bellied Woodswallows feeding over the reception car park and Australian Ravens perched on dead trees- these birds don’t excite anyone else but living in Alice Springs these are species I don’t see often so I was pretty pleased to catch up with them here.
At the bar in the roadhouse we ran into some researchers I know from Alice Springs who are studying Plains Mouse, a rare poorly known rodent which enjoys the gibberplains between Mt.Dare and Old Andado. They had success over the previous nights mammal trapping which convinced us we should go spotlighting after dinner. We set off and almost straight away found a mammal- a Fat-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis macroura which we got good close views of before it bolted down a burrow. Further on we surprised a couple of Banded Lapwings and a Bustard- the only one of the trip.
That night we were serenaded in our cabins by a Southern Boobook- it always amazes me how intrepid these little owls can be, all they seem to need is a good roosting tree and they can thrive in the harshest deserts.
Waking early we packed the vehicle and, after a session taking photos of the 100s of Budgies drinking at the pond by reception headed off for the next part of our adventure. We stopped at multiple locations on the Mt.Dare-New Crown Rd searching for Thick-billed Grasswren. This bird was last recorded in the NT in this area over a decade prior and I was keen to have a search for it. In the process we stumbled across a lot of great birds, most memorably a cloud of Orange Chats at one site which fluttered around us almost close enough to touch and at another site we flushed a small troop of Bourkes Parrots. Two resettled in a tree close to us and we were treated to extended views of these subtly beautiful parrots, one of my all time favourite birds. Hundreds of Cockateils and many Budgies were in the area too- it was noisy!
All too soon it was time to put our foot down and cover the ground on the way back to Alice Springs. Bad corrugations on the old Ghan Railway Line Road made the going tough so we had regular stops for birding. Crested Bellbirds and Chiming Wedgebills seemed to be everywhere, and White-backed Swallows were an almost constant sight as we drove. After one last call in at Ewaninga Reserve to view the remarkable rock carvings and stretch our legs we rolled into Alice Springs on dusk, tired but happy with our time birding in some of the most dramatic landscapes Australia has.
To view dates and itineraries of future expeditions visit the Simpson Desert Wildlife Expedition page