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Alice Springs and Ayers Rock Bird Watching

Author: Carl from Pahrump
Date of Trip: October 2006

In 2006 and 2007 we spent 255 Days driving around Australia. We started in Darwin, drove south to Alice Springs, backtracked to Cairns, went down the East Coast to Rockhampton, cut over to Melbourne, flew to Tasmania and back, went across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, drove up the West Coast to Broome, and finished by crossing the Kimberely Region on our way back to Darwin — 24,000 miles & 6 rental cars. Along the way we stayed in 56 cities and saw 693 bird species/subspecies.

This Trip Report covers the 11-days we spent in the Alice Springs area. We saw 129 bird species at 10 nature areas:

Nature Area Lat & Long Alice Springs Sewage Ponds 23.738S 133.856E Konuth Wells Station 23.516S 133.584E McDonell Ranges NP — Ellery Creek 23.779S 133.073E McDonell Ranges NP – Ormiston Gorge 23.632S 132.727E McDonell Ranges NP – Serpentine Gorge 23.750S 132.978E McDonell Ranges NP – Simpson Gap 23.723S 133.735E Olive Pink Botanic Garden 23.707S 133.884E Ayers Rock NP (Uluru) 25.296S 130.985E Fink River on Stuart Highway 24.553S 133.253E Kings Canyon NP 24.296S 131.593E

If you put these coordinates into Google Earth, you can see the locations I am discussing. Typically, there will be lots of pictures as well.

The top birding areas where:

Birding Area Bird Species Alice Springs Sewage Ponds 65 Konuth Wells Station 46 McDonell Ranges NP – Ellery Creek 38 Kings Canyon NP 32 McDonell Ranges NP – Simpson Gap 30 Curtin Springs Station 29 Ti Tree Roadhouse 24 Olive Pink Botanic Garden 20 McDonell Ranges NP – Ormiston Gorge 19 Erldunda Roadhouse 17 Fink River on Stuart Highway 12 Ayers Rock NP (Uluru) 7 Total 129

Overall, we saw 54 bird species in the 4 sections of the West McDonell Ranges NP.

We saw 35 bird species at The Ponds and 7 species at Konuth Wells Station that we didn’t see anywhere else during these 11 days.

We saw 118 birds during the 7 nights we were based at Alice Springs. We added 11 additional birds to our list during the 4-day/3-night side trip to the Ayers Rock/Curtin Springs/King Canyon area.

If we had just flown to Alice Springs and did the 4-day/3-night side trip to the Ayers Rock area, we would have seen 51 bird species.

If we had just flown from Sydney to Ayers Rock for the day, we might have seen 7 bird species.

Lodging

In Alice Springs we stayed at the Nthaba Cottage B&B (www.nthabacottage.com.au 23.714S 133.887E). Our hosts were Anne and Will Cormack. Anne has created a manicured front garden and a terraced rear garden. We spent the late afternoon sitting on the back porch admiring the flowers and enjoying the breeze. We saw Spotted Turtle Doves and the Port Lincoln Ringneck Parrots at the feeders. The B&B overlooks an Aborigine sacred site — part of the Caterpillar Dreaming. A sign said it was a $20,000 fine for someone to go on the site without a permit. The fine is so high because a few years ago a contractor unceremoniously dynamited off the tail of the Caterpillar.

We had the cottage unit. It was nicely furnished with antiques. We had a partial kitchen where we fixed Br’s and picnic Lu’s. On some nights we ordered homemade Indian food from an Indian lady across the street; other nights we ate in town.

Will works for the local Power and Water Company and has a pass for the vehicle entry gate at The Ponds (a.k.a. Sewage Ponds). Will often takes visiting birders to The Ponds with him in his 1954 Morris (British car). He can drive around the various ponds, while other people have to walk. Will is a very keen birder. He has spent over 2000 hours birding at the Ponds, but you would think it was his first time there by his obvious excitement at seeing birds he had seen 1000’s of times before.

Will can also take birders to the small pond at Konuth Wells Station about 30 miles NW of Alice Springs where the nomadic Bourke’s Parrots come to drink in the morning and where you can see the even rarer Gray Honeyeater.

In the Ayers Rock/King Canyon area we stayed at the Curtin Springs Cattle Station & Wayside Inn (www.curtinsprings.com 25.307S 131.753E). We had a room with a private bath, small refrig., and air conditioning. It was much less expensive to stay here than at Ayers Rock, plus you are more centrally located for bird watching, especially if you want to go to Kings Canyon. The Roadhouse serves meals and has excellent Dinners. There is a bottle shop, but you can’t drink on the property since it is Aborigine owned. This is the only place you are likely to see the rare Princess Parrot (Alexandra’s Parrot), even if it is in an enclosure.

If we were planning the trip again, I would:

Stay at least 10 days at Alice Springs — in 7 days we didn’t have time to get to the East McDonell Ranges.

Spend at least 3 nights at the Gem Tree Caravan Park (www.gemtree.com.au -22.968S 134.241E) 140 Km NE of Alice Springs for fossicking, gem stone collecting, star gazing, and birding in the Harts Ranges.

Stay at least 3 nights at Kings Canyon NP.

Stay at Curtin Springs if you have to go to Ayers Rock (once was enough for us).

Highlights of the Region:

Seeing thousands of waders and ducks — including a Pink-eared and Blue-billed Duck – at The Ponds in the middle of a vast barren region (540 to 840 miles from the coasts).

Eating Br at the farm pond at Konuth Wells so we would be there when the Bourke’s Parrots, Orange Chats, raptors, and other birds came for their early morning drink.

Being stopped by a wild camel on the road.

Eating camel steak at Curtin Springs Roadhouse.

Seeing Painted Finches and Spinifex Pigeons in the West MacDonnell Range.

Seeing Splendid Fairywren at Kathleen Springs in King’s Canyon NP

Disappointments

Ayers Rock and the Ogles were letdowns — maybe we expected too much, or maybe it was the heat and flies. Ayers Rock and the Ogles didn’t inspire or amaze us like the Grand Canyon, or the Red Rocks of Sedona, or Iguazu Falls. Given the difficulty of getting there and the high cost of everything there, we don’t see how Ayers Rock got to be such a major tourist attraction. On balance, I’m glad we went, but once was enough for us.

Climbing Ayers Rock may be one of your Life Goals, but don’t expect to see many birds there! Flies by the millions are very possible, even likely!!!

Birding Summary

Of the 129 bird species we saw in the Alice Springs area, 52 were endemic to Australia – 14 species were never seen again during the 255-day trip around Australia; that is: Bourke’s Parrot Orange Chat Brown Goshawk Pink-eared Duck Chestnut-rumped Thornbill Red-necked Avocet Clamorous Reed-Warbler Slaty-backed Thornbill Gray-headed Honeyeater White-browed Babbler Major Mitchell Cockatoo White-fronted Honeyeater Mallee Ringneck Parrot White-winged Tern

Special Comments:

We left Tennant Creek at 5am on Oct 9, 2006 heading toward Alice Springs. Our first stop was the Devil’s Marbles (20.569S 134.264E). We walked around the piles of granite boulders marveling at what a little water and a lot of heat can do. Many of the 1000-ton boulders had cleanly split vertically down the middle. Others had split horizontally and had weathered into what looked like one giant rock on top of another. We found a pair of Nankeen Australian Kestrels nesting in a crevice. It hasn’t rained here in 7 months, so you wonder how anything can survive.

We slowly drove south stopping at all the rest areas, Truck-Train Sidings, memorials and anywhere we saw birds while driving. We saw lots of Woodswallows and Zebra Finches, and one Hooded Robin. There were heaps of dead Kangaroos along side the road, and Raptors like the Black-breasted, Square-tailed, and Whistling Kites; and one Wedge-tailed Eagle, cleaning up the mess.

We stopped at the Ti Tree Roadhouse (22.131S 133.416E) for lunch. The terrain was changing all day as trees gave way to scrub and scattered grass. Everything was flat and very dry, or burned to a crisp. As we approached Alice Springs the straight and narrow road turned into a curvy but narrow mountain road. The speed limit changed from Unlimited to 75mph, then 65mph and finally 30mph.

On Oct 10 we went to the nearby Olive Pink Botanic Garden (23.707S 133.884E) for our afternoon bird watching. Olive was a free spirit anthropologists and naturalist who moved to Alice Springs in the 1930s. She was a rebel to the end; i.e., her’s is the only gravestone facing west in the graveyard.

The Botanic Garden had no flowers, only native trees, which brings in the native birds, especially since there is a waterhole. We saw the knockout beautiful Variegated Fairy-wren, some Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, White-fronted Honeyeaters, Inland Thornbills, and the Western Bowerbird. We saw a car that said: “Powered by OPAL”. Petrol sniffing is a big problem here with Aborigine kids. OPAL is a type of gasoline sold in Central Australia that you can’t get “High” from sniffing. It is illegal to bring non-OPAL gasoline into some Aborigine areas, even in your car gas tank.

For dinner we ordered homemade Indian food from an Indian lady across the street. We ordered Green Peas and Mushrooms simmered with herbs, Mashed Potatoes and Cottage Cheese Dumplings stuffed with nuts in a rich creamy sauce, bread stuffed with cheese, bread stuffed with potatoes, and rice. Beautiful vegetarian meal!

We were off at 6am on Oct 11 heading to the West McDonell Range NP. Our first stop was at Simpson Gap. At the Visitor Center we saw a pair of Mulga Parrots in Ghost Gum Trees (they send out roots for 1000’s of feet in search for water). This area averages 4 to 10 inches of rain a year

Next we tried the 10 Km Woodland Walk. This is a very romantic walk since you are supposed to kiss all the way to entice Splendid Fairy-wrens to check you out. We gave it our best, but only found a White-winged Fairywren nesting by the trail. We saw heaps of White fronted and Black-faced Woodswallows, and stacks of White-fronted Honeyeaters. Our best birds were the Rufous Songlarks that serenaded us all morning with a Beautiful melody, the Gray-headed Honeyeaters, and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills. After 1.3 Km (1.5 hours) of walking thru Red Gum Trees, Mulga bushes, and a few dry streambeds we decided to turn back.

Our final stop today was at the end of the canyon where the 2 mountains bend down to form Simpson’s Gap. We saw a huge flock of White-plumbed Honeyeaters here. The wind was so strong it nearly blew our birding hats off. Some of the boulders were a pale lavender color. By the end of the walk we were knacked (Aussie for ‘very tired’). At 11:45am we headed home for lunch and to hang our birding clothes out to dry.

We were off at 4:45am on Oct 12. We drove west in the McDonell NP stopping along the road when we saw birds. We saw some brilliant Painted Finches at sunrise. We eventually arrived at Ellery Creek Big Hole. It has a spring fed pool with cattails, something I didn’t expect to see in the desert. We saw Eurasian Coots and White-faced Herons. We were swarmed by Gray-fronted and White-plumbed Honeyeaters. Later we saw a Black-footed Rock Wallaby sunning itself high on the cliff wall. On the way back we only made a few stops and saw the Brown Falcon and Black-breasted Kite. We arrived back at the cottage at 11:45am.

After lunch we went birding with Will at the Sewage Treatment Ponds. Sewage treatment ponds are always one of the best to go birding – this is particularly true in Alice Springs. We saw 52 bird species at The Ponds in 3 hours including a Black Swan, Black-tailed Native-hens, mobs of Red-necked Avocets, White-winged Terns, Hoary-headed Grebes, Gray Teals, several Clamorous Reed-Warblers that Will called out, White-eyed Ducks, Blue-billed Ducks in the distance, Greenshanks, Wood Sandpipers, and Red-necked Stints.

We walked the Bush near The Ponds and found Variegated and White-wing Fairywrens, Weebills, Willie-wagtails, Common Bronzewings, Red-browed Pardalotes, and a Little Eagle nest. We sampled some Ruby Salt-bush berries the Aborigines use for Bush tucker. They look like small strawberries and don’t have much flavor, but were otherwise agreeable to eat.

We were off at 5:45am on Oct 13 with Will for Konuth Well Station. We drove 20 Km north of Alice on the Steward Highway, and then 29.6 Km west on the “half-paved” Tanami Rd to Konuth Well. The center half of each lane is paved creating a good driving surface. The other half of each lane is dense grade aggregate that is almost as hard and smooth as concrete. When you meet on coming traffic, each car uses half the paved road. If you meet a Truck-train, it is best for cars to pull off the road and stop till they go by.

Birding is especially good at the Konuth Well Station because of its remote location and the big pond on the property. We saw several uncommon species here including Bourke’s Parrot, Crimson and Orange Chats, White-backed Swallows, and a Brown Goshawk.

We went for a long Bush walk. We found a pair of wild Brombeys. We saw 3 Gray Honeyeaters, a Crested Bellbird, a Varied Sittella, a Slaty-backed Thornbill, and Southern Whitefaces. Many birders from all over the world come here just to have a chance to see the Gray Honeyeater.

We went back to The Ponds with Will in the late afternoon. We found 2 species we didn’t see yesterday, i.e., the Red-kneed Dotterel and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

We were up at 4:15am on Oct 14 and drove to Serpentine Gorge in the West McDonell Range NP before sunup. We walked the 1.3 Km trail to the Gorge in 20 minutes. Fairy Martins were swarming the permanent water hole and flying to their adobe gourd-shaped housing development high on the canyon wall. The light was not great, but we thought we saw a Painted Finch on the far side of the water hole from us — then in a flash there were 4 females and 2 brightly colored males. As we watched, we looked-up to discover we were surrounded by a flock of 10 Spinifex Pigeons– they are really hard to find and only live in this desert area where they blend into the Gold Spinifex plants and red rocks, unless you can get them at a water hole.

Back on the road we stopped at a rest area for a panoramic view of the mountain range. We found a tree with 12 Grey-headed Honeyeaters and dozens of Zebra Finches in perfect light for pictures.

We drove on to Orminton Gorge and Pound – the Australians spell many words slightly different than Americans; i.e., pound = pond, tyre = tire, grey = gray. We walked to the river and found the first of many spring fed pools. The pools lay in a strata of polished lavender sandstone laced with white quartz. People were already here sun bathing so the birds had moved on with the exception of White-plumbed Honeyeaters.

We forged a trail up the dry riverbed that was full of beautifully colored granite and polished rocks and boulders. We stumbled onto nesting Gray-crowned Babblers. They raised a loud ruckus and put on a visual display of flashing red wings to scare us off. We got pictures of the Mom and the little chick just out of the nest.

Further up river we scared up what we thought was a large gray dove. It landed again on a high limb with great light. It turned out to be a Collared Sparrowhawk.

We found ourselves up a dry creek with cattails and no path back to the Visitors Center. We decide to press on up-stream and eventually found a rough track that took us to the main road to the park. We were glad to get back to the car and eat lunch in air-conditioned surroundings.

At 4pm we headed off to The Ponds with Will. Today we found the Yellow-billed Spoonbill, which has a bone gray bill, not yellow like it shows in the bird books. We also found the Little Grassbird after many attempts to entice it out of the brush with birdcalls. My favorite bird here was the Red-neck Avocets with their long turned-up bill. A close second is the Pink-eared Duck with zebra striping on the sides and a digging shovel for a bill (but it doesn’t have pink ears).

On Oct 15 we went back to Konuth Well with Will. A couple from Maryland was there with their guide. Apparently they didn’t notice that from where they were sitting they would soon be looking into the sun. We invited them to joint us at the other end of the pond for the bird beauty pageant.

First up were the Mulga Parrots dressed in shining green with yellow wing patches. Green and yellow Ringneck Parrots accompanied them with yellow necklaces around the back of their necks. Things heated up when the pair of Bourke’s Parrot dressed in blue and pink, trimmed in black, landed beside the pond. Finally, Crimson and Orange Chats landed close to us.

A raptor landed on the opposite end of the pond. The Maryland contingent thought it was a Collared Sparrowhawk. Will thought it was a Brown Goshawk. We decided it was a Brown Goshawk since we had seen a Sparrowhawk yesterday and this one was bigger.

We went for a Bush walk and saw a few small birds, but the best part was the Paper Flowers. They looked like miniature straw flowers and blanketed the ground — a pretty amazing feat with so little rain.

We returned to the pond in time to catch Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo coming for a drink. We needed to eat and drink, so we headed to Long John Silver’s back in town. It isn’t part of the US chain, but they had good freshly prepared fish dinners.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at The Ponds trying to identify an unusual Peep someone had been seen earlier in the morning. Will found it with no trouble. We spent 2 hours studying the Peep, but still couldn’t ID it.

It was a cold, windy and rainy on Oct 16 as we left Alice Springs heading south on the Stuart Highway. About an hour out of town we saw a flock of Major Mitchell Cockatoos.

We turned west on the Lasseter Highway toward Ayers Rock. Some places out here are as bare as Arizona, but most places have some vegetation, even if it is brown or charred, like California. We stopped to view Mt Connor — we thought it was Ayers Rock at first. It looks like a flat top mesa similar to the ones you see in Arizona.

We stopped to see birds along the way including a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles eating off the road. We saw a dead horse, cow, pig, and camel during the drive, and innumerable dead Kangaroos.

We arrived at Curtin Springs Cattle Station & Wayside Inn (RV Park) around11am. We had reserved a park model trailer here for 3 nights. In the afternoon, we drove 87 Km’s to Ayers Rock. It cost $25A per person to get into the parks ($40US for 2 people). This is the first time it has cost to get into any of the national parks we visited.

It was stinking hot at Ayers Rock. We watched a young couple struggling on the “easy” part of the trail before they reached the wire rope you can hold onto for the steep ascent to the top of the Rock. We drove on.

There is a 10 Km trail and road around the Rock. We decided we could see enough from the car and just drove around. We did stop for a short walk to a permanent spring where we saw some Woodswallows and Hot-pink Lipstick Birds (a.k.a. Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater). Zebra Finches seem to be omnipresent.

We drove 50 Km west to the Ogles (25.300S 130.698E). We stopped at a viewing area and saw people running back to their cars swatting flies. We put on our fly nets for the walk. We drove to some other viewing areas but didn’t take any walks because of the flies and the mobs of tour bus people already on the trails scaring off the birds.

We drove back to Ayers Rock to watch the sunset. Most of the 4500 people a day that come here stay for the sunset. There are separate parking areas for cars and buses. It was definitely a tailgate party atmosphere. It’s a misnomer to say people watch the sunset. What people actually watch is The Rock getting brighter before sunset and then getting darker. At its brightest it looked Ochre tinted with purple through my rose colored sunglasses. Without the sunglasses, it was just a dark rock.

We left shortly after the sun set at 6:50pm to avoid the mass confusion of people and cars on the parking lot road. We had a good light show on the way back to Curtin Springs with the amber sunset glowing in the rear view mirror, and a powerful electrical storm ahead of us.

Mt Connor, Ayers Rock and the Ogles are part of the same geologic formation but in different stages of decomposition. The beehive rock formations in Bungle Bungle NP in WA is the oldest and most weathered part of this strata.

On Oct 17 we left before sunrise for Kings Canyon NP. Along the 114-mile drive we saw 3 Brumbies and a colt, a herd of cows near the road, and a camel blocking the road (24.615S 132.292E). We also saw 4 Nankeen Australian Kestrels, dozens of Crested Pigeons, 5 Major Mitchell Cockatoos (a.k.a. Pink Cockatoo), and Mulga Parrots.

We stopped at the King Creek Station “home of the Camel Burger” (24.404S 131.819E) for Cappuccino and Chai tea. The coffee was good, but the Chai tasted like weak coffee.

We hiked the Kathleen Springs trail at Kings Canyon (24.296S 131.593E). There is a permanent spring at the end of the trail so there were lots of birds in the canyon. We saw a pair of Gray Shrike-Thrush nesting, 5 Western Bowerbirds, and 3 White-browed Babblers.

Later we walked the Kings Creek trail to a dry waterhole. We got great pictures of a Brown Honeyeater and a Spinifex Pigeon.

We ate lunch at the Resort Cafe. We had a Veggie wrap, Grilled Barra & chips, and drank 4 bottles of Powerade.

We stopped at Kathleen Springs on the way home. We teased out a female Splendid Fairywren by making kissing sounds. A Splendid Fairywren looks like a wren with its tail stuck up in the air, but the tail is light blue and it has a red circle around the eyes and a red bill.

We stopped at King Creek Station on the way home for more Powerade and cold water. If we were to come back to this area we would stay here.

It rained overnight on Oct 18. We got up late and headed for Kings Canyon NP again. However, we turned back a half-hour later when it started raining.

Mid-afternoon we drove east on the highway to a vast dry salt-lake. We had to walk over a sand dune to see it. We saw a flock of Crimson Chats flashing their red-bellies, a female Crested Bellbird, and a Gray Butcherbird.

For dinner I had the Camel T-bone steak with chips and salad. My wife had the Porterhouse steak. Camel is very lean and tastes just like beef. Great meal!

The sun was rising at 6:07am on Oct 18 as we were leaving Curtin Springs Station. We drove 107 Km east this morning before we passed our first west bound car. We stopped at the Erldunda Desert Oaks Resort Roadhouse (25.199S 133.202E) for coffee and milk, and saw a Welcome Swallow in the parking lot. We saw Wedge-tailed Eagles and other raptors chowing-down on dead Kangaroos. The dead animals get baked in the sun and their hide ends up looking like a crumpled tarp on the side of the road.

We stopped at the dry Fink River for some bird watching. The Fink, like most rivers in the NT, is either dry or 10 foot high. It starts in the West McDonell Range and flows out into Central Australia where it becomes one with the desert. We walked the riverbed for about an hour looking at isolated water holes and sparkling river stones. We saw a dozen bird species including a White-necked heron — it seemed really out of place in the desert.

Back on the road we saw a herd of wild camels. The Australian/Afghan camels are the most disease free camels in the world, and rather prolific. We looked around Alice Springs for a place to eat, but couldn’t find any place that looked better than Long John Silvers: “We have the best fish in the Territory”. Their crumbed fish was really good.

The shore bird we saw Oct 15 at the Ponds turned out to be a Broad-billed Sandpiper upon further review by keen birders over the Internet using pictures from a powerful camera – a new confirmed bird siting for Central Australia!

We took Will out for dinner tonight to celebrate his find at Oscar’s restaurant. Wilma had oven baked Barra in garlic butter and almonds. I had Saltinboca; i.e., steak and ham in a mushroom & garlic gravy — Beautiful!

We asked Will why Aborigines don’t seem to work. He said the only work they like to do is Cowboy work. Lots of them worked on Stations until about 1970 when the Labor government passed a minimum wage law that resulted in the cattle stations mechanizing their operations and eliminating the Cowboy jobs. The government now supports the Aborigines with every kind of assistance imaginable (food, rent, medicine, clothes, child care, etc). Will said they could live well enough by their standards without working.

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