Articles - The desert in bloom
Orange-footed Scrubfowl in Darwin, Northern Territory. Photo by David Callahan.
David Callahan - Posted on 19 Apr 2011
Preconceptions are often misleading, and my own took a pounding the moment I stepped off the plane and walked along the desert pea-lined path to the terminus at Alice Springs airport. Anticipating Alice to be dry at best, if not scorchingly arid – owing to its designation as the Red Centre of the Australian desert – the first rains for two years meant that that I plunged into a humid and lush environment, and was even able to see an early Oriental Pratincole from the plane window.
Past the airport’s sculpted homage to the region’s ubiquitous Budgerigars – as prevalent as Starlings used to be in Britain – and into a waiting cab, the newly sprouted green stretched into the distance as far as the MacDonnell Ranges, the dominant mountain range of the southern Northern Territory. The fences and dead trees by the roadside produced Little Woodswallow and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. I arrived at my hotel with enough time to walk around Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, situated opposite, and familiarise myself with Alice’s suburban species.
The gorgeous pink and white Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo was a bonus find. Photo by Aviceda (commons.wikimedia.org).
The generally dry Todd River, which flows through the city, had burst its banks almost outside the hotel, overfilled by rains that were part of the same La Niña event that created such devastation in Queensland later in the austral summer. Watching the flood waters was a local spectator sport, but I was still able to negotiate a muddy path to the gardens to see Alice’s most accessible Western Bowerbird bower, decorated in a tasteful pastel green and white livery, the resident male occasionally flashing his discreet pink nuchal crest.
Also apparent were Crested Pigeon (the default columbid), Grey-crowned Babbler, Yellow-throated Miner – ‘Bush Canary’, colloquially – on the feeders and White-plumed Honeyeater. The first of many Galahs flapped over, and the local subspecies of Australian Ringneck, Port Lincoln Parrot, is a street bird here. Mistletoebirds, Australia’s only flowerpecker species, were present in the shrubs, one demonstrating how it spreads the seeds of the eponymous food plant by wiping its bottom on a branch in front of me.
Despite the flooded roads, mudslides and constant overcast skies, there was a clear desert light emerging at dawn when I met my guide, Mark Carter, at 6 am. It quickly became apparent that some of the sites I had hoped to visit would be either inaccessible or impassable due to the inclement conditions. In addition, winds up on the escarpments were topping 19 mph, so some of the birds of hilly habitats would be harder to find. Still, nothing ventured ...
Our attempt to head out to the MacDonnell Ranges was thwarted by a deep river flowing right across the road, a torrent that had washed away its roadside depth measuring post. This hindrance was relieved somewhat by my first Black-fronted Dotterel pottering around at the beige water’s edge, and then trumped completely by the appearance of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo in a nearby mulga, a shrub native to Australia. With a pink, yellow and white crest resembling an Aztec chieftain’s head-dress, pink face and breast, and white wings, it is in flight that the bird really induces a gasp, as it its bright pink underwing makes it resemble a huge piece of flying Hubba Bubba. Just as the pink-and-white apparition disappeared from view, an adult and two juvenile Black-winged Kites began calling.
A detour to Simpson’s Gap gave me my first Crimson Chat, which is actually an arid-adapted honeyeater, despite the convergent resemblance to its European namesakes. A large wandering flock of more than 130 Masked Woodswallows contained a few White-browed Woodswallows.
The nomadic behaviour of many of Central Australia’s bird species is a significant factor in their arid adaptations, and consequently in one’s ability to locate each species. When desert conditions are in place, most bird species can be located in the few green and wet areas, but after the atypically heavy rains, many were spread out over the whole region, able to keep on moving and avoiding the more reliable dry season sites.
Ilparpa Swamp produced 10 Black-winged Stilts of the form leucocephalus, before we entered the famous Alice Springs Waste Stabilisation Pools, or ‘Poo Ponds’ as they are known locally. Superficially these appear to be a sunnier version of Walthamstow Reservoirs, but once through the gates all manner of avian treasure awaits.
The tiny Red-browed Pardalote was relatively easy to find off the Santa Theresa Road. Photo by Aviceda (commons.wikimedia.org).
British megas like Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint were immediately apparent. The real gems were Yellow-billed Spoonbill and Red-necked Avocet on the shallow water, Australian Pratincole and Red-capped Dotterel on the causeways and White-winged Fairy-wren in the pathside bushes, looking like it had been collaged together out of royal blue and white felt. Add to these the grotesque-looking Pink-eared Duck on the water and the amethyst and sapphire hues of ‘Purple-backed’ Variegated Fairy-wren, and you will have a special time among the sewage.
Off the Stuart Highway, the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve has plenty of good hiking above the gap, and it was here that we spent the afternoon. Up on the rocks we rapidly found both Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, as well as Southern Whiteface. As Wedge-tailed Eagles circled above, the reserve also revealed Eastern Bearded Dragon and Black-flanked Rock Wallaby, and an impressively large kangaroo known as the Euro.
The day was rounded off at John Flynn’s Grave Historical Reserve, where a small group of Varied Sitellas of the subspecies pileata entertained us. This nuthatch convergent is usually scarce in the region, but the desert’s sudden bloom enabled us to find two roaming groups. The liquid two-toned song of Crested Bellbird echoed around the rock faces, while an insistent ‘squeaky gate’ call revealed the pied form of a male Black Honeyeater. The first of many Little Buttonquail was flushed from underfoot.
Next day, bright sunshine greeted our foray out on the Santa Theresa Road, a red dirt highway gouged and rutted by 4x4s and doorless flatbed trucks. Ever-present Spotted Harriers and Black Kites tracked our movements, and the slender green forms of Mulga Parrots flew parallel as we drove.
The first stop easily gave up Pied and Singing Honeyeaters, and the tiny yellow and buff ‘rugby ball’ that is Red-browed Pardalote appeared on the edge of the thicker scrub. Pink and turquoise bullets flew into nearby bushes, revealing themselves to be Bourke’s Parrots. After another half mile or so the Spinifex grassland began.
From a distance, Spinifex resembles an expanse of small clumps of Pampas Grass, but up close it gets personal. The bottom two-thirds of the plant is composed of long hardwood cocktail sticks which tend to penetrate your skin and then break off, and I rued the day that I decided to wear sandals instead of walking boots. I’m still picking the occasional spine from my socks as I write!
Spinifex Pigeon’s impressive crest can grow to 24 cm, and the species often proves surprisingly fearless. Photo by Mark Ziembicki.
Spinifex also provides a unique habitat for some of the Central Desert’s most interesting species. Dusky Grasswren sneaked around the boulders like a mean-looking streaky mouse, and Spinifexbirds sang from spiky desert shrubs, resembling large Cetti’s Warblers. A pale-morph Brown Goshawk drifted over, and a blotchy-flanked Painted Finch was flushed from its nest among the pebbles.
All this limping, skin-shredding hardship was really for just one species, though: Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. Like most of the endemic Australian ‘wrens’, this blue-bibbed, ruddy-capped bird is snazzily dressed, but its long wispy tail filaments really stand out, perhaps resembling tiny Emu feathers. That, and its ability to disappear like mist when located. We spent a long hour chasing its bubbling high trills through the scree and spikes, catching fleeting but enticing glimpses. Finally, this bobble-on-a-stick gave us close views of a family party in a stand of long grass.
After Australian Hobby in the Todd River Valley, the late afternoon was spent exploring the Trephina Gorge, most notable for its totally fearless Spinifex Pigeons. These strolled over my feet on the cliff-tops, unfazed behind their red, grey, white and black masks, and holding their buff crests erect. Finishing up at Emily Gap, the signature bird of the river valleys, Rainbow Bee-eater, called and displayed, and Red-capped Robin was added to our list of chat-like honeyeaters.
We headed south on the Stuart Highway on the third day for dry country specialities, away from the full effect of the rains. By the time we had reached the 175 km road marker, we had seen both whiteface species, including Banded, which appears to be a juvenile Zebra Finch mimic, hinting at a curious and seemingly unresearched commensalism with Australia’s commonest finch.
Little Corella is the commonest of the Alice cockatoo species, even after the depredations of Mulga Snake. Photo by Natalie Tapson.
As the day warmed up, leaving dawn’s shadow behind, the green scrubland of the surrounding ranches gave off a solid humidity, and an almost electronic, descending four-note song travelled distantly across the thick air. Following this siren’s lure, we found its owner perched high in a bush looking somewhat akin to a Song Thrush-sized mousebird, but allowing no close approach: Chiming Wedgebill. After brief views, we eventually found another singing bird at the 180 km marker. It perched prominently, and we got a glimpse of its small harem feeding on the ground below.
Out on the Lassiter Highway, the Blue Mallee on sand habitat quickly produced the other two local thornbill species, Slaty-backed and Inland. A small stream cutting found us watching the day’s other target, White-backed Swallow. Another two birds were quartering adjacent scrub, with their counter-intuitive white backs and black underparts sometimes fooling the eye into thinking that they were flying upside down! This area used to be good to search for Australian Bustard and Emu, but I only saw the latter in a chicken-wire pen at a truck stop. Both species are largely hunted out of accessible Central Australia.
City of birdsThe proximity of reserves and the outback to the Northern Territory capital, plus a good public transport system, make Darwin one of the best cities in the world to watch birds. Darwin has regular and cheap buses, with tickets at AU$2 for unlimited journeys for three hours, plus affordable and numerous taxis, meaning you can see most of the region’s specialities at little expense from a central base.
East Point reserve can be overrun by joggers at times, but did provide several honeyeater and kingfisher species, close views of the absurd Orange-footed Scrub-fowl digging its nest mound and Leaden and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. It has small areas of coastal mangrove, home to nesting Broad-billed Flycatcher and Red-headed Honeyeater. White-bellied Sea-eagles and Brahminy Kites circle overhead; I saw the eagle being mobbed by a kite on my visit. Rainbow Pitta has been seen here, though I saw mine at the more distant Howard Springs.
The extensive marshlands around Humpty Doo almost guarantee sightings of dancing Brolga at the right time of year, as well as gems such as Mangrove Golden Whistler and Rose-crowned Fruit-dove. Leaning Tree Lagoon and Fogg Dam produced good numbers of waterbirds, including Jabiru. Mangroves at Palmerston Sewage Ponds held Mangrove Gerygone and Black Butcherbird. The unforgettable sight of tens of thousands of Black and Little Red Flying Foxes will leave you gasping at dusk if you stop at the edge of Charles Darwin NP.
Also worth visiting after dark is Darwin Botanical Gardens, where Barking Owls can be called in, giving point-blank views. Daylight there produced Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo.
Buffalo Creek – 10 minutes by cab from the suburb of Casuarina – is a well-known stake-out for Chestnut Rail, as well as Beach Stone-curlew and a high-tide roost of 1,000-plus Great Knot. The low forest behind Darwin Hospital is the place for Red-backed Fairy-wren, as well as Little Kingfisher and Striated Pardalote.
Add to this yard birds like Bush Stone-curlew and Great Bowerbird, and a short week in Darwin could see you knocking on 200 species, perhaps more with a guide.
For more on the Top End, see Ian Lycett’s article Top End, down under.
We made our way to the Kenneth Creek Bore and saw the only Black-breasted Buzzards of the trip, two second-calendar-year birds circling above an escarpment. Common Bronzewings, a dumpy desert pigeon, were flushed from the track on our approach, while a pair of Australian Hobbies hung around their nest site in a distant row of riverine trees.
I was awoken at the hotel for the last time by the slow mournful piping of the local Pied Butcherbird. I said my mental goodbyes to the ‘Mudlarks’ (more formally Magpie-larks), Masked Lapwings and introduced Spotted Doves, and headed out to spend the morning at Alice Springs Desert Park, to be shown around by Anthony Molyneux, the Assistant Curator of Zoology.
While superficially a local zoo, the park acts as a concentrated introduction to the wildlife of the Alice area. It provides an ideal opportunity at the beginning of a visit to familiarise yourself with many key bird species in captivity, as well as to see mammals which will largely remain invisible, even to many nocturnal spotlighters.
The park is also worth a visit for the wild birdlife in its extensive grounds. A quick visit produced three thornbill species, the trip’s only Redthroat, nesting Bush Stone-curlew and ‘Grey’ Shrike-thrush (the local form of Rufous), and three each of Red-capped Robin and Turquoise (musgravi) Splendid Fairy-wren. The scarce Grey and White-fronted Honeyeaters are also known to turn up on occasion.
With even a short visit like mine producing a healthily tick-heavy trip list, Alice is a great birding destination, particularly if combined with a few days around the Darwin area in the Top End. I hope to go back one day and see what desert is like when it reverts to aridity, but in its lush state after the rains, Alice produced a birding wonderland.
Birdwatch travelled to Northern Territory courtesy of Tourism NT. Special thanks to Mark Carter for his assistance.
Qantas and Jetstar fly to Darwin from London Heathrow via Singapore. Fares start at around £700, but deals can sometimes be found online through the many cheap flights websites. Regular internal flights to Darwin, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock are available via Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin Blue and Tiger Airways from every major Australian city.
Where to stay
- Darwin Central Hotel, 21 Knucky Street, Darwin, NT 0810. To book, call +61 (0)8 8944 9000.
- Chifley Alice Springs Resort, 34 Stott Terrace, Alice Springs, NT 0870. To book, call +61 (0)8 8951 4545.
- Contact Tourism NT's London office by phone on 020 7438 4642 or email email@example.com.
- For expert guiding around Alice Springs or anywhere in Northern Territory, contact Mark Carter at DesertLife on +61 (0)4 4735 8045 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For a good all-round Darwin wildlife guide, contact Andy Mortimer at Guided by Nature on +61 (0)8 8983 2797.
- For Tailormade Tours, contact Danny Brennan on +61 (0)8 8952 1731 or email email@example.com.
- Alice Springs Desert Park is on Larapinta Drive, NT 0871; call + 61 (0)8 8951 8788 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for opening times and special events.
- Birds of Australia by Ken Simpson and Nicolas Day (Christopher Helm). Order from the Birdwatch Bookshop for just £22.99.
- Photographic Field Guide: Birds of Australia by Jim Flegg (New Holland). Order from the Birdwatch Bookshop for £15.99.
- A Photographic Guide to Birds of Australia by Peter Rowland (New Holland). Order from the Birdwatch Bookshop for £10.99.
Boom & Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country by L Robin, R Heinsohn and L Joseph (CSIRO Publishing).