Of Mice and Men – a week in the desert

Back in September Rohan Clarke and I hit the road again with a rather loose itinerary. We were to spend a week getting up to Alice Springs searching for critters then I would fly back and Rohan’s family would fly in for a family holiday. We hadn’t done nearly enough research but had a basic idea that we would run up to Coober Pedy and then slow down checking out such places as Oodnadatta, Mount Dare and Old Andado for some cool members of the rodent and dasyurid family as well as some of the key birds and anything else we could find. We left after work on a Tuesday and drove up to Mildura where the mammal list was kicked off with such luminaries as House Mouse and Fox – a few Barn Owls were slightly better. We didn’t dally much, stopping for supplies in Port Augusta but keen to kill some kilometers.

Reptiles were in short supply on this trip

Reptiles were in short supply on this trip

The second night we stopped and camped down a side road off the highway north of Pimba. Some nice birds around with the highlight being Ground Cuckoo-shrike. Later that night we had the first test drive of a car mounted thermal camera which had almost immediate success with a roosting Bourke’s Parrot! We had a number of small mammal hits including a lovely Bolam’s Mouse – a new Pseudomys for me and the first lifer of the trip! Next morning we were up early running up to Coober Pedy through scads of Budgies. At the well known cairn site south of the town we quickly had great views of Thick-billed Grasswren – lifer! But after several hours of searching we had no luck with Chestnut-breasted Whiteface and had to kick on. A quick stop for ice at Coober Pedy and we headed out onto the featureless expanse of the gibber plains. At the first change in scenery at a dry river crossing we stopped and got onto a couple of Gibberbirds – second lifer of the day!

Gibber

Gibber

Once we got off the featureless plains we had some excellent birding with plentiful Thick-billed Grasswrens, Bourkes Parrots, Cinnamon Quail-thrush and Rufous Fieldwren. That evening we did about 40 km of spotlighting through gibber and clay plains seeing many small mammals on the thermal camera but frustratingly could only get onto a couple – Fat-tailed Dunnart and Desert Short-tailed Mouse. The mouse was my second new rodent of the trip and a very interesting animal that would almost go to sleep when pinned in the spotlight!

Desert Short-tailed Mouse

Desert Short-tailed Mouse

The next morning we were up early finding more Thick-billed Grasswrens – they seemed to be in every single area of saltbush as well as more Bourke’s Parrots. We rolled into Oodnadatta and I thought the sign said “dirtiest town in Australia” – well at least they embrace it! (it actually said driest town in Aus) After a late breakfast we kicked on into Witjira National Park where Cinnamon Quail-thrush was probably the most common bird! We had a well needed soak at Dalhousie Springs in the lovely warm water where Freckled and Pink-eared Ducks were nice additions. Dinner was at Opossum Waterhole where the first dingo of the trip kept an eye on us. Plenty of raptors around the “waterhole” which had dried down to about the size of a billiard table. After dark we had about 20 Barn Owls come into drink as well as a couple of Spotted Nightjars flitting round. Many bats cruising around – will have to see what the bat detector comes back with. We spotlit from here to Mount Dare arriving sometime after 11pm with the pub still open! A highlight was spotlighting a couple of Bustard in flight but we didn’t have much success with only the odd rodent type detected.

Big Country

Big Country

Woke up early at Mount Dare and what a place! There were tonnes of water dependent birds like Budgies and Zebra Finches as well as plenty of raptors including a very open pair of Black Falcons. We were packing up when Rohan shouted “Flock Bronzewing!” and sure enough a male flew in and did a few laps around the campsite – beautiful bird and another lifer! We ended up having at least three birds kicking around until we set off exploring. We did a fair bit of recce for spotlighting that evening an eventually headed over the border into the dune country of the western Simpson Desert. At the first really decent cane grass covered dune we stopped and almost immediately found a group of Eyrean Grasswren – lifer number 2 for the morning! We spent a lot of time exploring the area and saw plenty of Grasswrens but getting a photo was another matter. A Black-breasted Buzzard circled above us a time. We headed back to Mount Dare for a pub meal watching Collared Sparrowhawks chase Zebra Finches while we waited for dark.

Fat-tailed Dunnart

Fat-tailed Dunnart

After dark we almost immediately started to have success with first a House Mouse near the settlement then Fat-tailed Dunnart and Desert Short-tailed Mouse soon after. But what we were really after soon fell with Plain’s Mouse seen well sitting outside their burrows. This was a new rodent for both Rohan and myself. It is a large Pseudomys the size of a small hamster and was very charismatic – definite highlight of the trip. We found they were in colonies and would find small clusters of them. We were poking around one of the colonies when a Tyto owl flew over us looking rather long legged. Did not think much of it until a bit later we found it sitting on the road before flushing off looking rather dark for a Barn Owl but still we didn’t quite twig. It wasn’t til we followed it and spotlit it sitting on the plain that we realised it was a beautiful dark-faced female Grass Owl! This is quite a mega bird for South Australia and was clearly here hunting the various rodent types around. We tried for quite a while to get photos and while getting some great views of it in flight could not get a pic. Still a very, very successful night!

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

Plains Mouse

Plains Mouse

Up early we headed back into dune country to again get acquainted with Eyrean Grasswrens – I walked across 4 different cane grass covered dunes systems and each had a family of grasswrens, there must be huge numbers across the Simpson. After a late breakfast and another coffee we cruised up to Old Andado stopping along the way wherever birding looked half decent. At Old Andado the caretaker regaled us with tales of shooting out engine blocks of itinerant city folk as we had a look around the old homestead. From here we went up to the Mac Clark Reserve which was something of a bucket list item for me – for some reason I had always wanted to visit this stand of waddy wood acacia – probably because it is a well known site for Letter-winged Kite! We had a good explore but could not dig up a kite but found a great spot for dinner by an old tank. After dark things really hotted up with Sandy Inland Mouse (tick!), Spinifex Hopping-mouse (tick!) and Plains Mouse falling quickly. The Hopping-mouse and Plains Mice were particularly common on the plains around Mac Clark.

One off the bucket list

One off the bucket list

Sandy Inland Mouse

Sandy Inland Mouse

Despite the many distractions we decided to spotlight the whole way back to Old Andado. Sometime after midnight I started dropping in and out of sleep while Rohan was a trooper and kept on scanning. At 2am we stopped for a very good signal which happened to be two Kultarr mating!! One of my most wanted to see species and we had two of them mating! It was quite a violent affair with the female looking rather disheveled when the male abandoned her and bolted off! Great experience capping off a very successful night!

Kultarr mating!

Kultarr mating!

Woke up late the next morning and decided to have a rather quiet day around the homestead to recharge the batteries. It was sometime around lunchtime I decided to have a quiet toilet break when Rohan yells out “GREY FALCON!!” – so in a seen reminiscent of a Carry On movie I run out of the toilet with pants falling around my ankles to get my second ever and best to date views of one of the best birds in Australia! It banked around a few times before disappearing not to be seen again. The caretaker was less impressed and seemed to be eyeing off our engine block for a bit of target practice. Later he relented and let us know a good bit of dune country to start our spotlighting while he headed off to Mount Dare to get on the piss. We headed out there late afternoon picking up some more Eyrean Grasswrens while waiting for dark.

Some evening stops were ok

Some evening stops were ok

A rather sexy gecko

A rather sexy gecko

We had a very successful night spotlighting with probably 100+ Spinifex Hopping-mouse, Kultarr, Fat-tailed Dunnart and other interesting stuff including a number of geckos and a very fat feral cat. Up early we headed out to Kulgera via Finke stopping anywhere we saw birds. At Erldunda we had the first mobile reception in about 5 days which was put to good use gripping off a few people. For the last night we headed out west of Erldunda to a dried salt lake surrounded by samphire, chenopod and mature spinifex – what looked like perfect habitat for a certain bird popping up in recent times. While we didn’t have luck with that bird we did see some cool stuff with highlights including Desert Mouse (tick!) and a probably ningaui in the spinifex that we couldn’t quite get onto. A very enjoyable night of bashing spinifex followed by drinking beer and telling a few tales under the stars.

The master at work

The master at work

Desert Mouse

Desert Mouse

The next day we cruised back to Alice Springs arriving a bit after lunchtime. We did check out the caves south of town for bats but they were pretty trashed and full of rubbish and burnt stuff. Checked into a cabin at the Big4 and hit the pub after a shower and a swim. The next day I had a relaxed time around Alice drinking coffee at the Botanic Gardens and catching up with Mark Carter. Black-footed Rock-wallaby eating pancakes and a Euro rounded out the trip list. Thanks to Rohan for an awesome trip and to Simone and Lucas for letting me go! Seven new mammals and four new birds plus change made for a very successful jaunt!

Mammalwatching.com trip report

All birds are listed in eBird

Little Button-quail - about the only bird pic I took all trip!

Little Button-quail – about the only bird pic I took all trip!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *