THE SEARCH FOR (AND FINDING OF) THE RUFOUS SCRUB-BIRD
Chris Coleborn

The Rufous Scrub-bird, found only in the rainforest regions of south-east Queensland and north east NSW, together with its related species, the Noisy Scrub-bird, found only in the south-west of WA at Two Peoples Bay in dense moist copses and thickets, are a distinctive group of birds found only in Australia. They creep, run and hide under the cover of dense vegetation, and live their entire lives in this environment. They almost never take to flight, in fact they can hardly fly. It is thought that they are related to Lyrebirds - they for example are, like the Lyrebirds, wonderful mimics of others’ bird’s calls.

The Rufous Scrub-bird lives in pockets of dense undergrowth and shrubbery in rainforest and along its edges into wet eucalypt gullies and patches of vegetation. A close cover, a least a metre high that has usually moist abundant litter, is a basic requirement for its habitat. They feed on insects, worms, other invertebrates and seeds.

These little birds are from 16.5 cm - 6 1/2 " (female) to 18.0 cm 7 1/2" (male) in size. The upper parts are uniformly dark rufous-brown (hence the name) with the most delicate and attractive fine black barring. The throat is white with two black streaks down the breast and abdomen. The abdomen is rufous. The male’s upper breast is heavily mottled black. The wings are short and rounded. The tail is tapered and round-tipped. The eye and beak are deep brown. The feet are red-brown. They have an extremely powerful and rich song, and like the Noisy Scrub-bird, are very difficult to observe.

Males occupy widely dispersed territories of about one or two hectares, at an average density of four territories per square kilometre in prime habitat. Often they are out of earshot of one another. It is only when breeding that males sing much. They sing, like the Lyrebird, from various vantage points within their territory. Females also occupy their own territories, of about the same size as the male’s territory, and which only would partly overlap make ground. It is thought that the female builds the nest and incubates and rears the young without assistance from the male.

Clearing has now limited the Rufous Scrub-birds to fragmented pockets of suitable habitat generally within national parks and state forests. The total population is thought to be less than 1,000 - which makes it a rare and endangered species. Part of the difficulty in this species building up numbers is that it has no place for its young to go when they mature.

These delightful, very specialized little birds are best found when singing in the spring, and respond to "pishing".

The reputedly best places to look for the Rufous Scrub-bird are Lamington National Park (O’Reillys), just south-east of Brisbane, and Barrington Tops in NSW.

Whilst living in Brisbane, I was naturally interested in the birds of the south-east region of Queensland. This area is particularly rich in birdlife. In the western suburbs where I lived, for example, one could walk along a suburban creek and after a two hour walk end up with a bird count of seventy species or more. Travel a little further, and an hundred and twenty was not too difficult. One area that has several difficult to find or rare birds is Lamington National Park. It is rich in birdlife generally. A visit by bird lovers, if possible, is a must.

Having lived at the front door, as it were, of Lamington National Park I was naturally attracted to this and nearby parks. Camping at O’Reilleys, one could explore for kilometres around. It is here that the Sooty Owl, Marbled Frogmouth, Black-breasted Button-Quail, Albert’s Lyrebird, Rufous Scrub-bird and Eastern Bristlebird, those rarer and difficult to see species, are regularly observed. Other species include Crimson Rosellas and King Parrots that feed out of your hands in their hundreds. Regent and Satin Bowerbirds will also appear to shyly feed with the parrots, and hop around your camp site. Noisy Pittas, Paradise Riflebirds, Green Catbirds, Brown Cuckoo-dove, Wompoo, White-headed and Topknot Pigeons, Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves, Logrunners, Bassian and Russet-tailed Ground-Thrush, Pale-yellow Robins, Olive Whistlers, White-eared, Spectecled and Masked Monarchs, Red-browed Treecreepers and various raptors such as the Grey Goshawk, Collared Sparrowhawk and Wedge-tailed Eagles are all to be regularly seen, though some are only present in the summer months. You can understand then, how the area is so special.

When visiting an area, I like to see as many of the regularly occurring birds in that area that I can. Because of this goal, I had the Rufous Scrub-bird on my list for the south-east region of Queensland. My personal search for this bird was really over about ten years, though I only seriously tried to track it down for about three years before successfully doing so.

In the earlier years of my search, I was most often in the Lamington National & other Parks leading camps for youth. Here, in the greatest cathedrals in the world - God’s creation in all its splendor, we presented them with the claims of Christ Jesus and of the good news of the gospel. We also had our eyes open to observe God’s creation. However, as you can imagine, walking with twenty or so young people, full of life and talk tramping, through the bush is not conducive to bird watching. I must admit though, that some lovely sightings of various birds were made on occasions.

As time went by and I still had not seen the Rufous Scrub-bird, though I found out what were said to be good spots for viewing the bird. I then resolved that I would take a few days of my holidays now and then, and generally with several of my children who all loved camping and were interested in bird watching, or with some Christian friend or friends who were interested in birds, to more earnestly seek for this Scrub-bird. The area to find the Rufous Scrub-bird that was pointed out most frequently from all advisers was about a 12 km return hike along one of the graded walking tracks From O’Reilley’s guest house to Bithongabel Lookout. The walk to this lookout is through some superb rain forest, including the awesome Antarctic Beech Forest. Some of these Beech Trees are said to be thousands of years old. As a Christian, I always find it fascinating to think of what was existing when Christ walked on earth! It brings home to me in a special way the historical reality of the Saviour.

Along the walk to Bithongabel Lookout, especially in Spring and Summer, the various Monarchs, the Olive Whistler, the Noisy Pitta and, though silent, the Albert’s Lyrebird can be seen. Logrunners, Yellow-throated Large-billed and White-browed Scrubwrens, various Pigeons and other birds of interest are to be seen.

I had walked this track with friends and children at least four times over several years, and at different seasons of the year, seeking a glimpse of the Rufous Scrub-bird, but all to no avail. I tried different advice from local birdos who had seen it, some had even seen it often, but again, all to no avail! I tried taped calls of the bird. I sat for what seemed like hours in the area where it was said to occur, but once again, all to no avail! I began to wonder if like some other birds I’ve heard of, but never seen, no matter how hard I have tried to track them down, it was the figment of some one’s imagination! One thing one learns as a birdo, and that is patience and perseverance. Being qualities that are commendable in all Christians they are worth cultivating for more than one reason. So, I persevered on.

The opportunity arose for me to take my three daughters to a camp in the Gibraltar Range National Park in NSW, on the Gwydir Highway, 68 km east of Glen Innes. We went in December 1993. This park has magnificent granite rock formations, with dramatic giant tors, heaths and swamps. There are pristine creeks running over granite rock formations and stands of eucalypt forest. It is famous for its wildflowers, including the NSW Waratah, Christmas Bells and many varieties of ground orchids. My eldest daughter Lydia, loves the botany, and especially wildflowers. Bird watching to her is a sideline to flower watching. We primarily went to this spot for the flowers - though it has a good bird list as well - and I found that an attractive reason for going. We came in past the Rangers’ Huts at the entrance, and made our way through some forest, but mainly heathland, to Mulligans Hut camping area. It was crowded, but we managed to find a quiet corner to pitch our tent. We were there for some days, and enjoyed exploring, climbing, swimming, watching the sun go down at the same time as the full moon came up, sitting on top of the Dandahra Crags and watching a most glorious sunset, visiting lookouts and of course, reading and a lot of bird watching.

I knew that a remnant number of the Rufous Scrub-bird was to be found in the park - but from what I had heard, they were rarely seen. I believed what I had heard. But wonderful things happen in life - small and great heart-warming experiences that are God’s gifts to us to enjoy. Among the many lovely experiences we had at this National Park was a most unexpected but most enchanting view of a Rufous Scrub-bird.

We had occasion to visit the Ranger’s hut at the entrance of the park, and as we set out to return to Mulligans Hut we had to pass through a little dip about half way between the entrance and Surveyors Creek crossing. It was a wooded area, and on the left was a patch of tangled undergrowth that obviously was fed by a spring or was naturally able to remain moist. We stopped the car, and I hopped out to walk around bird watching in the tree tops. The children elected to stay in the car and read - another of their great loves. I was enjoying a little walk along the road observing various birds, when I became aware of a series of very loud bird calls coming from a patch of the undergrowth on the left of the road. There was a big fallen log there, and scattered fallen limbs. For a moment I was puzzled what bird was calling - then it registered that the calls were mimicry! I had a tape in the car with the call of the Rufous Scrub-bird on it. I quickly returned, invited the children to come with me, saying I thought we might have come across the elusive Scrub-bird. One of my daughters thought it was just another of many false alarms, and did not want to leave the interesting part in her book. The other children ventured forth with me. The bush simply rang with the calls of this bird. We quietly went to the side of the road nearest to the calls. I made pishing and squeaking sounds, but could not attract the bird, which I thought must have been the Scrub-bird. I then played the tape. We were clustered at the edge of the road, crouched and peered into the tangled undergrowth. There was a log about a metre and a half in from the edge of the road. Almost instantly this little hyped up, energetic rufous coloured bird with black barring hopped up onto the log, and simply shrilled at us in its calling and singing. It threw its head back to sing, drooped its wings, flared the feathers on its breasts and raised its tail. We were enthralled and entertained with the most clear and wonderful views for some minutes of the Rufous Scrub-bird giving its display calls. It hopped around for a few moments - so close that my binoculars would not focus on the bird. What a wonderful view and meeting with this most interesting and rare little bird we had. One we will not forget! How disappointed Anna was to have missed a view of it. Never mind, she has had views of other birds that she treasures.

The last winter before we left Brisbane to serve in Victoria, Warwick Pickwell and I had the opportunity to pay a visit to Lamington National Park. It was primarily to try to see the Albert’s Lyrebird displaying. We certainly saw that - what a sight - but that is another story. We again made the trip to Bithingobel Lookout to try to see the Rufous Scrub-bird at that location. We had been told of another patch to check out. It was one I had tried years ago, but where I had not had any success. It is a little rest area with a seat some 500 metres before the actual lookout. Opposite the seat and a sign above the seat, is a huge Antarctic Beech. It has a large cavity in it. Behind this tree is a path that leads to a stone memorial cairn. It is in this region that the bird is sometimes found. We played the tape of its call, and had an almost immediate response. It seemed to be with-in centimeters of us in a bush - but we could not see it. Finally we saw several fleeting glimpses of it as it dashed between bushes. At least we could say we had seen this elusive bird at Lamington National Park! I have since heard that the bird is seen at a very small campsite on the track over Mount Merino. Apparently the best time to find this species is October to December when they breed, but only if it has been raining.

The following is a bird list of the birds we saw at Gibraltar Range National Park.

Great Cormorant Straw-necked Ibis Wood Duck Grey Teal
Brown Goshawk Australian Kestrel Masked Lapwing Wonga Pigeon
Brown Cuckoo-Dove Topknot Pigeon Y-tail Black CockatooRainbow Lorikeet
S-breasted LorikeetLittle Lorikeet Australian King ParrotCrimson Rosella
Fan-tailed Cuckoo Brush Cuckoo Shining Bronze Cuckoo Common Koel
Laughing KookaburraW-throated NeedletailWelcome Swallow Tawny Frogmouth
Tree Martin Noisy Pitta White’s ThrushRufous Scrub-bird
Richard’s PipitB-f Cuckoo-shrike Rose Robin Scarlet Robin
Eastern Yellow RobinGolden Whistler Rufous Whistler Grey Shrike-thrush
Spectacled MonarchLeaden Flycatcher Grey Fantail Rufous Fantail
Eastern Whipbird Logrunner Rufous Songlark Southern Emu-wren
Superb Wren Variegated Fairy-wrenW-browed ScrubwrenY-throated Scrubwren
Large-billed ScrubwrenBrown Gerygone W-throated GerygoneStriated Thornbill
Yellow Thornbill Buff-rumped ThornbillBrown Thornbill W-throated Treecreeper
Red-browed TreecreeperBrown TreecreeperLewin’s HoneyeaterWhite-eared Honeyeater
Y-faced Honeyeater N Holland HoneyeaterW-cheeked HoneyeaterEastern Spinebill
Silvereye Red-browed Firetail Spangled Drongo Dusky Woodswallow
Grey Butcherbird Aust Magpie-lark Pied Currawong Australian Magpie
Superb Lyrebird Satin Bowerbird Australian Raven


This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, April 1997