Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aussie Roadie Part 2: South Oz. (AKA "Major Bitchell's & Miner Excitement")

So after some heavy downpours crossing the last stretches of highway in Western Australia, we passes over the border with South Australia sometime after dark. The further you drive from civilization in this country, the more expensive "essentials" get, since literally everything gets trucked/trained in. For example, I saw a 4L jug of water being sold for $15 AUD which is close to $16 CAD! At least it's not as bad as up in mining country where some desperate colleagues of mine allegedly spent $43 for a six-pack of beer.

Anyway, the vast area of "nothingness" that sits out in between populated WA and SA is known as the Nullarbor Plain (from the latin for "no trees"). Sandwiched between the Great Victoria Desert to the north and the Great Southern Ocean (everything is so GREAT down here), it is famed for its flatness and bleakness (in the eyes of early settlers anyways). I must say though, initially we were pretty unimpressed--it didn't seem that flat or bleak, but we didn't realize that the best flat/bleak bit was further east in SA, and probably north of the railway where we wouldn't be going.

Oh well, at least when morning broke over our truckstop campsite, the skies were clear... so we headed off to the only spec of human settlement in the area--the Nullarbor Roadhouse.
While there were more plants growing on the Nullarbor than we had imagined, it was still pipin' hot. I think this was a first for all of us--41 Celsius before 8am!  Just another typical December morning...
This is what the Nullarbor Plain looks like just east of the roadhouse. Flat, yes, but lots of Blue Bush (looks like like sage-brush eh?). We were here for fuel, but more importantly, we were here for the Nullarbor Quail-Thrush--a colourful birds that creeps around on the ground in this area. The site-guide gave us an exact location 6.3 km down a rough track, but we found them to be common throughout this habitat. I think we had around 13 or so. Nice!
I realized that there were no herps in this post, so I chucked in this one. A "Pine Cone Lizard" as the South Aussies say.
A desert roadhouse seems like a strange place for a Southern Right Whale statue. But actually we're only ~18km from the ocean, where these guys can be readily seen in winter.
Not even sure where this is, but certainly a typical outback sign.
#Bring your jerrycan!
First flat tire (tyre for the Aussies) of the trip! Luckily just outside of Ceduna. Good thing too, as we added our first House Sparrows of the trip here! [Heavily controlled in WA]
After a night in Port Augusta, Jukka and I spent a morning  walking around the Arid Lands Botanical Gardens north of town. This area is very reminiscent of central Washington State (somewhere like Ephrata). Saw a few nice birds here including Chirruping Wedgebill, but also saw this guy...
Not entirely sure but I think the message is: conserve water or else.
Driving north, through central South Australia, one comes across a lot of roadkill---this attracts ravens and raptors of course. Here are 2 of maybe 15 Wedge-tailed Eagles that were feasting on this roo.
After hiding out at the Lyndhurst Roadhouse for a few hours (to beat the heat), we headed east over to Mt Lyndhurst Station where it was a decidedly cool 44C. Believe it or not, with a slight breeze, a dry 44 in the evening is fairly pleasant--it's all about the angle of the sun baby! I'm a notorious sweater, and I didn't lose a drop. Must be getting used to this.
Here we are near Mt Lyndhurst. There were plenty of lifers possible, but we wanted the crown jewel, the only true endemic to South Australia (not counting grasswrens), the little known and notoriously hard-to-find Chestnut-breasted Whiteface.
Oh there's one. Quite a relief to find this guy within 15 minutes of leaving the car! Lucky too since we didn't see or hear another one over the next two days. [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
Overnight the winds swtiched from hot northerlies to cool southerlies. Today it was only 30C!
As you can see we had to bundle up!
Moving south from Lyndhurst into the beautiful Flinders Ranges. With a wide variety of beath-taking scenery and good flora/fauna diversity, I would have loved to spend more time here. 
Pertti and I checking out a cool gum-tree in the Flinders
Our first taste of true spinifex country. This is on top of Stokes Hill in Flinders Ranges National Park. After  several hours of wandering around in this spiky grass, we finally flushed up a Short-tailed Grasswren--a tough endemic only found in this area.
There were also plenty of these guys--walleroos I think? Haven't bothered to look them up yet.
As Pertti would say, "Kangaroo!"
Modern shepherd
Gorgeous red cliffs at the south end of Walpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges.
Some nice aboriginal art on Akaroo Rock (same place as above)
Feral goat, out-competing the largest kangaroo in Australia (the Red) for water... typical.
Handsome pair of Mulga Parrots feeding on Casuarina seeds [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
From the Flinders, we headed south and east, then north, to the famous Gluepot Reserve (named for what happens to the roads in the event of rain). This is one of the nicest tracts of mallee habitat left in South Australia. Birdwise, it is most famous for being one of the best/last spots to find Red-lored Whistler and Black-eared Miner. The latter is at risk of imminent extinction due to habitat loss and hybridization with the common Yellow-throated Miner. Being the summer, and a minor-heatwave, we had the whole reserve to ourselves. Pleasant yes, but it also meant there was no recent bird-gen on where things are, so we kind of had to explore for ourselves... which is also nice. We were quite fortunate to luck into a small flock of Black-eared Miners on our first morning. There were 8 birds altogether with 6 of them exhibiting all the characters of a pure-looking phenotype. The other two may very well have been pure too but had paler malars (feathers around the edges of the throat), which may suggest hybridism. Calls were also good for Black-eared.
Sweet diggity!
Our only good looks at White-browed Treecreeper for the trip came at Gluepot. Best told from the similar Brown Treecreeper by call, and its affinity for cypress-pines.
Here is one of about 5 hides at Gluepot. Each one has a small water trough that brings good numbers of honeyeaters etc in the hot weather. Since it was very hot indeed, most of our day was spent nearly naked watching birds inside one of these shaded boxes.
Here are three of the more common honeyeaters at Gluepot. From left to right: Yellow-plumed, Brown-headed, and Spiny-cheeked.. Some may disagree but I think the Brown-headed is my favourite honeyeater in Australia. They may seem dull at first, but they are highly inquisitive, travel in chattery groups, and in my opinion--look like mini WWI fighter pilots.
Wearing only boxer-briefs and flip-flops is definitely not the recommended kit for hiking around spinifex/snake-infested bushland. But like I said before, it was frickin toasty! I took many a spike to the foot, ankle, and thigh, but I kept relatively "cool" and thus maintained enough mental capacity to continue Jukka and myself's favourite (NOT) activity--"grasswrening"--this time for Striated Grasswren.
And despite many hours of walking the spinifex at Gluepot, we found no grasswrens. But we did find two of these--SCARLET-CHESTED PARROTS! I've now seen these in two states in under two weeks. "Unfortunately," yet again we only saw female-types, but still a smart-lookin' bird. We also failed to find Red-lored Whistlers in Gluepot, but I think it's a little late for them to be singing that much so perhaps it's not too surprising.
Since it was getting dark, and we felt we could grasswren no more, we decided to keep the party rollin' and drive south out of Gluepot and head toward the Victoria border.  And just when I had nearly given up hope for this ghostly denizen of South Aus, a MALLEEFOWL darted across the road and evaporated into the bush. Here's my "Big Foot"-like documentation photo. This was definitely one of the birding highlights of my Aussie adventure thus far since I had tried so hard for it in Western Australia, plus it saved us a few desperate side-trips in SA/Vic in the coming days.
And so that evening we crossed over into the relatively small (but still large and diverse) state of Victoria. In about 5 days we had tallied 127 species in South Australia, pushing our overall trip total well over 200. Like everywhere else I wish we could have spent more time exploring each location, but there are more birds and places to see, and a limited amount of time to do so!

Oh and one more thing... as the title of the post suggests... we were still missing Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, despite having been in appropriate habitat for the last week or so... This was one of Jukka's most-wanted birds and it seemed that everywhere we went, someone had "just seen" one. Well... we keep on rollin.


  1. Man oh man Russ, this is so good. Can't wait for part 3: the suspense is building ;) Keep on livin' it up down there!

  2. Very nice. Looking forward to reading more. As usual, lovely photos by Jukka. With his dad not speaking English, you probably heard a lot of that lovely Finnish language.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys! Yes it was a wild and crazy (but fun) trip. As I just posted, unfortunately I won't have access to my photos until late Feb since I left my computer in Perth and am now travelling around Borneo. Will update as soon as possible!

    And yes Susan, lots of Finnish! By the end of the trip though, I think the only words I learned were "thank you," "big camera," "small camera," "kestrel," and "brown."