The Big Year goes North Part 3: The Birdsville Track and back

We hadn't originally intended to travel up the Birdsville Track on this trip, but we'd done so well in seeing most of our targets we found ourselves with a few days to spare. The lure of Grey Falcons was just too great and so as it was a new bird for Andy we opted to make a dash up this iconic outback track to see if we could find them. Lots of pics in this one so a long post to finish off this trip report.

Having walked around Coward Springs Wetlands in the morning and seeing some cool birds we packed up and headed on down the road towards Marree. On the way we called in to the viewpoint that overlooks Lake Eyre South that provided a stunning vista over the salt encrusted dry lake. Heading out from here towards Marree we were starting to pass a large number of heavily modified vehicles that were part of some sort of charity bash. At one point an approaching vehicle pulled right over into the loose gravel on the edge of the track in order to pass us and as he did we heard what sounded luck a gunshot but was in fact a very large rock cannoning into the windscreen! We've carried a few stone chips in our windscreen for quite some time but this one was very large with jagged cracks extending out from the impact point. Something else that would need repairing when we got home.

Passing through Marree we headed up the track towards Mungerannie where we intended to stay for the night.  It appeared to be very dry compared to when we travelled up this way last year with not a lot of birds in evidence and certainly not flocks of Budgies everywhere that we saw last year. As we came on to Dulkaninna Station we stopped off at a bore overflow off to the west of the road to see what birds were around. We had seen Australian Pratincoles and Brolgas here in the past and water can attract any number of species. As it was there was not much of interest around except for a returning pair of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers that had stopped off on their way south.

Still with traces of breeding plumage this Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had stopped off at Dulkaninna

We left here early as the Station hands were approaching on Quad bikes driving some cattle in to get a drink so we left them to it. Just north of here we crossed over a dune, one of the very few that the track crosses south of the Cooper Creek crossing. As we came over the top I saw some small birds flitting around some bushes at the dune base so we stopped to investigate. We were still looking for Banded Whiteface and this area looked in very good condition. Andy and I climbed to the top of the dune but failed to relocate whatever it was that I had first seen. The Sandhill Canegrass was very green here and it was also flowering and as we walked around a bit I swear I heard a Grasswren trilling briefly. We didn't see any and vowed to check on our way back as we had to get to a certain place by a certain time!

Andy and I looking for little dickey birds

We carried on up the track towards our main destination, passing several Emu dads with chicks and soaring Wedge-tailed Eagles and Black-faced Woodswallows. Time was getting on but after we crossed the dry river bed of Cooper Creek we arrived with time to spare. I had it on good authority from Bird Guide and all around nice guy Steve Potter that Grey Falcons come in to roost late in the day at a certain spot on the track. "Be there before 5:00pm" he said and "they should come in shortly after that". We got there around 4:30pm and there was no sign of our target so as we were early we settled in for a drink and a box of "Shapes" that we managed to smash between us!! Constantly scanning around it was Andy who first picked up the approaching birds coming from across the track flying in to the wind. Grey Falcons, two of them were flying virtually side by side as they approached their roost spot. One landed almost immediately but the other did a lap first allowing me the opportunity to get some flight shots of this iconic and very rare desert dwelling raptor. I looked at my phone.......5:20pm! well played Steve!

The "Grey Ghost"

The slightly fingered wings are quite distinctive when seen in profile

No prizes for guessing what the birds were roosting on

Digiscoped through Andys Swarovski ATX 95 scope

Crippling views of Grey Falcons in the last rays of the sun

Andy was well made up with coming to grips with this very rare desert dweller as we missed it the last time we brought him up this way a couple of years ago. So were Sue and I. We bid the Falcons farewell and drove up towards Mungerannie seeing a couple of low flying Flock Bronzewings on the way pulling in just after dark. We spent the evening in the pub watching the first final of the AFL footy with our boys the Crows taking on the GWS Giants......smashed 'em.

The next morning we got up early and drove out on the track towards Cowarie Station in the vain attempt to catch up with Banded Whiteface. On the way we found a lovely pair of Cinnamon Quailthrush warming up in the sun and they gave themselves up for some nice photos. We also saw some Orange Chats and White-winged Fairy-wrens but not much else.

Stunning male Cinnamon Quailthrush on the Cowarie road

After traipsing about around some dunes we had seen the Whitefaces in last year we came to the conclusion that they just weren't around this morning despite others seeing them earlier and again after we had been there. Never mind a stiff cool breeze always puts a dampener on things. We carried on up the track towards Clifton Hills Station and the Goyders Lagoon floodplain stopping off at Mirra Mitta Bore on the way. This is a hot spring where the water comes out at almost boiling point before draining off in to an overflow that the cows like to hang out in.

The overflow of Mirra Mitta Bore spills out onto the plain creating a small wetland

We walked around the wetland for a while that had a resident family of Brolga as well as a load of Orange Chats and Black-faced Woodswallows.

A family of Brolgas unperturbed by our presence

Fascinating to watch this Black-faced Woodswallow regurgitate the hard chitinous shells of Beetles it had been eating.

We popped in to Warburton Creek crossing to check out the state of the lignum to see if it was worth looking for Grey Grasswrens here but it was very dry and after a walk around we decided to move on and head to Pandiburra Bore. The steam was rising from the bore head as we walked out around the perimeter of this famous desert wetland. A key species was discovered for the first time here back in the 1980's and that was what we were primarily here to find but you never know what else could be hanging around here. Firstly a flock of a dozen or so Sharp-tailed Sandpipers went whizzing past, obviously just stopping off on their southward post breeding migration. Approaching the edge of a short cropped part of the wetland it was apparent the bird we were looking for was in attendance along with some Orange Chats. The Yellow Chat is very sparsely distributed throughout the northern part of the Great Artesian Basin around bore overflow wetlands. We got quite good looks at several birds although not particularly close. A new bird for Andy.

A faint smudge on the chest possibly indicative of a young male Yellow Chat

This bird was much more conclusive with its distinctive black crescent on the chest

Happy with that we opted to walk around the entire basin to see what else we could find.

Sue and I in the distance circumnavigating the wetland at Pandiburra bore

Firstly at some distance I saw a bird fly up from the mudflats to snatch an insect from the air. It wasn't until we got closer to it were we able to ID it as an Australian Pratincole. There were at least four birds present but that was no where near the numbers we saw last year.

One of four Australian Pratincoles and the only ones we saw on this trip

Other wetland birds included Red-necked Avocets Straw-necked Ibis, Red-kneed Dotterels, Red-capped Plovers and several other species with hyphenated names!!!! The Black Ducks and Grey Teal were constantly being flushed by a young and inexperienced Spotted Harrier and you could see the look of disdain on the ducks faces as he constantly missed his targets!

Being watched by a young Spotted Harrier

It was time to leave as it was getting relatively late in the day so we opted to drive back down towards Clifton Hills to camp on Tippipila Creek, one of the only spots to camp around here. An uneventful night saw us awake to a very quiet morning with not much calling. We loafed around for a bit over breakfast and as Sue walked off with shovel in hand a small flock of eight Cockatiel flew down the creek straight over her head. We yelled out to her but she didn't see them!!......oh dear another one down. Frustrated with that we all ended up walking down the creek bed trying to see if we could catch up with the birds further down at some hidden pool of water but it was not to be and we returned to camp not having seen much at all. As I walked around the front of the car I noticed the front right wheel was very low in pressure so out came the hose and I pumped it back up using my under bonnet compressor. We'll have to keep an eye on that one.

So leaving there we drove back down towards Mungerannie and as we came back on to Cowarie station I pulled over in amongst some interesting looking chenopod habitat. Mindful that there is a discreet and isolated population of Thick-billed Grasswren some where around here I thought it might be worth a look as we'd never seen this race before. Walking spread out we did a big loop out and back but it wasn't until I got back to some taller stuff adjacent to the track itself that I heard a faint peep almost like a Quailthrush contact call. I called Andy over and we both listened intently and Andy also heard it faintly. I was explaining to Andy that a few times in the past I've literally had to kick a bush to see if a Grasswren was in that point I kicked the bush in front of me............and out flew a Grasswren!!! I nearly fell over. We spent the next hour with them, but try as we might the birds would not give themselves up at all. Despite Andy getting a fleeting glimpse on the deck, Sue and I had nothing but flight views. We GPS'ed the spot and resolved to have another look when Sue and I return but for now we carried on travelling.

Stopping briefly at Mungerannie for lunch we continued on down towards Marree. Travelling through the Naterannie Sandhills north of Cooper Creek we approached a car parked on the opposite side of the road only to find it was Ian Reid and Paul Coddington from Adelaide. We were supposed to be meeting that night at Farina yet here they were!. Seems they mucked up their dates and managed to get away a day earlier than they had anticipated. We stopped and chatted for a while, swapping gen on what we'd seen before continuing on our way As we passed over the Cooper Creek Crossing right opposite the homestead of Etadunna Station I picked up a small flock of Cockatiel flying alongside the car, but as I slowed down they swung in behind us and off to the east but this time Sue got good looks at them and was able to add them to her list. It wasn't long before we came back across the dune we stopped at on the way up so we decided to pull over and have a go to see if we could find the Grasswrens we heard that day. We spread out along the width of the dune and it wasn't long before we heard the distinctive high pitched contact calls of some Wrens. It took us a while to work out that with them were in fact three Eyrean Grasswrens. It took a bit of work but eventually we got them to stop long enough to have a look back at us and I was able to get a few pictures.

Eyrean Grasswren that stopped long enough to give me a good look

We left the Grasswrens on their sand dune home and continued on down the track with the intention of camping at Farina. Closing in on Marree in the last rays of the sun I noticed the steering on the car going soft so I pulled over to investigate. That front right tyre was almost flat.......bugger. We pulled it off and tried using the puncture repair kit. The spare had already been plugged so I wasn't sure if it was good or not. Having plugged the tyre and refitted it to the car we only really got another half a kilometre down the track before it went completely. No choice now but to fit the spare and hope it was plugged properly. Fortunately it seemed OK and we limped in to Marree after dark.

No spares left!!!

Given all the drama and our late arrival we opted to stay in Marree overnight in the caravan park units. We'd need to see if we could get a new tyre in the morning. The units are very well appointed but we needed to cook our own food so while I cooked on our camping gear outside we set up the TV inside the room so we could watch the second AFL final of the weekend.

 The moment 40,000 Port Power fans hearts ripped in two. Lol 

A ripping game that went to extra time with the West Coast Eagles kicking a goal after the final siren to snuff out Ports finals campaign.. The next morning we picked up a new tyre although it wasn't the correct profile and we'd need to swap it out at Copley further down the road. Firstly though we called in to Farina on the way where we had expected to wake up in the morning and it wasn't long before we were ticking off Black-breasted Buzzard, a pair nest here most years.

 A gorgeous Black-breated Buzzard overhead.

That wasn't the only bird of interest here and I heard the distinctive trilling display call of a Rufous Songlark. Sue had missed the one I saw on the Oodnadatta Track so she managed to get this one back on her list.

Not so shy when they're displaying. A Rufous Songlark says "look at me"!

On the way out a lovely Red-backed Kingfisher sat nicely right near the road so I managed to get a few pics having missed the opportunity when we ticked this bird north of Marla.

What are you lookin' at?

We pulled in to Copley late morning and managed to get the tyre swapped over and noticed another tyre was low so got that one swapped out too. Surprisingly not as expensive as I'd initially thought. We decided to pull in to the bakery and treat ourselves to a late brunch of bacon and eggs......very nice.

We weren't quite done yet however. On the way down towards civilization proper we turned off the road and in towards Parachilna Gorge in the northern Flinders Ranges. Despite the fact it was a little early in the season I was hopeful another bird we needed had already arrived to breed. We drove deep in to the gorge passing multiple camping tourists and caravans before we came to a spot near where I'd seen the birds before. Scanning a large cliff face we picked up at least three Little Woodswallows soaring high over the top of the cliff and we watched the birds for a while. Satisfied with the ID but too distant for photographs we had to move on. One last chance for new birds was another stop back in Port Augusta at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens to look for the earlier reported Black Honeyeater. Walking around the main garden out the back of the main visitor centre it was apparent there were a few birds around including Singing Honeyeaters, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and a few White-fronteds. As I was walking around a newer section of the garden a small honeyeater flew in from behind me and kept going to land in some plants on the fringe of the garden. As it crisped up in my bins it was certainly a Black Honeyeater. I called the others over and after a half an hour or so of chasing it around the garden we all managed to get very good views of it in the end. It appeared to be a juvenile male.

A young male Black Honeyeater feeding on a flowering Eremophila glabra

We arrived home having had an awesome trip that far outweighed our expectations. I had amassed a healthy 29 year ticks to finish on 360 species for the year and Sue another 31 to give her 357. With a full three more months to go it's anyones guess as to how many we'll end up with but with two more pelagics scheduled and migrants returning there's still enough to keep us busy. Stick around to the end of the year to find out how we get on! 

If you want to travel up to see the Grey Falcons and many more of the species we saw on this leg of the trip and dont have the vehicle or the means to do it then you cant go far past joining an organised tour.  Steve Potter for Bellbird tours runs regular trips up to the north and can offer several other birds like Letter-winged Kite and has put together a specific tour to see them both. You can check it out here:

The Big Year goes North Part 2: The Oodnadatta Track

With a really good start to the first few days of our trip up north we were keen to keep the momentum going by heading down the Oodnadatta Track to see what we could find. In all our years of living in South Australia, for some reason Sue and I have never been along this famous outback track. Somehow it's never seemed very birdy to us and we tend to favour the eastern side of the Lake Eyre basin primarily because of the mammals that live that side and also the birding is better with a greater variety of species to see. Firstly though we still had one of the specialist species from the Mulga tree belt that runs across the top half of the western Lake Eyre drainage basin to look for. This would be our last opportunity for the rest of the year to try and see it.

So with that in mind as soon as we got up in the early dawn light we decided to drive back out along the road to Mintabie that had plenty of the habitat we needed to search. After a few random roadside stops we came across an area that had a few birds flipping about so we walked off the road and into the open scrub. We came across a few Thornbills that proved to be Chestnut-rumpeds and even a few Inland Thornbills but they were not the bird we were looking for. Having split up a little bit it was Andy who first got on to what we were seeking......hmmmmm, white underneath, greyish back, dark iris and black streaked forecrown.............yup that's it.... Slaty-backed Thornbill.....excellent! Two birds foraging loosely with other Thornbills  although tending to keep to themselves. We ended up getting really good looks at them with this being Andy's last Thornbill species to see in Australia and the last one for our Big Year. Mission complete.

The last of the Thornbill species for the Big Year. Slaty-backed Thornbill

We drove back in to Marla and packed up camp while enjoying a fresh brewed coffee. Once we were ready to hit the road we nudged down the start of the Oodnadatta Track. About 70km's in we stopped at gum lined Coongra Creek that seemed to have a few birds around so we got out for a bit of a stroll amongst the creekside vegetation. The first thing we noticed was a large number of Diamond Doves loafing in the shade amongst the trees.

We had a large number of dainty Diamond Doves loafing in the shade at Coongra Creek

There were other birds here too with Australian Ringnecks and the ubiquitous and ever present Zebra Finches but a streaky brownish bird skulking about in a tangle of fallen branches caught my eye. Following up it wasn't going to give itself up that easily and I struggled to get anything on it much. Eventually it flipped out the back and perched briefly enough to ID it as a Rufous Songlark  before just as quickly disappearing. This species can show something of a split personality. When breeding they make loud trilling calls during display flights through the trees yet when not breeding they skulk about in thick vegetation pretending to be some kind of cryptic "Locustella type" Warbler!! Unfortunately Sue was off doing her own thing and missed the bird so we'd have to find her another one.

Having had our fill of the birds that were available we headed back to the car, only to discover the back passenger side tyre was losing air rapidly and was almost completely flat!! So we got it off and changed it over for the spare. I plugged the tyre with a puncture repair kit then reinflated it and it seemed to be holding pressure so we popped it back up under the car where the spare had come from. With a long way to go on bad gravel roads it put a little dampener on the rest of the trip given we were now a spare down...........what could go wrong???

It was only flat on the bottom!

We drove on down the track stopping briefly in Oodnadatta itself before carrying on to Algebuckina Creek and the famous steel girder rail bridge that spans the floodplain. We set up camp on the banks of the extensive waterhole that extended downstream from the bridge itself and did a little bit of birding before preparing dinner. There were lots of birds around given the presence of the water including Australian Pelicans, Darters and Yellow-billed Spoonbills with White-breasted Woodswallows and White-backed Swallows overhead. I was hoping for one species in particular and it wasn't long before I heard it calling from a patch of isolated trees away from the waterhole. Not normally furtive the Red-browed Pardalote is usually quite easy to see but this bird was constantly being harrassed by every White-plumed Honeyeater in the area. Perhaps they compete directly for the same food sources or it might be that the Honeyeaters are just horrible bullies?? Either way it would be the next morning before I could get a reasonable photograph.

Peering over the top of the gum leaves its perched amongst the Red-browed Pardalote can be found in tree lined Watercourses throughout the north of the State

The next morning was spent wandering around and doing some general birding and we really enjoyed the activity in the vicinity of the water. I managed to get a few photos of the Red-browed Pardalote and came across a covey of eight Brown Quail which came as a big surprise! Having enjoyed the birding around the creek it was time to carry on our journey so after having breakfast and packing up we moved off further down the track.

Passing over Peake Creek we noticed the vegetation here was a bit more lush with tussocky grass and there had obviously been some rain albeit not very recent. We stopped for a small bird on the side of the road and saw some others in a grassy creek line heading back towards the main dry watercourse. As we walked down the slope I noticed a large bird emerge from the thick vegetation and stride out into an open area on the other side of the creek. Australian Bustard I yelled to the others and with that the bird walked behind an isolated bush and completely disappeared!!!! As we came out the other side of the creekline we picked it up again a bit further down the creek and as it strode away from us another bird popped in to view even further down. Both birds took to the air and flew over an adjacent dune and away from view. We were very fortunate to have seen them having missed a few birds that had been seen closer to Adelaide already this year and as it turned out the only ones we were to see on this whole trip.

A rather stately bird the Australian Bustard is the heaviest flying bird in Australia

Feeling pretty good about picking up the Bustard we carried on down the track further until we reached the turn off to Old Peake Telegraph Station. These ruins were part of the chain of telegraph stations established along the Oodnadatta Track that connected the colonies in Australia to Europe via an under sea cable from Java that made landfall in Darwin. It must have been a very harsh and isolated existence for those families living there. As we approached a gap in the Dennison Ranges just before arriving at the station we flushed a large group of Zebra Finches from the base of a rocky bluff. Peering through the windscreen at the now scattered birds I noticed a different bird perched on top of the rocks in front of us.......Painted Finch!!! This was a State tick for Sue and I and a lifer for Andy. We were hoping to bump into this species somewhere along the track but didn't have any real expectation of seeing any so there was lots of high fiveing all around.

Painted Finch at last!

Andy and I enjoying Painted Finch in the Dennison Range

It was getting near to lunch time so we moved off and continued the 2km's on to the old Station buildings and marvelled at the resilience these people must have had to live in such a desolate and isolated environment. Also the artesian springs that emerge from the base of the range were fascinating to see. Parking up we went for a walk to explore and see what other birds we could find. It was soon apparent there were a number of small flocks of Painted Finches flying about and coming in to drink and we got some amazing views of this very attractive species. A pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles soared effortlessly overhead while a Wedgebill gave an indeterminate call from a nearby creekline masking it's true identity as to which species it was? This area is where both species overlap in range and while habitat preference tends to keep them separated there are exceptions to every rule.

An incredibly attractive male Painted Finch

A female Painted Finch with much less extensive red on it

Old Peake Telegraph Station fascinating to walk around

Having enjoyed the walk around the Station we drove back out on the entrance track and stopped for lunch before continuing on further down the main road. As we were cruising along with the abandoned railway next to us we noticed someone had cleverly arranged some old railway sleepers to spell certain words. I wont give it away exactly what it said but Australian humour can be rather rude at times. We pulled in to take some pictures and not a few minutes in Sue picked up some movement on the ground on the other side of the line. She managed to get Andy and I on to it. A pair of Gibberbirds.......nice. We followed them around for a bit in an effort to try and get some pictures which we were able to do. Nice one Sue!

One of a pair of Gibberbirds along the Old Ghan railway line. We would see more later in the trip

Getting towards the bottom of the track we pulled in to Coward Springs to camp for the night. The fees were reasonably expensive but the facilities were quite good so we set up camp and cracked a few ice cold frothies to celebrate picking up some good birds for the Big Year. As it was starting to get dark a Southern Boobook emerged from its daytime roosting site to fly across the back of our camp area and perch low down just behind us.......very nice. Later after dinner we decided to drive back out on the track and try a bit of spotlighting which in the end proved completely futile with us seeing basically nothing. We also kept blowing fuses that supply the cars spotlights, so that proved to be a bit frustrating until I upgraded the size of the fuse by a few amps. After a fitful sleep woken only by the calls of Eastern Barn Owls and distant Spotted Nightjars we woke relatively early. Time to get up and explore the wetlands out the back that are fed by artesian springs. Sue wandered off first and came back to report a Pallid Cuckoo which was nice but she couldn't find the main wetland. I headed off on my own and managed to find it. A reed lined channel ending in a small pond provided great views of several Australian Spotted Crakes, Black-tailed Native-hens, Yellow billed Spoonbill and a very furtive Australian Reed Warbler.

Australian Spotted Crakes can appear where ever there is a bit of water. Even in the desert

Sue and I walking out through the wetland at the back of Coward Springs Photo by Andy Walker

I went back to get the others. We managed to get some breakfast into us before heading out again and exploring the wetland proper that extends right out the back of the main spring. Here we managed to find a pair of stately Brolgas with a young bird in attendance and walking around the edge of the wetland we had several Red-kneed Dotterels, Black-fronted Dotterels and some Pied Stilts along with a few brightly coloured Orange Chats feeding around the edge. At this point I looked up just in time to see a fast flying pigeon zoom in from out in the desert before dropping down out of sight ahead of us. As we walked towards where it had gone it was off in a flash streaking past us and flying away into the sun. Despite getting some poor photos of it there was no mistaking the shape and profile of a Flock Bronzewing. This is an incredibly rare bird this side of the Lake Eyre basin with few records. In South Australia they are normally found in the far north-east in the Simpson and Sturt Stony Deserts but are incredibly irruptive arriving in large numbers during good seasons and moving on just as quickly when conditions dry out. Just to prove it wasn't a fluke another bird flew in, only this time I managed to snag a few pictures.

Male Flock Bronzewing. Quite a surprise to see this at Coward Springs

We had done amazingly well in a relatively short space of time and had effectively cleaned up all of the species we were hoping to see on this side of the basin, including most of the specialties. Sue had amassed another seven species on this leg and me another eight including the Rufous Songlark Sue missed. So what now? We still had a few days spare out of our nine day trip so we offered Andy the opportunity to chase Grey Falcons on the Birdsville Track which would be a lifer for him. Sue and I are planning to do this in October anyway when we take two weeks to travel the length of the Birdsville Track and around to the Strzelecki Track but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush so why not? Join us for Part 3 where we share the in the adventure we had chasing "The Grey Ghost"


The Big Year goes North Part 1: Adelaide to the NT Border.

This trip was the first of the year that we'd done up to the far north of the State. Up to this point in time we've birded most of the southern half of SA with a foray over to the far west and the Nullarbor but hadn't been any further north than Port Augusta. There are a lot of species out there specifically found in the northern deserts and if we're to achieve a Big Year total worthy of spending a year of our lives on, then we had to go up there in order to have a chance to see them.

We'd planned to break up the northern half of SA in to two manageable trips given the distances involved. The first we decided to do was right up to the NT border via Coober Pedy and Marla then down the Oodnadatta Track and back home. The second, scheduled for October, will be a two week trip that will take us up the Strzelecki Track to Innamincka and Birdsville, hopefully taking in Coongie Lakes then back down the Birdsville Track and home. As is the way of things the birds themselves dictate events and and best laid plans go asunder so a lot of flexibility has to be worked in to them as we go along. I'll break this blog up in to three posts for this trip report as it'll be pic heavy and rather long, so look out for the other two posts soon.

We were joined on this trip by Andy Walker, a York based UK professional Bird Guide for Birding Ecotours who we met a few years ago on a boardwalk in Taman Negara Malaysia while looking for Pittas and have become very good friends ever since. Between tours he likes to spend time with us once a year in his "Adelaide office" and we get him out and about to do some birding with us. An extra set of eyes is always useful!

So the Friday after work we were off straight away to Port Augusta to give us that head start for the following morning. Sue and I haven't birded much on the western side of the Lake Eyre basin and so there were a few potential State ticks for us as well as a few very specific species whose distributions bring them just over the border from the Northern Territory to look for. A hearty breakfast was enjoyed by all before driving out to our first stop at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens at the base of the Stuart Highway just out of town. A week previously Black Honeyeaters were reported from here and you can sometimes see them in spring when the Eremophilas so prominent in the garden are in flower. It was a bit cool and breezy and after a good hour we came to the conclusion the birds had moved on. Not far from the car park we came across some Chirruping Wedgebills so Sue was finally able to tick them off her list after a couple of previous failed attempts. From there we headed up the highway towards Pimba and Glendambo and somewhere near Pimba we had our first flock of Budgerigars for the year fly across the road in front of us. Once we reached Bon Bon Station we noticed a small flock of Woodswallows that took to the air and found they were mostly Masked, a bird Sue still needed. There were other birds here too so we got out for a short walk. There were lots of Budgies flying back and forth and then we came across a small group of Crimson Chats foraging on the ground amongst the wild flowers with several fully coloured males.

The first Budgerigar of the Big Year

Growing amongst the understorey were several Sturt Desert Peas, South Australias floral emblem

South Australias State flower Sturt Desert Pea, photo by Andy Walker

With a couple of new birds on our list we carried on to a roadside rest area for lunch. This is a site that has had Chestnut-breasted Whiteface in the past but we couldn't locate any in the face of a stiff breeze so we carried on towards Coober Pedy and the famous William Hutchinson Memorial about 12km's south of town. A plaque commemorating the original discoverer of Opal in the region also marks the spot where Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces are reported quite frequently. I can just imagine Mr Hutchinson kicking Whitefaces out of the way as he tripped over a rock containing the precious stone all those years ago!!! We got there a bit late in the day and it was dull and overcast with quite a stiff breeze blowing and we again failed to locate any birds. Before giving up completely we drove over to the opposite side of the road and within minutes some movement caught my eye. A single Thick-billed Grasswren popped out from behind a low saltbush to peer at us in the car then popped back again. There were three birds in total and we got quite good looks at them before they moved off, although I missed the best photo opportunity.

The best pic I could manage of a Thick-billed Grasswren

We had a short walk here to see if we could get better looks at the Grasswrens but instead found a male  Cinnamon Quailthrush carrying food, another new species for the Big Year and the last of the Quailthrush species we're likely to see. As it was getting late we drove off into town to find our accommodation at the Underground Motel where we were staying for the night finishing the day with four Year ticks for me and six for Sue.

The next morning was quite cold and just outside the door was the first Little Crow of the trip, giving away his identity with his incessant nasally  "nark nark nark" calls. After breakfast we headed back down to the Memorial to have another look for the Whiteface. Despite the fact it was sunny it was still a bit windy when we arrived. We headed off from the parking area and split up a bit. There were several species flipping about with Zebra Finches and some more Masked Woodswallows and Red-capped Robins. I picked up some faint calls from up ahead of me and as I approached I saw a small bird foraging on the ground between clumps of low saltbush. As I watched another bird popped in to view and as the image crisped up in my Binoculars I realised it was a lovely pair of Chestnut-breasted Whitefaces, a bird I hadn't seen for quite some time.  I called the others over and we spent the next half an hour getting really good looks at them. A new bird for Andy.

Cryptically camouflaged this bird blends in perfectly to its chosen arid habitat 

Chestnut-breasted Whiteface in the early morning sun

After our success it was time to move off up the road towards Marla via a short detour out to the Breakaways where they filmed some of the movie Mad Max II. At the turnoff north of Coober Pedy we stopped to look at some small birds when Sue realised the entire left eye cup for her binoculars was missing!! We stripped the car looking for it and thought maybe it had fallen out when filling up with fuel back in town so we drove back to the service station to look but it was nowhere to be seen.

Disaster for Sue!!

Undeterred we headed back up to the Breakaways road. Crossing the gibber on the way out Sue spotted a bird we needed off to the side of the road despite the fact she was actually driving, not sure what Andy and I were doing!!! Inland Dotterel a single bird standing about 10m off the road with not a friend in sight. As it was this bird ended up being the only one we saw on the whole trip so well done Sue.

A lone Inland Dotterel stands sentinel over the gibber

The Breakaways an impressive desert landscape

Driving up towards Marla we stopped for lunch in another salubrious road side rest area complete with toilet paper blowing about in the wind. Why is it we can't provide better facilities at these rest areas? Other States seem to be able to get this right. This festering rubbish obviously doesn't deter the Little Crows and we were accompanied by a "murder of Crows" throughout lunch.

Tailgate lunch with attendant Little Crow

Little Crow eyeing off my lunch

We arrived in Marla late afternoon and after setting up our tents we opted for a walk directly opposite the Roadhouse and over near the train line. It was very quiet in the Mulga habitat and very dry under foot and we struggled to find much of note at all. Eventually we came across some birds over near a rail crossing adjacent to a "borrow pit" that had some wildflowers in it. A small flock of Crimson Chats gave us some photographic opportunities but apart from that we went back to our camping area feeling a bit underwhelmed. So during dinner that night we came up with a plan to drive out early on the Mintabie road to see what we could find.

Male Crimson Chat in the late afternoon sunshine

The next morning we drove out about 12km's towards Mintabie and managed to find a small dam that seemed to have some birds around so we pulled over to investigate. There was lots of activity with Mulga Parrots White-browed babblers Crested Bellbirds and several different Honeyeaters all being very busy and while watching them we heard the unmistakeable call of the Chiming Wedgebill. Two birds played hide and seek with us not giving up easy views at all but we did get tickable views in the end.

Distant view of a vocal Chiming Wedgebill

Happy with the fact we'd found some birds we opted to push our luck and drive further up the main highway towards the NT border. One of the things I was looking for was a decent Red Gum lined Creekline and we came across Indulkana Creek crossing that fitted the bill. Stopping here and going for a walk we were looking for particular species that like that sort of habitat, amongst other species. Away from the Highway Andy picked up a Red-backed Kingfisher at some distance sitting at the top of a dead tree, as they are prone to do, so we were able to add this bird to our year lists before it was seen off by a Pied Butcherbird. Of particular interest though was a single pair of Corvids that were calling from time to time along the creek. They were clearly not Little Crows whose call is very distinctive and they were certainly not Australian Ravens as their calls lacked the guttaral "death rattle" of that species. That left only one candidate and the key species we were looking for here, the Torresian Crow. This species occurs in small numbers across the far north west of SA and have a particular preference for tall trees along creek lines., We played a burst of call via playback and the two birds went absolutely nuts trying to find the apparent usurpers flying backwards and forwards constantly calling and confirming their identity. Not only a year tick but a State tick for me.

Torresian Crow at Indulkana Creek

From here we opted to drive right up to the NT border to have lunch and for an obligatory "selfie" at the border. On the way we passed a small puddle of water in a low lying area off the road that seemed a good spot to stake out later in the day.

The Big Year is taking us to all corners of the State

The afternoon we drove back towards Maryatt Creek in an effort to find some suitable habitat for another two of the key species we needed up here. Finding a small track heading west off the main highway north of the Maryatt we trundled down a short way before coming across some trees with some large tell tale ball shaped stick nests in them. We got out to investigate and as we neared the trees Andy heard the distinctive call of a Gerygone. A little in front of us he picked up one of two birds that turned out to be Western Gerygones, a difficult bird to find in SA but not the owner of the large nests!

One of two Western Gerygones on Mt Kavanagh Station

Some really nice parkland like habitat in this area with some heavily flowering Sennas and open grassy areas proved just the right combination for our next Big Year tick and State tick to boot. Driving back out towards the main highway we disturbed 4 Grey-crowned Babblers along the track but for a big bird they proved to be rather furtive by keeping their distance.

Grey-crowned Babblers keeping their distance

Sue and I enjoying our State tick..... photo by Andy Walker

After pulling out some really sort after birds we headed back towards Marla late in the afternoon. with one final stop..........that puddle of water we passed on the way up. Upon arrival there were already some Little Corellas in attendance. As we waited for the sun to move towards the western horizon we cracked a couple of celebratory beers.

Not much of a puddle but we had high hopes

 With the sun just starting to disappear behind the horizon a number of Common Bronzewings emerged from the surrounding scrub to come in for a drink, but it was another species we were hoping for. Famed for coming in to drink well after dark I heard the distinctive call of our target and in the light of the car headlights the unmistakeble shapes of several Bourkes Parrots materialised. Andy had earlier set his scope up trained on the waterhole and managed a couple of phone scoped pics for confirmation.

Several of the small number of Bourkes Parrots that came in to drink after dark

Happy with the days birding with several important targets under the belt we drove back to Marla in the dark. Dinner was taken in the Roadhouse washed down by a few frothies before heading off to bed. So I've added 13 year ticks so far on this trip and Sue 15 with more to come. A big day loomed for the morning as we head off down the Oodnadatta Track and that's where we'll pick up the story in the next post. See you then!!