A previously unpublished image above and below (cropped) is claimed by north Queensland naturalists John Young and Lloyd Nielsen to be a Buff-breasted Buttonquail. It was taken at a secret site late last year on a camera trap in north Queensland where Young claims to have encountered Buff-breasted and Painted Buttonquail together, along with the nests of both species.
As I reported last week - in the next post on this blog and in the pages of The Weekend Australian - Young published an image earlier this year of what he said was a Painted BQ on its nest at this site, labelling it on Facebook: “Male Painted Buttonquail brooding eggs on nest Number 5 after a serious search for breeding sites over the past few weeks.” When that image is “flipped” or inverted, however, it is clear the nest is the same as one in an image published in 2018 that Young claimed to be that of a Buff-breasted BQ at Brooklyn, a different site. The composite below shows the many features common to nests in the two images. In response to this publication, Young and Nielsen, who have launched a public appeal for funds to aid Young’s research at the secret site, directed a torrent of personal abuse at me, but neither denied its substance.
Much discussion ensued about what happened to multiple images of Buff-breasted BQ claimed to have been taken by Young at his new site. Young showed me the camera trap image on his phone during a visit to my home (below) last December. At the time I was initially impressed; the bird looked different and did not appear to me to be a Painted BQ. However, I was concerned that key facial features, especially eye colour, were obscured in the image and therefore I could not be certain. Young was insistent that I publicly agree with his identification and I did so after receiving an iron-clad assurance that he had other images showing the key missing features. My request to retain a copy of the image was denied.
As I freely admit, that was a mistake on my part. I subsequently looked again at the image on a bigger screen on Nielsen’s home computer, and considered buttonquail identification material from various sources. Those included notes published recently by Patrick Webster about plumage phases not previously known for Painted BQ, and useful commentary from my friend Chris Corben, an astute observer of the finer features of feathers. It seems likely this image in fact depicts a Painted BQ (below). The rump and upper tail of a Buff-breasted BQ should be sandy-rufous rather than brownish-grey. The relative absence of dark bars on the upperparts of Buff-breasted BQ suggest the species should be more sandy-rufous than Painted BQ. I discussed this in a previous blog post: https://sunshinecoastbirds.blogspot.com/2021/12/painted-or-buff-breasted-buttonquail-in.html
The claimed image of BBBQ is one of what Young insisted was a collection of 17 images taken from camera traps at the time. What happened to the others? They have not surfaced. Young (below, at his new site) said publicly they would be kept in safe hands by himself and Nielsen, until a joint paper they are working on about the Buff-breasted BQ is complete.
To my surprise, when I saw him in December, Nielsen said he was shown just the single image – the one featured in this post. Young claims more recently to have taken further images. He has furnished an unknown number of these in the form of colour prints on paper to Nielsen and others. One friend, Alwyn Simple, described the eyes of a bird in one print as “large milky yellow” and not the red eyes of a Painted BQ; below is a composite showing these differences.
Nielsen says he is “100 percent” convinced the latest images are that of Buff-breasted BQ. He initially said the earlier camera trap image was also “100 per cent” a Buff-breasted BQ; when I asked why, he referred to its “uniform and plain” tail and “streaky, dark” wing pattern. Later, Nielsen said that “perhaps I should have said 80 percent”. Last week on Facebook, Nielsen seemed to be having second thoughts about the adequacy of images produced to date, saying: “We need to get good high quality photographs...” and “we are hoping to get high res images this coming breeding season”. The waiting game continues and like many others, I would be delighted if these images eventually emerge. Nonetheless, it is curious that among the many BBBQ nests supposedly found over several decades, not a single image of a bird on a nest has surfaced, when organising this at night especially should not be difficult. In anticipation of further personal vitriol as a consequence of this post, I point out I am criticising neither Young nor Nielsen but am endeavouring to stick to facts which should be in the public arena.
It's worth recalling what John Young said on 28 November last year when he found the image that kicked off this thread: "I had 3 camera traps set up on 3 different hills about a kilometre apart and today I finally got a chance to go through the images, some 3000+ on the last camera trap. Half way through I became absolutely speechless..there in full colour taking up nearly a quarter of the frame was an image that I have only dreamt about. A huge Buff Breasted Button Quail!!! Lloyd and I just looked in astonishment as this was not the only image, I got a third bird also. Lloyd and I almost had tears running down our face. We have both worked so hard to get this thing and now..WE HAVE GOT THEM...WOW WOW WOW. I have them in 2 locations now a kilometre apart. EXCITING I have everything on 3 harddrives that are hidden away, " To which Lloyd Nielsen (below) added: "Wow! Absolutely mind blowing. First authentic colour pictures of a Buff-breasted Button-quail ever taken! Such an accomplishment! I knew John would pull it off!"
What follows is a transcript of my story in today’s edition of The Weekend Australian (2-3 July, 2022). The first three images in this blog post are central to the story. The first image is of a nest taken by John Young at Brooklyn in north Queensland, published in 2018 and claimed to be that of a Buff-breasted Buttonquail. The second image is of a Painted Buttonquail on a nest taken by Young at a different, undisclosed site where he says he has also photographed Buff-breasted Buttonquails and their nests; this was published last January. The third image is the second one “flipped” or inverted, so what appears on the left in the second image now appears on the right, and vice versa. When this image is compared with the first one from Brooklyn, many similarities are obvious, suggesting they are the same nest. The fourth image is a composition by Clive Hallam pinpointing some similar features.
QUAIL’S FLIGHT OF FANCY
Queensland Government authorities are refusing to classify the most mysterious and rare bird in Australia as “critically endangered” although its own experts conclude it may already be extinct.
A row over the fate of the buff-breasted buttonquail, a small ground bird found only in the woodlands of Queensland’s Cape York, erupted as doubts emerged over the authenticity of photographs claimed to be the first ever images of the buttonquail and its nest.
The bird is the only one of the estimated 900 bird species recorded from Australia for which there are no verified photographs. State authorities believe numerous sightings of the buttonquail – especially a spate of recent reports by prominent north Queensland naturalists John Young and Lloyd Nielsen – rule out the need to classify the bird as Critically Endangered, a status that would generate funds and management plans to save the species.
However, University of Queensland scientists studying the bird told authorities that many or all the sightings are questionable or baseless because of confusion by observers with a closely related but much more common species - the painted buttonquail.
An expert team from the university’s Recovery of Threatened Species group says the buff-breasted species has not been reliably seen for 100 years, when the naturalist William McLennan found birds in the Coen area of Cape York in 1922. The team headed by PhD student Patrick Webster has not found a trace of the bird during four years of intensive surveys across Cape York.
Young was propelled to international fame in 2013 when he took the first photographs of a night parrot, regarded then as the country’s rarest bird. Nielsen is a well-known natural history author and a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to conservation. After his parrot discovery, Young was employed as an ecologist by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to study both the night parrot and the buff-breasted buttonquail.
Young (above) claimed to see 25 buff-breasted buttonquail and find nine nests between 2016 and 2018 at Brooklyn, an AWC-owned property near Mt Carbine in north Queensland, in addition to multiple sightings in other places since the 1970s. He also claimed numerous night parrot records from north-west Queensland and South Australia.
Young left the AWC when doubts surfaced about some of his parrot records. A 2019 inquiry by the agency found those records were false or questionable, with the likelihood that eggs on one nest in Young’s images were fake. Young and Nielsen have since focused attention on the buttonquail, launching a public appeal recently for donations for research at a secret new north Queensland site where Young claims to have found the bird.
The AWC in 2018 published an image taken by Young, claimed to be one of the first of a buff-breasted buttonquail nest; it contained eggs. The agency also published what it said were the first images of the buttonquail itself, photographed in flight (below), but ornithologists concluded they were of such poor quality that the bird could not be identified.
Last January, Young published on social media an image of a nest with a painted buttonquail in it which, he said, was part of a collaborative effort by him and Nielson to compile a detailed publication about the birds, including comparisons between the two buttonquail species.
Young said the image demonstrated how differences between the nests of buff-breasted and painted buttonquails are “like chalk and cheese” (see his post below). But critics believe the photographs depict the same nest.
Forensic photography expert and RMIT University professor Gale Spring said metadata containing dates and other information were removed from the two images, so he could not be certain they are the same nests. However, “there are some landmark similarities between the egg photo and the bird photo that support the proposition that the two photographs are of the same nest”.
Young dismissed as “crazy” any suggestion that the images depicted the same nest. “They are two totally different nests,” Young said, declining to comment further.
However, his colleague Nielsen (below) said the nests appeared to be the same, pointing to an identical small white stone in both imaes: “I can’t imagine how John made the mistake. He knows the buff-breasted buttonquail well.”
Respected wildlife researcher Chris Corben said there are many features common to the two images : “It is evident to me that it is the same nest .”
Young has not photographed buff-breasted buttonquails in any of the nests he claims to have discovered, although scientists say this is often possible by approaching the nests at night or setting up camera traps.
Webster and his team were given the GPS co-ordinates for Young’s sites at Brooklyn by the AWC and searched them thoroughly, spotting only numerous painted buttonquail.
Young claimed late last year to have taken multiple photographs of a buff-breasted buttonquail at his new site. None were released publicly. Some ornithologists who saw one image say it is likely a painted buttonquail.
Although Queensland authorities dismissed the need for action to protect the species, two of their own experts sit on a national panel of scientific experts who conclude in a newly published paper that it is one of 16 wildlife species where there are no recent verifiable records, with a greater than 50 per cent chance they are already extinct.
A Queensland Department of Environment and Science spokesperson said the application to upgrade the buttonquail’s status was deferred because of the need for “further information justifying discounting some records and inconsistencies with recent publications”.
Asked about its experts believing the bird may be extinct, while at the same time declining to change its status, the department said : “There was no overlap of experts on the two processes and the processes involved differ and had different objectives.”
University of Queensland professor James Watson, who is overseeing the buttonquail research, said Webster’s team had carefully assessed numerous buff-breasted buttonquail reports. Watson said there had been unsubstantiated sightings in recent years: “These observations when investigated have no substance and have continued to contaminate the record.” The failure to list the bird as Critically Endangered means “it is very difficult to get any traction with practical, on-ground conservation actions.”
The university team last week submitted a fresh submission to the department seeking a status upgrade for the species.
Nielsen said that unlike himself and Young, doubters and “so-called scientific experts” had never seen a buff-breasted buttonquail and were in no position to pass judgement on the sightings of others.
Extensive modification of the Cape York woodlands by changed fire management and cattle grazing has drastically reduced populations of several bird species and is likely responsible for the demise of the buff-breasted buttonquail.
Young, with Nielsen’s support, claimed in 2006 to have discovered a new species of parrot in south-east Queensland – the blue-browed fig-parrot. The Queensland Government was forced to withdraw its support for the claim when investigations by The Australian cast doubt on the authenticity of an image of the bird.
END OF STORY: POSTSCRIPT. When photographs are “flipped” or inverted, they are mirror images of the original photographs. Why do photographers sometimes do this? You would have to ask them. The image below of a Masked Owl in north Queensland was taken by John Young and published in 2018.
The next image is also of a Masked Owl taken by John Young in north Queensland and published last March.
Following our visit to Victoria (next post) we crossed the border into South Australila for a pleasant couple of days at Mt Gambier, with its lovely Blue Lake.
We had a couple more relaxed days at Beachport, a nice little town at the southern end of the Coorong.
The campground here was alive with Common Wombats, with several on the lawn around our van after dark. Present in scrub about town were quite a few Rufous Bristlebirds, but they were shy and unresponsive: not surprising for this time of year.
It was then on to the German heritage town of Hahndorf for an overnight stay, and a few days in Adelaide. Here I tracked down a second introduced bird photo tick for the trip – the Barbary (African Collared) Dove.
We headed north for a couple of nights in the interesting historic settlement of Port Wakefield at the top of Yorke Peninsula. I needed a photo tick of Slender-billed Thornbill and several parties were found easily in thick saltbush adjoining the caravan park.
We drove south to the bottom end of the peninsula for 3 nights at the very pleasant township of Marion Bay. A Shingleback was there to greet us.
The town is the gateway to Innes National Park and its beautiful coastal scenery, where we were to spend a good deal of time.
I had seen White-bellied Whipbird many years ago on Kangaroo Island and was after an image. I looked unsucessfully along the track to Royston Head in Innes National Park, a well-known site, as well as along several tracks further north in the Warrenben Conservation Park. I eventually tracked down a pair calling near the West Cape Lighthouse in Innes. I saw one bird a couple of times briefly but like the bristlebirds, they weren’t in a mood for photographs. More co-operative were the many Southern Scrub-Robins about, both in Innes and Warrenben.
The Spotted Scrubwren here is at the eastern extremity of its range. Purple-gaped Honeyeater is one of the more common species in the park.
A pair of Painted Buttonquail showed well in Innes.
We continued north-east to the vast mallee BirdLife Australia-owned reserve of Gluepot for a three-night stay in Babbler Camp. I’d seen Black-eared Miner in this region in 1977 – when pure birds were more numerous than the Yellow-throated Miner hybrids which subsequently increased in numbers, threatening the future of the Black-eared Miner. Recent research indicates the species is at least holding its own in remote areas of mallee and is likely increasing its population. The birding was tough here in cold and windy conditions. Small groups of miners were regularly encountered but birds were flighty and difficult to observe. I concentrated on Tracks 7 and 8, where most recent records were from. The mallee was quiet but as energising as ever, while the sunsets did not disappoint.
Eventually I saw what I believe to be a “pure” Black-eared Miner drinking at the Grasswren tank; the absence of any indication of a pale rump and the submoustachial feathering below the bill in good viewing conditions indicated its identity.
A few other miners at the drinking station, like the one below, appeared to be either hybrids or it was difficult to be sure of their identity.
Mulga Parrots put in frequent appearances at the tank and elsewhere around the reserve.
A male Western Whistler was nice to photograph. I saw a Red-lored Whistler male briefly but it didn’t hang around.
We moved on to Morgan for an overnight stay on the Murray River and then to Balranald on the Murrumbidgee for a couple of nights. Once again, the abundance of water in the rivers and adjoining river red gum floodplains was impressive.
Yanga National Park, close to Balranald, was quite birdy. Several Greater Bluebonnets and Regent Parrots were seen here along with a Pallid Cuckoo and a large party of curious Emus.
We had another stay on the Murrumbidgee at Darlington Point, where Brown Treecreepers were engaging and numerous in the camping ground.
Less co-operative were Superb Parrots, but a couple were tracked down on the town’s golf course.
We headed north for a stopover in the delightful town of Mudgee. An Eastern Shrike-tit showed nicely in scrub outside town.
Our final stay of substance was three nights in the Coorongooba Camping Ground in Wollemi National Park in the famed Capertee Valley of eastern NSW. The sandstone cliffs and other scenic features in this area are breathtakingly beautiful. Again, when we were here a few years ago, the area was in drought. This time, lush vegetation and rushing streams were the order of the day.
Superb Lyrebirds were calling commonly but not showing well. A Rockwarbler was more co-operative.
Speckled Warblers also put on a show.
Gang Gang Cockatoos were present in numbers, feeding on some kind of gum nut along the road.
More surprising was a Barking Owl that serenaded us at night and was tracked down during the day.
Common Wombats were about the camping ground and several Sugar Gliders were located after being heard calling earlier.
Euros were numerous.
I stumbled upon a Brush-tailed Rock-Wallaby and its joey that were so close I couldn’t fit the whole animal in the frame. We continued on to overnight with friends who live near Dungog and a couple of coastal overnight stops in NSW before returning home.