Good numbers of Red-chested Buttonquail (above), Little Buttonquail, Painted Buttonquail and Stubble Quail were the order of the day (and night) during a visit to Dunmore Road in Western Creek State Forest, south of Cecil Plains on Queensland’s Darling Downs. A fair sprinkling of normally difficult or uncommon inland species for south-east Queensland were also present.
Toowoomba birder Tyde Bands uncovered this hotspot, which features extensive grassland bordering well-grassed woodland. It’s the best part of a 5-hour drive from the Sunshine Coast but all those buttonquail were hard to resist. I began exploring the grassland at 4pm, being joined soon after by Matt Hansen. During 2.5 hours, I or both of us saw a total of 5 Red-chested Buttonquail (above), 6 Little Buttonquail and 4 Stubble Quail in the grassland, and 1 Painted Buttonquail on the road (below).
Driving the road slowly at night failed to turn up any hoped-for buttonquail, as observers have sometimes encountered elsewhere. It may be that birds are attracted to roads only in special, well-defined circumstances. However we heard a couple of Red-chested Buttonquail and several Little Buttonquail both in the grassland and the woodland. We encountered an impressive Eastern Snapping (Wide-mouthed) Frog (below) along with a couple of Common Dunnarts. Good numbers of frogs seen recently on the road at night here were not present; several Cycloranas of some kind were calling at a recently flooded area but were well inside their burrows.
During another 2.5-hour stint the next morning in the grassland, this time extending to other areas, a further 6 Red-chested Buttonquail were seen (totall 11 for the trip) along with 5 Little Buttonquail (total 11) and 6 Stubble Quail (total 10). Many more Stubble Quail were heard during both sessions. The quail and buttonquail were easily identifiable on the wing and their behaviour differed. Red-chested showed as quite or conspiciously rufous and the upperwing panels were evident; this species flew the furtherest when flushed, usually going a considerable distance before ditching. Little Buttonquail flew just a short distance and typically gave a distinctive short call as ithey did so; birds were much paler with their white underparts and “saddles”. Stubble Quail were considerably larger and bulkier; they looked uniform greyish above with clear streaking. I managed poor shots (below) of this species and none of Little Buttonquail. Several more Painted Buttonquail were seen and heard in the woodland.
Horsfield’s Bushlark was abundant in the grassland.
A classy act to follow the grassland forays was as many as 10 White-backed Swallows hanging about with Tree Martins in the woodland. This species was once regular in south-east Queensland but appears to be in decline.
In the same area were quite a few White-browed Woodswallows, including adults feeding youngsters. A single Masked Woodswallow was among them.
Diamond Dove, another species usually found well inland, seemed to be quite plentiful. Several Common Bronzewings were seen.
A few Plum-headed Finches(below) were about along with bigger numbers of Zebra Finches.
Hooded Robin was encountered a couple of times, and Jacky Winter was common.
Cooloolabin rainforest (above)
The Sunshine Coast Council is being asked to acquire a privately owned tract of subtropical lowland rainforest following the recent destruction of native vegetation in the critically endangered habitat. The area is one of the largest remaining tracts of lowland rainforest in the Sunshine Coast council area and provides habitat for several rare bird species. It falls within the catchment of Wappa Dam, an important water storage for the region.
Two lot plans (RP 26965 and RP 901254) comprising 21 hectares of forested land abut Shrapnel Road and Cooloolabin Road (above) in the hinterland suburb of Cooloolabin. The land is registered under Land for Wildlife, a program which although voluntary, obliges landholders to manage habitat on their properties for native plants and animals.
The area was logged historically, with axe scarfs (above) still evident on huge tree stumps, but has not been logged for many years. Recently, several large trees were felled and other native vegetation was bulldozed for firebreaks in the rainforest remnant (below).
Subtropical lowland rainforest is listed as critically endangered by the federal government. Once widespread in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales, it has been reduced by land-clearing to isolated fragments. As elsewhere, very little of the habitat survives around the Sunshine Coast.
The Cooloolabin forest (below) is one of the finest tracts of lowland rainforest remaining in the region. It embraces a freshwater stream and vigorous stands of piccabeen palm, strangler fig, rose gum and other rainforest/wet sclerophyll forest trees. The rainforest tract abuts the 10,064-hectare Mapleton National Park which, although including little similar habitat, would help ensure its long-term viability.
The Cooloolabin forest is unusually rich in birdlife. Rainforest species which are scarce or absent elsewhere in the region are found there regularly and several species are resident.
For instance, the Superb Fruit-Dove (above) is a rare visitor generally to south-east Queensland but it occurs annually in Cooloolabin in small numbers. Other fruit-eating rainforest pigeons, such as the beautiful Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove (first image below) and Wompoo Fruit-Dove (second image) are common. Bird images here were taken at Cooloolabin.
The smartly plumaged White-eared Monarch (first image below) is a scarce inhabitant of lowland rainforest. Several pairs reside at Cooloolabin, where it can be reliably seen alongside its rainforest-loving close relatives, the Spectacled Monarch (second image below) and Black-faced Monarch.
Other uncommon wet forest birds include Barred Cuckooshrike, Regent Bowerbird and Crested Shrike-tit (below).
The property would require little maintenance as it is generally free of weeds other than lantana on its periphery, while the lush rainforest has resisted incursion by fire.
The Sunshine Coast Council is being asked to purchase the land under its Land Acquisition Program, funded by council’s Environment Levy. The property could be subdivided by the council to allow an existing residence to remain, along with its access road.
Male Atherton (Spotted) Quail-thrush, image by John Young.
This is a longer version of my story published in this weekend's edition of The Weekend Australian newspaper.
A decision by the Queensland Government to allow the killing of rare birds for scientific study has sparked a furious response from nature lovers and debate about whether government agencies should be moving on from a centuries-old tradition requiring the “collection” of wildlife for research.
The Queensland Environment Department approved the collection by the CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection of up to six specimens of a recently discovered bird known as the Atherton Quail-thrush
The decision was made without the department undertaking studies to determine the bird’s population or distribution. The department nonetheless concluded that the conservation status of the quail-thrush is of “least concern”.
The quail-thrush is known from a small area of woodland in north Queensland on the western fringes of the Atherton Tableland. It is closely related to the more widely distributed Spotted Quail-thrush of south-east Australia. The northern limit of the range of the Spotted Quail-thrush is 800km south of where the Atherton Quail-thrush is found.
The CSIRO argues that collection permits are needed for DNA studies to determine the taxonomic status of the bird – whether it might possibly be an undescribed species, or more likely a new subspecies of the Spotted Quail-thrush.
North Queensland naturalist John Young, who came to fame in 2013 when he took the first photographs of a Night Parrot, discovered the first nests of the Atherton Quail-thrush in 2019.
John Young says the necessary information to allow DNA studies to determine the bird’s taxonomy could be obtained by netting one alive for feathers and blood analysis; it could then be released: “In this day and age there is no way that killing birds for this sort of study can be condoned. We don’t know how many are out or anything about the bird’s status. There is no way the government can justify saying it is of ‘least concern’.”
Scientists have for centuries “collected” large numbers of specimens of wildlife to facilitate the study of its taxonomy and behaviour. Many museums prize collections of specimens of rare animals. Over-collecting in the past has been identified as a key factor in causing the extinction of many species.
In 1985, American scientist Christopher Filardi caught and killed an extremely rare moustached kingfisher in the mountains of Solomon Islands. The kingfisher was known from just three historic specimens. Its collection prompted an international outcry against Filardi’s American Museum of Natural History.
Female Atherton (Spotted) Quail-thrush (Image by Jonathon Munro)
At the time, eminent evolutionary biologist Marc Beckoff wrote in The Huffington Post: “Of course, “collect” means kill, a lame attempt to sanitise the totally unnecessary killing of a remarkable sentient being. When will the killing of animals stop? We need to give this question serious consideration because far too much research and conservation biology is far too bloody and does not need to be.”
In a letter to concerned north Queensland residents last week, Queensland Environment Minister Meaghan Scanion (below) defends the quail-thrush permits. The letter says the department took into consideration whether the CSIRO’s objectives could be met by non-lethal means; the immediate and long-term impacts that collection would have on species conservation; and the experience and qualifications of collectors.
“The minister acknowledges the contribution organisations such as CSIRO and state museums make to the conservation of native species and that at times, it is necessary for specimens to be collected from the wild to enable vital work to be undertaken,” the letter says.
The quail-thrush was first photographed by Atherton wildlife tour guide Jonathon Munro in 2008. Jonathon Munro says he has been contacted by several museums asking for the whereabouts of birds so multiple specimens could be collected: “I was prepared to help trap birds and take tissue/blood/feather samples and whatever else was necessary for their study, and then release them, but I was told that birds had to be collected. It was further suggested that if they were netted, that would be better than shooting because it would cause less damage to the specimens. Not once was I ever asked about numbers, habitat or distribution.”
Leo Joseph, the director of the CSIRO’s Australian Wildlife Collection, says he has deferred plans to collect birds in response to community concerns, but he would discuss the matter further with those concerned.
Leo Joseph says the conservation of birds can be enhanced by collection, and a type specimen was needed to describe a new species or subspecies: “I wouldn’t see the need to collect more than one or two…. We won’t properly know if it’s a distinctive population or subspecies or whatever without at least one specimen. The more we know about how distinctive a bird is, the better it can be for the bird.”
He adds he has always been open to the birding community about the collection plan: “It’s no secret. I’ve been up there and talked to BirdLife North Queensland. I’m happy to talk to them again.”
Jonathon Munro and John Young say the Atherton Quail-thrush differs from the Spotted Quail-thrush in various ways including call, the size and structure of nests, and the colour distribution on male birds.
Image by John Young below: John Young in Atherton (Spotted) Quail-thrush habitat:
The Covid-19 pandemic extinguished 2020 travel plans for Africa and Europe. We had local birding for entertainment, however, as well as an excellent winter trip to Cape York and the Atherton Tableland. I set myself the goal of beating my 2018 total of 310 bird species photographed in a calendar year in the greater Sunshine Coast region. This is an annual competition run by BirdLife Australia Sunshine Coast. Photographs in Spring reported previously included Red-backed Buttonquail, Lewin’s Rail and Barn Swallow, while Eastern Ground Parrots showed brilliantly at Cooloola. As November was drawing to a close, I was short of catching my 2018 total of 310. A Short-tailed Shearwater on a Mooloolaba pelagic trip was a belated addition, though nothing else was added out wide and a hoped for December trip was cancelled due to bad weather.
Photographing a Masked Owl in Bellthorpe National Park was a welcome break as I’d heard them several times during the year without even a glimpse.
Nutmeg Mannikin was another I’d searched far and wide for before finally nailing a few in long grass near Bli Bli, while I managed poor but identifiable images of King Quail at Finland Road.
I had better luck photographing a female Red-backed Buttonquail at Finland Road in flight – extraordinary to capture a bird I’d never photographed before, twice within a few weeks.
A trip to Double Island Point was adventurous because I got bogged (and rescued) twice in the soft beach sand, but I did manage to snap a fine Lesser Frigatebird soaring over the light house - Number 310 for the year, equalling 2018. (This species I saw but failed to photograph on a pelagic earlier in the year.)
I did a trip out to Kilcoy, and was pleased to find a Black Falcon at the town abattoir, though I’d photographed one earlier in the year (a species I missed in 2018). A fine pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles put in an appearance nearby.
So the hunt was on in the final days of 2020 to exceed the 2018 total. Success came in the form of two rarities on the same morning. I photographed an adult male Black Bittern along Cranks Creek in Tewantin. I’d seen the species there several times in the past but never managed an image, and I’d looked without success from my kayak at Tin Can Bay, where I photographed one in 2018.
Later that morning I found a Pectoral Sandpiper at Yandina Creek Wetland. This is always an excellent shorebird to encounter and just the third record for our region, so it was a fitting end to the 2020 Big Year, with a total of 312 species. The bird in the following images is in the company of Red-kneed Dotterels and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. (In 2020 I also photographed Brush Bronzewing at Cooloola, Bridled Tern on a pelagic trip and Red-chested Buttonquail near Nanango - but the images didn’t pass muster.) I regard these indulgences as a personal challenge – the setting of fun goals to achieve – rather than a competition. I won’t be partaking this year and would be very happy for this tally to be overtaken.
The avian New Year started with a bang when Cairns birder Adrian Walsh photographed a Nordmann’s (Spotted) Greenshank on the Cairns Esplanade. This is a rarity worldwide with as few as 1000 birds surviving. It had previously been known in Australia from a handful of sightings in northern Western Australia. The last two sightings from that part of the world were made at Roebuck Bay by Adrian Boyle in late November-early December last year: the Cairns bird is the first record for eastern Australia and incredibly, the third for the nation in five weeks. Since I’d missed the species at known sites in China, Vietnam and Malaysia, I was particularly keen to see it.
It turned out the greenshank had been present since at least December 26, 2020, when local birders photographed it but assumed they had a Terek Sandpiper. The bird was photographed in the morning of January 1 by Adrian Walsh, who realised he was on to something. It was foraging on exposed mud and sand flats at mid-tide towards the southern end of the esplanade, not far from the Cairns CBD, and associating loosely with a single Common Greenshank. At the right time of the tide cycle in the late afternoon, a large number of local birders saw the bird in the same spot, although it was more distant.
The Nordmann’s was present again in the morning of January 2 so I hopped on a plane that would get me to Cairns in time for the hoped-for afternoon show. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The bird showed brilliantly in the late afternoon sun, and closer than it had been during the earlier encounters. The greenshank was feeding actively for the 50 minutes or so I was watching, with brief spells to preen. It seemed most interested in catching crabs and was often running, its body relatively elongated and close to the ground, indeed recalling a Terek Sandpiper.
Although observers reported earlier that it was in the company of the Common Greenshank, I saw the Nordmann’s join that bird just briefly after flying and landing close to it. The Nordmann’s appeared to be quite relaxed about the large number of observers. It fed over about 200 metres of shoreline while I watched, tending to stick to the same stretch of sand and mud instead of foraging further afield. As the tide receded it became more distant, preferring to feed near the waterline.
The bird was smaller than I expected, being not much bigger than Grey-tailed Tattlers feeding nearby. See size comparisons with that species (above) and with Great Knot and Curlew-Sandpiper (below).
Other shorebirds present were Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit (the two godwit species below) , Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Terek Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Eastern Curlew. I was told this morning by Adrian Walsh that the bird is again at the usual spot today, notwithstanding heavy rainfall in the region associated with a tropical low.