Chris Coleborn

One of our Australian birds that has sadly declined in recent years is a shy bird of mountain and coastal heathlands and dense scrubs of Eastern Australia called the Eastern Bristlebird, now classed as vulnerable. This species stretches from coastal North Eastern Victoria to the coastal ranges around Brisbane. It is very patchy in distribution, and rare in all states.

There are two other species of Bristlebird, one is the Western Bristlebird, even more rare than the Eastern, and now confined to Two People’s Bay and the Fitzgerald Range National Park in Western Australia. It is classed as endangered. The other Bristlebird is the Rufous Bristlebird, found along the coast from the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia to near Torquay in Victoria. This Bristlebird is both the largest of the Bristlebirds and the most numerous. Sadly the Western Australian race of the Rufous Bristlebird is now thought to be extinct.

These birds are called Bristlebirds because of small bristles on their face, around the top of the beak. They no doubt help it sense its way as it searches for food in the dark vegetation understorey where it feeds. The bristles can only be seen at close quarters.

Though not brightly coloured the Bristlebirds, and especially the Eastern, have subtle shades of olives, browns and chestnut, with touches of various shades of grey. There are also delicate markings, such as spots and scallops on the birds.

Like all the Bristlebirds, the Eastern Bristlebirds are heard more often than seen, moving quickly and quietly through its dense habitat. It lives mainly on the ground, and runs quite a lot. It keeps its rather long tail horizontal when running through the thick bush and rushes, but if excited will come out into the open, perch on a conspicuous bush or branch and will raise, even fan, its tail. It is reluctant to fly, and if forced to do so will only fly a short distance before landing. Its song is loud and high pitched, but is nevertheless a beautiful, melodious song, with a sweet, penetrating quality. It also has other more harsh and squeaky alarm and contact calls.

The birds are Spring breeders, building a neat domed nest of sticks, bark and grass close to the ground. They lay two buff-white eggs with a fine blotching of red-brown to purplish colour at the large end.

Some six years ago I, with my son Peter and another CBOS member, Warwick Pickwell had a close encounter with this special bird. It was at O’Reilleys in the McPherson Ranges to the South East of Brisbane. After an early start, we came to an open area of eucalypt forest with a tussocky, grassy understorey, with fallen branches and litter interspersed among the tussocks. We had heard from Tim O’Reilly that the Eastern Bristlebird was sometimes seen there. Tim had also loaned us a tape of its call. After a couple of minutes of playing the tape, we began to feel there were no Bristlebirds in the area. However there began to be first a quiet response call, becoming louder as the bird seemed to gain confidence to challenge what it may have thought as an intruder bird in its territory. Its call was harsh, short and high pitched. It was calling from the midst of a tussock about ten metres from where we were standing. We could hardly believe our ears - we actually had an Eastern Bristlebird!

Hearing is one thing, seeing is another, as those who have searched for Bristlebirds have found. How frustrating it has been for birdwatchers to be near a much sought after species, hear it loudly calling but not get to see it! We were full of suspense as we wondered if it would show itself. We hardly dared breathe in case we frightened it away. We replayed the tape. It sang back. We played it again, but it remained hidden.

We saw a movement in the grasses, and something move the tussocks. Was it going to skulk away and leave us in suspense, with only a memory of its call? We quietly played the tape again - then it happened!

In an area where there was a rock between the tussocks of grass, and covered by a spindly dead shrub with only sparse cover, all highlighted by the early morning sun, it appeared in all its subdued glory. We couldn’t get our binoculars focused quickly enough. We could not have had a more perfect view of the bird. It was only a little bird of about twenty centimetres - the size of a starling. Its lovely combination of chestnut, rufous and brown-olive tonings and a suggestion of grey on the back, with a pale grey or white throat with scallops of pale brown on the chest was there to be admired. It had a pale eyebrow, and a dark eye, (the Fieldguides say it is red - but it must be a dark red).

As we looked, the bird lifted its head back, ruffled the feathers of its chest, lifted and slightly fanned its tail and began a beautiful, loud clear four-part call, over and over. It stood on the rock in the open space, and for about ten minutes on and off appeared to give a territorial or display call, singing its little heart out.

We noticed that its tail was somewhat ragged - was it breeding?

It was a wonderful privilege to say the least to get this observation of so rare a bird out in the opening and displaying so clearly. The privilege was brought home to us when we mentioned to one of the O’Reilly family that we had seen the Eastern Bristlebird and she told us that she had been seeking a glimpse of it for years and had not yet seen it.

Over the next couple of years I sought the Bristlebird in this spot, but have not again see the bird. If fact I have not seen the bird again apart from this one memorable sighting.

How satisfying it is and good to be able to go out into the forests, woodlands, plains and beaches and enjoy and marvel at the wonder of the Creator’s handiwork.

This article was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, October 2000