You Snooze, You Lose
“Flocks of flies and budgerigars swirled around us, the flies far more eager to settle…”
There seems to be something alluring about the desert at dawn. Alice managed to get me up in the fives each morning I was there – to see the best of the landscape and its inhabitants. For my first sojourn into the red centre, I was salivating for a clutch of birds I hadn’t seen before. Thankfully the birds were what got me motivated, but the landscape itself was what satiated the appetite…
The first bird I saw off the plane was the Galah – I didn’t know its proper term at the time – but I came to understand the local avian aficionados would call this ‘bush trash’. I wasn’t excited to see it, but I did catch a great glimpse of one later in the week, and they seem to be the one ubiquitous bird out there – in town, in the spinifex, in the nothing-ness.
So getting up early every day during a conference is no easy task, with the concentration of the day sessions and the networking effort in the evenings. Through the week in Alice I did three early mornings (all I had) – one into the local wetlands, one into the Spinifex and one in search of the elusive Princess Parrot. I managed to also sneek a sunset visit to the Botanic Gardens – which yielded more than plants out of their comfort zone…
After the Desert Park experience on the first afternoon, and seeing the most superb of the Fairy-wrens, the sewage treatment plant ponds had a lot to live up to. Also known as Ilpara Wetlands, because they are built on a natural wetlands site adjacent to the Ilpara Range, and fed by an underground sea of groundwater, they now provide an aquatic island in a vast dry desert to quench the thirst of our far-travelled avian friends.
The wetlands are a great source of nutrients and water for birds, and new species for twitchers, and part-time birders. My favourite birds at the wetlands were the stints, but the lifers I picked up included the red-necked avocet (a close second to the stints for ‘stunning bird of the day’) and a couple of sandpiper species that look like big faded sparrows with pointy beaks. I could probably have picked up a grebe I am embarrassingly missing, but ducks and grebes are just so boring…
A dingo-dog provided an interesting escape from site-focused birding to consider the social and landscape context of the wetlands. The dog was foraging for eggs and sick birds through the wetlands, and apparently there was a dog control program to manage their population.
Olive Pink Botanic Gardens
Post-conference that evening I shuffled along the Todd River to the Botanic Gardens – here the Western Bowerbird is literally a gatekeeper to the gardens, and impossible to miss. The desert pea was stunning, although a long-way from home.
After walking up the stony hill at the back of the gardens, I sought some late afternoon respite in the shade of a fig tree. On completing my little red bird book list for the day (only $5 from the local chapter of Birdlife Oz), I noticed a soft shape amongst the angular rocks. As my day was coming to an end, this little lady rock wallaby was just awakening. An extra special treat was her letting me get close enough to spy her pouched young. Special.
Next morning the early rise saw us heading way out of town and into spiky Spinifex country. Walking to the bus I was serenaded by the boobook – could it be the same one that keeps us awake at night in Canberra? The bus trip out was an experience in itself, and almost had me investing in a local auto-mechanical business.
We unloaded from the bus and had a great intro brief from our legendary guide Mark Carter. I was a little worried at the size of the group and the chattery nature of some of the team. We wandered up into the Spinifex and when we rallied to get further instructions I spied a grass wren about 10 m behind Mark. The tour walked on past the spot and sure enough, lagging at the tail of the group provided some dividends. A pair of dusky grasswrens were picked up about 5 m from me on the edge of the rocky outcrop. We moved towards them and flushed them out and had a good-old sticky-beak at this lumbersome wren working its way amongst the Spinifex.
While we missed out on the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren we did get a great showing from the male White-winged Fairywren, which itself was worth getting out of bed for – easily the bird of the day.
Did Someone Say Princess Parrot?
Later that day during the conference, twitter was awash with rumours of Princess Parrots being sighted out of town about 20 km. Of course it was too good to be true, but who needs an excuse for another early-morning sortie into the arid ecotypes. Heading into the wilds in search for biology, without a guide, conjures a small sense of what early explorers might have felt (a big part of their brief was to survey biodiversity).
The ‘must not be taken off-tarmac’ hire car did OK, and we managed to make the approximate area by sunrise. We chose to camp-out by a farm dam, hoping to catch a cheeky glimpse of the parrots coming in for a drink.
Flocks of flies and budgerigars circled around us, the flies far more ready to settle. It was quite a privilege to see the budgies cautiously and quickly dipping in for a drink, and escaping eagerly. A Black Falcon (another lifer) did fly past in the vicinity, but these budgie behaviours are programmed and not specific to their immediate surrounds.
The further we searched the less fruitful we were. We stumbled across other groups of avid avian spotters but the elusive Princess Parrots remained just that. The final scramble back to Alice saw a few more lifers in the bag as we put the hire car to work – Crimson Chat, Mulga Parrot and Grey-headed Honeyeater.The Take-homes
The bookends of four days in Alice Springs furnished 23 lifers in the end – plus some amazing wallabies, wildflowers and wilder landscapes. The lack of sleep was easily balanced by the returns from nature. The conference was equally inspiring amazing, but remains the subject of another tale.
Next time I go to Alice I will take the family, stay longer and do less work and more nature-spotting…