PLAINS-WANDERS - A SPECIAL LITTLE BIRD
Chris Coleborn

For some time Plains-wanderers were thought to belong to the family of Button-quail. It resembles Button-quail in different ways. For example, it shows reverse sexual dimorphism where the female is the larger, brighter, dominant bird. Its plumage is very similar though to Bustards. Its head shape, bill, eggs and sometimes its behaviour resemble those of a Plover. Recent research however identifies it as a wader. Its closest relatives are thought to be the American Seedsnipes. It is rather surprising that this little bird, unique to Australia, is classified as a wader. Plains-wanderers generally live in sparsely grassed dry plains, often with patches of bare earth - not exactly the typical habitat of waders. It is a best thought of as a dry-land wader, something like the Bush Stone-curlew who also often lives away from the water habitat of typical waders.

The Plain-wanderer is a cryptically coloured, upright little bird that will "freeze" or run rather than fly. There are many reports of the tameness of this little bird. At night, when spotlighted, it will stand still and can be easily picked up. Even during the day it will allow a person to approach it and even at times touch it without moving. One thing that assists it though and that is its remarkable ability to camouflage itself. You can imagine how vulnerable this makes the bird to predators, such as foxes. With its plumage of barring and spotting, of various shades of brown and grey and scallop effects of pale fawn it can be almost impossible to see. I have seen them "disappear" beside a nondescript tuft of grass in an otherwise bare area, by fluffing their fathers and adopting a cryptic pose. When it runs, it runs erect and has a wide range of vision, covering close to 260 degrees. When it does fly, its dipping flight is weak and fluttering, and its wings are long and broad. It adopts several typical postures, such as standing on its tip-toes with its had held high. It will also crouch and put its head down and forward.

This special little bird has been greatly reduced in numbers by habitat change, such as introduced grasses, clearing and grazing. It is nearly always still found in native grasslands, rather than "improved" pastures, though it will tolerate some forms of agriculture. Foxes and feral cats have also taken a terrible toll on this bird as with other ground dwelling and nesting birds such as the Stone-curlews and Brolga.

Although at times nomadic, it seems to be generally sedentary, remaining in a limited area of grassland. They feed on seeds and insects. Generally they are solitary, but do occur in pairs or small groups when breeding. At the Terricks we have seen a male with three or four grown but immature birds with him.

The nest is a scrape in the ground, lined with grass, and the four eggs are pale green-buff, blotched and spotted with brown, grey and olive. The smaller, more cryptically coloured male incubates the eggs and cares for the young. It is a delightful sight to see a father Plains-wanderer carefully shepherding its fluffy little hatchlings around clumps of grass.

While its present stronghold appears to be the Riverina grasslands of inland southern NSW, it is also found in the grasslands of central Queensland and in some areas of northern Victoria.

Near Cohuna in northern Victoria in the native grassland section of the Terrick Terrick National Park, Plains-wanderers may be seen. A group of local birdos have, with the local Ranger, do regular atlassing of Plains-wanderers in this National Park. On a recent outing 11 birds were counted, 4 females and 7 males. We also had some very good close up sights of Little Button-quail, Singing Bushlark, Richard’s Pipits, Banded Lapwing and Stubble Quail. We also were able to see quite a few Fat-tailed Dunnarts - a little mouse like marsupial. They also are a specialized little marsupial of the open plainlands. If you have an on line computer, for a little write up on the outing and some pictures of the Plains-wanderers and several other species of birds taken of the trip, log onto http://www.websurf.net.au/~susan/Terrick2.htm




This article was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, April 2001