Monday, 27 August 2012

A rough shave

Rode home last Thursday eve after a massive thunderstorm rolled through Sydney.  First rain we’ve had for some time.  Trundled over the SHB as usual, and as usual wiggled round the barrier at the northern end to line up for the ramps between the stairs.  It’s probably been years since I have not ridden the ramps.  Once I figured out how to do it (significant fear factor that first time) it became habitual and routine, even if there is a sea of people using one edge or the other to roll their bikes.  “Coming through” usually parts the waters comfortably.

I’ve had rear wheel skid issues before on a damp track, but nothing I couldn’t control.  This time, however, turned out to be quite different.  I’d feathered the brakes for several hundred meters on approach to dry off the rims, but the extent of the wetness of the concrete surface was something I hadn’t quite appreciated.  By the time I got to the bottom of the first ramp, with the rear wheel having just lost some traction, I knew this time was going to be different.  I skidded at least half of the second ramp, and the little flat spots between ramps were no-where near long enough to scrub off speed.  Like Mulga Bill I was in for a wild ride.  The final three ramps were basically continuous slide fest, each one faster than the last.  I had picked my line (straight down the middle – fortunately there was no traffic), now it was just a matter of hanging on – akin to riding a gnarly chute on the mtb (wherever the front wheel goes, the rest will follow).  The compression of the intervening flat spots somehow allowed the rear wheel to re-align before the next ramp skewed it sideways.  A commuter at the bottom who was witnessing the impending catastrophe had the presence of mind to step aside just in time, allowing me to shoot off the bottom out onto the road. 

Wow that was close.  I couldn’t believe what I had gotten away with.  Losing it on the stairs doesn’t bear thinking about.  What an idiot I’d been.  Talk about lucky.  I reflected on this as I gingerly trundled up the sopping road to the Milson’s Point roundabout.  An approaching car even slowed to a complete stop to let me take the RH corner nice and slow.  Next thing I know I’m on my side with the bike sliding away from me on the off-camber corner.  Bugger!  Ripped a massive hole in my new knicks as well.  Reminded me of the Cervelo/Bobbo/bilge incident of a few  (6!) years ago.  Swings and roundabouts I guess, or have I just intersected karma?  Despite a few inches of bark off the hip and elbow, I still reckon I got off lightly.  Hopefully this doesn’t mean there is more to come.

Lesson learnt (stairs are sometimes your friend).  Spent Saturday down at Stromlo with Ben working out how to ride parts of the Scott24hr course.  Hopefully this constitutes prudent adherence to the 7 Ps and will ensure a trouble-free run in early October.

Grazedpants signing off.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Twitching the Ood

Twitchdate 15th july 2012.  In front of us lie 3 weeks and a vast continent to explore (well, a part of it anyway).  Binoculars, check. Field guides, check.  EPIRB, check.  Down jackets, check, Brown trousers check. Bicycles, Tish-bang!  Basic plan: wiggle waaay west into South Australia to do one of the classic outback dirt tracks, mostly visiting places i've never been before.  Who knows how many feathered life-forms we'll encounter along the way.  Bridge to engine room; Lets go!

Day 1 Sunday 15 July.  Sydney to Sandy Hollow.
Only a 3 hour drive to this sleepy little town in the lower Hunter Valley, but given our general level of disorganization we did well to make it just before the sun dipped.   Once again we arrived on a day where there was no cook at the pub (Thurs, Fri and Sat only).  But the caravan park has a lovely camping area, complete with horses.  On the morning twitch I got brush turkey whilst chasing a lyre bird.  Also got restless flycatcher going through the whole scissor-grinding routine along a fence line to flush insects.  Other notable ticks  included grey crowned babbler, both pardalotes and yellow and brown thornbills,as well as some "coastal" locals (last chance for these).  By the time we hit the road we had about 40 species in the bag.

Knife-tailed eagle, Sandy Hollow

Day 2 Monday 16 July.
Sandy Hollow to Trangie, just west of Dubbo. Went the squiggly way through the Goulburn River national park- the top pinch of the blue mountains.  At the caravan park got great evening views of classic inland parrots; red rumped, mallee ringneck, cockatiels, and blue bonnets, and our first yellow throated miners.  The corvids had conspicuously changed from Aust raven to little crow.   Also prominent, squabbling in the flowering gums above the toilet block were little friarbird, blue faced honeyeater and noisies.  Even a couple of rainbow lorries, unexpected this far inland.  The count had progressed to about 60.  It was going to be mostly dry country specialists from here on in.

Day 3 Tues 17.  Trangie to White Cliffs.  Going hard west.  Anita had Wilcannia in mind.  I wasn't sure this was a great idea.  In any case we stopped many times en route to see what we could spot in good looking patches of cypress scrub.  After a few strike outs we hit the jackpot: speckled warbler, inland thornbill, weebill, and the magnificent red capped robin.  At Nyngan shocked to get brown honeyeater.  Being prevalent in the coastal scrub of Coolum I had always assumed they were a coastal species.  But here they were in the main town park singing their little heads off.  Just before Wilcannia we  crossed the first bridge over significant water.  Close to the Darling River now. A bunch of rufous song larks, native hens and snakebirds later, we headed into town as the sun was getting low.  We had originally planned on camping at a tent on the map 50 km out of town, but this was in fact little more than a truck rest stop, so into town we went.

Red capped robin
Zebra Finches, female and male

Wilcannia has been making frequent appearances on the 7:30 report in recent times for all the wrong reasons - alcohol figuring prominently.  The years of boom, where it was a major river port are long gone.  A real shame as the river at this point is lovely, adorned with mature river red gums and loads of birds (glossy black cockatoo flew overhead down the main strip, also way out of range), and a bunch of lovely old buildings still remain, including the hospital.  Population now only a couple of hundred in what is reduced largely to a shanty town; a few steel-grill windowed pubs, boarded up or burnt out shops on the main strip, and residential dumps with locals giving the hairy eyeball.  The only motel was full.  The lovely campground with prime river frontage was empty - usually a plus, but in this instance not a good sign.  The ground was tacky underfoot, as the river had spilled its banks only days beforehand.  As we started putting up the tent a car-full of locals did a drive by.  That was enough.  With tent back in car we set sail for the only port within cooee, White Cliffs, a 90 km diversion to the north-west, and an easier target than Broken Hill, some 300 km west.  We had aimed not to do any driving at night, and here we were doing just that.  Driving into a setting sun on a road full of roos, emus, goats and black cows.  Yes, black cows, like black holes under the head lights.  At least the road had been recently sealed.  We eventually got there, slowly, somehow collecting just a single kangaroo.  I went back to finish him off with the mallet, and he took fright and bolted.  Still not sure he survived as he left quite a dent in the side panel, poor fellow. That rates as the  most stressful  stretch of road i've ever driven.

White Cliffs, an opal town, looked considerably smaller than Wilcannia.  Only lights in a sea of total blackness were the pub and the corner store opposite.  The pub was manned by three women, and a fourth on the wall displaying her not-insubstantial assets.  A few locals adorned the tiny bar.  Having got a room the bar lady inquired whether we'd eaten,  "across the road then, now!".  It must be said that the steak sandwiches and chips consumed at the pub were excellent, washed down by several brews as we chatted with locals before we heading off to bed for our latest evening yet (approx 8:30).  The motel rooms out back were constructed from freezer panels, to keep the heat out in summer, but more reminiscent at this time of year of mountaineering huts i've stayed in, given how fast the temperature drops once the sun quits.  Most of the locals have solved the temperature issue by living hobbit-like under ground or dug into the side of the few low hills.

The next morning was a desert bird frenzy.  White winged fairy wrens,  zebra finches, red backed kingfisher, singing and spiny cheeked honeyeaters, diamond doves,  chestnut crowned babblers, white breasted woodswallows and our first budgerigars!  Stunning to see them in the wild.  The ubiquitous white plumed honeyeater also was prominent.  And we gained an education in the red posterior of the female mistletoebird!  Took us a while to figure that one out.  After a reasonable coffee (for Anita it seems Coogee, like Queensland, is everywhere now ) it was time to get going.

Hard to get close to these guys - white-winged fairy wren (male)

Day 4.  Wed  18.  White Cliffs to Mutawintji.  130km of dirt!
This was our first real off road test, on a road which had only just opened - 4wd only.  We started the day as nervous newbies and felt like seasoned beard-strokers come the end.  Conditions oscillated from pan-flat red clay, where you could whip along at 100, to orrible gravel or corrugations where 30 felt like a flogging.  And loads of water crossings.  That should read mud crossings.  As clearance isn't the strength of the Subaru (Impreza awd, circa 2000), I just kept the wheels on the crusty/slimy ridges and hoped for the best.  The low range gears were engaged periodically where, albeit traveling diagonally at times, the little tractor just kept grinding.  Loads of emus and goats on this stretch.  According to the White Cliffs locals goats are the new flavor of range-lice, superior to sheep and cattle in many respects.  And they have better road sense.  Mutawintji national park, which was attained in the late afternoon, turned out to be a real gem.  Lovely campsite with bench and fireplace, and a bunch of friendly grey nomads to exchange banter with.  Had we not done the White Cliffs detour we would have missed it altogether.

Road to Mutawintji

A roaring fire, with wood carted on the roof cage, dulled the chill of what was a frosty night.  Most notable in the eve was the constant hawking and screeching of what we presumed were barn owls.  Also in mega abundance were yellow throated miner, spiny cheeked honeyeater, weebill, mistletoe bird, little corella, red capped robin, and mallee ringneck.  Others we got but didn't expect were variegated fairy wren and Horsfield's bronze cuckoo (new tick) and the out-of-range fantailed cuckoo.

Mutawintji dreaming

 Horsfield's bronze cuckoo

Day  5 Thurs 19.  Did an excellent 7km loop walk.  Lovely eucalypt-filled sandy gorges with quiet burbling pools, contrasting with arid sandstone hills.  Gorge highlights were, once again, brown honeyeater, singing honeyeater and mistletoe bird whilst up the tops we got red capped robin and black honeyeater and it's unmistakable "feeble peee" call.  Other ticks included chestnut rumped thornbill and striated honeyeater.  The return to camp was punctuated by drama as a brown goshawk exploded onto a bunch of zebra finches, catching one and, after a brief de-feathering, devouring it whole in the branch above us. Views of mulga parrot bid us farewell and we disappeared down the dusty track en route to Broken Hill, a steaming hot shower, and pizza for dinner.  An ulterior motive for staying in Broken Hill was the discovery, halfway along the aforementioned walk, that the aftermarket spare battery I brought for my camera was rejected by the camera itself (computer said no), despite in all other respects being identical.  I was pleasantly surprised when the proprietor of  the only camera shop in Broken Hill proclaimed,  "no worries, I'll have one sent up from Adelaide tomorrow morning, 10 am".  And so it happened.

Mutawinji from the tops

Day 6.  Fri 19.  Broken Hill to Wilpena.  A quiet transition day on the birding front as we crossed into South Australia, although we did pick up southern whiteface.  Great views of the Flinders Rangers as we approached.  We camped in the expansive non-powered sector of the Wilpena Pound Resort, formerly a massive cattle station that now makes its bucks from eco-tourism rather than the weather-dependent vagaries of cattle, sheep and rainfall.  The pound itself is a elevated bowl-shaped escarpment, so named as there is only one way in and out - a natural fenced paddock of massive proportion, but with the cliff faces dropping off and facing out.  I got the spare battery charged at the pub as we stoked the evening fire.

Day 7. Sat 20.  Wilpena.  The day started on a quest to bag a recently split-off species of grass wren with a very restricted range - short tailed grass wren, which only inhabits the spinefex slopes of the Flinders, and is most easily nabbed via a trip to Stokes Hill (a 40 km round trip), so the field guide proclaimed.  This took a bit of finding though, as one of the pivotal roads was now sealed, so we ended up on the wrong dusty track for most of the morning, although we were rewarded with elegant parrot, more views of mulga parrot, and what was becoming the ubiquitous red capped robin amongst the inland Cyprus forests.  Also bagged white browed babbler, giving us the trifecta on the babbler front.

We eventually found the barren summit of Stokes Hill after grinding up its 20% slopes and parked aside the only other vehicle, whose occupants were there for the same reason and had just spent a freezing morning trying to get the same bird, unsuccessfully.  We were no luckier, but had fun tracking down what turned out to be plump examples of Richard's pipit.  The ones back east seem more stretched.

The daily grass-wren hunt, Stokes Hill

Mid afternoon was spent on a walk up the outer side of one of the bluffs of the Pound.  Excellent views of inland thornbill, and bagged the sublime yet poorly named grey fronted honeyeater (new tick).  Near the summit we had to work a bit,using the call from Anita's iPhone app, but eventually got the aptly named shy heathwren.  We finished the day with another unsuccessful dig for grass wrens back at Stokes Hill.

At the rim of the Wilpena Pound bowl, and looking in.

Day 8. Sunday 22nd. Wilpena.  Once again, we started the day off with some freezing hours on the sides of Stokes Hill, unsuccessfully.  With that out of the way we opted for another walk, this time into and across the Pound to a low point on the far side of the bowl, approx 18 km total.  Lovely contrasting terrain, from mature river red gum, to cypress forest, then mallee scrub of diminishing size as we started the climb at the far side.  Apart from more red-capped robins and babblers, we picked up yellow plumed honeyeater in the middle (new), and at the  incline at the far end got common bronze wing, white eared honeyeater and another newbie for us in redthroat.  To celebrate we shifted beer o'clock to the fire-heated cavern of the resort, where batteries were once again charged, before we backed to camp, showered, and had another mudge meal that couldn't be beat.

The poorly named grey-fronted honeyeater

Day 9 Monday 23.  Wilpena to Lyndhurst.  Back on the road, winding north then cutting across to the west of the Flinders Ranges.  Of course, went for one last unsuccessful dig at Stokes Hill to kick things off.  Not much to speak of birding-wise, although the scope finally got a work-out to scan the far shore of a few dams to pick out hoary headed grebe, hardhead, and first glimpses of the most stunning male orange chat (new for us) and black fronted (g-string) dotterel.

Lyndhurst was the smallest town we'd stayed in thus far, and marked the junction of several classic dirt track possibilities: Strezleki directly east, and Birdsville and the Oodnadatta to the north, which then split about the shores of the lake Eyre basin.  Lyndhurst comprised a hotel and literally only a couple of other ramshackle buildings.  The pub pretty much covered all options, from paying for tent sites to booking flights to see lake Eyre.  Manning the bar were the pilot and an English lass on a working holiday, who looked a little shell shocked by the whole experience, maybe partly cause she was not leaving till mid-December.  At least she'll get to see the place when it is really hot.  This was not an uncommon phenomenon.  Most of the barmaids were euro blow-ins confronting the reality of several months in a one horse town.  The oft-used justification that at least there was nowhere to spend the coin they were earning was not entirely convincing.  But if they were after something completely different, then mission accomplished.

Lyndhurst, and on the Strezlecki

At this stage we'd decided for various reasons that we'd opt for the Oodnadatta (north west) rather than the Strezlecki (hard east) track.  But with a little time up our sleeves we rattled our way up the Strezlecki for 25 km to go for chestnut breasted whiteface at a site also recommended by McBride's field guide.  Of course, dipped out on the whiteface - detecting a trend here.  Saw some stellar wedge-tails though.  We learned that truckies refer to them as bush-pelicans - much worse to hit compared with kangaroos and emus.  Because they are slow to get going from road kill they apparently end up through the truck windscreen and into the drivers lap.

bush pelican

Day 10. Tues 24.  Lyndhurst to Coward Spings.  The morning twitch unearthed some great birds only a few 100 meters from the pub, most notably pied honeyeater and white backed swallow, new ticks for both of us.  We headed north to Marree, the true junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks.  En route we stopped at the now-deserted town of Farina.  Lovely old relics, and fabulous bush camping.  Mental note for next time.  Also bagged chirruping wedgebill, yet another new double tick.

At Marree we made the decisive left hand turn onto the dirt that truly defined the start of the Oodnadatta, and as we entered the moonscape the theme from 2001 magically came around on the iPod set to shuffle.  It was an emotional experience.  The Oodnadatta follows the path of the old Ghan railway, which used to link the south with Alice springs, although this was disbanded in the early 80s and is now barely recognizable in most places.  The real genesis of the the route, however, is that it followed a series of springs that the Aborigines used to navigate for time immemorial.

Life on Mars

The goal for the day was Coward Springs, another 130 km down the stretch.  Plains of nothing and everything.  Just when you think you are trapped in an orbit of nothingness, in the blink of an eye everything is different.  The surface, the clouds, the light, reflections, the roll of the hills, with tree lines, ridges and low table-tops revealing themselves then hiding.  The mood was tempered by whatever was coming out of the speakers, or simply accompanied by the rattles and squeaks of the vehicle.  Traveling the Ood proved to be a bit of a dream sequence at times.  As with most of our traveling days, we were on the slow-road in the sense that whenever something looked of interest we'd stop and have a sticky, which often involving a bit of a trudge, with bins and camera in tow.  One of these stops, to check out some sort of lark (our fist definitive brown song lark) also revealed a chat supermarket, with dozens of crimson (new tick) and orange chats dancing about us, and a fox, interested for other reasons.  A later stop at a bore dam, surrounded by cows, a few thickets and dozens of zebra finches, on closer inspection also threw up a collared sparrow hawk, also a first for both of us.  Luckily for the finches said sparrowhawk flew off empty-taloned. Nabbed pink-eared duck at another dam stop.

Usually we would be trundling along by ourselves, for hours on end, but occasionally a plume of dusk heralded the approach of another vehicle, or several in convoy (peak hour).  Most were of the mega 4wd variety.

Peak hour on the Oodnadatta

Further along we stopped to photograph a particularly pale falcon on a post, and after closer inspection thought it might be a grey.  The grey falcon is a bird which, having read Dooley's book and his failure to tick it,  I  gullibly took to be a hoax as wryly suggested (even crossing it out in my first field guide!).  However, it does apparently exist, albeit rarely seen, and is similar to brown except has grey bits (as opposed to brown) , and yellow highlights.  Numerous recent sightings in the area reported on the internet spurred our excitement.  Close inspection of digital photos did indeed show grey cap and bright yellow cere and eye-ring, notably absent from browns in both field guides we had with us (Simpson  and Day, and Morecombe), but there was no denying that the shoulders and primaries carried too much brown.  Left us wondering if hybridization between browns and greys might occur.

orange and crimson chats, and grey-brown falcon

At another point we rose over a large sand dune and the magnificence of Lake Eyre South lay before us.  It was literally like childhood memories of a trip to beach on the central coast.  Despite the southern lake (the smaller of the two) being only 25% full, it was still an edge-of-continent experience.  Whilst aware that the Oodnadata skirted the edge of the southern lake, I didn't really expect we'd be able to see it.  Other access points require some pretty serious  4wd action, so it was a real bonus when it sprang into view.  We stopped at several sites to gawk and take pictures.  We later learnt that taking to the air was unlikely to provide too much more detail, and as most of the flocks of birdlife have moved on with water levels in decline (they reckon in 3 months it will dry out) we didn't feel the need to splash out on an aerial review.

Lake Eyre

Coward Springs turned out to be one of those fabled oases in the desert.  Appearing out of nowhere, and marked by some old casuarinas and palms.  Excellent camping with open fires and a spa thrown in.  Yes, a thermal spring adjacent a wetland, only 100 m from camp, and jetting in at mid 20s.  Just what the body needed.  Spotless crakes were literally viewed from the spa area.  An absolute must for anyone traveling the Ood.

Howard Springs wetland, just over the brush fence from the spa

Day 11.  Wed 25.  Coward Spings to William Creek.  Having heard dingos howling through the night, an early start was rewarded with a fantastic sunrise and a pair of brolga gliding low past the campsite.  Our morning trundle picked up black winged stilt, little grass bird, more spotless crakes and a bona fide brown falcon.  We tracked him down to see if he too had traces of yellow bits.  He did.  Alas, no grey falcon the previous day.  In tracking down the brown we experienced something that one often gets birding - looking for one thing and ending up with something completely unexpected.  We inadvertently flushed 4 barn owls from a thicket, and got excellent pics to boot.  First time the mudge or I  have had a good look at them.  Probably rates as bird of the trip for me. We celebrated with another dip in the spa.

With only 80 or so km to William Creek we took our time, having a peek at every nook and cranny.  This included multiple walks on "gibber plain", which is basically nature's version of pebble-crete, except that the stones are larger, and stretch as far as the eye can see, punctuated by the odd bit of tussock or thorny shrub. With the sun behind you gibber looks like the surface of mars.  Looking into the sun the stones turn black to reflect an alternative version of hell.  Somewhat paradoxically the surface crushes softly under foot, which goes a long way in explaining why these inland tracks are virtually impassable after heavy rain, sometimes for weeks.   The object of our gibber walks was, of course, gibberbird, a sparrow sized chat that spends its existence on the gibber.  How it survives the roasting heat of summer, let alone winter, is a mystery.  Despite many  spots of having a go on the gibber, we never did tick gibberbird.

On the gibber

We did see some spectacular salt plains and mound springs - impressive lumps formed by a thermal spring whose mineral content is deposited via evaporation, akin to caving in reverse.  On one of the salt lakes we scoped about 20 ned necked avocets working the waters for brine shrimp.  We also got spotted harrier and our first  look at cinnamon quail thrush.

William Creek, like Lyndhust, was also a one pub town with foreign chicks behind the bar, but with a larger aerodrome (about 5 planes in the paddock) catering for the masses who would drive or fly in to see the lake.  We pitched our tent next to the runway and took refuge in the pub for the eve to escape the winds which had picked up through the afternoon and were now blowing hard.  We pitied a party of 3 cyclists we'd passed a few  hours earlier, who had to ride into this very wind.  We fared it would take them another few days just to gain William Creek.

Cycling hell, mtb style

By this stage of course we were getting pretty grotty.  A fine layer of dust coated everything inside the car.  The camera was full of it as well, a product of changing lenses 10-20 times a day, also not helped by the fact by this stage the wide-angle lens cap had gone awol.  Good thing the kit isn't top shelf.  Showering at this stage was to some degree counter-productive, given the very salty taste to the bore water on tap, and rust streaks adorning the backs of toilets, sinks and shower fittings.  I had given up on washing my hair at this stage, and Anita was starting to complain about my smell. We were going to need a bona fide motel detox sometime soon.

Day 12. Thurs 26. William Creek to Oodnadatta.  We topped up with fuel and headed on for another 200 km stretch to Oodnadatta itself.  Lots of varied terrain, but large chunks of gibber, which again failed to yield gibber bird despite numerous sorties.  A bore stop finally yielded excellent views of both hooded robin and cinnamon quail thrush, akin to a stretch limo quail.  Also inspected some of the old Ghan railway crossings.  We rattled into Oodnadatta, the largest settlement we'd seen in some days, but decided to press on for another 80 km in search of nicer camping than what the barren Ood caravan park could offer.  Our destination was a tent on the map within a property off the road to Coober Pedy in a region called the Painted Desert. This turned out to be well worth the effort.  Lovely bush camp although a little blustery, with some rain thrown in for good measure.  This forced us to temporarily abandon the fire to down dinner in the musty confines of the car with crunchy rice.  But it was still tops.

Hooded robin after swallowing a ping pong ball.  All in the painted desert.

Day 13.  Friday 27.  Painted Desert to Glendambo via Coober Pedy.  Another cool windy day beckoned so we hit the track early, getting some lovely views of arid hills and formations whose sides are etched with different shades of creams and ochres, hence the painted desert moniker.  We even managed to finally get a half-decent view of one of countless grass wrens which had been teasing us with their squeaks for the entirety of the dirt track experience.  After digi-pics were inspected thick billed grasswren was our much considered conclusion.  Tick.

Further down the track we contributed unwittingly to our second view to a kill.  The rattle of the car flushed what we suspected was a female orange chat, but could well have been gibberbird given the terrain (they look nearly identical).  We slowed to watch it settle just  ahead.  Simultaneously we spied a hobby materialize from nowhere, cutting across the gibber at altitude 1 metre to try to catch the chat, which it eventually did after a series of precision aeronautic swoops and dives in the heavy cross wind.  Once its position was surrendered, there was no literally no place for the chat to take refuge.

We were now close to Coober Pedy and the end of the big dirt adventure when we felt a sudden softening on the right.  Our first puncture, ironically on a pretty good sector and, after 900 km of dirt, just 12 km shy of Coober Pedy and asphalt which extends to Sydney.  So that's why we lugged a spare all this way.  We reflected on how the dynamics of the trip might have changed had this happened 500 km earlier.   An hour later we were sipping coffee, catching up on the interweb (Coogee being everywhere), with fresh rubber on the spare.  As with Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy really didn't impress (what a dump!), but i suppose it's what is underground that are the main attractions, be they hotels, galleries, or opals.

The inevitable puncture.

We pushed on, although this time heading south-east, officially on the return leg. We stopped just outside town for one last crack at a chestnut breasted whiteface hotspot, and naturally enough dipped out, but did get white fronted honeyeater, another newie for the trip list and a rarely seen dry country specialist.  We bombed down the highway for another couple of hours to pull up stumps at the mighty Glendambo roadhouse, where another salty but excellent shower was enjoyed, along with steak, chips and a clean bed.

Day 14 Sat 28th.  Glendambo to Clare.  The day started with an extensive pit stop.  Topped up the radiator, added fuel, and while adjusting tyre pressure noticed a bulge in the left rear - a blow out waiting to happen.  So before we had gone anywhere we were back onto the new spare tyre.  A couple of hours later we were in Port Augusta looking for a place which dabbled in tyres on a Saturday arvo.  Fortunately we found one, and before we knew it we were back on our way, but not before adding silver gull (that's the common seagull, for you non twitchers), caspian tern, and banded stilt, another newie for the mudge and I.  We headed east, across the Remarkables range before steadying a more southerly course for the Clare Valley.  We made Clare having travelled through some absolutely stunning green rolling countryside that reminded me more of Tassie or NZ than Ozzie.  Picked up the Adelaide race of crimson rosella and jacky winter on the way.  At the death we finished through some very heavy rain,and one of the best rainbows i've ever seen, opting for a second motel and pub dinner combo.  Even got to watch a bit of the olympic road race on the teeve before we crashed.  Go Stuey!

Day 15 Sun 29th July.   Clare to Gluepot.  After another motel snooze that couldn't be beat we headed south west to the Gluepot nature reserve (still in South Australia,  just), a mallee property bought by Birds Australia 15 years ago and now well on the way to recovery, harboring a bunch of rare stuff including malleefowl, which of course we didn't manage to see.  As it's name suggests, getting in on the 50 km of dirt is not something to be contemplated in the wet.   Over the next couple of days we got a swag of almost 40 excellent dry county ticks, most we already had, but did manage to add crested bellbird (with its fantastic call and spunky mohawk), chestnut quail thrush, brown and white-browed tree creeper, and our old friend golden whistler to the trip list, which now trickled over the 150 species mark.

Gluepot mallee and spinifex, with Splendid Fairy Wren in the middle

Day 16 Monday 30th July.  No serious kms in the car, but about 15 on foot = sore feet and early beer o clock.  Although we dipped on malleefowl, the white fronted honeyeater, which under any other circumstance is regarded as a rarity and a fine tick, became the pest - not only ubiquitous on the chosen track, but alerting all other living things to our approach.  We bagged splendid fairy wren at days end, which, as its name hints, is truly splendid to behold.

Day 18 Wed 1st Aug. Gluepot east to Hattah-Kulkyne national park.  We exited Gluepot, despite backtracking 15 km to retrieve beanie, which I left on the car roof prior to departure (I have form on this - wallets, binoculars, you name it).  We departed South Australia into north western Victoria to perhaps the last place we could have any chance for malleefowl, and another grass wren - mallee grass wren to be exact.  But as we have learnt, whenever a destination is advertised as a good place for X - not a chance. Only the second frosty night for the entire trip was followed by a magic morning where we got blue bill duck, Australian shellduck, brown-headed honeyeater and fantastic looks at regent parrot (new tick!).  On the lake we also spied the most enormous water rat  i've ever seen, webbed feet and all.

Day 19 Hattah-Kulkyne to Griffith.  Having resigned ourselves to dipping out on all the mallee specialists we headed back across the vast western flat expanse of NSW to Hay, then via backroads to Griffith, where we spotted some good raptors; swamp harrier and kick-arse little eagle.

Day 20 Griffith to Cowra
Just east of Griffith we went to our favored Copaparra National Park.  We assumed the serious 4wd-ing would be over, but the approach roads were in terrible condition due to recent rain, so we didn't spend too much time here, but we did get A-grade peregrine falcon perched (totally unexpected), and bar-shouldered dove on call.  On the run towards Cowra we made the inspired decision to pit-stop at the West Wyalong poo ponds and nailed pied cormorant, blue bill duck again (always a pleasure), Australasian coot and plumed whistling duck.  We got the divine double-barred finch on the run in to Cowra.  Not a bad  day of transition.

Day 21. Cowra to home.  Our 3 week tour was coming to an end.  The count stood at 170.  There was still a chance to add to this number before heading back over the mountains in the dark.  First stop was the Cowra Japanese gardens, where $27 entry looked like it was going to be money poorly spent till we got blackbird and silvereye at the death.  Hence, at $13.50 each these rate as the most expensive ticks of the trip.  We then backtracked 30 km to the Conimbla National Park where we hit a purple patch on a 4 km walk through predominantly ironbark forest and gained red browed finch, white throated tree creeper, buff-rumped thornbill, varied sitella, eastern spinebill, and the hard-to-get Turquoise parrot.  On the way out we also ticked the similarly hard-to-get and spectacular diamond firetail, bringing the count to 179.   A great tick to finish on, and time to head home.

 Spotted Pardalote (male up top)
Diamond firetail, number 179.  Even i can see the red.

Now such a number can be collected on a 24 hour event in the Hunter in spring, but we largely stuck to the far inland at a time of year when the migratory birds were  absent, habitats were generally arid, and days were short.  We didn't tick any mega-rarities, but really enjoyed the time away, each seeing about 25 species we'd never seen before, and a unique part of the country.  Whets the appetite for more.

I feel like I've had a pretty good break.  Time to shave off the facial growth, now tinged with a couple of chinny grey patches, and pucker up for some hard yakka back at the bench (which i blame in part for aforementioned grey patches).  For the record, in three weeks we covered some 5900 km (approx 1000 km on the dirt), tenting it 13 nights, motelling it 6 nights. We hit one kangaroo, and suffered one flat and one haematoma. The half cage on the roof was the smartest pre-departure purchase although one of its 4 attachment points finally fatigued during the last couple of days.  It did ferry more than the prescribed weight.  More attachment points required for the next one.  Consuming pies in every port of call had me gain a kilo or two.  Anita, who kept to egg sandwhiches managed to shed one.  Despite the time of year (down jackets mandatory) we only suffered two nights of frost.   I fired off over 2000 shots with the new camera (thanks to Smarty for great advice), which will cull to a good selection of keepers.  Next on the horizon for me is hopefully getting something out of the phage-display experiments i've been struggling with at work (in the few days before returning i had work nightmares!), and getting fit as quick as poss for another tilt at the Scott24 solo at Mt Stromlo in early Oct.

Captain twitch-pants signing off.