John Pople

I’m not an avid twitcher as twitchers are wont to be, but when it comes to putting a tick beside a new bird I must confess to getting a degree of satisfaction from seeing the tally go up a notch. To have to really use one’s skills to track down a bird in the bush or desert, the forest or grasslands and then finally have a brilliant sighting makes for a moment in one’s life to treasure, remember and find satisfaction in sharing with others.

Recently on Gunbower Island, (a RAMSAR site and one of the largest river islands in Australia that is formed by an offshoot creek - called Gunbower Creek- from the mighty Murray River in northern Victoria), John Coleborn whilst riding his bike, found a freshly killed Red-chested Button-quail. It was probably hit and killed by a car. This find prompted me to have a search for the Red-chested Button-quail, for while it was interesting to see the poor road kill, there is no substitute for seeing a live bird that one has had to hunt to see.

The presence of Red-chested Button-quail (RcBq) on Gunbower Island has been known for some time. They were "discovered" out of their normal habitat by a University researcher, Lawrie Conole, also a keen birder. He was doing some research on ground litter in forests. Lawrie came across the platelets made by Button-quail. He presumed Painted Button-quail made them, but one day was able to carefully observe a covey of RcBq. Since then, there have been many reliable sightings of these shy and elusive birds on Gunbower Island.

On previous visits to Gunbower Island looking for the RcBq I had no trouble sighting Painted Button-quail but had failed to get a definite sighting of the RcBq. Taking advantage of the beautiful calm, sunny Autumn weather we were having in Northern Victoria, I found myself camping out a couple of nights on "the Island", seeking to remedy my lack of sightings of the RcBq. I chose a spot close to a track called the "86 Break", and area where the RcBq had been observed previously by quite a few birdos. We recently had had good rain, but the ground was once again firm and the ground cover of fallen leaves, bark etc. from the Red Gums was littering the ground. The litter was about three inches deep but dry and crumbly underfoot.

Platelets, saucer size scratchings are made by Button-quail as they search for insects and seeds. They stand on one foot and scratch, rotating around to form a circle and are a sure sign of Button-quail in an area. All around the area where I camped were platelets. They were side by side and covered a considerable area where the litter was "just right". So, I was quite hopeful that at last I might obtain a good sighting of a RcBq.

On my first morning of camping I awoke to the soft cooing song of Peaceful Doves in a tree above my campsite. After a quick cuppa, I began a detailed search within a kilometre radius from my campsite. Moving out, the first birds I noticed were Brown Treecreepers. They were fossicking for food as much on the ground as on tree trunks, giving me many false alarms of Button-quail sightings. Yellow Rosellas (a form of the Crimson Rosella) and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were noisily flying through the tree tops. Not far away I could hear one or two Pied Currawongs and also the long drawn out call of an Australian Raven. White-plumed Honeyeaters were common and Grey Shrike-thrushes seemed to be spaced evenly through the forest and often made their presence known by their pleasant whistling call.

As the sun climbed lazily into the sky, Striated Pardalotes and Weebills began calling from the tree tops and a small flock of Buff-rumped Thornbills crossed my pathway as they busily foraged for insects amidst the mid story foliage of the Red Gums. My main line of vision was fixed on the forest floor fifty to one hundred metres ahead hoping to catch sight of a Button-quail. They either will flush from under your feet or will run well ahead. Their cryptic colouring makes them difficult to spot unless they are moving.

On many occasions on my search I paused for a few minutes to allow my physical presence to blend in with the surrounding bush and just observe anything that moved. On several of these quiet stops the beautiful little Yellow-footed Antechinus, a small (approx. 15cm) native marsupial mouse, arboreal in its habits and a very frisky and alert little creature, would make its appearance, hunting beetles and grubs around the craggy bark timer of the Red Gums. Occasionally one would venture a short distance from one tree to another, running with quick hopping bursts of speed, stopping here and there to probe the crevices of fallen logs, running up and down branches at an almost frantic pace. The slightest movement or noise from myself would make it ‘freeze’, size up the situation and if my movement continued on in its direction, disappear at lightning speed. I was to see many of these little creatures during my two-day stay in the forest. Continuing on with my birding I came to the end of the day with the count of just one solitary Painted Button-quail which had taken off from under my feet as I was walking through a patch of rushes.

After a second night’s rest, with the hooting calls of Southern Boobooks nearby, I awoke to another calm sunny day and, getting away to an early start, I began to widen my search for the elusive RcBq. Pizzey, in his Field Guide, describes their range as nomadic and irruptive, a description that fits many of our native birds as they exploit a seasonal feeding environment, before moving on again, perhaps hundreds of kilometres away. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I set off again moving into areas that contained many telltale platelets.

Near the edge of a dried out billabong, with clumps of rushes interspersed with open grassy areas I put up four Painted Button-quail, which flew rapidly out of sight. I continued on for several more hours seeing Common Bronzewings quite frequently and many Dusky Woodswallows hawking for insects in the early morning sun.

Moving back in the direction of camp I passed by a waterhole and decided to wait and watch for awhile as birds came in to drink. A group of White-browed Babblers were the first to arrive, sauntering noisily down the opposite bank, taking advantage of the cover from a fallen branch to gain access to the water’s edge. White-plumed Honeyeaters were very numerous here, occasionally dunking themselves in the water hole for a quick splash as they flew across the pond. Several Brown-headed Honeyeaters were seeking insects in the branches above me. An Olive-backed Oriole was calling nearby but did not put in an appearance.

Getting to my feet again I began meandering my way back to camp with still no further sigh of any Button-quail. Here and there I would disturb a little family of Superb Fairy-wren and occasionally check out a White-throated Treecreeper adding variety to his brown cousins. Little Grey Fantails are always pleasing to watch, their frantic movements whilst feeding for insects and their tinny, high pitched calls, combine to create little pictures of feathered activity which contrasts nicely with the static but quiet beauty of the surrounding bush. Galahs were flying in little groups through the tree tops, occasionally coming down in an open patch of trees searching for food on the ground. Jacky Winters could be seen perched and calling, making short sallying flights to catch insects. In one very tall gum a Noisy Friarbird was making its presence known by its loud staccato calling.

Arriving back at camp I was a little disappointed that I had been unable to observe the RcBq on his home ground, but over all my brief stay in this quiet patch of Red Gum forest was very refreshing and as I packed up the camping gear and headed for home I reflected on the privileges and freedom of movement we have in this vast country, Australia, and how fortunate we are to be able to call it home.

Some other birds seen on my little outing were Australian Magpie, Laughing Kookaburra, Willie Wagtail, Eastern Rosella, Whistling Kite and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike.

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