Chris Watson

outback

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leaps in recent years and while still quite incomplete, there is a lot of information which has, until now, remained unpublished or difficult to access.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

 

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

Mysterious Princess of the Western Deserts

Twitching, Research, birdingChris Watson

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

The Princess Parrot Polytelis alexandrae, is a staggeringly beautiful animal for a variety of reasons. It’s a fractal bird. There's a new layer of contradiction, conundrum and surprise revealed at each level it’s examined: the long, long tail, the males’ odd little wing spatules, the dissonant colour scheme, the preference for an extremely unpredictable desert habitat, the wide-ranging movements. Even the fact that it is common in captivity but so difficult to observe in the wild gives a strange familiarity to a bird which is seen by only a lucky handful of people most years.

Marble Gum Eucalyptus gongylocarpa, along the Connie Sue Highway, WA: a known favourite for Princess Parrot nesting.

If you’re like most birdwatchers, the first place you will observe this species is in an aviary. With luck, it will be a bird of the wild colouration rather than the product of aviculturists’ bizarre fascination with breeding unnatural colours into birds; apparently they’re particularly fond of blue Princess Parrots. Weirdos. The real bird lives in scattered populations out in the wilds of inland Australia. Even the remote inland city of Alice Springs is a solid day of driving on unsealed bush roads from any of the habitat where the bird is seen with anything that could be termed 'regularity'.

Viewed sitting on its perch in an aviary, the dissonant colours of the parrot will probably seem at odds with a bird supposed to be at home in the sandy deserts of Central and Western Australia. This is most likely due to the observer’s lack of familiarity with these environs. For those yet to travel there, the Western Deserts are as surprising as the creatures that call them home. If the word ‘desert’ traditionally conjures bleak images of dusty, desolate plains and bare rock, then no habitat could be more unexpected. The range of the Princess Parrot covers a wide swathe north/south along the border of Western Australia with South Australia and the Northern Territory, from the top of the Canning Stock Route south of Halls Creek WA, down to around Neale Junction in the Great Victoria Desert. Being anywhere in this part of the country is far from a guarantee of seeing the bird, but this is where they lurk.

The blue skies near Neale Junction WA, a well-known locality for Princess Parrot, on a more cloudy afternoon.

The palette out here is rich beyond anyone’s expectations; the sand is a deeper and more lustrous red than you think, the trees are a lusher and more verdant green, the grasses a saturated golden yellow. Due to the interplay of contrasting colours and how they’re processed in our brains, the skies here are literally among the bluest on Earth. Following rain the flowers appear in every colour. So crypsis is relative. If you’re a nightjar wanting to blend in with decomposing leaf litter, then mottled browns, blacks, and greys are fine. But to survive above ground level in the riot of colour that is the Western Desert demands something a bit more… Matisse.

A pair of Princess Parrot enjoying the mid-morning sun during a winter visit to Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Newhaven Reserve west of Alice Springs in 2012.

So when it is at home, the Princess Parrot’s lime green shoulders vanish into the fresh growth on a Desert Bloodwood. The powdery pinks and sky blues are by turns shaded and brightened in flight by the reflected hues of earth and sky. And then there’s the thing you’ll never get from a caged bird: the jizz. That ineffable but distinctive movement and posture that is unique to a species. Like its congeners this is a high-speed mover. When the deserts dry and the water holes are distantly separated, the birds are capable of covering the necessary distance in short order. Counter-intuitively for a bird with such a long tail, it has the strange habit of perching along a branch. Not always. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of pictures of them perching in the conventional fashion with their elongated rectrices spearing earthward at a right angle to the branch, but they are often observed with those feathers laid flat along the length of the branch – almost frogmouth-like. Perhaps another concession to crypsis? Maybe all the Polytelis parrots do this, I’m not sure. I’ve seen Regent Parrots do it, but I’ve never seen Superb Parrots.

....sitting quietly in a Desert Bloodwood Corymbia opaca. Very easy to miss. I wonder how many birds like this I've driven straight past over the years. 

In any case they’re a special animal. Certainly they deserve their reputation as our second most-desired bird after another desert parrot, the perennially unfindable Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. There are many senior Australian birders who are yet to mount the necessary expedition out west to see Princess Parrot in the wild, and many who have and still missed the birds. Even for those who live in the outback, those who in most years may stumble on Grey Honeyeater, Grey Falcon, and various grasswrens, all merely from frequenting the right habitat, will still be unlikely, and consider themselves very fortunate, to see Princess Parrots – just ask Richard Waring.

As someone who has been exceedingly fortunate and seen these birds on numerous occasions, I can certainly vouch that it is worth the immense effort to get out and spend some time looking. Since 1996 I’ve probably spent a total of many months in Princess Parrot habitat, and only seen the birds on 5 occasions, but even without Princess Parrots, it is entirely worth the cost and time to get out there and look around.

It is an enriching experience. This is birding as it was always meant to be. Once you see this country it becomes part of you.

This is your chance. Alice Springs’ resident birding guide Mark Carter and I, are headed out to this magnificent country in September, to give a bunch of visiting birders their best chance at seeing these birds in the wild this year. Other than having a good chance at finding wild Princess Parrots, we should see plenty of other desert wildlife along the way. At time of writing there are only a couple of positions left on this trip so you’ll need to bite the bullet and get in quick. If it’s a part of the country you are yet to explore, I encourage you to take this opportunity if you can. All the details are on Mark’s website at THIS LINK HERE.

Expeditioners can expect many similar vistas. This is the Sandy Blight Junction Road near the Schwerin Mural Crescent, WA.


Further reading:

As mysterious as the Princess Parrot is, there are researchers out there peeling back the layers and revealing more about its extraordinary life cycle. There are few papers in peer-reviewed journals documenting the ecology of wild birds but this paper is the most recent and will give you a starting point for further literature searches.

The breeding and foraging ecology and abundance of the Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) during a population irruption. Chris Pavey et al.