Thursday, 20 August 2015


We are fortunate to have a flock of White-winged Choughs on our rural property. They appear to gather into a large flock of 20 or more birds over winter and then break up into a couple of smaller flocks of 10 or 12 birds for the breeding season. Most days their foraging routine sees them come by our home garden. They are fascinating social birds and always interesting to observe.
While working outside, three birds from a flock of a dozen caught my attention as the birds took a break from group foraging on a top rail of the stockyards. They perched close together, a behavior referred to as “clumping”. They stayed there long enough for me to go inside and get the camera and then allowed close approach for a series of shots.
Three choughs resting on stockyard rail caught my attention.
Two of the birds settled down for a rest but the closest bird seemed to be the guard bird, keeping an eye out for danger.
Something seemed to be bothering the guard bird, it could not settle down and continued to look about.
There was a disturbance among the magpies some distance away in the paddock so this may have been the cause of the guard bird’s unease.
The other two birds showed some concern from time to time.

Chough's can enlarge their eyes - see more on this at end of post.
However two of the birds generally seemed more interested in resting while the guard bird did not settle down.
There is always some bird activity of interest to observe and with spring clearly now on the way this will increase exponentially from now on, creating many welcome diversions from the jobs about the place that also increase at this time of year.
Michael Morcombe provides an excellent summary description of Choughs in his “Field Guide to Australian Birds”, well worth a read if you are interested in learning more about this highly social bird and happen to have a copy of this field guide.
Also an earlier post on the Chough and its distinctive red eye may be of interest:

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary

We first visited Newhaven in July 2010 and were so impressed with the property that we did not hesitate to include another visit in this winter’s trip to Central Australia and the Alice Springs area.

Note: enlarge photos with a left click of the mouse and then use the mouse wheel to scroll back and forth through the photos (can't view captions in this mode). For iPad tap on any photo and then select other images from thumbnails displayed at bottom of scene. To go back to post tap on X at top right hand corner of screen.
A small section of the rugged red quartzite Home Range above the Newhaven Homestead bathed in late afternoon light.
Newhaven is an important wildlife sanctuary located in the southern Tanami Desert in Northern Territory. The property was purchased by Birds Australia in 2000 with the goal of conserving biodiversity and threatened species. Birds Australia, now BirdLife Australia, partnered with Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) in 2006 to jointly manage Newhaven, with AWC the lead partner.
For more information about BirdLife Australia and AWC visit their web sites here:
Newhaven is accessed by driving from the Stuart Highway 200km along the Tanami Road (soon to be sealed to the Newhaven turn off), and then due west for 138km to reach the homestead and camp ground. The last fuel available is at Tilmouth Well Roadhouse on the Tanami Road about 34km short of the Newhaven turn off.
The road into Newhaven about 95km from the Tanami Road and approaching a gap in Siddely Range – Newhaven’s eastern entry gate lies about 5km west of the gap.
It is possible to reach Newhaven homestead by two wheel drive vehicle however 4WD is recommended and AWC insist on use of 4WD’s to undertake any of the six self-guided tours within the 262,600 hectare property. We did all of the tours during our seven day stay, completing 525 kms of internal driving and 1,242 km for the round trip from Alice Springs and back to Alice - so fuel supplies need careful planning (Diesel is $2/litre at Tilmouth Well).
The main West Camp Ground area is attractive, set in a mulga grove, with drinking (bore) water, toilets and hot showers available. Anyone planning to visit Newhaven should contact the Managers at Newhaven to arrange their visit – see contact details in the web link above. 
It is very hot during the summer months so a visit during the winter months is recommended and in any case Newhaven is only geared up to manage visitors/campers over the winter period.
Many of the features of Central Australian deserts are contained within Newhaven including rocky ranges, lakes, parallel sand dunes, spinifex grasslands, chenopod, mulga and so on. So far 74 reptile, 6 amphibian, 171 bird and 21 mammal species have been recorded at Newhaven. 
A compressed view through 600mm lens looking north across small section of dry bed of Lake Bennett bordered by red sand dunes with Desert Oak and Home Range in the background.
Of course, being Central Australia, habitat conditions can vary greatly depending on past rainfall and fire history. When we were last there in July 2010 it was exceptionally wet with the lakes full and abundant plant growth along with large numbers of birds, both species and abundance. We recorded 97 bird species in our four day stay then and this time, 63 for a seven day stay. Following the wet period the abundant plant growth resulted in massive wildfires in January 2011, which burnt around 75% of the property. So it pays to check conditions when planning a visit.
It is not possible in a short blog post to do justice to a seven day stay on such a large property. The following photos and text will give you a taste of the area and some of the birds and conservation issues.
Surface water across Newhaven and much of the Central Deserts is ephemeral. Many animals have adapted to live without surface water, gaining their requirements from the food they eat and conserving moisture by adaptive behaviours, for instance living underground by day and foraging at night. 
In the past cattle stations established groundwater bores for their stock and whilst some have been closed, some of these are still maintained by AWC on Newhaven. Artificial water in a desert environment has many wildlife management issues. It is good for birders because it attracts a larger range of bird species and a greater abundance of birds. On the other hand the same water can support feral animals. 
We saw a number of camels on our travels around Newhaven and many more tracks. Their numbers are managed through exclusion from water and direct culling by shooting. I guess camels have a certain attractiveness however I think only their mothers could love them.
Dingoes need water but unfortunately cats and foxes do not require surface water as they can obtain moisture from their food.
Male Dingo on dry lakebed - we saw a number of dingoes at Newhaven and tracks in the red soil were apparent everywhere we stopped.
AWC currently maintains some bores with structures to exclude camels and still support a healthy dingo population. This helps keep some downward pressure on feral fox and cat numbers to the benefit of our small native animals. Foxes are also being targeted with 1080 baits in a trial system that prevents dingo access to the baits. Cats are much harder to control as they generally will not take baits – visit the AWC web site to read what they are doing to manage cats and foxes.
The water points across Newhaven attracted very large numbers of seed eating Zebra Finches, a bird species that is well adapted to the desert environment, but needs to drink every day. So wherever zebs are, water will not be far away. Raptors such as goshawks and falcons have learnt that water points are a very good source of food, that is zebs. We saw raptors hunting zebs at all the water points we visited including the one in the camp ground which we could observe from the comfort of a chair at our camp site. Brown Goshawks and Australian Hobbies regularly made high speed passes over the birdbath.
Water bore with fenced water trough. The tree on the horizon behind the solar power panel support post was a perching place from which Brown Goshawks launched low level attacks on zebs coming in for a drink.
 Just a small number of the zebs in the area waiting nervously to come in for a drink.
This adult Brown Goshawk was perched in the tree described above, it was focused on the water point shown above.
The Goshawk has zeb feathers stuck to its bill and an enlarged crop full of Zebra Finch. Hunger not satisfied, the gos was still hunting. It was so intent on observing the water point that I was able to approach for a close photo. After I took this shot it took off. I found it on the ground at the trough where it had another zeb.
Other raptors seen at Newhaven on our visit included Wedge-tailed and Little Eagles, Black-breasted Buzzard, Nankeen Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, Brown and Grey Falcons! The last were of course our highlight bird species for our stay at Newhaven (we found a male/female pair at Freshwater Bore). 
View from the summit of Mt Gurner located near the western end of Newhaven. The flat topped mesa and other small rocky hills in the distance lie just beyond the western boundary of Newhaven.
Two Wedge-tailed Eagles joined us for part of our climb to the summit of Mt Gurner - this one came in for a close look at the rare human visitors.
A pair of Nankeen Kestrels also joined us and provided some brief entertainment when they interacted with the much larger eagles.
Susie’s Lake, an oasis in a dry landscape, still holding fresh water following good rains in January.
Little Eagle, pale morph, near Susie’s Lake, the only lake on Newhaven with water during our visit.
Brown Falcons are very successful desert dwellers, they are numerous and widely distributed and happen to be very confiding birds, often allowing very close approach.
Our camp at Newhaven with a section of Home Range in the background.
There was always some bird activity of interest to observe in and around the campground with birds such as Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos and other species coming in for a drink at the birdbath, raptors hunting and a range of woodland birds, such a resident pair of Red-capped Robins, coming through the Mulga Woodland or living in the area.
This male Red-capped Robin was the current resident owner of the campground area. Red-caps and Hooded Robins are well adapted desert woodland dwellers. The hardy red-cap is our smallest robin.
The female Red-capped Robin.
There were a number of honeyeater species about with some widespread and others concentrated around flowering plants, particularly Corkwood (Hakea species) and Honey Grevillea (Grevillea eriostachya).
There were good stands of the Honey Grevillea in places, which were a magnet for Honeyeaters and Woodswallows.
Brown Honeyeater on Honey Grevillea flower spike. The browns were very numerous.
White-fronted Honeyeaters were in much smaller numbers around the Honey Grevilleas.
Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters are a common and widespread arid land honeyeater, there were good numbers at Newhaven. This one was calling and possibly in breeding mode.
Spiny-cheeks are an unusual medium sized and distinctive honeyeater. Their calls are also unusual and distinctive.
Singing Honeyeaters are our most widespread honeyeater. There were good numbers at Newhaven.
Grey-headed Honeyeater hiding in a mallee tree. There are a number of mallee species on Newhaven.
Yellow-tinted Honeyeater – we found only small numbers of this species.
There were large numbers of Black-faced and Masked, plus a small number of White-browed, Woodswallows at Newhaven, mainly associated with the Honey Grevillea and Hakea flowers. 
A pair of Masked Woodswallows taking a break from feeding on Hakea flowers nectar.
Masked Woodswallows at Hakea flowers.
The distinctive woodswallow flight shape – this is a Masked Woodswallow.
There were small numbers of White-browed Woodswallows among the much more numerous Black-faced and Masked – this is a male.
We also came across small flocks of Crimson Chats. They were feeding on the ground and were very wary and hard to approach. I selected only one photo good enough to include in this post.
Male Crimson Chat perched up higher after feeding among spinifex clumps. It was a windy day and the Chats seemed to be extra nervous so I was lucky to catch this male perched briefly within range of the camera.
Euros on Home Range.
Termites out foraging after a rare and brief rain shower. Termites are the grazers in spinifex country, they are the base of the food web and play the role large herbivores play in African grasslands.
Reptiles such as this small lizard play a major role in desert ecology, feeding on herbivores, the termites and ants. This is a parallel role to that which lions and other large apex predators play in the African grasslands, feeding on herbivores. Being winter, the cold blooded reptiles were not very active.
Fire management is a major task at Newhaven.
Changed fire regimes since Aboriginal people were moved off their country into settlements in the 1930’s and 40’s has resulted in disastrous very hot and very large fires across inland deserts. Many small animal species have been wiped out and habitats changed radically. Restoring small mosaic burns and controlling introduced feral animals is now being used and needs to continue if we are going to stem the tide of extinctions and restore threatened species back into the ecology of the our arid desert regions. 
AWC is playing an important role in this regard and are well worth supporting – I urge readers to look at the AWC web site to gain an appreciation of the issues facing our wildlife and what is being done to help prevent further extinctions.
Note of appreciation and thanks:
I wish to express my appreciation and thanks for the great work being done by the Newhaven Managers, staff and volunteers to run Newhaven and achieve the AWC and BirdLife conservation objectives and the work that makes possible our visit there and enjoyment of the property when others put in the hard yards.
For anyone interested in the ecology of our inland deserts (which make up a very large percentage of the Australian mainland) or planning a visit to Central Australia, I highly recommend obtaining a copy of Penny Van Oosterzee’s excellent book, The Centre
The Centre, an award winning book on the natural history of Central Australia, a must read book for anyone wanting to understand The Centre or planning a visit there.
If you read this before coming to the Red Centre you will have a much greater knowledge of what you see there and understanding of just how unique and amazing our inland desert regions are.