Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Strzelecki Track and Sturt National Park, September 2013... Pt 1

Back in 2010 my good mate Michael Warnes and I decided to do a drive up the Strzelecki Track which can be found here & here. We had been up that way a few times before but always with mates who don't bird... so birding opportunities were limited! This time it was pure birding all the way! It was a wonderful trip and we came across many new species including the highlight bird for me the Letter-winged Kite! A bird I had wanted for a long time! What this trip also did to me was light a fire inside me that always had me wanting to go back and experience more! So when we got home from that trip we both agreed that we should make a run like this an annual event! Well with both of us having real young children... it would be another three years before we could attempt it again!
So with the fire still burning as bright as ever.. sometime around May I mentioned to Mike I wouldn't mind trying to get up into the outback again sometime this year! I didn't have to do any arm-twisting as I think the fire was burning on Mike's side as well! With that in mind we decided September would be a good time of the year to go and we set about deciding where to go and working out the best way to tell our wives of our plans!! This time we thought rather than redo the same run as last time, the Birdsville track was calling... Plans were starting to come to fruition with about three weeks to go when Mike worked out the Birdsville races were being held on the same weekend! Now Birdsville's population reportedly goes from around 600 to 6000 over this weekend... Hmm... that meant a lot of traffic up the track... not quite the birding serenity we were after! So alternate plans to go back up the Strez were made. Although this time to make it feel a little different we decided to go across to Cameron's Corner and through the Sturt NP and come home through Broken Hill for something different. 
It was about 7am on the Friday morning when we got underway... buzzing with excitement as always when undertaking a trip like this! We headed up through Clare and Jamestown on our way to Hawker, our first fuel stop on the way up! We picked up some nice birds along the way including a paddock which had seven Wedge-tailed Eagles sitting in it feeding on dead sheep, a single Peregrine Falcon, a few White-winged Trillers and a White-backed Swallow being the highlights of this first part of the run!
After Hawker we made our way towards Parachilna.. along this stretch of road is a spot where on the last trip we had pulled up to photograph some Chirruping Wedgebills and found a Rufous Fieldwren and a Little Button-quail! These sightings from our last trip made a stop this time mandatory... so we made our way to the spot, which looks quite un-interesting... and got out to see what was around. Within no time some White-winged Fairy-wrens were calling, so I thought I might try for a few images and let Mike walk around and see what else he could find?
 
An eclipse male White-winged Fairy-wren at our little golden spot about 20km's up from Hawker.
Next was a few Zebra Finches buzzing around... followed by a pair of Crimson Chats chasing one another around the immediate area we were standing in. Some White-fronted Chats also showed up and it was looking like this spot was producing again! After getting a few shots of the WWFW's I crossed back over the road to photograph a pair of Redthroats which were calling constantly! Also whilst with these two a Black Kite passed over and a Wedgie with a pesky Australian Raven circled around overhead for a while!

They would have to get sick of this!

Air support!
Then this stop in the middle of nowhere proved it's worth! Mike was about 300m away across the road when he had a flock of 12 birds landed in the only tree within coo-ee of him which was right in front of him! Pied Honeyeaters!! They came out of nowhere... landed just long enough for him to get a few images and then vamoosed just as quick! I saw and knew nothing of it until he came over and showed me the images... happy for him! but bugger... I would of liked to have seen them too!
Moving along it was lunch at Leigh Creek and then onto Lyndhurst to fill up with fuel for the last time before Cameron's Corner. On the last trip just as you head out of Lyndhurst along the Strezlecki Track we had a Falcon fly low and fast across the front of our 4wd and crest a hill and go out of sight towards the Lyndhurst dump... we chased it but never saw it again... at the dump were many Little Crows and Black Kites but no Falcon! Can't be sure what it was.. but I feel it may have been the closest I have come to the elusive Grey Falcon and yet didn't get a good enough look to confirm it! We went in again on this trip.... not a bird to be seen this time... it really was just clutching at hope!
Not too much further up the track we found another Wedge-tailed Eagle sitting on the ground so we stopped so I could try to photograph it... typically it flew pretty quick and all I got were flying away shots! A bonus of this stop though was a pair of Chirruping Wedgebills on the opposite side of the road which allowed me the closest approach to them as I have had with this normally tough wary species.

Easily my best image I have of this wary species - Chirruping Wedgebill
 Further along we stopped quickly to see if we could spot any Chestnut-breasted Whiteface at the rusty car site on Mt Lyndhurst Station from the side of the road... got another White-winged Fairy-wren but not much else! So disappointing access has now been denied to this most wonderful of birding locations... lets hope this situation changes and we can once more bird this fabulous spot!
After that our next stop was at Yeralina Creek further up the track just to see what was around. We went for a small walk along the edge of the creek, a few of the birds we saw here were: Variegated Fairy-wrens, Zebra Finches, nesting Little Corella's, a Rainbow Bee-eater and nesting Elegant Parrots! One of the adults came in and fed the unfledged but nearly fully feathered youngsters right in front of us! Very cool to see Elegants right up there!

Australian Raven at Yeralina Creek... I think it was carrying something in it's throat heading back to it's nest. I know they have long hackles but this one when zoomed right in looks like there's something in it's not quite closed beak and down into it's throat?


One of the male Variegated Fairy-wrens at Yeralina Creek
 We had decided earlier in the day Pelican Creek would be our camp for the first night. Just before we got there we noticed a small bore 200m or so off the track within sight of the creek. It was late in the day so we thought we would have a look and see if anything was coming in to drink... When we got to it and had a look there were just a few Zebra Finches drinking and a few Little Corellas feeding out in the surrounding shrubs. As it was getting late we needed to find a camp.. but I didn't want to waste the opportunity of waiting at the dam and see what came in... so Mike kindly... volunteered!! to go and find camp and then come back and get me in half hour or so! In that half hour a procession of Galahs, Little Corella's, Zebra Finches, Crested Pigeon and the highlight of my session there a small flock of Cockatiels which came in.. whirled around in front of me for a bit then dropped down for a quick drink and were off! Fun stuff :-)

Galah's come in to drink

Little Corella in the warm evening sun!

Cockatiel (male)

Cockatiel (female)

Cockatiels - two pairs
After a fantastic camp oven roast cooked by master camp chef Mike (gotta eat well on these trips!) We hooked up the spotlight and went off down the track for half hour to see what was around.... not much barr a Barn Owl typically sitting on a fence post! and a few cows! So we kept it pretty short as we were pretty spent after the long drive.

Dawn campfire at Pelican Creek


Dawn over the Strezlecki Track, Pelican Creek
Up before sunrise the next morning.. and a lovely one it was! over breakfast we were treated to the musical styling's of the local Chirruping Wedgebills and had a visit from a friendly Sacred Kingfisher to get the morning underway! So we packed up and were on the road by about 7.30am. We only got about 10km's up the road and saw something interesting fly off the side.. Orange Chat! Out with the camera.. these little beauties glistened in the morning sunshine against the dull background! They are very beautiful and quite wary... so getting good images was a challenge... but you can't complain!
We stopped at a site near the dog fence where we got Gibberbird last trip.. none there this time but we did pick up more Orange Chats and a pair of Little Button-quail which was cool!

Orange Chat (male)
From here it was onto Montecollina Bore and our first site to try for Eyrean Grasswren... We pulled in and the place was a hive of activity with Corella's all around, lots of raptors including Wedgies, Black Kites, Whistling Kites and a Black Falcon thermalling above! We headed out to the west of the bore where the EG are usually found. It was hot and tough walking through unforgiving country but after a lot of White-winged Fairy-wrens we eventually got fleeting views of an Eyrean... although it was all too quick and no photos could be captured of this one... but at least we had seen one!
This bore really is like an Oasis in the outback and when we got back to the car the binoculars and cameras were put back in the car and Mike and I were straight in that bore... and wow did it feel good! In the shrubs along one corner of the bore there were many Corella's sitting in the branches over the waters edge... when approached on land they would fly at about 20m but swimming up to them slowly like a Croc... well they just didn't seem to care! and they let me with 2m of them... very cool!
Refreshed and with one target species in the bag.. we headed off in the direction of our next target.. the Letter-winged Kite!


Little Corella's hiding from the suns midday heat..

Stand-off...

I photographed this Wedge-tailed Eagle just north of Montecollina Bore
Our next stop would be at the site we got LWK's last trip, it's got a small turn off into a road rubble quarry and as we neared the spot on the GPS we saw another turn in to one of these quarries, so we went in for a look hoping for maybe a Banded Whiteface... not much in there but as we were pulling back out onto the track I noticed a small bird in the corner of my eye under a shrub so we turned around and puled back in.. the bird was still there! Eyrean Grasswren!!! not just one but FIVE!!!! So cool! I followed them off onto a low sand hill to try for some images and Mike went off up a neighbouring dune to see if there were anymore? He found another three! plus a Rufous Fieldwren as a great little bonus! We stayed with them for about 20 mins then left them too it! Rapt! 8 Eyrean Grasswrens, got some nice images and great views, both of which were missing from our Mont bore encounter! Also here a Dingo came out of it's den right in front of us and trotted off! Always like seeing Dingos!
Now for the Letter-wings....

Eyrean Grasswren

Eyrean Grasswren
Next we drove into the site of our first LWK sighting from our last trip... walked the last few hundred metres and found nothing barr a few Black-faced Woodswallows and a Brown Goshawk cruising from tree to tree. Feeling a little disappointed...  we moved our hopes onto the other spot we got this species last time and failing that searching every other tree we could find on the way to the crossing! Our next spot also failed to deliver... starting to worry that they may not be around... we headed on towards the crossing. Scanning every tree I could on the way we were not too much further when right there in a roadside tree I spotted a single Letter-winged Kite in under the canopy! FANTASTIC!!  Pretty sure we deployed a parachute out the back of the Hilux as we pulled up pretty darn quick! On further inspection we found seven LWK's in this spot and they put in quite a show too! Typically flushing only to return to the same tree after circling for a while! At one stage I had four land almost within my camera's minimum focal distance (3.5m)!!  My camera barely stopped including plenty of chopped wing and tail shots when they came so close! At one stage I had to move slowly away so as to be able to fit the birds in the frame! Not often I'm doing that! Double Rapt! Target bird number two done!

Letter-winged Kite in full banking pose

One of my real close chopped shots.... D'oh!




Another from when they landed mega close!

Such fantastic birds to encounter!

Letter-winged Kites X 4
After a fantastic days birding we headed in to our campsite near the Strzelecki creek crossing picking up a few Cinnamon Quail-thrush on the track on the way in. Then set up camp and kicked back with a beer and a great curry cooked up in the camp oven by chef Mike!
By around 8pm we were starting to think about spotlighting again. Mike mentioned we should probably clean up a little just in-case a Dingo came in to see what it could find! I said nah I wouldn't be too worried about it... don't reckon they will come in.. their pretty skittish around here! So we hooked up the spotlight and of course there not 50m from where we were was a Dingo staring straight at us! You have got to be joking!! Damn you Michael Warnes... proving me wrong again! Ha-ha...
This dog ended up doing a half circle around us then headed off towards the crossing... luckily it never came back and our camp stayed intact whilst we were spotting!
Plenty of Dusky Hopping mice were about and we also picked up another small marsupial about the size of a tennis ball...  we think was either a Fan-tailed Dunnart or Ampurta? Not quite sure as the sighting was fairly quick and I didn't manage a photo.. As you will see by my image below the DHM were tough little critters to photograph too!
What a fantastic day! Seven Letter-winged Kites and nine Eyrean Grasswrens! Plus lots of other outback delights! Slept well that night!

The Dingo that came in and proved my theory wrong at our Strzelecki creek crossing campsite!

My only half decent Dusky Hopping Mouse image from the night!
Two days done... two to go....
Part two coming soon! :-)
Chris