Bird Watching in Central Australia

The birds of the outback in the Red Centre are highly specialised species which have adapted to the many different microclimates separated by vast areas of arid desert habitat. With changes to the climate some of these microclimates are becoming harder to find, so nomadic species like the Princess Parrot have become endangered along with a few other species. Birding in this region can be challenging but rewarding.  

Many of the species are highly nomadic covering large ranges which can make them a challenge to see. Other species are highly concentrated within one microhabitat and found nowhere else. 

Owing to its diverse climate and superb woodlands and terrains, it’s no surprise that Central Australia is home to over 180 unique species of birds that reside in the habitat.

You can spot many species of birds around the woodlands and the desert scrub along the Larapinta Trail in Alice Springs. Some of the common birds of Central Australia include the Branded Lapwing, Black-faced Woodswallow, Kestrel and the Australian Pratincole. You’ll also see attractive birds such as the Crested Pigeon.

The scrubland provides a fantastic birdwatching experience to sight smaller species such as the Zebra Finch. Although Central Australia is characterized by an arid landscape, there are some species of water birds as well.

It is important to the birding community that you upload your checklists of the birds you see here to citizen science-based websites to help scientists track these specialised species. Target species to watch out for include:

  • Spinifex Pigeon
  • Dusky Grasswren
  • Spinifexbird
  • Rufous-crowned Emu-wren
  • Princess Parrot
  • Bourke’s Parrot
  • Western Bowerbird
  • White-browed Treecreeper
  • Redthroat, Slaty-backed Thornbill
  • Grey-headed Honeyeater
  • Chiming Wedgebill
  • Painted Firetail.

Below are some of the more common bird species you are most likely to see along the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory.

Mistletoe Birds
The male mistletoe birds have a distinct red and white breast, and can often be mistaken for a scarlet robin or flame robin. They feed on mistletoe berries, and the seeds pass through the digestive system less than half an hour after they are eaten. As seeds are excreted in sticky strands on tree branches, they germinate and tap into the host tree's tap and spread mistletoe from tree to tree, providing food for the species which rely on it to survive.
Spinifex Pigeons
Also known as the plumed-pigeon, spinifex pigeons are endemic to Australia and live in arid and semi-arid habitats. The males tend to be larger than the females, with a wing span of about 300-350mm. You can often find these birds on rocky hills, dry rocky creeks and gorges, and along the Larapinta Trail in areas where spinifex grass is found.
Wedge Tailed Eagle
The Wedge-tailed Eagle has long wings (wingspan 2.3 m), a characteristic long, wedge-shaped tail, and legs that are feathered all the way to the base of the toes. A wedge-tailed eagle male is about 3.2 kilograms and a female about 4.2 kilograms, and can be found all throughout Australia, from the sea level to alpine regions in the mountains. While they prefer wooded and forrested land to open country, they can be seen soaring overhead at altitudes of up to 2000m high. The wedge-tailed eagle is the largest living bird of prey in Australia, and one of the largest eagles in the world.
Yellow Throated Miner
This medium sized bird is native to Australia, and is also known as the white-rumped miner. Similar to the Noisy Miner, Yellow Throated Miners are noisy and sociable, and can be agressive towards other birds. While often found in forests and woodlands, it can also be found in farmlands, parks and gardens around Australia. Listen closely at dawn and you might hear their piping song and chatter as the sun rises.
Western Bowerbird
The Western Bowbird is characterised by it's long neck and round head, marked with buff spouts on the head, neck and upper body. Their yellowish underbody can have red scalloping and their legs are feathered at the top. Endemic to Central Australia, these birds can be found in the open woodland and shrub thickets in arid zones - however keep an eye out - you may also spot them near water amongst the rocky gorges.
Southern Boobook
One of the most common types of owl in Australia, the Southern Boobook can be found throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania. They can adapt well to different types of landscape, from open desert to dense forest, and can be identified by their plumage, which is a dark chocolate brown above and rufous-brown below. They are heavily streaked and spotted with white, with grey or yellow feet. Along the Larapinta Trail, you can spot them nesting in some of the old eucalyptus trees that have hollows.
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike
These slender and attractive birds have a black face, white underpants and a blue-grey back, wings and tail. They are widespread across Australia, and outside the breeding season can travel in large family groups in up to one hundred birds in a flock. You can often spot them in wooded areas along the Larapinta Trail.
Crested bellbird
The Crested bellbird is native to dry parts of Australia and can be found in eucalypt forests, woodlands, Spinifex plains and dunes. They can grow between 19-23cms in length, feed predominantly on invertebrates and seeds.
The magpie-lark is a distinctive black and white bird that, despite the name, has no link with either magpies or larks. Noticeable smaller than the Australian Magpie, it can be found throughout Australia in almost any habitat except rainforest and very dry deserts. You can often spot them searching for food on the ground as they forage for insects, earthworms and larvae.
Black-Faced Woodswallow
Black-Faced Woodswallow bird is grey in color with a black ‘Zorro’ face mask. Its unique feature is white notches on their tail. It lives in mainland Australia in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria but it’s not found in south west Australia.
It is relatively small and is almost similar in the size to the sparrow. They are the second most common species of bird around Alice Springs and can be found every month of the year.
The bird is usually spotted in groups, often huddled together on a branch. They mostly sit on dead trees and swoops in insects flying in the air. Their main diet consists of insects. Similar species of the black-faced wood swallow is the masked wood swallow which has a black face but with a pale underneath. They also lack the tail notches and are less common than the black-faced woodswallow.
Whistling kite
This bird of prey is medium sized. It also has white patches on the underside of the wings. It has a distinctively loud penetrating whistling call. Another distinctive feature is the underwing “fingered’ pattern and the rounded tail.
It lives in the mainland Australia but is not found in Tasmania. It can also be found in New Guinea and New Caledonia.
It is active during the day but rests or roots in trees during the night. It glides low over treetops and sometimes flies at high altitudes when using thermals.
It is similar to the black kite. Since it is a scavenger bird, its diet mainly comprises of insects, lizards, small mammals, and carrion. It is attracted to bush fires so that it can feed on fleeing insects. It is also attracted to food waste and carrion and also thermals (up-currents.) It is often spotted in all months of the year.
Australian Pratincole
Australian Pratincole is small in size, just like the black bird. It is sandy orange- brown in color with slender and relatively long legs. Its special feature is the pointed narrow black wings. The red on its bill indicates breeding.
It lives in the north and eastern Australia, New Guinea, Lord Howe Islands and Sulawesi. It is a good runner and typically runs along the ground owing to its long legs. It is very graceful in flight as well. It darts to catch insects and bobs its head up and done. The bird is commonly spotted along airfields. It lives in areas that have a high number of insects and also likes stony grounds with gravelly patches and open grasslands. Its main diet comprises of insects.
Similar species to it is the oriental pratincole, which is rare to find in Central Australia and is only present from October to December in dense flocks. On the contrary, the Australian pratincole is found from October to January.
Black kite
Black kite is the only bird of prey with a forked tail although it appears square or twisted. It is medium sized with its special feature being the forked tail. Its tail often twists from side to side when flying. You can see it in high altitudes when using thermals.
They are found in most Australia’s mainland, in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The adult bird has different shades of brown and not black. The bird is active during the day but roots in trees at night. It is attracted to bush fires just like the whistling kite so as to feed on fleeing insects. It also attracted to food waste and clarion, thermals and the Alice Springs Tip.
It is scavenges for insects such as caterpillars, and grasshoppers, lizards, carrion and small mammals.
Although it is similar to a whistling kite, it has no pale patches on the wings undersides. 
Banded Lapwing
Banded lapwing is a small bird almost similar size to the black bird. Its special feature is the distinctive black breast-band.
They are only found in Australia around the East, West and south of mainland Australia and Tasmania. They are rarely found in northern Australia.
It normally breeds after rain and is aggressive when it’s nesting. During that time it swoops intruders or distracts them by pretending to have a broken wing.
It takes flight with wild cries and also calls at night. During the day it seeks shade because of the heat. It is attracted to stony open grounds with short grass. It mainly feeds on ground-dwelling insects and mainly lives in the ground chasing insects as it runs.
It normally pairs to small groups. It is similar to masked lapwing which is bigger but has no breast-band.
Budgerigar is a small bright green parrot with a yellow head and back. It has a diamond shaped tail that has a long point when in flight, which is its main special feature. It is also very quick in direct flight.
It is found naturally in most of mainland Australia and not found in Tasmania or farther off south-west and north of the northern territory and the east coast.
The bird is nomadic and shifts to a different location based on the availability of food and water. It is normally found in open grassed areas especially after good rain.
The diet is mainly grass seeds since they feed on the ground. They are always found in flocks and you can see them in hundreds after rain.
The bird has no main similar species since it’s much smaller than any other parrot in the region.
Zebra Finch
Zebra finch is a tiny bird with a red bill and a stripy tail. It has a zebra-striped tail, which is the source of its name. They live in mainland Australia except Cape York Peninsula or some coastal areas. They can also be found in Timor and Sunda islands.
Adult birds have a red bill while the juvenile birds have no color. Male birds have chestnut cheeks.
The birds are social and are often in large flocks at water holes. They feed on the ground and their main diet is grass seeds.
They are mainly found in open grassed areas with nearby water, and have an undulating “bouncy” flight. 
Grey-headed honeyeater
The grey-headed honeyeater has a distinctive dark eye patch and grey cap, with edged yellow wings. This small bird is often found in arid regions around gorges, hillsides and scattered trees. They can fly in large numbers at sites that have abundant flowers, however often reside in the lower slopes of mountains along the Larapinta Trail, feeding on the insects in the woodlands. They have a loud, penetrating and peeving call, and alongside insects, their diet also consists of spiders, nector and occasionally fruit.
Nankeen Kestrel
Nankeen kestrel is a small bird of prey and its size is about half of the kite’s. Its special feature is its underparts which are pale buff and streaked with black. Its name comes from the rufous underparts (nankeen which means rufous.) It has a pointed wing tip and a black band on the tail.
It is widespread in Australia and also on islands along the coastline, in New Guinea and Indonesia.
It normally likes to rest on low perch like a fence post and hovers above grasslands before swooping on the ground prey.
It frequently perches around grasslands to watch for prey. Its diet is mainly small mammals, birds, and insects.

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing custodianship of the land, waters and culture for over 60,000 years. We pay our respects to them and their elders past, present and emerging. We are privileged to learn from them in the way we care for and share Australia’s diverse nature and culture, and we strive to walk humbly in the footsteps of those who have walked these paths before us.

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