Flinders Birds, 2008

The Honeyeaters' Tree

The Lyndhurst Hotel marked the start of the Strzelecki Track and the tarmac ended not far down it. A sign in the road-train area told of conditions for sections of the route – all open when I was there. So the way was clear to Mount Hopeless, the Moomba oil fields and southern Queens­land. Hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads plied by monster trucks bowling through the heart of Australia. Directly north the same traffic ran up the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks to Marree, where they diverged for the Northern Territory and western Queensland respectively.

This was Bransbury‘s direction for chestnut-breasted whiteface. A great many grasswrens – streaky brown relatives of the fairywrens – also had restricted ranges up there, as did the gibberbird. The name alone made this honeyeater a prize for me and I was right at its limit. But not this trip. I missed most of the localised endemics, which is not a surprise: it takes Australians considerable time and effort to add them to their lists.

No, I had to turn back but did so pre-breakfast to see what birds were up and about early to scrape a living from the desolation. It’s not so desolate: enough precipitation falls to keep a low layer of scrub and the recent rains had left roadside pools and ditches full of water. One held my next lifer, a bird more accustomed to estuaries so it was a long way from home although Morcombe notes that the hoary-headed grebe is nomadic. This is in sharp contrast to most species in its Podicipediformes order, which are not known for even their short-distance flying prowess. They walk even less readily, being apt to fall over because their legs are set so far back. They’re designed for swimming and diving. So a roadside pool was just right.

World birds 925 and 926 soon followed as white-backed swallows skimmed the skies and a rufous songlark had me puzzling for ages over its scratchy-scratchy song and cryptic plumage. Then, gem of all gems, a distant blaze of gold shimmered through the heat haze – too far to make out any detail but the speck could only have been one bird. A mudflat specialist but also a honeyeater, the orange chat was my 15th for the trip and 927th species for my entire life.

A celebratory coffee followed at the Beltana Roadhouse, between Leigh Creek and Parachilna, where I stopped again. For another coffee, as it happens: the high mileage, and maybe the nights’ beers, were catching up on me and staying awake was becoming a challenge.

The Prairie Hotel gave me the day’s fifth lifer with a white-winged triller perched on nearby telegraph wires. This was another bird that I’d been half-identifying in its smart black and white plumage since Western Australia. Not dissimilar to a pied wagtail, the species is actually in the cuckooshrike family. They hunt from exposed branches, which makes them easy to catch out of the corner of one’s eye while driving. They don’t always hang around for one to stop, reverse and get one’s bins on ’em though. The triller was a welcome finale to the Flinders. ⇐ ⇒

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