19/10/2012
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Diary from Australia's Natural States

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Having experienced all that the rich estuarine wilderness of The Coorong has to offer, we continued our journey across South Australia's varied habitats. Our first stop was a large private reserve on the flood plains of Lake Alexandrina called Tolderol. The reserve's owner, a farmer and second-generation conservationist, takes pride in ensuring that the habitat is carefully maintained both for the large numbers of breeding and migratory waterbirds and marshland species that the area supports as well as the Dromedary camels that stand like sentries in small groups across the landscape.


Straw-necked Ibis, Tolderol, South Australia (Mike Unwin).

As we arrived at the reserve, we were treated to great views of Golden-headed Cisticola, a bird that is easy to locate by its loud, wader-like contact call. There were also good numbers of the bizarre Brown Songlark, a strange chat-like bird that makes dive-bombing song flights on down-folded wings with a song that's reminiscent of a 1930s sewing machine. Other birds here include good numbers of Whiskered Tern, Red-kneed Dotterel and Australian Pipit as well as many of the more common waterbirds including Australian Pelican and Australian White and Straw-necked Ibis.


Golden-headed Cisticola, Tolderol Game Reserve, South Australia (Rob Jolliffe).


Australian Pipit, Tolderol Game Reserve, South Australia (Rob Jolliffe).

With time pressing, we said farewell to Tolderol and made our way to our next stop, a disused and re-purposed sheep-shearing shed in the prairieland wilderness on the banks of the Murray River at Swan Reach. Our objective was to join the Conservation Ark Wombat research team for a night-time "Wombat Muster". The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat, while widespread across southern and southwestern Australia, is a marsupial that could become as threatened as its northern cousin, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat — there are only 150 Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats left in the wild. The issue is that the species seems to favour agricultural habitats when digging its large networks of warrens and tunnels. This has led to something of a fractious relationship between the animal and local farmers. Destroyed or damaged farm equipment caused by collapsing warrens often leads to excessive culling of wombats. The Conservation Ark team has been operating in the area, catching, tagging and tracking the movements and biology of the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat for more than 20 years. We have been invited to join the team as they set out on their next "Wombat Muster", to catch and carry out research on the local Wombat Population.


Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat, Swan Reach, South Australia (Mike Unwin).

After an authentic open-fire barbeque under the stars in the front yard of the sheep shed, we set off into the night on the back of a 1970s Holden pickup truck driven by Ron, our weather-beaten host. Ron has been the driver for Conservation Ark's Wombat Mustering activities for the last 20 years. He is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Learning about wombats in the late 70s and 80s by shooting them for local farmers, he is now a firm ally of the species; and anyone who's ever met Ron would certainly want to be his ally!

Wombat Mustering is a truly bizarre and comedic activity that involves grown men and women chasing large, short-legged marsupials at full sprint across the pothole-ridden prairie lands with a heavy, iron net in the dead of night using only a spot light. Avoiding falling over or, worse, falling into one of the large, six-foot-deep Wombat warren entrances, is almost impossible as we discover very quickly. After a few hours and varying degrees of the success, we returned to base with our haul: six adult Wombats in sacks ready for the research analysis to be carried out the following day.

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The Wombat Muster, Swan Reach, South Australia (Rob Jolliffe).

Following a short sleep in our swag bags, dreaming about catching wombats and falling into big holes, we awoke to the beautiful dawn chorus of the Murray lands. Brown and White-browed Treecreeper, the liquid notes of the Grey Shrikethrush, as well as White-plumed, Brown-headed and New Holland Honey-eaters, all contribute to the atmospheric concert of sound.


Brown Treecreeper, South Australia (Mike Unwin).

There was just time for a quick breakfast before we moved on to our next stop, the beautifully preserved wetland reserve surrounding the famous Banrock Station Wine and Wetland Centre. Banrock Station is a world-renowned wine producer that clearly invests in the conservation and biodiversity of its estate. The area is surrounded by 1,500 hectares of pristine South Australian Mallee and marshland habitat. After an exceptionally civilized lunch including some the Banrock Station's finest Sauvignon Blanc, we ventured out into the reserve to take in the diverse range of species present including singing Australian Reed Warblers, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Mallee Ring-necked Parrot, Horsefield's Bronze-Cuckoo, Musk Duck, Red-necked Avocet and Australian Shelduck.


Mallee Ring-necked Parrot, South Australia (Mike Unwin).

Our final destination on mainland South Australia was the stunning specialist Mallee reserve of Gluepot in central eastern part of the state. Gluepot is a 50,000-hectare reserve that was created as one of six large tranches of primary-growth Mallee forest that make up the huge "Bookmark Biosphere reserve". Gluepot, though, has a special attribute. The reserve is home to the only known population of the enigmatic Black-eared Miner. This species is a close relative of the more common Yellow-throated Miner with which it has hybridized at Gluepot making confirmed identification quite a challenge.


Clack-eared Miner, Gluepot (Tim Appleton).

As we entered the reserve just before dawn we flushed what looked like a ground-dove from the track in front of us. The bird turned out be a beautiful female Rufous Ground Thrush, and was soon joined by the even more attractive male bird. This proved to be the beginning of a great day spent cleaning up on all of the Mallee forest specialities including Striated Grasswren, Scarlet-chested Parrot, Red-lored and Rufous Whistlers, Painted Buttonquail and White-fronted Honey-eater all against a backdrop of the strange squeaky-door song of the Crested Bellbird.


Crested Bellbirds, Gluepot, South Australia (Rob Jolliffe).

Then it was back to our hotel in Adelaide to prepare for our next-day departure to the famous Kangaroo Island.

Written by: Rob Jolliffe