This was the third year the 6-day small group birding tour ‘Highlights of South Australia’ was run by Southern Birding Services. This season, the tour was run twice (once in October and once in December). This trip report cover the December tour. The October tour had exactly the same itinerary, with the two main differences being that during the October tour a Scarlet-chested Parrot was seen at Gluepot, but no Eyrean Grasswrens were seen at Montecollina Bore. The December tour commenced on 10 December in Adelaide, South Australia, and finished there on 15 December. Places visited included the Adelaide Hills and woodlands, River Murray, Birds Australia’s Gluepot Reserve, the Flinders Ranges, the Strzelecki outback desert and coastal areas north of Adelaide. By visiting a variety of habitats the species list was maximized resulting in a total of 194 species, a new record for this tour, including some highly sought-after species.
Day 1: December 10
The tour started in the morning of 10 December. The small group (3 people + leader) headed to the Mt Lofty ranges, to the east of Adelaide. While most of South Australia is characterised by a rather arid climate, the Mt Lofty ranges are an exception. The hills capture the rainclouds coming in from the Southern Ocean, resulting in a much cooler and wetter climate. This was evident in the moist fog enveloping the peaks while we commenced birding in the tall Eucalypt forests. Soon we had great views of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo and the endemic Adelaide Rosella. A small flock of thornbills flittering around in the foliage took some time in identifying: it contained Striated and Brown Thornbill. Also present were Yellow-faced and Crescent Honeyeater and a well-performing White-throated Treecreeper. White-naped Honeyeater, Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Scarlet Robin were heard and a Koala was having a rest in a tall Eucalyptus tree. Later that morning we left the hills for the sunnier and drier plains where a small but excellent remnant of native heathland produced Yellow-rumped Thornbill, the first of many-to-come Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, and a Tawny-crowned Honeyeater calling in the distance. A Southern Scrubrobin approached the observers to within 3 metres, and then sat on a branch at the same distance singing for at least five minutes – leaving the observers ‘frozen’ in their position, breathlessly observing this otherwise rather secretive species. To top it off, a nearby patch of bush yielded a Collared Sparrowhawk and a vagrant Black Honeyeater! After lunch we visited a wetland on the Murray river. The drought in the Murray-Darling river system had left most wetlands without water, resulting in hundreds of water birds congregrating in those wetlands with water still present. Within no time we had significantly increased the day’s species list, including notable species such as Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Musk, Pink-eared and Blue-billed Duck and Australian Spotted Crake. A Swamp Harrier was patrolling the reedbeds, from which Little Grassbird and Australian Reed-warbler were singing, while nearby a Little Eagle was seen soaring. We then followed the Murray river upstream, picking up White-winged Chough and Yellow Rosella on the way. At the end of the day we visited a sanctuary near Waikerie where a Malleefowl was seen feeding at close range.
Day 2: December 11
An early rise on the morning for the drive to Birds Australia’s Gluepot reserve. It was overcast and rain was threatening. We arrived at Gluepot around sunrise and found lots of bird activity in a patch of mallee interspersed with open shrubland near the entrance. We soon picked up Striped, Whitefronted and Yellow-plumed Honeyeater, Gilbert’s Whistler, Chestnut Quail-thrush, the elusive Shy Heathwren, more Southern Scrubrobins, and Crested Bellbird. A mixed flock of Woodswallows contained Masked and White-browed Woodswallow. We then set off in search of one of our main target species, the endangered Black-eared Miner. The Black-eared Miner, a sensitive species reliant on old-growth mallee bush, hybridizes readily with the aggressive Yellow-throated Miner, a species of open areas which has been favoured by land clearing and bush fires. On the outside edge of the reserve we found a flock of 6-8 hybrid Yellow-throated x Black-eared Miner, and after some effort we identified at least two birds that fitted the criteria for pure Black-eared Miner. As it was still threatening to rain we quickly moved on to the next target, Red-lored Whistler, which was easily found, with a profusely singing male providing great views at close range. With the two most difficult species out the way it was time for a break and a cup of coffee was had while the Red-lored Whistler kept on singing in the background. The last ‘difficult’ species, Striated Grasswren, indeed proved elusive, and not after searching three different patches of spinifex grass did we eventually obtain good views of a singing male. A drive around the reserve yielded Mallee Ringneck, Mulga Parrot, White-browed Treecreeper, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Splendid and Variegated Fairy-wren and Grey Butcherbird. Parties of Chestnut-crowned and White-browed Babblers ran around in the undergrowth. Lunch was had in a bird hide overlooking a bird water trough which resulted in great close-up views of Brown-headed, Yellow-plumed and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater. Two brilliant Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos were seen feeding on saltbush berries before we returned to Waikerie. Birding in the fruit orchards resulted in a flock of Regent Parrots and more Yellow Rosellas and Chestnut-crowned Babblers.
Day 3: December 12
Rain had started falling early the next morning and had become quite heavy when we left Waikerie. First stop was the Stockyard Plains saline water disposal lake, where many species of Duck (including Musk, Pink-eared and Australian Shoveler) were observed and a Freckled Duck scoped from inside the dry car. Near Morgan we had to get out of the car for Redthroat, which was seen well despite the pouring rain. It rained non-stop during the four-hour drive to the Flinders Ranges and by the time we got to Hawker, many roads were flooded (but passable). Fortunately the rain stopped once we entered the Flinders Ranges, an impressive range of steep hills and soaring rock formations on the edge of Australia’s outback. However the wind had picked up and we searched the spinifex-grass covered slopes for the elusive Short tailed Grasswren in a howling gale. Despite these conditions we obtained acceptable views of the species, a recent split from the Striated Grasswren and one of SA’s endemic species. A walk in a wind-protected gully yielded Inland Thornbill and great views of Black-eared Cuckoo. There were plenty of Red, Western Grey and Euro Kangaroos around. As it started raining again we decided to return to the Wilpena Pound resort early where an excellent meal was followed by quandong pie, a local delicacy.
Day 4: December 13
It was still raining the morning of 13 December but we nevertheless returned to the Short-tailed Grasswren site. Once there it was dry yet windy, but we found the grasswrens again and everyone had better views than on the previous day. The rain had rendered some of the roads through the Flinders Ranges impassable but fortunately we managed to get out without trouble and once back on the plains, the weather started to clear up. Many creek crossings had water in them and at one such place we stopped as there appeared to be a lot of bird activity. Indeed we turned up Budgerigar, Pied Honeyeater, Crimson Chat, Chirruping Wedgebill, White-winged Fairy-wren and Zebra Finch. By mid-morning we arrived at Lyndhurst, only to find that the Strzelecki Track had been closed for all traffic. We learnt from the pub owner that heavy rainfall had left some creek crossings washed out and that the Track would be closed for the rest of the day. This was a serious setback as it meant we could not visit the site for the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface this afternoon. We therefore spent time searching the disused airstrip and area around it, which had similar habitat, and this proved to be a good choice. In the ensuing few hours we turned up Red-backed Kingfisher, Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Crimson Chat, Orange Chat, Pied Honeyeater, Chirruping Wedgebill and White-winged Fairy-wren. After an early dinner we returned to the airstrip and observed at length from the car, much to the participants delight, two Thick-billed Grasswrens foraging on the gibber stones surrounding a small shrub. We then took position on the airstrip in the hope of seeing Inland Dotterel, a largely nocturnal species that becomes active around sunset and goes back to roost around sunrise. And indeed, while the sun set in flaming hues of red on the edge of the open stony Strzelecki desert one Inland Dotterel showed up and commenced foraging.
Day 5: December 14
The next morning, we set off early to explore the Strzelecki desert. The rainclouds had gone and while it was windy, there were mostly clear skies. First stop was Mt Lyndhurst Station. Having pretty well ‘cleaned up’ all resident species yesterday, we could focus on the endemic Chestnut-breasted Whiteface. We located two after about 20 minutes, and half an hour later another two. Rufous Fieldwren was also seen, and we returned to the vehicle for the drive up the Strzelecki Track. Birding along the way we saw more Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Chirruping Wedgebill, White-winged Fairy-wren and Crimson and Orange Chat. We came to a site more reminiscent of a spring meadow in Europe than an outback desert. The sodden ground supported lush green vegetation and flowering shrubs. The air was heavy with song from numerous Rufous and Brown Songlarks; it looked like almost each shrub had a singing Pied Honeyeater on top; Whitewinged Trillers were singing from each tree; Zebra Finches and Crimson and Orange Chats were flittering around; and Black-faced and Masked Woodswallows were foraging above all this. We continued following the Strzelecki Track across the stony desert, with occasional tree-lined watercourses, many of these with water in them. Budgerigars were plentiful and some were checking out nest hollows. Twice we flushed an Inland Dotterel from the road. After a few hours we reached Montecollina bore with its overflow which creates a small oasis. While normally this is a haven for water-dependent species, with so much water lying around in the surrounding areas this place was eerily deserted. However one lone Australian Spotted Crake was seen here as well as one Banded Lapwing, while White-backed Swallows were flying around. The main target of this area was Eyrean Grasswren, and after a coffee break we set off in search of this species. A pair was quickly found, giving great views in between the white sand dunes. We had lunch at the picnic tables by the bore and then headed back the same way. Scanning the track ahead for flushing birds, which could be Gibber (Desert) Chats, we saw many Australasian Pipits, and a pair of Gibber Chat close to the vehicle, providing excellent, prolonged views. Other species we picked up were Emu, Diamond Dove, Rainbow Beeeater, Fairy and Tree Martin, and Hooded Robin along way. Some 10 White-winged Black Terns were hovering over a flooded area, along the shore of which a few Black-tailed Native Hen were foraging. We returned back to Lyndhurst in time for a well-deserved dinner.
Day 6:December 15
The last day of this tour, had us departing around sunrise yet again for the long trip south. It was a beautiful calm morning with clear skies. Soon the landscape started to change to arid hills that became more vegetated as we went further south. We took a short detour into the Flinders Ranges to pick up Grey-fronted Honeyeater and Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, both showing well, which we’d missed a few days ago due to the track through the Flinders Ranges being closed after the rain. As we drove along creekbeds and through narrow gorges cut deeply into geological layers that date back 800 million years we briefly visited the fossil site of the Ediacaran fauna, which lived a little before the great explosion of multicellular life at the beginning of the Cambrian Period. On the way south we saw more Crimson and Orange Chats. Next stop was the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens where Chirruping Wedgebill and Whitefronted Honeyeater were prolific. We then followed the coast of the Gulf St Vincent and closer to Adelaide stopped in at Port Gawler, where a search of the coastal samphire marshes resulted in two much obliging Slender-billed Thornbills (race rosinae), as well as four Elegant Parrots. Further south at St Kilda the tidal mudflats yielded Little Egret, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint and a Pacific Gull. We arrived back in Adelaide late that afternoon, after one of the most successful ‘Highlights’ tours thus far, with excellent views of some rare and difficult species and good numbers of high-quality ticks for each group member!