Australia’s endemic grasswrens are among the most desirable birds to see for local and visiting birdwatchers alike. But finding and getting good views of them isn’t easy, as Gordon Rich found out when he went on a very special bird watching tour in Australia.
How likely was it that I would see all 11 of Australia’s notoriously elusive grasswrens on a two-week bird watching tour? Was it an impossible dream or a perfectly reasonable prospect?
On previous birdwatching trips in Australia, I had never had much luck with grasswrens. Despite countless hours wading through knee-high spinifex searching for them, I had only managed fleeting views of a few species.
Those grasswrens from remote parts of northern Australia held an almost mythical status. They were just pictures in a field guide that I flicked over when looking up other birds. So when I heard about a bird watching tour to see all 11 grasswren species, I jumped at the opportunity to go on it.
Starting Out on the Bird Watching Tour in Australia
I had never attempted such a bird watching trip before. The two-week itinerary seemed, quite frankly, a little optimistic. It involved traversing the continent from south to north in a chartered 10-seater aircraft, with 4WD ground transport and some moderately challenging hiking along the way.
From the first day, it became apparent that there’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ grasswren.
It took us over three hours bird watching in cold, windy conditions to see our first Striated Grasswren at Hattah-Kulkyne in north-western Victoria. Then, with no time for dallying, it was back to Mildura airport and the one-hour flight to Whyalla in South Australia.
Photo credit: Peter Waanders, Bellbird Tours, Searching for Grasswrens
This activity was soon to become our routine, with most days involving a combination of flying, driving and some serious hiking to try to find our target species. Variables such as the prevailing weather conditions and the grasswren’s famously cryptic behaviour were going to prove a real challenge in our attempt to see all 11 birds on such a time-limited itinerary.
The next four species came pretty easily, though, with the bluebush habitat in Whyalla Conservation Park yielding good views of Western Grasswren. My impression of this bird is that it is more heavily streaked than Thick-billed Grasswren, with which it was formerly lumped.
Three More Grasswrens
Next on the agenda was Short-tailed Grasswren. Our first destination in the spinifex-clad hills of the Flinders Ranges looked like excellent habitat, but it failed to produce the goods. However, after a frosty start the following morning, we got on to the birds in another location. With grasswrens it always pays to have a back-up site.
Then, on the sparse chenopod plains north of Lyndhurst, we tracked down a pair of Thick-billed Grasswrens. We seemed to be able to get within about 50m of them. From that distance, they were happy to reveal themselves on top of bushes. Any closer, though, and they would scurry for cover. This appeared to be a behavioural adaptation that the birds had adopted for living in such an open habitat.
Photo credit: Peter Waanders, Bellbird Tours, Short-tailed Grasswren
Our flight north from Leigh Creek took a scenic detour over the vast saltpans of Lake Eyre. As there had been recent rains, water was starting to fill parts of the usually dry lake.
Apart from the birds, one of the real highlights was seeing the vast, arid landscape from the air. It was also an experience landing at some of the isolated bush airstrips – a first for both ourselves and our pilot!
The next stop on our bird watching tour in Australia was Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track. There the locals were good enough to sweep the loose stones off the runway before we landed. The canegrass dunes behind the pub were humming with birdlife, and we had excellent views of Eyrean Grasswren.
This was probably the most confiding of the grasswrens we saw on the whole bird watching trip. What struck me about this species was its stout, finch-like bill, which is presumably used for feeding on the seeding canegrass.
That was five grasswrens in five days – so far, so good for our Australian birding trip.
Heavy Rains Make Bird Watching in Australia Difficult
The roadblock came when we were driving out to Goyder’s Lagoon off the Birdsville track. The flooded wetland was alive with breeding waterbirds. It was an impressive sight in what would normally be a parched landscape. However, the water made it impossible to access the heart of the lignum habitat favoured by the elusive Grey Grasswren.
After more than three hours’ hard slog, skirting around the muddy water’s edge, I managed a brief glimpse of a grasswren before it disappeared into a thick lignum bush. It was a tick, but I thought it would be nice to go back for another shot at those birds when things were a bit drier.
Photo credit: Peter Waanders, Bellbird Tours, Flinders Ranges, Australia
The results of the recent heavy rains were also apparent when we ventured to Opalton in western Queensland. There we picked up the Rusty Grasswren (subspecies rowleyi of Striated Grasswren), which may well be elevated to full species status in the future.
Opalton is not a particularly well-known birding locality in Australia, but it is well worth the visit. While there we also saw Spinifexbird, Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Hall’s Babbler and Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush in the area.
Two Mount Isa Grasswrens in a Day
Mount Isa greeted us with surprisingly cool and windy conditions. It didn’t look promising for our target species, the notoriously shy Carpentarian Grasswren. However, driving into the site we managed to flush one across the road, which led to a very quick exodus from the bus!
Sadly, over the next few hours, these birds proved extremely elusive. Although I had numerous glimpses of birds scampering over rocks, only stopping briefly with their tails cocked characteristically before dashing into clumps of spinifex.
In the afternoon we headed south of Mount Isa to a ‘reliable’ site for Kalkadoon Grasswrens. For some silly reason I thought these were going to be easier, but in nearly four hours of searching, we didn’t even hear a squeak.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun began to set at a second spot, we finally got on to an obliging female Kalkadoon. We had seen both Mount Isa grasswrens in a day but, boy, was it hard work!
Moving On to the Northern Territory
Heading west, we stopped at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory where we saw the Dusky Grasswren. This was a species that I had seen reasonably well in the past near Alice Springs, but the Tennant Creek birds were more secretive and difficult to observe. I guess they’re not as accustomed to tourists as their Alice Springs cousins.
Photo credit: Peter Waanders, Bellbird Tours, Eyrean Grasswren
The longest flight of the tour took us to Drysdale Station in the Kimberley, which had a real feel of the tropical savanna. Miner’s Pool on the Drysdale River is a great spot for birds with highlights including Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens and Northern Shrike-tits.
This was the launch pad for our fly-in, fly-out mission to the spectacular Mitchell Falls escarpment to search for the Black Grasswren. It involved an early-morning flight to the local airstrip, followed by a helicopter ride up to the plateau.
With limited time and adrenaline pumping, the pressure was on to see our bird. By mid-morning the temperature was starting to rise and we still hadn’t had any luck with the grasswrens. Finally, with some good insider information and persistence, we got on to a small party of these stunning birds. I had always dreamt of seeing Black Grasswrens, but to do so after taking a helicopter ride to get there was an absolute thrill.
The Hardest Part of My Bird Watching Tour in Australia
The last leg of the trip to the rugged Kakadu escarpment was always going to be the most physically challenging and potentially rewarding. The White-throated Grasswren is one of Australia’s most sought-after birds. This is particularly so since altered fire regimes mean that it’s no longer reliably seen at more accessible sites. After an 8km hike to the top of the escarpment, we camped alongside a beautiful creek (having been reliably informed that there were only freshwater crocs in the area).
Photo credit: Peter Waanders, Bellbird Tours, Spinifex Pigeon
The following morning we had a further 3km trek, including some serious boulder scrambling, to an isolated area of rocky outcrops. After a few glimpses and a lot of patient waiting, we were finally rewarded with excellent views of three White-throated Grasswrens.
While these striking birds kept their distance, they also repeatedly hopped out onto their rocky vantage point to observe the strange human intruders who had entered their territory.
Weary but unbowed, I celebrated seeing all the Australian grasswren species in just under two weeks. I had gained more than just some ticks in my notebook on this bird watching tour, though. Our journey across Australia by air, car and foot had given me a real appreciation of these elusive and unique birds and the remote environments in which they live.
Thanks to Peter Waanders from Bellbird Tours for organising such a fantastic bird watching trip, along with fellow guides Mark Carter and Mick Jerram.
Images by Peter Waanders.