Friday, December 24, 2010

Dusky Grasswren

Dusky Grasswren, Amytornis purnelli.

This weeks bird was found on top of Mt Gillen to the west of town, but most of the big bird news has again centred on the swamp.

The Dusky Grasswren pictured is a major drawcard for bird tourism in Alice Springs and is common throughout the Eastern and Western MacDonnell Ranges. Most of the other members of the Grasswren family are very shy and elusive and live in much less accessible parts of the country.

In contrast, our Dusky Grasswren can be seen with minimal fuss, quite close to town. It’s a bird not much bigger than a mouse which often prefers to hop and run around among the rocks rather than fly. For all its drabness, it is a bird full of character and boldness and I’ve seen experienced birdwatchers mesmerised by its antics. Small and unassuming, but clearly one of our iconic local bird species.

But on to this weeks round up…

-          Mark Carter has had tremendous success at Ilparpa Swamp with 3 Crake species down among the reeds in one afternoon, surely some sort of record for Alice - Spotless Crake and Australian Crake with a more unusual sighting of the tiny Baillon’s Crake.

-          Also at Ilparpa a Long-toed Stint and a Ruff mixing in with other long-distance visitors.

-          The enigmatic Flock Bronzewing have made another appearance, this time well south of town, with a small flock at Salt Creek near Erldunda.

-          A Pheasant Coucal was reported just south of Aileron on the Stuart Highway

Merry Christmas to all in the desert bird watching community and fingers crossed for some special Christmas birds turning up. Thanks again for your input.

Keep those reports coming in! 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Straw-necked Ibis

Straw-necked Ibis, Threskiornis spinicollis.

This week’s bird will be familiar to most, and in fact familiar to many around the world. Varieties of Ibis are found throughout Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe and the Americas, as well as here in Oz. There is the colossal Giant Ibis of South-East Asia growing to over a metre in height.  There is the neon-bright Scarlet Ibis of South America which puts some parrots to shame with its display of outrageous colour. Then there is the Northern Bald Ibis (or Waldrapp) which may be down to as few as 500 birds scattered among its last outposts in Syrian and Moroccan deserts. 
Ibis are well known from ancient Egyptian mythology where the Ibis-headed God known as “Thoth”, acted as intermediary between good and evil, and perfectly mummified Ibis remains have been found in many archaeological diggings. The list of cultures in which the Ibis appears in mythology or scripture is truly amazing; the Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Mongols, Malays, and countless North American nations all told stories featuring this bird in one of its many forms.
But this is our stunning local, the Straw-necked Ibis, found loafing around Blatherskite Park with his mates this week. This picture makes it abundantly clear why he is so named. With local grasses doing so well this year the Ibis are gathering in good numbers anywhere there is some good open grassland near water.
Sightings this week: 
-          On an evening out Frog-watching in the Western Macs, 3 Eastern Barn Owls in quick succession out on Larapinta Drive
-          Australian Crake seen by the dozen, scurrying around Ilparpa Swamp
-          Also down the swamps, plenty of Stubble Quail splashing about among the reed beds

Friday, December 10, 2010

Willie Wagtail

Willie Wagtail, Rhipidura leucophrys.

A question hitting the inbox in the last few weeks has been about a sweet-sounding bird heard on still nights. It isn’t made by a typically nocturnal bird, but it rings out clearly on moonlit nights, and comes from the Australian Nightingale – well, some people call it that. It’s an apt description, but the rest of us probably know it as a Willie Wagtail.
The fellow pictured in this lucky close-up, was loitering around Commonage Rd earlier in the week. He adopted this curious behaviour of perching and vibration his wings rapidly at his side, while issuing his distinctive ratcheting alarm call.
There are a couple of reasons for this; it alerted his family to my presence. More importantly, it distracted me, for a minute anyway, from his brood of three newly fledged youngsters sitting on a nearby branch.
To the left of his bill you can see silhouetted, the line of stiff rictal bristles that mark this bird as an insectivore. He wags his tail in an effort to stir insects from the undergrowth and then flutters to catch them. The bristles help to funnel the insects into the beak.
Great sightings this week include:  
-          Striated Grasswrens  just south of Barrow Creek
-          Oriental Pratincole at Tennant Creek Sewage Ponds
-          Red-chested Button-quail giving excellent views around Hamburger Creek on the Tanami rd
-          Spotless Crake lurking at Ilparpa and Glen Helen
-          and David Hartland down in Murputja, reports that his APY Lands list has hit 117, including such sought after species as Princess Parrot (couple of times a year), Chestnut-breasted and Banded Whiteface, and Striated and Dusky Grasswrens.
Thanks for the input folks and Happy Birding for another week.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan, Cygnus atratus.

This week the birds have dragged me halfway across the continent and back again. It’s been all about getting back from Adelaide and tracking down the Australian Painted Snipe which I’m told is still at the sewage ponds. This bird would be, for me, a lifer. The holy grail of any birdwatching outing. A species I have never seen before, making it briefly more special than any other bird.
The mornings have seen me up at 4am to beat the rising sun down to the treatment plant in my failed attempts to lure this bird from its hiding place. As is sometimes the way, my quest began to reach a frantic level of frustration when I had to stop and say to myself, take a deep breath. Look around you.
In the early morning light the ponds were alive with birds of all varieties that I’d been ignoring simply because they weren’t the one I was looking for. Birdwatching often turns into these zen moments of serendipity.
Black Swans trumpeted their welcome to the new morning. As the sun streamed through the white feathers of their wingtips, and they took to flight all around me, it was well worth getting out of bed for. The Snipe will wait another day.
Sightings this week: 
-          4 Swamp Harriers on a drive out to Yuendumu earlier in the week.
-          A Southern Boobook has been calling very persistently at night around the top of Dixon Rd
-          A mysterious Snipe (not the Painted one) lurking at the poo ponds has local pundits still guessing, Latham’s or Pin-tailed?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Red-capped Robin

Red-capped Robin, Petroica goodenovii.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I leave town for one week and it’s the biggest week in Alice birdwatching in yonks. This beautiful little Red-capped Robin, caught during a morning of bird banding earlier in the week, suddenly seems very ho-hum by comparison.

Two amazing Red Centre rarities have shown up at the sewage ponds in Alice this week. First up - a couple of Pied Heron – a coastal and northern species we’d much more expect to see on the Mary River than around these parts.

Then some sharp-eyed birdos managed to pick out an Australian Painted Snipe lurking around some of the weedy areas. One of the most cryptic and sneaky species in the country, this bird is not often seen out this way, so lets hope it hangs around until I can get back and have a gander.

Neither of these species are first records for Alice but they are both seen so infrequently that it warrants great excitement and hearty congratulations to everyone involved in these sightings.

In the meantime I’ve been down in SA doing a few surveys around Lake Cadibarrawirracanna, Coober Pedy, and parts further south. As expected, the birding has been exceptional with flocks of up to 40 Banded Lapwing in some areas, up to 1000 Banded Stilt, and Inland Dotterels are everywhere down this way. At one point I had 18 Australian Crake at Coober Pedy and some of them approaching within arm’s reach.

Other highlights include plentiful flocks of Orange Chat and Blue Bonnets along the highway and a single Rufous Fieldwren at the sewage ponds in Coober Pedy.

Happy Birdwatching until next week, and somebody please nail down that Painted Snipe until I get home!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Diamond Dove

Diamond Dove, Geopelia cuneata.

On the subject of common birds, they don’t get much more common than Diamond Doves at the moment. Nonetheless, these stunning birds were a bit tricky to find going back a year or so. Their current numbers are entirely due, again, to our fantastic rainfall which is beginning to approach the all-time record.
The rain this week has made bird-watching a bit difficult for a few visiting birders, but when the rain eased there were plenty of pools about for scenes like this, where the dove is joined by another common denizen of the desert, the Zebra Finch.
With the rain continuing it seems many more lurking waterbirds are making their way cross-country to take advantage of the profuse vegetation around The Centre. In addition to the reports below, I’ve had quite a few reports of unusual waders, crakes, and quails being seen. I’ll get back to you on those once I’ve had a better look.
‘Til then, Happy Birdwatching.
Sightings this week: 
-          Peregrine Falcon are being seen regularly now in and around Heavitree Gap as the pair nesting here seem to have fledged their youngster
-          Painted Finches in flocks up to 22 birds have been seen along the road to Santa Theresa (when it hasn’t been underwater)
-          Grey Honeyeater, a single bird seen on the ridgetop walk at John Hayes Rockhole in the Eastern Macs, on a very wet Sunday.
-          Straw-necked Ibis in a flock of 40 just past Native Gap on the Stuart Highway north of town
-          not really a bird sighting, but frogs are everywhere at my house this week, making a racket in the gutters and downpipes. Send me your photos and we’ll see if we can establish how many species there are around town.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pied Butcherbird

Pied Butcherbird, Cracticus nigrogularis.

Many thanks for all the emails you’ve sent this week. In particular there have been many requests for more coverage of common local species, rather than just the blow-ins and unusual sightings.
With that in mind I caught up with this young Pied Butcherbird right in the middle of his lunch this week, out near Wigley’s Waterhole. He’s wrestling here with a juvenile snake but I didn’t get close enough to check what species. Suffice to say that the Butcherbird prevailed and got his meal in the end.
 The Pied Butcherbird will be well known to most Alice residents as the bird with a fondness for beginning its song well before sunrise. The bleary-eyed among us might curse this habit on some mornings, but I love it.
Closely related to the Australian Magpie, bird-music lovers will hear the resemblance in their songs. The far-carrying strains of avian jazz that this maestro summons on those cool desert mornings, have a mesmerising quality to them. These pre-dawn recitals drifting through my bedroom window are one of my favourite parts of life in The Alice.
Sightings this week: 
-          Grey Falcon – I saw another of these desert nomads just beyond the rail overpass on north Stuart Highway earlier in the week
-          Red-chested Button-quail – This cryptic northern species has been creeping in to our neck of the woods and has been sighted along sections of the Tanami Road, and also at Emily and Jessie Gap Reserve, east of town
-          Australian Pelican – On the Sandover Highway, someone spotted a lone bird sitting on a roadside sand bank
-          Common Greenshank – Visiting Canberra birder, Frank Antram had some luck with these birds at the sewage ponds and also counted 28 Glossy Ibis

Friday, November 5, 2010

Australasian Darter

Australasian Darter, Anhinga novaehollandiae.

The question flooding my email inbox this week, was from birdwatchers on the east coast asking, where are our birds?!? It’s no secret that the inland lakes and river systems have been brought back to life in spectacular fashion. This is attracting most nomadic species and many intercontinental migrants, to stay here in the outback a bit longer before dispersing toward more traditional coastal habitat.
Around the desert we are seeing many more waterbirds than usual, with cormorants, herons and ducks now a common sight in culverts and roadside ditches along the highway. The Australasian Darter pictured here was at Lake Mary Ann in Tennant Creek, where he is hanging out with 25 of his friends.
The historic rains have helped prolific breeding in some areas and much banding has been done, to help us understand our dynamic inland bird populations. Keep an eye out for birds with bands or coloured flags on their legs, take note of which legs they are on and which colour they are, and email me the details to pass on to the relevant authorities.
Lastly, Swift season is back, so keep your eyes to the skies during stormy weather for these enigmatic birds which are often seen surfing storm fronts across the outback.
Happy birdwatching!
Sightings this week: 
-          Pheasant Coucal, a genuine rarity in The Centre was seen by The Redheads, 2 km down Namatjira Dve from the eastern intersection with Larapinta Dve
-          Visiting Adelaide birder Steve Potter had some excellent close views of Dusky Grasswren out at Ormiston Gorge
-          3 Golden-headed Cisticola were very noisy at the sewage ponds in Tennant Creek
-          80 Australian Pratincole, foraging on the lovely new airstrip at Ali-Curung community
-          Nankeen Night-heron, spotted by David Hartland at the Yulara waste water facility

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fairy Martin

Fairy Martin, Hirundo ariel.

Do you have muddy, bottle-shaped nests under the eaves at your house? Worried about bees or even wasps making their home on your doorstep? Fear not – chances are, you are just hosting the tiny Fairy Martin, pictured here on barbed-wire for a sense of scale.
Many people have emailed me over the last few weeks about this bird’s nests. Barely 12cms long, it builds its nest by mixing soil and clay with saliva. A talented sculptor, it uses this mud to fashion a perfect little bottle-nest, which it fixes beneath a rock overhang, a road culvert, and in many cases under the eaves of your home.
The nests will not damage your home, and once the birds have fledged their youngsters, the nests are often taken over and inhabited by other small birds like Pardalotes. Even some of our small bat species may use old Fairy Martin nests.
Sightings this week: 
-          Banded Lapwing, usually a scarce bird, were everywhere this week. They have been seen at the sewage ponds here in Alice, on crown land adjacent to Hidden Valley Town Camp, and at Hamilton Downs, each time with juvenile birds.
-          Long-toed Stint was picked out by Lisa and Pete, among the waders at the sewage ponds. A tricky bird to separate, so a great effort that.
-          A single Oriental Pratincole was seen earlier in the week at the sewage ponds
-          The always spectacular Channel-billed Cuckoo have been seen and heard on the east side of town and around Braitling on the north side.
-          Rufous-throated Honeyeater, in good numbers at the sewage ponds in Tennant Creek, close to the southern extremity of their range.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover, Pluvialis fulva.

Perhaps not much to look at, but the bird in this picture has arrived here in Alice Springs all the way from the northernmost reaches of Siberian Russia or Alaska. To avoid the frigid northern winter, migratory birds like this Pacific Golden Plover, undertake flights as long as 13000 kms. Most birds will make at least one refuelling stop along the way in places like the Saemangeum in South Korea, and the Yangtze River estuary in China. A few birds, however, have been shown to make non-stop flights of up to 9000 kilometres, flying for 7 days or more without touching down. 
Researchers have only just begun unlocking the secrets of these amazing long distance endurance and navigation skills. It seems that they might shut down one half of their brain while flying. This means the other half can effectively “sleep” while the bird is on those marathon flights across oceans.
50 million migratory birds navigate from the Arctic to Australia and back again each year using the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Some are barely the size of a budgie.
A lucky few will call Alice Springs home for the summer, until the stars tell them the time is right, and they will head back northwards once more.
Sightings this week: 
-          Barn Owls everywhere. Lots of reports of these night birds out at night hunting rodents
-          8 Glossy Ibis, 4 Pelicans and 2 Nankeen Night-heron at Lake Mary Ann in Tennant Creek
-          Danny from Bush Bus spotted some Bustards and young Emus while negotiating floodwaters on the Lasseter Highway during the week

Friday, October 15, 2010

Australian Pratincole

Australian Pratincole, Stiltia isabella.

The migrants have arrived!
A variety of the migratory birds that desert us during the colder months are arriving back in The Centre in good-sized flocks. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at our long-distance migratory champions, but the star of this week is a migratory bird, within Australia.
The magnificent Australian Pratincole spends the cooler months in the northern reaches of the continent and then makes its way southward for the summer months. This one was giving me some great views at the sewage ponds here in Alice. This bird is in full breeding plumage with bill and gape flushed bright red, and a rich, chestnut brown developing on the breast.
An elegant little bird, it has earned itself a swag of different names due to its distinctive foraging behaviour, including; Australian Roadrunner, Australian Courser, Arnhem Land Grouse, and Swallow-plover to name but a few.
Keep an eye out for more of these birds turning up along roads as we head into the summer months. The continuing fine weather has produced some great bird sightings this week, and here are just some of the highlights.
Sightings this week: 
-          80 Plumed Whistling-ducks at swamps 40kms along Tanami Rd
-          2 Australian Bustards near turn-off to M’bunghara community on the Gary Junction Highway
-          A single Flock Bronzewing 2kms past Kunoth Bore on the Tanami Rd
-          A Pacific Golden Plover in a mixed flock with lots of other waders including Sharp-tailed and Wood Sandpipers, at the sewage ponds
-          3 immature Banded Stilt have appeared at the sewage ponds, possibly from the historic breeding that has occurred this year at Lake Torrens in SA

Friday, October 8, 2010

Central Bearded Dragon

Central Bearded Dragon, Pogona vitticeps.

The warm weather has begun with bird activity beginning to drop during the hottest parts of the day. Our reptile friends are becoming active with the warmth though, and I have seen a few big Western Brown Snakes out and about, along with plenty of Mulga Snake and Yellow-faced Whip Snake, so when you’re out bird watching this week… watch your step.
Other things to look out for include the wonderful Bearded Dragons and Thorny Devils that are showing up on all the roads around town at the moment. These icons of the Red Centre are getting squashed by the dozen, so really keep your eyes on the road when you’re out driving during the week.
Thanks to everyone that has been sending me their bird sightings over the last few weeks, it is really building into a great record of this fantastic season.
Interesting Bird Sightings:   
-          Susan Heckenberg has been lucky enough to find a family of four Barn Owls in her back yard in Braitling. Keep your eyes peeled as they may be roosting in trees around this area
-          I saw three magnificent Brolgas by the roadside near the turn off to Ali-Curung community
-          There seems to be an invasion of Feral Pigeons establishing a nice home for themselves in the sheds at The Ghan depot
-          Big flocks of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos seen about town with 150 near Jessie Gap and another 80 on the Tanami Rd
-          Three Black falcons on the power lines near the start of the Tanami Rd

Friday, October 1, 2010

Grey Falcon

Grey Falcon, Falco hypoleucos.

Red Centre Bird Week has exceeded all expectations this year. The undisputed star of the show has been the rare and elusive Grey Falcon. The bird in this picture is in fine health and is in the process of regurgitating a pellet of bones, teeth, fur, and other indigestible remnants of its diet.
Two different pairs of these cracking birds have been sighted this week. With fewer than 1000 breeding pairs in the wild, having two of these pairs so close to Alice Springs has been icing on the cake for participants in the Twitchathon over the weekend.
It wasn’t just the Grey Falcons though - with seven teams competing to identify the most species over 24 hours, and a variety of other activities through the week, some really special birds have been seen.
Red Centre Bird Week Sightings:    
-          Visiting Victorian birder, Elizabeth Shaw, got some up-close views of a Buff-banded Rail, well outside its traditional range at the waterhole at Olive Pink
-          Mark Carter helped his team to a win in the “Best Bird” category, and eventual joint 1st place overall, with a Golden-headed Cisticola at the Sewage Ponds
-          Earlier in the week there was a flock of 12 Ground Cuckoo-shrikes reported near Hamburger Creek on the Tanami Rd
-          An immature Channel-billed Cuckoo was on Larapinta Drive 40kms west of Hermannsburg
-          Excellent numbers of Black Honeyeater in a number of spots along the road to Santa Theresa
-          A pair of Peregrine Falcons have taken up residence near the Glen Helen Resort
-          And finally, another surprise with Banded Whiteface turning up at Hamilton Downs

Friday, September 24, 2010

Eastern Barn Owl

Eastern Barn Owl, Tyto javanica.

This week’s magical bird encounter occurred on a late evening drive home from Glen Helen. The plentiful supplies of grass seeds around The Centre have brought with them a healthy population of local rodents. Namatjira Drive was overrun with scurrying mice as I drove along on Tuesday night. On three occasions I had to pull up to let an owl finish its meal on the road before I could pass. This Eastern Barn Owl flew into a roadside tree and decided to stay for a while to enjoy the spotlight. Keep your eyes peeled for more night birds as the warm nights approach and rodent numbers increase.
Sightings this week: 
- 10 Australian Pelicans in formation flying over Ryan Well to the north of town
- Spotted Harrier continue to be seen in good numbers, particularly in open areas north of town
- Australian Pratincole at the sewage ponds in Alice Springs
- Small flocks of Scarlet-chested Parrots seen just prior to road closure, 80kms past Kata Tjuta on the road to Docker River
- a pair of the very rare Grey Falcon seen close to the north west of town
- another rarity, Grey Honeyeater reported from a number of different sites in the vicinity of Hamilton Downs, owing no doubt, to the continuing eremophila blooms in this area
- 8 Oriental Plovers, the first for the year, at the Coober Pedy sewage ponds
Best of luck to all the teams heading out to the Desert Park for the start of the Twitchathon at 6pm today. I’ll see you all at the start line.
Until next week, keep your eyes to the skies!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rainbow Bee-eater

Rainbow Bee-eater, Merops ornatus.

The Rainbow Bee-eaters are back! Twitchathon time is almost upon us and these welcome omens of warmer weather are here to colour our skies again.  With the rain continuing, the country is bursting with life and we have a wealth of waterbirds being spotted around the town.
Notable Sightings this week:           
- large swarms of grasshoppers are supporting huge flocks of 1000+ Masked Woodswallow on the Stuart Highway north of town and along the Tanami Rd.
- swampy areas between Native Gap and Aileron are supporting White-necked Heron and flocks of 20+ Straw-necked Ibis.
- A Glossy Ibis at the sewage ponds in Alice reported by visiting Victorian birdos Paul Dodd, Ruth Woodrow, and Tim Dolby.
- Great Cormorant at Taylor’s Creek
- Cattle Egret seen regularly at the sewage ponds in Alice.
-  immature Great-crested Grebe at Lake Mary-Anne in Tennant Creek.
-  White-winged Black, and Whiskered Tern both seen in the last week at the sewage ponds in Alice.
- Ground Cuckoo-shrike seen along the Santa Theresa Road and in good numbers along the Kintore Rd.
- a lone Black Falcon continues to be seen along the Santa Theresa Rd immediately behind the airport.
There are a few unconfirmed reports of Princess Parrot beginning to appear near the roads around Watarrka, so keep your eyes peeled. The Scarlet-chested Parrots along the road to Docker River have not been seen since the last report over two weeks ago.
Remember to register your team for the Twitchathon and get involved in this great event to kick off Red Centre Bird Week 2010. For details visit the Alice Springs Desert Park website at
Send your sightings for next week’s bulletin to
Until next week, Happy Bird Watching!