Chris Watson

Research

Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities

Review, ResearchChris Watson

By Andrew Black and Peter Gower

153 pages

$45 (full colour, hardback)

Axiom Publishing

Last year I was fortunate enough to visit the ornithological collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring. When you’ve not spent a lot of time around large natural history collections it is quite an experience. The avian skin collection is staggeringly large. As you walk among the seemingly endless ranks of cabinets you pass within centimetres of the preserved skins of 750,000 birds; a large flock by anyone’s reckoning. Here you pass an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there a prostrate Kagu. Somewhere a Shoebill lurks and, within another drawer, a Passenger Pigeon. Within this flock are representatives from almost 95% of all species of birds and 8,000 type specimens. But amid this circus of the spectacular—toucans and flamingos; turacos and tanagers; harpy eagles and hummingbirds—I’d come to inspect what are, in some peoples’ misguided opinions anyway, boring little brown birds….

Dull? Drab? Says who?

The grasswrens in the endemic Australian genus Amytornis are currently enjoying a surge of interest to rival recent crazes for craft liquor, naff tattoos, and tight pants with baggy arses. These inscrutable little birds have always had devotees but lately that coterie has been expanding.

Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities is an important culmination of this interest. In summarising our latest understanding of these birds as well as assembling a detailed history of the birds’ discovery and naming, Grasswrens succeeds brilliantly. It is not a comprehensive monograph of all that is currently known about the genus; but it doesn’t set out to be. The authors refer the reader to other more technical and exhaustive works for in-depth analysis of some aspects of grasswren biology and physiology. This is not a shortcoming, it is actually one of the book’s greatest strengths. The aim of Grasswrens, is to present a much-needed update. Our knowledge of this group has come ahead in large leaps in recent years and while still quite incomplete, there is a lot of information which has, until now, remained unpublished or difficult to access. Now you can find almost anything you need to know about this genus, including directions to further references, in the one book.

Grasswrens is a thorough work of deep scholarship and any Australian, and many international, birdos will find it a detailed and valued reference. There are dedicated chapters treating vocalisations; habits and habitats; nests and eggs; social organisation; threats and conservation; and a particularly good one titled A photographer’s view. This chapter delineates the very different approach required for photographing these birds. The historical chapter detailing the birds’ discovery, naming and their collectors over the years, excels. Most of this is information that has never been gathered in a single volume like this; some of it has never been published before. The authors have done us a great service. Axiom Publishing have produced a high quality book too. The hardback edition in the large quarto format is printed on heavy, gloss stock, and the book is richly illustrated with full-colour photographs throughout. Most sub-species are depicted and the photography is of a uniformly high standard and sourced from a number of contributors whose names will be familiar to most readers.

Some may lament the lack of inclusion of any Indigenous knowledge relating to the genus but I think this may be a justified omission. This would have expanded the scale of the work considerably and would stray into the field of ethno-ornithology where, I have it on good authority, work on a major publication is already underway.

The meat of the book is in the chapters dedicated to the birds themselves; each species gets its own. Grasswrens recognises a parsimonious eleven species. I can already hear the gnashing of teeth from some quarters but this conservative treatment is necessary. Many recently proposed splits have not been robustly supported and taxonomists have already been put through a number of surprising twists by genus Amytornis in recent years. It’s wise to be cautious. Even so, I suspect this will date the book very rapidly. The authors hint at this with a “stop press” notice below the phylogeny on page 123, evidently inserted at the last minute, alluding to “unexpected complexity” uncovered by recent work on Striated Grasswren populations from the Great Victoria Desert and The Pilbara. Personally, I think the grasswrens will always be subject to data-poor research work. That is, there will always be comparatively little data available even if the data is sometimes of a high quality. Massive tracts of outback Australia are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to the majority of researchers. The remoteness of many grasswren populations is a big enough barrier to research already, the additional difficulty of negotiating permission to access some populations is often simply a bridge too far. Field ornithology in this country is not famously well-resourced; you could argue quite the opposite. Until we can smooth land access arrangements to most of outback Australia and secure routine funding for more exploratory ornithology in remote areas we will continue to be simply nibbling at the edges. Either that, or resampling the same populations over and over without really testing the edges of our knowledge.

It is probably only a matter of time before the splits proposed within Amytornis striatus by Christidis, et al., (2013) receive more robust support. I suspect there may even be further splits within taxa occurring throughout the Great Victoria Desert and north through the Tanami. I think it’s likely that we’ll see the phylogeny expand to accommodate at least another 2-3 species and possibly as many as 6 or more. It’s an exciting time.

The species accounts in Grasswrens proceed logically and are dense with even more historical information about the species’ discovery and naming. As well as superb photographs of the birds there are some good representative habitat pictures included in this section further to a detailed discussion of grasswren habitat use earlier in the book. The range maps are especially detailed but, perhaps unavoidably for reasons discussed above, they are still somewhat speculative in areas where we don’t have substantial numbers of observations from recent years.

Grasswrens are very special birds. At least they’re very special to me and a good many people of my acquaintance. Going back to that day at NHM Tring, even the curator there seemed quite taken by the tray of brown birds as I set them out on the bench top.

“They’re fine birds”, he said simply.

This is noteworthy from a man who spends most of his time surrounded by most of the birds of Earth. There was still something about these unassuming species from a distant and remote land that had caught his attention; their reputation precedes them. He had travelled to remote parts of Australia, observed them in their natural habitat and assisted with field work on their ecology. As phylogeny dictates, the adjacent drawers were filled with dazzling arrays of male fairy-wrens in every eye-catching shade of blue and violet. Even by comparison with these gaudy neighbours, the grasswrens were refulgent. If anyone ever describes them as dull, drab or plain, it can only be because they haven’t seen them well enough. The least-boldly marked still have rich colour and fine markings. White-throated and Carpentarian Grasswrens at the more boldly-marked end of the spectrum are as objectively beautiful as even the most loudly-coloured fairy-wrens.

Fine birds all....

Yes, they’re very fine birds. As such, I’m hugely grateful that Andrew Black and Peter Gower have committed the time and resources to produce this book and to do such a sterling job of it. It can’t have been easy.

Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities is a masterful survey of everything that is captivating and unique about these birds. Its publication offers the additional promise that it may inspire other works of a similar scale and level of detail on other Australian birds. Several groups come to mind which are either overdue for an update or have never had a comprehensive monograph prepared in recent times. More than this though, I hope Grasswrens inspires continued interest in this most Australian group of birds and drives more ornithologists into less-explored parts of the continent to further unpick the many remaining mysteries of this fascinating group.

CBW

 

Further reading

Christidis, L., Rheindt, F. E., Boles, W. E. & Norman, J. A., 2013. A re-appraisal of species diversity within the Australian grasswrens Amytornis (Aves: Maluridae). Australian Zoologist, Volume 36, pp. 429-437.

 

Buy it from Southern Birding Services

 

Night Parrot Discovered in South Australia

Research, EcologyChris Watson

One of John Young's original Night Parrot pics from western QLD in 2013. Used with kind permission.

More happy news about the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) today and few people will be surprised that it has again come from John Young. He has found yet another population of Night Parrots, the first in South Australia since Shane Parker and Rex Ellis’ sighting in 1979, and these birds appear to be using samphire (Tecticornia and Sarcocornia spp.).

An update was published on the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) website this morning detailing John’s work with colleague Keith Bellchambers in the Kalamurina Sanctuary between the northern shore of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve. All available details regarding John’s latest work are on the AWC website so I won’t recount it all here except to note John Young’s uncanny ability to locate these birds in the vastness of potential habitat. Sticking to a well-known technique, John located a Night Parrot feather in the lining of a Zebra Finch’s nest. This was after he identified a Night Parrot-like shape in a camera trap image from the same area. The image is barely identifiable as a bird but John’s experience with the bird allowed him the suspicion that the image had several features suggesting the possibility of a Night Parrot.

This find is significant for a few reasons. Obviously, the more populations of Night Parrot that we know of, the better. This SA population now forms a huge triangle of potential occurrence between where the birds are found in central and western Queensland and the birds located in Western Australia. Then there is the isolated Night Parrot signal located by Mark Carter and myself in the Northern Territory. This lies somewhere in the middle of this scalene triangle. That location is also close to extensive stands of samphire. This new site on Kalamurina Sanctuary is choked with samphire. That the birds might be using samphire is not too surprising but this is only the second time John has confirmed it. (He found birds using samphire in Diamantina NP in western QLD but those birds also had access to healthy stands of spinifex in close proximity. There is no available spinifex near to the site discovered by John this time: just lots and lots of samphire.) This is important because samphire is less susceptible to damage from fire. Young plants will not burn. Old plants, while they will burn fiercely, will only do so in large tracts when there is spinifex nearby to fuel a sufficiently vigorous fire-front which can span bare patches between samphire plants (Latz, 2007).

Lake Mackay in NT/WA. Spinifex and samphire in abundance. The mind boggles.

So at Kalamurina John has found birds which can be studied in a very different habitat and with one of their key threatening processes if not totally absent, at least significantly reduced. As always, feral predators remain a possible danger to the birds here but, as with sites in QLD, a healthy population of dingoes is likely to go some way toward minimising the threat posed by both cats and foxes (Ripple, 2014; Letnic, et al., 2011; Moseby, et al., 2012; Newsome, et al., 2015).

Congratulations to John and Keith for another important discovery and all credit to AWC for their continuing great work and their support of Australia’s greatest living naturalist.

CBW

 

Further reading

Latz, P., 2007. The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia - a fire shaped landscape. 1st ed. Alice Springs: Peter Latz.

Letnic, M. et al., 2011. Does a top predator suppress the abundance of an invasive mesopredator at a continental scale?. Global Ecology and Biogeography, Volume 20, pp. 343-353.

Moseby, K. E., Neilly, H., Read, J. L. & Crisp, H. A., 2012. Interactions between a Top Order Predator and Exotic Mesopredators in the Australian Rangelands. International Journal of Ecology, pp. 1-15.

Newsome, T. M. et al., 2015. Resolving the value of the dingo in ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology, Volume 23, pp. 201-208.

Ripple, W., 2014. Restore large carnivores to save struggling ecosystems. [Online]
Available at: https://theconversation.com/restore-large-carnivores-to-save-struggling-ecosystems-21828
[Accessed 6 September 2017].

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Research, Press ReleaseChris Watson

PRESS RELEASE

 

For Immediate Release

For additional information please contact:

Chris Watson

Mob. 0419 358 942

Email: birdscentral@gmail.com

 

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Acoustic recording reveals call of probable Night Parrot in southern NT

In early 2017 zoologists Chris Watson and Mark Carter found a bird call in an acoustic recording that could not be positively identified. The site of the recording is a stand of very old thick spinifex (Triodia longiceps) surrounded by natural gibber firebreaks. The call recorded is a series of short constant frequency whistles at around 2.2kHz. The time of the call is roughly an hour after sunset. There had been rain at the site shortly before the call was recorded.

Two observers have since heard the call repeated at the site, in one instance coming from thick spinifex close to the observer.

No further recordings of the call have been identified (however, many hours of acoustic data from the site has been gathered which is yet to be analysed). 

The call is a similar frequency and tone to Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) calls recorded in Queensland and recently released to the public, but differs in its length (see sonogram image). In March it was announced that Night Parrots found in Western Australia have calls which differ from the birds in Queensland. After liaising with the ornithologists who found the Western Australian population we were able to compare our recorded call to other examples of Night Parrot whistle calls from WA. While there is not an exact match, the calls from WA Night Parrot and the bird recorded in the NT are very similar. 

The land system in which the call recording was made is extensive and hosts many locations which correspond with the known habitat requirements for this species elsewhere in Australia. 

We are proceeding on the basis that we have detected a probable Night Parrot in the Northern Territory. Work is now underway with the relevant statutory body to gather more data at the site and identify more locations in the wider landscape where this bird may occur.

We have deliberated for some time on whether to release this information into the public domain. We cannot access enough reference material to make this a fully confirmed record of the bird (or to dismiss it as another species). We have both been openly critical of the extreme secrecy and intrigue which has surrounded this species in recent years. Where practical, we will release information as soon as we can; particularly information that will assist others in finding the bird elsewhere. 

As the tentative identification of the call was partly reliant on acoustic data which is not ours to release we are limited to releasing the sonogram image of our call only, not that of the reference calls from Western Australia. 

We will not be sharing location data of this site under any circumstances in the interest of the bird’s conservation.

 

Press Release on Mark Carter's site including sonogram images.

Owlet-nightjar ant-eating behaviour

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, basking in daylight at a roost hollow. Front-facing eyes, super cryptic, super creepy and, apparently, prodigious ant-eaters.

Recently, I had an interesting encounter on a photographic tour I was leading in Central Australia.

I’ve read about the foraging tactics and diet of Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, before, most memorably in the work of Dr Lisa Doucette. An article Dr Doucette wrote in The Bird Observer back in Feb 2011, really stuck in my mind. In that piece, she detailed the differences in the dietary composition between birds studied in the semi-arid ranges of Central Australia and the wet eucalypt woodland of NSW’s Northern Tablelands.

The bit that really stuck with me was the following paragraph elaborating on the fact that the largest portion of the desert birds’ diet (31% by volume) comprised… ants.

“Catching ants, an abundant, reliable taxa, active even at sub-zero temperatures, would require less energy and time to obtain.

Flightless worker ants that primarily forage and nest on the ground were the dominant prey type in the Australian Owlet-nightjar’s diet overall. This strongly indicates that the Owlet-nightjars are foraging on the ground following trails of ants and exploiting nests, not simply using a “perch-and-pounce” approach to capture large terrestrial prey. Relative to other species of nightjar, owlet-nightjars have longer legs, making them far more agile on the ground and better enabling them to exploit terrestrial prey.” - Dr Lisa Doucette, Foraging tactics of the Australian Owlet-nightjar, THE BIRD OBSERVER, No. 868, Feb 2011, p.6-8.

This astonished me for two reasons primarily: I’d never thought of Owlet-nightjars as being even remotely long-legged and; ants seemed an unlikely prey item for an animal equipped with a beak that appears best adapted for catching airborne prey. (Now, looking at my photo of the beastie above, I should have been more observant - it clearly has a decent set of pins.)

It was illuminating.

I never thought I’d witness this curious behaviour, not least because even in Central Australia where the birds are incredibly common, despite hearing them on most nights out in the scrub, I didn’t see them very often at all. The mental image of an Owlet-nightjar perched on the ground over a line of ants like some weird gigantic feathered Thorny Devil was incongruous. But it happened.

The more-famous Central Australia ant-eater, the Thorny Devil, Moloch horridus.

Wandering up the path from Ellery Creek Big Hole to the car park on a warm evening in March, I was startled by the sight of an Owlet-nightjar on the edge of the path in front of me. It was surprised by my intrusion at first but I retreated slowly leaving it in the edge of the torch beam and it shortly turned away from me and continued what it was doing. What it was doing, was straddling a line of ants making their way along the edge of the concrete path and, literally, decimating them. It was repeatedly and frenetically pecking at the line of small black ants, gobbling down the hapless insects.

I’ve no reason to think that these observations are unique but still thought it worth documenting them here in case they are of any use or interest to anyone conducting further research on the species. Unfortunately, my camera was equipped with a fixed 50mm f1.2 lens for star photography so my captures of the encounter are disappointing to say the least. After a couple of almost worthless record shots I sprinted to the car for a zoom lens but was crushed to return and discover that the bird had flown.

Record shots = you *really* had to be there.

Still, it was a distinct privilege to sit with that bird for those few seconds and gain this firsthand insight into this surprising behaviour.

CBW

 

PS: I was leading this private photographic tour for Mark Carter Birding & Wildlife. We had numerous one-off wildlife encounters like this, and were able to perfect our star photography in a number of scenic locations over successive clear, dark nights. If this sort of thing is up your alley, you should get in touch with Mark and see this astonishing region with someone who knows it best. http://www.birdingandwildlife.com/

Your Deserts Need You

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Desert birding - this is the year

Lately I’ve been back in the desert. Sometime soon, you should head to the desert too. Whether you’ve never been before, or you’re a veteran Outback traveller, this year, as a birder, you ought to get out there.

My recent trip was the first of what will hopefully be a series of trips to collect data for a research degree I’m undertaking. This first one involved myself and my colleague in most desert escapades, Mark Carter, leaving Coolangatta and heading west with no itinerary other than reaching Alice Springs in ten days or so. The only mission was to fill in a few blanks on the desert map that neither of us had visited and to try and see what few lifers might be lurking there for us. Chief among these were a few species of grasswren.

There was a dual purpose for finding the grasswrens: neither of us had seen most of them and my research involves obtaining good quality audio recordings of Dusky Grasswrens across central Australia so any recording encounters with congeneric species would be useful practice.

The most obvious thing we noticed as we barrelled west of the divide and into the arid zone of the NSW/QLD border districts, was how much lying water was on the country. From the very first afternoon we drove through large thunderstorms. At Cunnamulla, roads to the north and west were all closed forcing us to head south and miss some of the best Grey Grasswren country out toward Innamincka. But we still made it to a flowing section of Cooper Creek where Mark was able to give his kayak its blooding on a proper desert river.

This is where Burke & Wills went wrong: they should have brought a kayak.

Heading south brought us into the range of the intriguing NSW race obscurior of Thick-billed Grasswren so all was not lost yet. This is not intended to be a comprehensive trip report so to cut a long and all-too-familiar story short: we dipped. Consecutive days over 40 degrees, a dearth of recent observations and inexperience recognising the bird’s habitat certainly contributed to our dip. These factors and the ever-present threat of being rained-in kept us moving southward after a fairly full day of gibber bashing.

The afternoon weather was regularly foreboding...

From Port Augusta the punishing temperatures eased but the rains continued. We had success with the Western Grasswren near Whyalla and found the birds in good voice and reasonably approachable for photographs and recordings despite quite a gusty day. The Thick-billed Grasswrens showed themselves ever-so-briefly further up the track near Coober Pedy and then we kept pushing north to Alice Springs and Dusky Grasswren country with a few days up my sleeve to make some more recordings.

The one constant of this trip was our (or at least my) inane commentary on the amount of water we were seeing. Most of the numerous bridges across the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs had water flowing under them and those that didn’t, recently had. The Palmer River was flowing strongly, the Finke crossing at Henbury was swollen as it had been for some weeks, and every clay pan and gravel pit was brimful. Every gibber plain from Tibooburra to Idracowra looks more like a golf green than the bleak Martian vista they usually resemble. Mobs of Emu were encountered the whole way through and, as evidenced by a juvenile bird even showing up on the beach at Shoalhaven Heads, Inland Dotterels have clearly bred very well across their range. These captivating little shorebirds were everywhere.

Emus on the 16th fairway near Tibooburra.

In all my years knocking about The Outback I’ve never seen it like this. Even the wet years of 2010-2011 didn’t manage to spread the pulse of life as far across the landscape as the last 6 months of wet weather in Central Australia have done.

Many of the roads across The Outback have only recently started to re-open after lengthy closures and many will need a fair amount of repair work done. The country will need to dry a bit and birds will continue to breed up but, by May, birding should be hotting up just as the weather is cooling down.

Ormiston Gorge at the moment: ringing with the chatter of breeding Budgerigars in every tree with the songs of Dusky Grasswrens cascading over the cliffs and hillsides.

Mark and I are heading off on another desert expedition in May. This time we're covering the Great Victoria Desert and parts west in search of a few birds that will be new to many birders’ lists: recent western splits like Naretha Bluebonnet and Copperback Quail-thrush are both high on the target list and we’ll be on constant look-out for other specialties in this region like Scarlet-chested Parrot, Sandhill Grasswren, flocks of wild Budgerigar, and Princess Parrot. Boom years like this don't come around too often and if nobody is out there to witness the spectacle of it all a great opportunity will have been missed. We aim to get out there during the peak of activity as birds are coming off multiple consecutive breeding cycles and the weather is at its most agreeable. We'll be seeking the above-mentioned bird species, but we'll also be looking to document and photograph all manner of fascinating and uncommonly encountered desert wildlife and flora before the inevitable drying, the burning, and the long wait for the next period of such frenzied productivity.

Sunset over Willochra Plain - hard to beat.

This 10 day expedition leaves Alice Springs on the 24th of May (all the details can be found over on Mark’s website here) and it'd be great to have you along. We only have a few seats left so don’t muck around – get in touch! We look forward to seeing you out there.

CBW