The Wonder of the Plains-wanderer
One of Australia's rarest birds
A rare bird of Australia
Sometimes nature can be deceiving. Giant fish that could be mistaken for whales (Whale Sharks), fluffy upright marsupials that resemble bears (Koalas) and long, thin lizards without legs that look a lot like snakes (what else but legless lizards). These are all examples of where we commonly mistake one animal’s relationship to another.
One of Australia’s rarest, least known and most threatened birds – the Plains-wanderer – is another such enigma. Looking for all the world like a quail (at least to the untrained eye) this critically endangered species is in fact a strange shorebird.
In biological terms, it’s closest to (though still distant from) the seedsnipes of South America.
In fact the Plains-wanderer is so unusual, it is not just the only species in its genus, but also the only species in its entire family. That makes it as unique as the Numbat, Platypus or the extinct Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger).
Standing 15-19 centimetres tall, these delightful little ground birds are active by day, but are rarely seen even where they can still be found. Most sightings, when they do occur, are at night by spotlighting twitchers (bird watchers).
As is the case in only a relatively few bird species, it’s the female that is larger and more brightly coloured than the male. She sports a fancy reddish bib with a contrasting black and white speckled collar. Males are smaller and of more sombre appearance. This helps them be more camouflaged since it is the males that incubate the birds’ four eggs, in a shallow nest on the ground.
Habitat of the Plains-wanderer
Plains-wanderers are entirely dependent on native grasslands for their survival. They're quite particular about where they live. The loss of native grasslands is a major threat to their survival. And it’s not just losing habitat that’s a problem — it’s the type of habitat that remains. If the grass cover becomes too thick, or too thin, Plains-wanderers leave the area.
Sadly, their natural habitat has been largely destroyed or degraded by clearing, overgrazing by livestock and by introduced grasses.
Suitable parts of the Riverina area of south-west News South Wales, such as The Nature Conservancy's managed property, Gayini, are the only places left supporting these birds.
Protecting the Plains-wanderer
Tragically, these beautiful birds are under threat of extinction.
The Nature Conservancy supports the Nari Nari Tribal Council to manage their Country known as Gayini in the Riverina region of New South Wales.
And so it was very exciting in November 2019, that our team came across not one but five Plains-wanderers, including chicks, while spotlighting there. A first for this property!
Perfect spots for these beautiful birds are hard to come by. This came as very welcome evidence that the way the property is being managed to enhance the native grasslands — with not too heavy grazing but not too little either — is paying dividends for the conservation of this remarkable little Australian native, so this family can continue to survive.
It’s never been more important. The current number of Plains-wanderers is estimated to be between 250 and 1000 birds - a record low for the species. Which makes it even more amazing that our team spotted five at Gayini!
This family represents the future of this species, and it’s up to us to keep them safe so they can live, out of harm’s way.