Chris Watson

South Australia

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].

Grasswren Grand Slam in Record Time

Birding, TourismChris Watson

There’s a well-known saying among birders, particularly among those who live near the coast: seabirders are real birders. Anyone who has spent a day on the blue paddock trying to compare the bill dimensions of prions while dodging the sluicing chunder from birders of more delicate constitution as the floor rolls under your feet and the salt spray mists your binocular lenses will understand that it’s a claim not without some justification.

In Australia though, it’s arguable that there is one other type of extreme birding that may lay claim to also being the domain of “real” birders: grasswrenning. That’s a word now.

I’ve heard it said that any old duffer can notch up a list of a few hundred species in Australia if they simply do some pretty basic birding and visit a handful of different regions. International birding tours sometimes rack up Australian bird lists of 400 or even 500 species in just a few weeks of busy birding and a few internal flights. But a good measure of an Australian bird list, and of the true birding grit of the list-owner, is the number of grasswrens on the list.

The grasswrens in the genus Amytornis are a group of birds which are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They’re among those bird species which can look drab or boring in a field guide but which routinely knock your socks off in the field when they are up close. If you’re lucky enough to get a prolonged look at any species of grasswren in the open, their plumage reveals all sorts of subtleties that you won’t have anticipated.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, adult female.

There are anywhere between 10 and 14 species recognised, depending which taxonomy you follow. None of them live in particularly accessible places and most live in decidedly remote and difficult terrain. Most of them favour the shin-ruining spinifex grasses; a group of plants with the distinction of being both figuratively and literally, a complete prick. The ones that don’t live in spinifex, live in clumps of similarly dense and unfriendly vegetation. They range from some of the hottest and driest deserts to the humid and monsoonal tropics. They’re mostly furtive, shy, and able to disappear from view in their chosen habitat leaving a birder feeling completely gormless in the infuriating knowledge that the birds are all around, at close range, but completely hidden from view and unlikely to reveal themselves.

A few species favour rocky slopes with either loose scree underfoot or large boulders that only a rock wallaby, and the grasswrens themselves, can safely negotiate. Some are endangered and disappearing from their already restricted ranges as a result of fire, feral cats, land clearing, or combinations of all three.

Grasswren habitat: harsh, beautiful and remote. Cane grass on dunes of the Simpson Desert is home to the Eyrean Grasswren A. goyderi.

So in summary: they’re small, rare, fast, furtive, superbly cryptic, hard to get to, hard to find, and hard to see if you do find them. And this is their charm. They’re a real birder’s bird.

Well-known South Australian ornithologist and tour leader Peter Waanders recently hatched a plan with two of my Northern Territory off-siders. It was a plan that was nothing if not ambitious and, frankly, had some questioning Peter’s sanity – to see all species of grasswren in a single tour. It’s audacious. If ever a leader was going to be able to pull-off such a feat of birding brilliance, Peter’s name would be near the top of the list. His guiding outfit, Bellbird Tours, is already best-known for running the regular 6- and 9-grasswren tours which plough through the dry interior of the country each year and only rarely miss any of their targets. His dry country tours also have an enviable strike rate with other highly-sought desert delicacies like Grey Falcon and Letter-winged Kite.

To cut a very long story short – they did it.

In an achievement which must be a historic first for Australian birding, Bellbird’s Great Grasswren Air Safari saw all 11 of the currently (widely-accepted) species of grasswren in just 14 days [and I think they may have seen one of the proposed splits as well which would take their total to 12 species by Clements taxonomy]. In fact, the news of their final tick, White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi, came through the day before the tour ended so they actually saw every grasswren species in 13 days.

For anyone familiar with traveling in outback Australia, you’ll understand what an extraordinary achievement this is. By car, aircraft (both fixed-wing and helicopter), and finally on foot, the intrepid band crossed the entire continent. With crucial assistance from Red Centre expert Mark Carter and Top End bird-finder and River God, Mick Jerram, they nailed the tricky central and northern species.

In under a fortnight, they found and saw an entire endemic genus; a genus of our most infamously challenging birds. I’d be surprised if there is anyone else who has ever completed this coveted full house in less than a month. Well done one and all and congratulations Peter, Mark and Mick – only other tour leaders will ever understand how nerve-wracking a tour like this can be.

A Short Digression

Amid all the back-slapping and the celebratory Darwin stubbies though, there’s another consideration. An important aspect of an initiative like this is that it demonstrates the productive symbiosis that can exist between research and tourism. This is a partnership which is well-established in numerous locations internationally but has yet to be widely-explored in Australia.

Some grasswren species are infrequently recorded and their distributions are imperfectly known. Many of the species which are seen each year are recorded at the same sites; well-known sites where public access is granted and the birds are known to be present. Tours like this don’t just provide an opportunity for birders to get difficult species on their lists. They also provide the means for experts (and all of the leaders on this tour are certainly that), to visit different areas, both during the tour and on reconnaissance visits during preparation. During these visits, birds are sometimes found at new sites. Breeding activity is sometimes noted. Previously occupied sites might be discovered to have been abandoned or habitat destroyed. Non-target species are also noted and atlas surveys are completed. All of this is crucial observational data which is coming from country rarely accessed by researchers from professional research organisations because visiting is prohibitively expensive.

Research and data collection of this nature being funded, directly or indirectly, by tourism is something we really ought to discuss more often and support wholeheartedly.

 

Well done again to all involved and particular congratulations to Peter, Mark, Mick and the team at Bellbird Tours for pulling off the grip of the year.

CBW

Birding Central Australia #4

birding, HerpingChris Watson

Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps.

Reptiles on move

The warm weather has begun with bird activity beginning to drop during the hottest parts of the day. Our reptile friends are becoming active with the warmth though, and I have seen a few big Western Brown Snakes out and about, along with plenty of Mulga Snake and Yellow-faced Whip Snake, so when you’re out bird watching this week… watch your step.

Other things to look out for include the wonderful Bearded Dragons and Thorny Devils that are showing up on all the roads around town at the moment. These icons of the Red Centre are getting squashed by the dozen, so really keep your eyes on the road when you’re out driving during the week.

Thanks to everyone that has been sending me their bird sightings over the last few weeks, it is really building into a great record of this fantastic season.

Interesting Bird Sightings:   

-          Susan Heckenberg has been lucky enough to find a family of four Barn Owls in her back yard in Braitling. Keep your eyes peeled as they may be roosting in trees around this area

-          I saw three magnificent Brolgas by the roadside near the turn off to Ali-Curung community

-          There seems to be an invasion of Feral Pigeons establishing a nice home for themselves in the sheds at The Ghan depot

-          Big flocks of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos seen about town with 150 near Jessie Gap and another 80 on the Tanami Rd

-          Three Black falcons on the power lines near the start of the Tanami Rd