Oodnadatta Track 2021
The lure of the outback and the wonders which dwell in such places was calling... it calls every year to me in the cooler months when the harshness of the Australian outback is at it's most hospitable.
As the cold of winter starts seeping into parts of the south my eyes turn northwards and my mind starts to dream of the vast emptiness of the gibber plains, the canegrass covered sandhills and the life-filled bores and tree-lined watercourses meandering through the desert like veins of life.
Dreaming turns into planning and most years we start working out which direction to travel... well it's always north! Just the degree of north to which we travel can vary.
This year the choice was between the Oodnadatta track or the Gawler Ranges...?
It would play on my mind for quite a few weeks before eventually deciding.
In the end it was clinched by the probability of Painted Finches... Historically seen before in both areas. Much more likely in the far north, so the Oodnadatta track it was. Another factor in this was Lisa would be with me on this trip and lots of the species we would encounter along the track would be new birds... lifers!
As always a week or so out from leaving the weather forecast became the most viewed site on my phone. Especially this time as the forecast wasn't looking all that good! Strong winds were forecast on the first day and theoretically it would be breezy for the other four days we'd be out there.
When my alarm went off on the day of departure, I instantly did one more check of the forecast... nothing had changed. We'd be driving north into 60km/hr northerly winds for most of the first day! I have to admit I almost canned it! Too much was invested into the trip now so in reality it was now or never. So away we went... it would be what it would be.
As predicted the wind was strong, not a big concern whilst travelling other than the extra fuel being used. Until we hit the Flinders proper where the raised dust started... driving up the main highway north we could only just make out the ranges 10kms to the east!
|The Flinders Ranges behind the dust|
Birds were pretty well hunkered down and fairly few and far between. One exception was a lone Black-breasted Buzzard battling the wind up high, just north of the Brachina Gorge turn off. By far the most southerly sighting I have of one of these and a nice bird to find so early in the trip. Especially since we missed them at their usual haunt at Farina later in the day.
|Black-breasted Buzzard seen above the highway heading north next to the Flinders|
As the kilometres ticked by we kept an eye out for Cinnamon Quail-thrush between Parachilna and Leigh Creek as over the last few years we'd picked this species up incidentally a few times in this region. A little while later the Leigh Creek turn-off loomed and there would be no Quail-thrush for us south of there this time.
With our bellies and the Prado filled up we kept heading north. Next stop was the retention dam from the now defunct coal mine. A place I'd driven past many a time yet never ventured in to have a look. Even though it was still blowing a gale there were water birds everywhere. Plenty of common stuff and even some good trip list pick ups like a small flock of Gull-billed Terns.
|This Great Cormorant wasn't having a good day when this happened to it at some stage! Looks like some crazy oversized Butcherbird has stored it there for later!|
Lyndhurst came and went as we had no need to stop until we pulled over for the standard photo op with the sign for where we were headed.
A little spot not far north of Farina would be our camp for the night, so we kept on heading towards it. The wind was still strong and when we passed over a couple of low, flat, dry and dusty section, clouds of raised dust were making visibility limited. At one point we saw something on the road ahead in the dusty gloom which I called for a Pratincole... As we got closer it flew and flew fast, low and a little crazy in the strong winds just in front of the car before eventually landing on the side of the road. We couldn't believe our eyes... it was no Pratincole but a Wader! Unfortunately It almost instantly flew again this time off into the dust out of view. Lisa and I both agreed the most likely wader was a Curlew Sandpiper as it definitely had a slight down curve in the beak. I wouldn't bet my house on it though... so a mystery it shall remain.
Shortly after we pulled into our camp spot for the night which was nice and sheltered, we were greeted by a pair of Little Eagles flying around. Other cool birds we saw here before dark included Mulga Parrots, White-breasted Woodswallows, Black Kites with fledged chicks and White-backed Swallows.
Settling in for the evening, the winds abated and it was quite warm and a little stormy feeling. We lit a campfire for cooking only as we didn't need the warmth. Everything was going quite well until the invasion started! Out of the deep cracks in the clay around the camp and attracted by our light... CENTIPEDES! Lots of them! One thing Lisa and I are not big fans of is Centipedes! I spent the next hour relocating one after another as they came into our camp chasing the lights. Needless to say I became tired of it pretty quick so we decided the best bet was to jump in the swag, zip it up tight and try to get some sleep after a long day.
|Camp one near Farina. This was Centipede central and it made for an early night!|
|Lisa on an early morning bird call hunt from memory I think she was following a Diamond Dove call?|
Moving off the next morning all was quiet. We arrived in Marree then headed out onto the track. Around five kilometres had passed when we saw the distinctive flight off the track of a Gibberbird. Stopping, we found a pair which weren't the most photogenic birds of this species I've come across... it was a highlight though as this was the most southerly pair I have found, the next lowest being about 23kms up the Birdsville track out of Marree.
Lake Eyre South would see us pull up for a rest with views over the dry lake bed. After around 2.5 seconds I became bored of that and remembering some other birder friends had seen Thick-billed Grasswrens near the lookout, I thought I'd head around the edges and see if could find any. Surprisingly they were there as soon as I looked just out of the carpark! Calling Lisa over, we eventually found two different pairs and managed some nice shots of them. I certainly enjoyed this as I have spent a lot of time looking for this species over the years, after first seeing them at Mt Lyndhurst in 2010. The first pair were a little wary but the second pair had a juvenile with them and used a distraction technique to try to lure us away as seen in the photos below...
|An unusual thing to see... a Thick-billed Grasswren in mousing mode|
|Lisa captured this image of a male Thick-billed Grasswren heading straight towards her in mousing mode.|
With the parent birds looking a little agitated we didn't hang around. We kept moving towards Coward Springs. Along the way we encountered the first lifer for Lisa in the form of Bourke Parrots... a pair which flushed off a small dam on the side of the road and down a small scrub filled waterline. We followed on foot and eventually found a few other pairs as we moved along. Lisa even saw and photographed an adult bird feeding a juvenile.
Next stop was Coward Springs a neat like oasis in the middle of nowhere. Often full of travellers who pull in to camp the night, it was almost deserted for us as we were arriving in the middle of the day. Birdlife there was quiet but we were entertained by a Sand Goanna whilst we ate our lunch, which lived under the amenities block.
|Lisa on her way back from meeting a local in the middle of nowhere as we headed for William Creek|
Over the years I've been fairly lucky on my outback journeys with not too many tyre issues. On this trip as we neared 60kms to go to get to William Creek the horrid feeling of a very flat tyre was felt. A decent rock had busted through. I did an emergency repair on it but new it was pretty much stuffed so we limped up to William Creek to fit the spare casing I carry on the roof for just such an issue!
This unintended stop had us wondering whether we just stay in William Creek for the night as we didn't have enough daylight to make our intended camp. In the end with an hour and a half of daylight left we decided to just keep heading north and hope to find somewhere we could pull up for the night.
|Another local near William Creek|
About 80kms up the track we found a large dam with an embankment where we could pull up for a little protection so we decided to camp here. It ended up being an amazing spot with loads of Bourke Parrots and Budgies coming in to drink both when we rolled up and also in the morning. To sit around the campfire with a stunning sunset fading and sound of Bourke Parrot wingbeats constantly flying past it was very enjoyable.
|Lisa setting up camp north of William Creek. The sunset was spectacular!|
|Budgies weren't in huge numbers but were around|
Day three would see us driving towards the Old Peake Telegraph station with the hope of finding Painted Finches. The drive was fairly quiet other than another tyre issue. This time one I could fix myself luckily.
|Another day... another puncture!|
Arriving at the turnoff we had 20kms of very corrugated track to negotiate. Last time I did this track 3yrs earlier it was rough... this time it was unbelievably rough! It was a slow journey and felt like every single thing in the Prado was being shaken apart! We were just living in hope that it would be all worthwhile in the end.
Eventually crossing through the gorge to look out on the main area where the old buildings and mound springs were, we set about searching some of the rocky hill faces and gorges in the area immediately before we got to where the buildings were. After a couple of unrewarded searches we drove on up to the end of the track at the buildings and had lunch. A little wander around the area after eating had us photographing some of the many numerous Bourke Parrots in the area.
|One of Lisa's images of one of the Old Peake Station Bourke Parrots|
|and another I was photographing at the same time.|
Next we had around an hour to play with before we needed to leave to make Algebuckina Waterhole, which would be our campsite for the night. Yet again it was feeling like I would miss the said to be local Painted Finches in this spot. We decided on a couple of close spots to try as we made our way back out of the area. Pulling up near a soak near a steep rocky hill we searched the area then walked around a gorge with no luck. On the way back Lisa and I split up a little... I was almost back to the car near the soak so I thought one last try with some playback. At first I heard nothing... resigning to defeat again I shut off the playback and walked for the car. I'd taken not two steps when up high over head I heard a response! A single Painted Finch flew straight over and landed about 50m away! Woohoo!! At last a bird I'd wanted to see in the wild in SA for so long! I yelled out to Lisa but she was already on her way having heard the bird responding as it flew over from the direction she was. We set up in a good spot together and sent out another burst. Immediately the bird flew in and landed about four metres away! It was amazingly tame and spent the next twenty minutes with us just hopping around and feeding until it eventually flew a few hundred metres off. We tried to follow but didn't see where it landed. After about 15mins searching we gave up and walked back to the car. To our surprise there were another two Painted Finches sitting on the rocks above the soak! We tried to close the gap but this pair flew off over the hill not to be seen again. A lifer for both of us... this in itself made the trip a success! The road out didn't feel anywhere near as rough as on the way in ....being on a lifer high! Ok... maybe it did! It's bloody rough!
|Painted Finch magic!|
|Lisa managed some cracking shots of this cracking bird!|
|It was so relaxed even really close to us... feeding and preening often in the twenty minutes we spent with it.|
|The country of the Painted Finch|
|The mound spring soak at the base of the rocky hill|
|Two pretty happy birders!|
As we neared the main Oodnadatta track we found our first Cinnamon Quail-thrush for the trip. A bird which had been conspicuous by it's absence as they're generally pretty common on the outback SA tracks. We stopped for this pair and got a few shots of them as well.
|Male Cinnamon Quail-thrush|
We arrived at Algebuckina Waterhole in perfect time to set up camp and then kick back and watch the sunset after an amazing day of travelling and birding. More Bourke Parrots, Budgies, raptors and plenty of waterbirds were seen here both in the evening and again the next morning. It really is a lovely spot (although quite popular) to spend some time.
|Algebuckina Waterhole sunset from our camp|
|Camping at the Algebuckina Waterhole|
|One of the local Black-tailed Native-Hens wandering around our camp|
Leaving the next morning a pair of Cinnamon Quail-thrush were the first interesting bird of the journey north to Oodnadatta. This pair were seen as we rose up the escarpment out of the Algebuckina waterhole area. The only other highlight along the way to Oodnadatta was a creek-line with plenty of trees along it and a leaking pipe near a windmill in among it. This water source had a small flock of Australian Ringnecks (Pt Lincoln form) and a pair of Cockatiels hanging around... with both being a first for the trip.
|A Yellow-throated Miner showing it's standard displeasure at the sight of anything coming into it's territory... this time it was a male Cockatiel copping it's wrath!|
A coffee break was had at Oodnadatta before heading south for the first time. The long stretch from Oodnadatta to Coober Pedy produced many good birds from Gibberbirds at a few places, Rufous Whistlers and Red-capped Robins in the creek line we stopped for lunch in, and even a very vocal Rufous Fieldwren as we neared Coober Pedy.
|The Rufous Fieldwrens this far north show much less streaking on the breast, compared to the more southerly birds I often encounter closer to home.|
Fueling up at Coober Pedy, we headed to the William Hutchinson Memorial area to set up camp and chase another bird I hadn't seen for a long time and one Lisa hadn't ever seen. The Chestnut-breasted Whiteface is sweet little bird that lives in very isolated little populations. The memorial area is a known haunt and one I'd searched before with no luck.
Camp was set and then with around two hours of light left, we headed off north of camp to see what we could find. After walking about 100m Lisa said she could see a mixed flock of little birds in the distance about 150m away. We could make out Black-faced Woodswallows but everything else looked small and too hard to identify. So we slowly made our way over... stopping about 30m away I lifted my binoculars and the first bird I saw was a Chestnut-breasted Whiteface... Too easy! We stalked them and got a few shots before they flew a little east. We followed for a while but as the light had faded we headed back to camp. Satisfied in another quite successful day, we retired to the campfire and relived some of the cool encounters we'd had over the last four days. With a big day of driving ahead, we hit the swag relatively early hoping for another good session with the Whitefaces first thing in the morning.
|Late afternoon lifer shot of a Chestnut-breasted Whiteface by Lisa|
|Always enjoy this part of any outback trip!|
|Our camp at the William Hutchinson Memorial in Chestnut-breasted Whiteface country.|
Rising early the next morning we headed to where we'd last seen the Whitefaces and relocated them within about 15 minutes. This time it was a flock of about eight birds including a juvenile. Whilst they're not the wariest bird they also don't stop moving often, so getting good shots was a challenge, but I think we did okay by the time we headed back to the car.
|One of eight Whitefaces leading us on a merry dance in the golden early morning light.|
|Juvenile Chestnut-breasted Whiteface|
|One of the last images I captured in the morning session and probably my best of this species to date|
On the way home we tried another spot where Whitefaces are often seen but we found none... the best bird on the trip home would've been a Crested Bellbird at our lunch stop just north of Pt Augusta.
In the end it was a great trip with great birds despite the issues with weather... tyres and CENTIPEDES!