I recently spent a few days of birding in the Red Center of Australia following six weeks of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. My mate Gavin Goodyear from Brisbane joined me. Despite our local guide cancelling on us at the last moment we had a very successful trip as we managed to find all our main targets including Western Bowerbird, Dusky and Striated (Sandhill) Grasswren, Rufous-crowned Emu-Wren, Slaty-backed Thornbill, Banded Whiteface, Grey Honeyeater, Cinnamon Quail-Thrush and Painted Finch. We provide some up-to-date info on sites and key species as this seems to be a bit hard to come across.
29 Oct: Fly from Brisbane to Alice Springs, drive to Erldunda
30 Oct: Birding around Erldunda and along Lasseter Hwy to Ayer’s Rock/Uluru
31 Oct: Erldunda a.m., drive to Alice, Mount Gillen p.m.
1 Nov: Kunoth Bore a.m., rest of day along Santa Teresa Road
2 Nov: Santa Teresa Road a.m., Ormiston Gorge p.m.
3 Nov: Fly back to Brisbane via Sydney
I flew with Qantas from Brisbane via Sydney. Although I booked my flights almost five months in advance, this still cost me AUD 749.
We hired a Nissan X-Trail with unlimited kilometres from Central Car Rentals (http://www.centralcarrentals.com.au/) for AUD 170 per day. This was the best deal we came across and can duly recommend them. We spent approximately AUD 275 on fuel over six days.
We stayed at two different sites, both excellent for our purposes:
Desert Oaks Roadhouse, Erldunda (http://erldundaroadhouse.com/) – AUD 149 per night for twin room.
Stuart Caravan Park and Cabins, Alice Springs (http://www.stuartcaravanpark.com.au/) – AUD 90 per night for a cabin.
We had booked a local bird guide, Mark Carter, to take us around on the 1st November in order to increase our chances of finding such tough species as Grey Honeyeater and Rufous-crowned Emu-Wren, and to allow easier access to the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. He charges AUD 440 for a full day of guiding without a car, and AUD 670 with the use of his car. As it turned out, Mark cancelled on us the afternoon before we were meant to go out with him, stating that he had contracted the flu and did not want to pass it on to us and that his coughing would probably scare away any birds. As we had both come a long way, we replied that this would not be an issue for us and we would be very glad if there was any chance he could join us anyway or provide details on how to locate our target birds. Unfortunately, he was not keen on the former and did not provide any helpful site notes besides what is widely available online and in old trip reports. Furthermore, species such as Grey Honeyeater which he had stated just a week prior would be easy to find with his help, were now apparently very scarce and tough to find. Needless to say, we were both highly disappointed with his services, or lack thereof. Fortunately, we still managed to find all our main targets on our own, but it did mean that we did not get the opportunity to visit the famous sewage ponds, which we had both looked forward to.
The Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club has a website (http://alicefieldnaturalists.org.au/) with lots of notes on sites and species of the region. Although most of the info appears to be old we found the notes to be very helpful.
Most birders come here for a chance of Banded Whiteface and Cinnamon Quail-Thrush. The best-known site is approximately 20km north of Erldunda. We parked on the western side of the road (-25.012921, 133.199809) at a site easily recognisable by two larger trees some way from the road (western side). Notice that all the land here is fenced off which means that you can’t venture very far from the road. However, we still managed to find both our target species here, the quail-thrush on our first afternoon and the whiteface the morning after. We also saw our only Chiming Wedgebills a few kms further south. They were associating with a group of White-browed Babblers just beyond the fence. We also saw Banded Whitefaces in an area south of Erldunda that had similar habitat to the previous site. We also had some very productive night drives along the Lasseter Hwy seeing King Brown Snake, a Brown Snake (probably Western), Western Scaly-foot and six species of gecko, including Smooth Knob-tailed Gecko.
Given that we had already seen Banded Whiteface and Cinnamon Quail-Thrush near Erldunda we decided to embark on the 526km roundtrip to Ayer’s Rock hoping to see something interesting along the way. As we found out this is still a site worth visiting for Striated Grasswren, although we had the impression that they were unlikely to be seen in a single visit. We found a very confiding individual in the Sunset Viewing Car Park, approximately halfway between the National Park Entrance and the rock itself. Note that it costs AUD 25 per adult to enter the park. We also went all the way to the base of the rock, but didn’t see anything of note apart from some Grey-headed Honeyeaters and a Sand Monitor. We didn’t see many birds along the Lasseter Highway either, apart from several groups of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo and some White-backed Swallows, all within 100km of Erldunda.
Well-known site for Dusky Grasswren, although Emu-wrens are also possible. We succeeded in finding the grasswren along the path that lead towards a distinctive saddle at the western edge of the mountain. In order to access this site, park by the Flynn’s Grave monument on Larapinta Drive, approximately 7km from the town center. The path is found by going through a gate approximately 100 m west of the car park. Other birds here included a brief Spinifex Pigeon on the path going up the slopes, as well as Splendid Fairwren, Inland Thornbill, Southern Whiteface, Little Woodswallow and Grey Shrikethrush.
Olive Pink Botanic Gardens
A good site to visit for Western Bowerbird, but it also used to be a well-known Grey Honeyeater site. Entry is free of charge and there is quite a few birds around, as well as Euros and Black-footed Rock-Wallabies in the surrounding cliffs. Various honeyeaters were hanging around the pool by the café, but despite recent reports of White-fronted and Grey-fronted Honeyeaters we saw neither.
The best-known site for Grey Honeyeater. Most people seem to connect with Slaty-backed Thornbill here as well. The site is located along the Tanami Road north of Alice Springs. The turnoff to the bore is approximately 31km from the Stuart Highway and is signposted to Hamilton Downs Youth Camp and the bore is easily visible from the Tanami Road just before you reach the turnoff. We parked approximately 50m beyond the entrance gate (-23.515111, 133.579280) and walked along an easily visible cowpath that goes through the scrub towards the bore. We found both the honeyeater and thornbill along this path within 15 mins of our arrival. This area was very birdy and we also saw Mulga Parrot, Ringneck, Red-capped Robin, Southern Whiteface and White-browed Babbler. If you have no luck here, it is probably worth continuing down the road towards the youth camp stooping at regular intervals to bird the mulga.
Santa Teresa Road
One of the best known site for birds such as Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Dusky Grasswren and Spinifexbird. Despite hours and hours of searching here on our first day, we saw neither, likely due to the heat. We searched several areas of spinifex, all on the southern side of the road, but to no avail. To access the area, go straight through the roundabout by the airport, signposted to Santa Teresa. The best-known site is the “tyre-in-pole” site, where a tyre has been stuck in an electrical pole on the left-hand side of the road, but we also searched several areas further along the road. Although the “tyre-in-pole” has been reported to be as much as 33km from the roundabout we found it to be 31.1km from the roundabout. Thus, we actually missed the site on the first visit. The reason for this discrepancy might be due to road improvements, in fact several kms of the road had been tarmacked between our first and second visit here!
Despite an unsuccessful first visit, we returned just after dawn the next day. This time we focused on the “tyre-in-pole” site, hoping that some emu-wrens would be present, despite the dry conditions and recent reports that the site had been destroyed. Although, there appears to have been some recent road construction here it appeared to have ceased. Thus, there is now a small-side road on the southern side of the main road (opposite the tyre-pole) that goes up to the top of the ridge. We parked our car here, and spent most of our time searching the spinifex south of this area, both on top of the ridge and in the flatter areas to the west of the ridge. We found both Spinifexbird and the grasswren in the former area, and the emu-wren in the latter. Apart from these species, we didn’t see much else here. However, we came across a pair of Cinnamon Quail-Thrushes along the road a few kms back and we also saw our only Crimson Chats whilst searching for Emu-wrens at a site a few kms further towards Santa Teresa. We also saw quite a few birds along he first couple of kms as the ongoing roadworks meant that puddles of water were forming on the road. Noteworthy birds here included White-browed Treecreeper, Diamond Dove and flocks of Cockatiels and Masked Woodswallows.
Primarily known as a site for Painted Finch and Spinifex Pigeon. We found both species despite visiting in the early afternoon and the blistering heat. There is a permanent pool in the gorge here, only 100m from the car park/ café that seems to attract quite a few birds. Our sightings included Brown Quail, Black-fronted Dotterel, Australasian Grebe, Fairy Martin, plenty of Grey-headed Honeyaters, and a single Black-chinned (Golden-backed) Honeyeater. The honeyeaters and Painted Finches were located at the far end of the pool. Some very confiding Spinifex Pigeons were easily seen at the café and car park. Some even came to drink the aircon runoff behind the café!
Easily seen around the entrance and car park of the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens in Alice Springs as well as around the Ormiston Gorge car park and café.
Striated (Sandhill) Grasswren
Although we didn’t really expect to have a chance with this species, we were very surprised to hear one calling almost immediately after stepping out of the car at the Sunset Car Park near Uluru. The bird was surprisingly confiding and gave excellent views along the edge of the car park. At times it also came under the rope fence that surrounds the car park, perching up in the top of some bushes between us and the cars. This form has been suggested split as Sandhill Grasswren.
Whilst sitting on some rocks on the lower slopes of Mt. Gillen in the late afternoon, we encountered a pair of grasswrens that appeared to be making their way down the slopes. In other words, we did not go very far up the mountain. We also saw some at the “tyre-in-pole” site along the Santa Teresa Road, approximately 100m south-east of the emu-wrens (see below) closer to the top of the ridge.
Two singles were encountered at the “tyre-in-pole” site along the Santa Teresa Road. Reportedly, they can be quite hard to find in this area. Both birds were seen in the higher, and more rocky parts of the ridge. The birds were located by their distinctive alarm call.
Despite several hours of searching in areas of spinifex along the Santa Teresa Road we did not have any luck on our first day, probably due to it being a midday visit. However, a second try in the early morning the next day eventually paid off. After about an hours searching we found a pair on the southern side of the road at the “tyre-in-pole” site. Thus, the timing of a visit might be key for this species. The birds were located in mature spinifex in a relatively flat area at the western base of the ridge, not far from the edge of the spinifex clumps. The exact coordinates of our observation are: -24.017318, 134.073493.
We saw a couple of individuals near Kunoth Bore whilst searching for Grey Honeyeater. The birds were in the open mulga scrub/woodland between the road and the old bore.
One individual was eventually located singing from the top of a bush at the traditional site approximately 20km N of Erldunda. Our sighting was on the east side of the Stuart Highway, where an east-going fence adjoins the one that runs parallel to the highway, a few hundred meters south of the coordinates given for the quail-thrush below. We also encountered a small group at a site south of Erldunda on the western side of the highway (-25.311538, 133.200442). It apparently prefers open, rocky plains with little vegetation.
Surprisingly, we came across a very confiding individual within 15 minutes of searching near the old Kunoth Bore! Our sighting was in the open mulga scrub/woodland approximately halfway between the old bore and the access road. Listen for its distinctive call. We also saw the superficially similar Slaty-backed Thornbill in the same place.
One pair gave excellent views at the traditional site 20km north of Erldunda (-25.012921, 133.199809). The birds were seen in the scrub on both sides of the fence on the western side of the highway. Another pair was seen along the fence approximately 200m further north. We also came across a pair along the Santa Teresa Road, a few kilometres before reaching the “tyre-in-pole” site.
A few birds were seen associating with some White-browed Babblers north of Erldunda. We also heard it along the Santa Teresa Road
A small group gave prolonged, albeit slightly distant views at the far end of the Ormiston Gorge pool. The birds were resting in the shade of some small juniper bushes on the top of the ridge that skirts the pool. Presumably they come down for a drink at times
Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo
Smooth Knob-tailed Gecko Nephrurus levis
Burrow-plug Gecko Diplodactylus conspicillatus
Beaked Gecko Rhynchoedura ornata
Northern Spiny-tailed Gecko Strophurus ciliaris
Varied Dtella Gehyra variegata
Bynoe’s Gecko Heteronotia binoei
Military Dragon Ctenophorus isolepis
Central Netted Dragon Ctenophorus nuchalis
Long-nosed Dragon Lophognathus longirostris
Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps
Western Scaly-foot Pygopus nigriceps
Clay-soil Ctenotus Ctenotus helenae
Leonhardi’s Ctenotus Ctenotus leonhardii
Sand Monitor Varanus gouldii
King Brown Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus
Brown Snake Pseudonaja sp.