Chris Coleborn

During last April and May my three daughters, Lydia, Anna and Elizabeth, and one of my sons, John, had the privilege of being able to take a bush-camping holiday to Central Australia. It was a wonderful trip for us all, and we would like to share something of our holiday with you.

If we were able to afford the trip, we had to be as economical as possible. We all borrowed canvas rolled swags and some extra water and petrol containers from our good friends the Taylor family. We gathered up our basic outdoor camping gear, including a canvas fly that was pitched over a ridge pole, and that just allowed us to unroll and squeeze in our five swags for sleeping. The family van, which had the back seat taken out to fit in our gear, had a thorough mechanical check over. Some basic food stuffs and clothing was packed, and after committing our way to the Lord for a safe and happy journey, and that Mum and the two boys at home, Peter and Mark, would also be kept safe and happy, we set off on our journey.

Our aim was to experience something of the great central Australian outback with which God has blessed us. We looked forward to seeing its wonderful deserts, and unique flora and fauna - especially birdlife. As far as the birdlife went, we had made up a list of new birds we hoped we might see, and were expecting, at the same time, to catch up with lots of old favourites. Some of us are also very interested in Australian native plants, especially Lydia, and we were anticipating seeing many new species of flora too. By the time we returned home, we had experienced all these things plus a close time of family fellowship and adventure, and a heightened sense of the wonders of God’s marvelous creation.

We left very early one morning from our home in Northern Victoria and got to Port Gawler, just beyond Adelaide, for our first night. We saw lots of birds on the way, and were excited to begin seeing the real inland birds near the VIC/SA border. There we saw, for example, White-faced Honeyeaters, Mulga Parrots, and Inland Thornbills.

We had been told that we could see the Slender-billed or Samphire Thornbill at Port Gawler, as well as perhaps Rock Parrots. Two of the new species we were hoping to see. We arrived in the late afternoon, and were very pleased to see before too long, the little Buff-rumped type Thornbills among the low shrubbery in the area. On the water’s edge, we also saw a form of the White-browed Scrubwren (Spotted) that we had not seen before. The one thing we all vividly remember about Port Gawler though, is the mosquitoes! What a night! A humid, warm night and millions and millions of mossies! Trying to keep them away by burying oneself in a canvas swag was like being in a sauna bath all night. Needless to say, we feel that there are better places to find the Slender-billed Thornbill than Port Gawler! We also saw the Slender-billed Thornbills again at Chinaman’s Creek, a conservation park on the coast just before Port Augusta. This area was far superior to Port Gawler for birds and for comfort and beauty. We also saw here for the first time on this trip Chirruping Wedge-bills, Masked Woodswallows and Singing Honeyeaters. A unique form of Mangrove grows in this area. We enjoyed having a close look at them.

One of the places we were looking forward to seeing and camping at, was the Lake Gilles Conservation Park, about a hundred km. beyond Port Augusta at the top of the Eyre Peninsula. This salt, mostly dry lake and surrounding undulating Mallee and Western Myall and Bluebush/Saltbush country, we found most attractive. We set our camp up on a rise overlooking the dry salt lake. We had been told that this was a good place to observe the Rufous Treecreeper, the Western Yellow Robin: race rosinae and the Blue-breasted Fairy Wren. We arrived fairly late in the day, but as we set up our quick camp, we saw for the first time the Port Lincoln form of the Mallee Ringneck Parrot. They are a beautiful bird.

After a wonderful evening around the campfire with a warming meal and our family devotions, we "hit the sack". In the light of a near full moon, with the haunting night calls of the Boobook Owl, the Spotted Nightjar and Owlet Nightjar, we fell asleep. We were prepared to stay for some days, if necessary, to find the new birds we were looking for in this area. On our morning walk through the Mallee type country we saw and enjoyed the normal Mallee type-birds, such as the Yellow-rumped form of the Spotted Pardalote and Jacky Winters. We noted that the Jacky Winters here are of a different race (assimilis) to the more common or nominate race. It is darker, with black (not white) on the outer tail feathers. We were told that the Western Yellow Robin was much more elusive and difficult to find than the Eastern Yellow Robin. However, great was our pleasure where after an hour or so of walking, we saw a Western Yellow Robin. It was quietly flying from branch to branch, and from branch to ground to feed. It seemed slightly smaller to me than the Eastern Yellow Robin and more quiet and retiring by nature. It has a very beautiful wash of lemon yellow and a band of soft grey on its chest. We had some excellent views. Though they were not fully in their breeding plumage, we also were able to gladly add the Blue-breasted Fairy Wren to our observations that morning.

After lunch, and a bit of a rest, we set out again for a walk - this time into the more open Buloake and Myall country, with open areas of grassland and saltbush varieties. Our goal was to find the Rufous Treecreeper. We walked for several hours. The children were getting tied, and not being quite as enthusiastic as myself on bird watching (they say not as fanatical), I realized we would have to soon head back to camp. We had spread out to cover more territory in looking for the bird. It was Lydia who found this incredibly coloured and striking bird. She said that she was quite weary and simply looking at birds in her binoculars in a half-hearted manner, when suddenly she focused on one that gave her such a shot of adrenaline it was like an electric shock! She could hardly believe she had this beautiful Rufous Treecreeper, which was practically filling up her binoculars, so good was the view. With subdued but earnest signals and sounds, the rest were called, and for about a half an hour, we followed and watched this bird feed and fly around. It was most satisfying.

We had seen all our birds for the area in one day, so while we were tempted to just simply camp and enjoy the lovely area, we realized that if we were to cover the area in the time we had, and hope to track down the new birds we were looking for, it would be best to move on. Lord willing, we hope to return to Lake Gillies Park another day for a longer stay.

The Rock Parrot and the Western Whipbird were the next on our list of new birds to find if possible. We had been advised that one good place for these birds was at the bottom of the Eyre Peninsula, at Lincoln and Coffin Bay National Parks. We drove down from Kimba. On the way we enjoyed seeing many birds, including White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes in the bush, and on the coast, Cape Barren Geese and Black-faced Shags. It was something to see this great Peninsula also. It is so very open and a vast plain. It is hard to believe once it was covered with Mallee. We enjoyed very much seeing the stone cottages scattered over rural South Australia.

As night fell, we pitched our camp on a hillside in Lincoln National Park, and hoped that a new day might reveal the Western Whipbird to us. We were up early looking in a known area for this very elusive bird. Its call is nothing like the Eastern Whipbird. If anything, it reminds me of the Chiming Wedgebill. We enjoyed looking at the plants and animals, including a big black snake, before we heard the call of the Western Whipbird. It was from very dense foliage. We tried to call it out by playing a taped called of this species, and though we indistinctly saw a bird quickly scuttle through the undergrowth, we had no confirmed sighting of the bird. We spent most of the day looking for it. At one time John and I went off with our tape recorder playing its call now and then, seeking to get a response and to attract it into a place where we could see it. At one stage we heard its call. We crept closer. We played our tape and waited. It called again - closer this time. We were getting excited. This went on for twenty minutes or so, and then ... and then ... we were so embarrassed to run into some other birders with a tape recorder playing the birds call. We thought such things only happened in cartoons.

After a look over the park, and not seeing the Rock Parrot, though enjoying many other birds, and the lovely sights of the park, we headed off for Coffin Bay. My friend Noel Taylor had asked me not to try too hard to see the Western Whipbird until he could take me to see it in the Mallee up on the VIC/SA border, so I did not feel I could stay too long looking for it and betray his request. Our priority here after all, was the Rock Parrot. Coffin Bay National Park is one of the best known areas for seeing the Rock Parrot.

The islands off Point Avoid are known areas where the Rock Parrot roosts overnight, and also breeds. After a quick look around the area, we were able to find a very nice secluded camping area near to the beach and almost directly opposite Golden Island. As we set up camp, to our excitement, a lone Rock Parrot flew quite low over our camp, giving only a sufficient view to identify it. After an early meal (what would we do without pasta), and before the sun set, we set off for a walk along what must have been one of the most wonderful evenings on a beach I have ever had. The twilight, with its pastel pinks, apricots and molten golds, its soft mauves and blues painted the eastern side of the bay, with its stark white sandhills stretching away into the distance, all set off by a brilliant silvery and azure sea. The west showed a sunset that is only found in desert country, casting a mellow light over all. The air was balmy, with only the lightest of breezes, and the gentle waves brought in the most crystal clear water onto the fine pale sand. What a privilege to walk just with loved ones in such a place, knit together in love and care for one another, and sharing a great adventure. The Lord is good. To top it off, we had the most clear views of a pair of the endangered Hooded Plover. We also were saddened, but appreciated seeing freshly a beach washed Fairy Penguin and a Sooty Shearwater. As we returned from our walk along the beach, a pair of Rock Parrots flew up from the side of the beach dunes giving us a clear view of them. We saw both their underside and their backs as they turned and flew off. We also had nice views of the Western Form of the Pacific Gull. The Western Form had a red eye and the red tip on the bill is only fully on the bottom mandible. The bill marking is quite distinct.

We saw flocks of Rock Parrots fly overhead next morning. I wished however to obtain a prolonged and clear view of a Rock Parrot on the ground. We hunted for some hours in areas of suitable feeding trying to find them, but without success. A ranger told us of a place where they were almost always found. It meant an hour’s walk there and back. Three brave souls set out to walk from our group, but alas, no sightings of the Parrot. After some discussion the children were keen to move on with our trip, though I would have stayed to look for better views of the Rock Parrot. The vote was to move on. We headed off to Port Augusta. We made a telephone call to the family at home, posted off various post cards and the daily diary of the holiday that Lydia was writing to send home to the family at regular intervals.

As night drew on, we set off North on the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs. We went about 25 km and found a nice spot in the Western Myall Country, with its beautiful blue bush, well away and screened from the Highway for our camp. We camped over the Lord’s Day, having our rest day, and a time of worship together in the morning and at night.

The road North let us into types of country we had never seen before. It was not only the various desert formations, of Gibber and Sand type Deserts, but also great Salt Lakes and wonderful Jump Ups - the Australian equivalents of the American Mesas and Buttes. We enjoyed a stop at Coober Pedy and a look around this interesting town. It was a novelty having to buy drinking water, as well as to see the dug out homes and businesses. We were told of a nice place to camp overnight just out of Coober Pedy.

On the Sturt Highway we also came across, for us, both new or not so often seen birds. We saw for example the Race callainus of the Splendid (Turquoise) Wren. The male is a much lighter blue colour than the melanotus race from the east of Australia. We also saw the Race Pallescens of the Blue Bonnet - it is the palest form of this lovely parrot. A flock of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes were seen. They were obviously parents with several young they were feeding from time to time. Recent rain had made the country quite lovely. At one place we had to stop to admire a great clump of the striking Sturt’s Desert Pea flowering - what a sight. Orange Chats and other desert birds greeted us along the road.

Arriving in Alice Springs was a real sense of achievement. We found the city quite modern and interesting. We made one of our rare stops at a Caravan Park so we could have a decent shower, and wash our clothes - what luxury. In the Caravan Park with its many trees, we discovered the Race rubeculus of the Grey-crowned Babbler with a nest and young inside of it. This race differs from the eastern race by having a very distinct rufous chest. We also saw for the first time Painted Firetail Finches near the Sewage Ponds, and also we saw our first Pied Honeyeater for the trip and amazingly, among the various ducks on the ponds, a pair of Blue-billed Ducks, quite out of its normal range. We read in a national birding magazine of another party who also saw these ducks at the ponds this year.

After a look around the town and seeing the old Telegraph Station and such like places, and after stocking up, we set off North, then North West along the Tanami Road. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, reminding us of all our friends in Rockhampton. We were looking for a bird that was on the top three of our list to find - the little Grey Honeyeater. We made our camp, and I was prepared to spend up to seven days looking for it. A brief walk, as night came on, discovered some very interesting birds in the Mulga Scrub we were in, such as a flock of lovely Bourke’s Parrots. Red-backed Kingfishers were about and observed several times.

I set off with Lydia next morning. The others decided to sit at camp and catch up with their reading. We walked for about twenty minutes, occasionally playing a taped call of the Grey Honeyeater. One of the most satisfying incidents of this trip was to have a pair of these unobtrusive, and easily missed little birds arrive and feed for fifteen minutes just above our heads. What views we had of them! They are often called a non-descript bird in the literature describing them, but I thought they were beautiful. We also saw another pair, and one single bird on this walk. Later that day I took the other children and also showed them this rare little bird. We had the privilege of also seeing a pair of Slaty-backed Thornbills. In the area were Yellow-throated Miners Race pallida, (this race is smaller and paler than that of the east); Rufous Whistler Race colletti, (this is a pale race of this Whistler); and Little Woodswallows.

Finding the birds we were seeking more readily than we had dared hope, certainly put us ahead on our schedule. Returning to Alice Springs, we went straight on to the wonderful West Macdonnell Ranges. The paintings of Albert Namajira do not lie, this area is incredibly beautiful. We called in at Simpsons Gap first. We were told that the Dusky Grasswren was easily seen here. We never got to see it here. However the children enjoyed a big walk and Anna and Elizabeth had an unexpected fall into a rock pool - freezing they said. We also saw a new bird here - several male Red-throats. I enjoyed looking at one for quite some time. A very neat little fellow I thought. He was much more sprightly and outgoing than I was led to believe.

A kindly ranger told us a spot to camp just before the gates of Simpsons Gap. After another unsuccessful look next morning for the Dusky Grasswren, we set off for Ormiston Gorge, where we planned to stay for some days. Along the way we saw our only pair of Major Mitchell Cockatoos. These parrots would be one of my favourites. I expected to see quite a few, but it was not to be so.

We had to camp in the appointed camping spot at Ormiston Gorge - no bush camping allowed. The luxury of showers and gas fire places made up for a fairly crowded camping grounds, with some radio sounds now and then and noise late at night when we early risers were trying to get our sleep. We found this an excellent birding spot, and appreciated a talk with Peter Wilkins, a ranger who was leaving within a few days, and who was well informed on birds of the area, and who gave us some good hints on where to find some of the birds for which we were looking. He recently co-authored a book just published called Finding Birds in Australia’s Northern Territory. I wish I had it before leaving for the trip. (To be continued in Part II)

This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, October 1997