Saturday, June 30, 2012

Newhaven part 2 – The rest of the trip

After seeing the Princess Parrots the rest of our stay at Newhaven should have been an anticlimax, but it wasn’t. The days were clear and calm and the temp got up to a shirt-sleeve 26ºC. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, the campground was well laid out and the stars in the clear night sky were the stuff dreams are made of. We had been told that the birds were few and far between but even though they didn’t exactly run all over our toes we had no trouble building a respectable bird list. Then each evening when we lit the campfire, Lorna bought out the wine and Janine brought out a bottle of Scotch. It was a glorious week of good birds, good weather, good friends and good food.

Relaxing around the campfire
Even getting to Alice Springs was pleasant. QANTAS excelled itself and on a full flight I somehow had the good fortune to have the only empty seat right next to me. One joy of flying, for me, is to have a window seat so I can gaze out and dream about the birds we might be flying over, the other is to have an empty seat next to me so I can spread out. I can’t imagine why people sit in a window seat and don’t look out. They miss so much, the hills, the desert, the remoteness and the beauty.

There are birds down there, and maybe even Lassiter's lost reef
Desert and the road to Santa Teresa
Newhaven is an old grazing lease that is now owned and managed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy and they and Birds Australia (BirdLife) have given it a secure future as a wildlife reserve. Signs of previous grazing still show but the native bushes and grasses are coming back and this year everything is in flower or seed and looking beautiful.

The "desert" in full health
View over the campgrounds and out to the east
So many places to explore ... maybe this is where Lassiter's reef is
Desert Oaks, sand dunes and Mt Liebig
On the first two days we watched the Princess Parrots until about 1000 then headed off to explore the property and find other birds and places. The Dunes track was very productive and we had Banded Whiteface along the first few km and then, when the land opened into Spinifex, Triodia scariosa (irritans), covered plains we were amongst the Fairy-wrens, Emu-wrens, larger honeyeaters and raptors.

They are just so beautiful ....
... I couldn't resist just two more photos
Banded Whiteface ...
.... and as we normally saw them
White-winged Fairy-wren
On the side track to Lake Bennett, currently dry, we found Orange Chat, Crimson Chat, thornbills, honeyeaters and, of course, the Zebra Finches that flitted in and out of every bush on the property and had us stopping often in the hope that they were something else. Black-faced Woodswallows were sitting on top of most of the dead trees. Crested Bellbirds could be heard calling whenever we stopped.

Singing Honeyeater
Grey-fronted Honeyeater at the drying dam off the Dunes track
Zebra Finch at the spring, Lake Bennett
One track I would have like to spend more time on was the Cuckoo track. There were no cuckoos but there is a lot of Mallee and as we drove through there were small birds everywhere. At one stop we had White-winged Fairy-wrens, Inland Thornbills, Western Gerygone, Slaty-backed Thornbills and Grey Honeyeaters.

Australian Pipit
Yellow-throated Miner
Red-browed Pardalote. It just did not want to come out and play
We also only had one quick visit to Potato Gorge, in the range behind the homestead, and it would have been nice to explore that more fully. There are so many places to go to that I am sure that you could fill two weeks without seeing everything properly.

Potato Gorge
Apart from the parrots, the bushranger Pied Butcherbirds in the campground that tried to steal food from the table and the Brown Falcons that perched on dead trees and stared at us, all the birds were extremely shy for some reason. It might be because of the number of raptors; we saw 12 species during our visit including Black-breasted Buzzard, Spotted Harrier, Little Eagle and Nankeen Kestrel. My total species count for the 5 days was 56 but I did miss a few such as the Peregrine Falcon as we drove out, the Cockatiels that did a fly-over one morning and the Southern White-faces that were found by another group of birders. Highlights, apart from the parrots, were the pair of Grey Falcons that circled briefly above the car; the Hobby, Brown Goshawk and Brown Falcon having a three-way dispute over hunting rights at the campground; finding Banded White-face and Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, at last, and finding more than one Grey Honeyeater.

One of the bushranger Pied Butcherbirds

Grey Falcon
Grey Falcon
Brown Falcon
Brown Goshawk
Brown Falcon being harassed by an Australian Hobby

Australian Hobby
There are plenty of signs of camel on the property and more than once we came across large bull camels near the road. Their tracks are everywhere and the tops have been eaten off many bushes and droppings surround the few waterholes. Eradication programs are underway but it is going to be hard work.

Bull camel, very majestic but not what we wanted to see
The Princess Parrots seem to be looking for nesting sites so hopefully they will stick around, but even if you don’t see them Newhaven should be on everyone’s must visit list. Joe and the volunteers are doing a wonderful job, the country is in good condition, the birds are plentiful and the scenery is spectacular. Even if you don’t see the parrots Grey Honeyeaters were not overly hard to find, the raptors were everywhere, the emu-wrens were calling all over the place (but VERY hard to see) and there are lots of other desirable arid-land birds like Orange and Scarlet Chats. Do pick up a copy of the Self Guided Tour Notes too as they have lots of information about the property as well as notes on all the tracks.

The Watchers at the (Night Parrot) Pool

Little Crow at the campground
Sigh, having written all this I would go back tomorrow if I could – well maybe I will wait until September when the nights aren’t so cold, but go back I must. There are a whole lot of tracks to the west of Lake Bennett that we didn’t see as well as some to the north and east of the homestead. And then there is Potato Gorge; what a strange name. We only had a quick look but it just calls out to be explored properly. I think there is a new race of grasswren tucked into its farthest back corner, maybe even a new species (smile).

Lake Bennett

The landscape is just so vast
A few slow night-drives would be good too. We missed the Night Parrot at the shallow pool off the Dune track, teeheehee, but in the dying light we did see Common Bronzewing and I am sure another half hour or so would have given us the parrot. We did see a Spotted Nightjar on the way back to camp and as we birded we saw the tracks of many small nocturnal mammals, and one morning there were the tracks of a monitor lizard near the campground.

Military Dragon (Ctenophorus isolepsis)
A very brightly coloured grasshoppery thing - is actually a Blistered Pyrgomorph (Monistria pustulifera), thanks Chris for the correct name.
One place on the Tanami track that was recommended to us is from the kilometre marker “Y 220” coming from Alice Springs and for the next 2 kilometres. There is Blue Mulga in flower and both Western Gerygone and Grey Honeyeater have been seen. The reverse side of the sign, coming back, says “AS 70”. If you do stop here pull well off the road as the road trains are wide and travel fast.

At "Y220" on the Tanami Track

Road Train

Friday, June 29, 2012

Newhaven – The Princess Parrots

We only stayed at Newhaven for 5 nights but it is such a magic place, and we did and saw so much, that I have decided to split my visit into two entries. The first will be about the Princess Parrots and the second about the rest.
*     *     *     *     *

At the entrance gate
So, what does it take to get you out of the house in winter? How about the prospect of seeing Princess Parrot, Banded Whiteface, Rufous-crowned Emu-wren and Grey Honeyeater, all in one trip? It worked for me. Back on the 7th of June Melbourne was cold and windy. Lorna Mee emailed from the Hunter wanting to know if I want to go on a trip to Newhaven. I thought about the offer for a full seven seconds – sun, warmth, mega-birds – and emailed back that yes, I would love to go.

Lake Eyre and a river on the flight from Melbourne
We met in Alice Springs on the 14th, a week later, and Jim had arranged to hire a Troopie and camping gear from Kevin Reid at Central Car Rentals. It seems that this was the only 4X4 left and what a 4X4 it turned out to be! It only had 4860 km on the odometer when we picked it up so it was all shiny and new. And it was not just a Troopie, it was a V8 diesel Troopie. We kept the speed to between 80 and 100 kph on the Tanami Track and for the trip, Alice to Alice including our time in Newhaven, a total distance travelled of 1350 km, we used 150 litres of fuel.

Typical birder's car - all doors open
We thought the Troopie would be more than we needed but with a fuel capacity of 180 litres it was perfect for 5 days out at Newhaven as we had plenty of fuel without worrying about getting back to the Tilmouth Well Roadhouse to refill. The driving time from Alice to Newhaven, at birdwatching speed and with stops, is about 6 – 7 hours. Tilmouth to Newhaven is about 160 km.

The camp site and our swags
We arrived at about 1600 and the campgrounds were wonderful. The volunteers keep the fireplaces stocked with cut firewood that they collect from trees that have fallen across tracks, and the bathrooms are spotless, they even have hot water, hand towels and bathmats – how luxurious is that! We had rented swags and it was the first time I had slept in one. The nights were cool in all ways with temperatures around 2ºC and no clouds so that the stars shone brightly. On two mornings we even had the crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter clustered together on the horizon. It was magical. During the days the temp got to about 26ºC and there was no wind at all.

Moon conjunct Venus and Jupiter above them
The next morning we met Peter and Toni at 0600 and followed them to the far corner of Newhaven where the Princess Parrots have been seen. Most of the drive was in darkness but by 0700 when we arrived at “the spot” the sun was just appearing over the dunes and the country shone in all the pastel shades of a desert dawn. The parrots gave us a slow start and all we got in the first 2 hours was a distant view of 18 +/- as they flew along the horizon.

Mt Liebig in the early morning light.

Ghost Gums in the morning light

From the top of the dune where we saw the flock of parrots
One good thing about this slow start was that we ended up walking out across the dunes for about 7 km as we looked and listened without luck. We saw many of the desert plants though, including Green Birdflower, Crotalaria cunninghamii, the flowers of which the parrots have been seen to feed on. It seems that they pick the flowers off and chew the succulent tip. With the assurance of Toni that it wasn’t poisonous I ate one and it tasted just like a fresh snap-pea. There were lots of other plants just starting to flower including a wattle that had the strongest, sweet-peppery scent I have ever smelt from a flower; how I wish I could be there when the whole bush was in flower.

If the birds won't come to you ....

Green Birdflower, Crotalaria cunninghamii. Fresh picked flowers lay under the bush
Crotalaria cunninghamii flowers
We then moved on to a second spot where Peter and Toni had seen the birds and finally two showed up and gave us some good looks as they perched in front of us. They are evidently harder to find now than they have been and Peter and Toni said the reduction in sightings seemed to coincide with an increase in the number of budgies. It may also just be that the flocks are breaking up into pairs and the birds are quieter and less noticeable.

Half asleep in the morning sun
Multiple shades of green in the upper wing.
Such a beautiful bird

On the second morning we went out again to give a ride to a birder who had arrived in an X-Trail. We certainly did not complain about going out a second time and once again two birds finally arrived and fed on the ground in company with a pair of Australian Ringnecks. They were also very interested in a tree that had a hollow and spent some time checking it out. They were very confiding but we did not push them, relying on scopes, binoculars and long camera lenses.

Spellbound watchers
There was a potential nest hole in this tree
And after the birds came a cup of tea, Toni's home made cookies and a chat
There was a lot of other bird life in the area but it got scant attention as we watched the parrots. I would have loved to go back for a third morning and concentrate on these birds but time was limited and there were other places to go and other birds to see. A second visit to Newhaven is now on my mandatory to-do list.

Major Mitchells Cockatoos

A flock of Crested Pigeons
Peter and Toni have now left Newhaven so the guided trips have stopped but I do hope that some other volunteer carries on documenting the bird’s habits as Toni and Peter have been doing. They have gained a lot of information about the parrots and it would be a real shame if the work stopped just as it looks like the birds might be going to nest.

When they stretch their necks more pink shows and it goes a darker colour
The Yellow-throated Miners showed no respect
The tree where the first PP landed with the dunes behind

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