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A male Rufous-crowned Emu-wren defends his patch of spinifex

I caught this pic of the enigmatic Rufous-crowned Emu-wren Stipiturus ruficeps just after dawn yesterday at a well-known spot on the road to the small community of Ltyentye Apurte, also known as Santa Teresa and Ltyente Apurte, east of Alice Springs.

This was the first stop in yesterday’s long day of birding in and around Alice Springs in preparation for the 24 hour Twitchathon on 24 September as part of the second annual Red Centre Bird Week in the last week of September.

I wouldn’t dare, or want, to call myself a “twitcher.” Twitchers are the real hard-core birders that will drive, fly, walk or crawl across the country, or the world, to get the briefest glimpse of a rare bird.

There have been more than a few twitchers that have rushed to the Centre following the recent irruption of the reclusive Princess Parrots Polytelis alexandrae on Aboriginal lands a few hundred kilometres west of Alice Springs. This irruption is most likely due to very favourable conditions arising from prolonged rains we’ve received since January this year.

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The prospect of getting a “tick” for a Princess Parrot within half a day’s drive from the Alice is apparently very tempting, particularly as PPs are normally only found in small numbers across a vast area of the western deserts many hours from Alice Springs.

The full story of the Princess Parrots, and those who are frantically seeking them, will have to wait for another day. The recent influx of birders into the Centre, and the restrictions they face accessing the Aboriginal lands that the birds are currently on, prompted my mate Christopher Watson to spend a day travelling around Alice Springs trying to get as many birds as possible in a day’s drive close to town.

Chris’s main object was to show that many good birds could be found close to the Alice in places readily accessible to anyone, and to give those less familiar with the Centre an indication of the quality of birding they could expect close-up to Alice Springs without using a four-wheel drive or accessing private land – Aboriginal or otherwise.

Chris published the results of his efforts a few days ago and that prompted me to ask him if I could tag along the next time he went out looking for birds.

the Emu-wren's protagonist, a male Variegated Fairy-wren
the Emu-wren's protagonist, a male Variegated Fairy-wren

That’s why I was up at 5am yesterday morning for an early start to what would be a long and fantastically rewarding day. We’d decided to slightly expand Chris’s original restrictions by opening up the geographical range and by travelling on unsealed roads.

We started off with a pre-dawn trip east along the road to Santa Teresa where we caught up with the beautiful Emu-wren pictured above hassling with this beautifully plumaged male Fairy-wren over preferred breeding territory.

We also found this second-year Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis, one of my all-time favourite birds, who was effortlessly quartering his territory at first light. He was gliding just a few feet off the ground in the still early morning air, with only the occasional wing-beat pushing him along , in a graceful and irresistibly elegant display.

Of particular interest was that when we first saw him he was being shadowed by a Brown Falcon Falco berigora, which was later joined by an Australian Hobby Falco longipennis. Presumably they were shadowing the Harrier to pick up on any large insects or small animals flushed by the Harrier’s silent passage.

Second year Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis
Second year Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis

After an hour or so wandering around that spot – and collecting a swag of ticks for our day’s list – we headed back towards town. En-route we stopped at a very promising-looking area of Mulga scrub that didn’t disappoint and added more bush birds to our list, including the following.

a very obliging Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus
an obliging Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus
a very territorial female Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii
a very territorial female Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii

and this beautiful male Mistletoe Bird showed nicely for us
and this beautiful male Mistletoe Bird showed nicely for us

Next we pulled up just outside the Alice Springs airport on the southern edge of town where we spotted two Swamp Harriers Circus approximans and a single Black Falcon Falco subniger, which Chris had earlier seen at a nest not far away.

Black Falcon Falco subniger at Alice Springs airport
Black Falcon Falco subniger at Alice Springs airport

Then we were off to the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens for lunch, where we caught up with a colourful – to say the least – Central Bearded Dragon – but that marvelous animal deserves a post all to him or herself.

After lunch we went to one of my favourite spots in the Alice – the Alice Springs Waste Treatment Works – better known as the shit-pits. We were disappointed that all of the Egrets and many of the larger waterbirds seemed to have departed for other places, but we still got some good birds there.

Black Swans Cygnus atratus have bred in Alice again this year
Black Swans Cygnus atratus have bred in Alice again this year
as have the Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus
as have the Black-winged Stilts Himantopus himantopus

Grey Teal Anas gracilis at the shit-pits
Grey Teal Anas gracilis at the shit-pits

We started to lose light – and new birds – after we left the shit-pits and after a quick trip out to Simpson’s Gap, where we lucked out on the resident Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus but did catch a Black-shouldered Kite Elanus axillaris, we dropped into the gully behind Flynn’s Grave, where we lucked out on any new birds for our list.

After that we headed up to a dam next to the rail line thirty or so kilometres north of town. By the time we got back to Kunoth Bore time – and light was running against us…after a bit of spotlighting on back roads we pulled the pin and turned back to town

In all we scored 91 birds for what was a pretty relaxed day of birding, less than the 110 that Chris got a couple of weeks ago and certainly fewer than we’d hoped for, but still a great reward for a good day out.

The Red Centre Bird Week runs from Saturday 25 September to Sunday 3 October 2010, with the 24 hour Twitchathon kicking things off at 6pm on the evening of Friday 24 September.

If you want to participate in the Twitchathon – or just catch up with any of the Bird Week events contact the Red Centre Bird Week mob at www.alicespringsdesertpark.com.au, send an email to [email protected] or call (08) 8951 8788.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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