Monday, 17 July 2023
This story originally ran in our Winter 2023 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.
What’s the most difficult bird in Australia to see?
I first wondered this when I was preparing for the challenge of trying to find every Australian bird in one year in 2002. I called my quest The Big Twitch and ultimately travelled over 150,000 kilometres around Australia and its territories by land, sea and air. While I did find over 700 species, not surprisingly, I didn’t manage to see everything.
Some, such as Night Parrot and Coxen’s Fig-Parrot, I never really expected to find. They were so rare that nobody had seen them for decades, or if they had, were unable to repeat the sighting or show the bird to anyone else. I missed a few birds such as Black Grasswren and Princess Parrot because I couldn’t access the core of their remote range (although, frustratingly, twice I was at a site where Princess Parrots turned up within weeks of my visit). I knew where to look for others that I ultimately dipped on such as Grey Falcon and Carpentarian Grasswren, but their scarcity and elusive nature defeated me.
There were some birds, however, that I had no real idea where to find, despite my then 20 years of birding experience plus guidance from experts. They were not necessarily the rarest, like Orange-bellied Parrots or Noisy Scrub-birds which, though few in number, had known locations in which to search for them. They were species like the Chiming Wedgebill, which I had naively assumed I would bump into while seeking out rarer species in Central Australia. Others I encountered randomly, such as the Square-tailed Kite that was soaring above an outer suburban highway near Brisbane, or the flock of Fork-tailed Swifts that flew overhead, somewhat out of range, at Gluepot Reserve in South Australia’s Murray Mallee, or the Gouldian Finches I almost ran over on a track near the Western Australian–Northern Territory border.
I learned so much about Australian birds and their habitat preferences that year, but for many species what I discovered was that there are no certainties in finding them, even when you are in seemingly the right habitat.
Fast forward 20 years to last winter, when I was planning to take a friend from California on a big, outback birding trip from Melbourne to Mount Isa. With the deserts blooming after a triple La Nina, boom-and-bust specialists like Budgerigars and Cockatiels would be in abundance as well as a suite of normally difficult to locate desert birds such as Inland Dotterels and Flock Bronzewings. I was fairly confident that this would be the trip of a lifetime. And yet…
As I perused his wish list, I started to feel a little stressed. Sure, I had seen all of them during my Big Twitch, but I’d had a whole year. It wasn’t the rare or restricted-range species such as Mallee Emu-wren or Carpentarian Grasswren that concerned me, but those that, while fairly widespread, had no location they could reliably be found in.
It got me thinking about how many other Australian species I still really didn’t have a handle on. So I checked in with a bunch of experienced birders and professional bird guides—people who find birds for others for a living—and asked them which birds make them break into a sweat when a potential client has them on their wishlist.
The shortlist we came up with was not small, with over 60 different Australian Pimpernels. There was a disturbingly high number of birds that are becoming much more difficult to find, and not just through known destruction or contraction of their habitat. Several of the experts noted other species with wider ranges such as Partridge Pigeon and Black-breasted Buzzard that they are seeing less frequently.
So here is the whittled-down list of what I consider to be ten of the most difficult-to-find birds in Australia. I didn’t include species such as Buff-breasted Button-quail or Coxen’s Fig-Parrot which may actually be extinct. I have also left off some of our most Critically Endangered species such as Regent Honeyeater or Orange-bellied Parrot because we would expect them to be hard to find (though for most, we do know where to look for them).
While not all my experts agreed, this is one species that still has me baffled. Phil Maher of Australasian Ornithological Services, who sometimes finds them breeding on the Riverina grasslands he visits on his Plains-wanderer tours, suggests it’s “quite possibly the most eruptive, nomadic species in Australia” and that he can sometimes go up to ten years without sightings at his Plains-wanderer sites.
I am still unclear as to what habitat the species actually prefers. It is said to favour the wetter areas with longer grass in open grasslands—yet not quite as long and dense as the habitat preferred by Red-backed Button-quails. It seems to be most often encountered on the vast plains of the Gulf Country or the Barkly Tableland, yet distinguishing their preferred spots seems to be more of an art than a science.
I had heard that the best method is to look at night, yet despite doing a lot of night driving throughout western and north-western Queensland my Californian friend and I failed to spy even a single button-quail or quail of any species. Perhaps the booming grasslands we were driving through were too dense for Red-chested Button-quails and they had moved further afield. A bunch of sightings from south-eastern Australia in the last few years possibly confirm this—who knew that a backyard in inner-urban Sydney would be a good place to look!
Pelagic seabirds are elusive by their nature, being borne upon the sometimes erratic winds and currents of the oceans. Both Mottled Petrels and South Polar Skuas pass by the east coast on their annual migrations from their southerly breeding grounds, yet only in certain years do the winds bring them close enough to shore to be picked up on pelagic trips.
We do know, however, roughly know where and when to expect both these seabirds to turn up. For my seabird nomination, the Streaked Shearwater, there is still a strong element of uncertainty as to where to find them. Seemingly the only reliable location in which to see Streaked Shearwaters is between the Kimberley Coast and Ashmore Reef in the Indian Ocean during the warmer months. Everywhere else seems much more of a lottery. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that it was realised that Japanese seabirds made into Australian waters. The first records were in the relatively shallow depths of the Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria. I’ve seen them en route to Ashmore, at the continental shelf on a pelagic trip out of Brisbane and looking out from the cliffs above Sydney’s Maroubra Beach. I’ve also been told that the best place to look for them is just beyond where subtropical rivers empty out into the sea, but have never had any luck at such sites. Looking at the records in BirdLife’s Birdata, it seems that nowhere is its occurrence universally consistent.
Many might have assumed that I would include Chestnut-breasted Whiteface—a close relative of Banded Whiteface—in this list. Both species are elusive due to their preference for remote desert locations, and Chestnut-breasted has a far more limited range, essentially being confined to South Australia. Yet precisely because of its status as a mega rarity, some of the sites where it can be found have become well-known. Admittedly they seem to have disappeared from what was the number one site for them on the Strzelecki Track near Lyndhurst, but there are now several locations around Coober Pedy and Marla where birders can find them.
Even though it has a much wider distribution, Banded Whiteface is exceedingly thinly spread across the outback. The type of country where it is most often seen is some of the most desolate habitat imaginable. As one guidebook put it, “if a site looks like it doesn’t support any birdlife, then Banded Whiteface should be there!” Unfortunately, there is a lot of Central Australia that fits this description.
As it was, the Californian and I only saw one Banded Whiteface despite travelling through several hundred kilometres of suitable habitat, and this was when a bird popped up on a scraggly bush to sing as we were unsuccessfully searching for another elusive species, the Grey Falcon.
With a range covering all but the wetter, forested areas of mainland Australia, the Ground Cuckoo-shrike should theoretically not be too difficult to find. Tell that to every birder who’s never managed to see one! For all the thousands of kilometres of outback driving I did in 2002, I only managed to encounter Ground Cuckoo-shrikes four times over the entire year. Twenty years later, my hopes of just stumbling onto one as we drove did not come true and it remains a glaring blank in my friend’s checklist.
It seems I am not alone in this experience, one of the most experienced Outback bird guides, Peter Waanders of Bellbird Tours says that Ground Cuckoo-shrike is one bird that “you can’t just reliably pin down”. He suggests that the most reliable site he knows of is of a pair that nest on one of the NSW Riverina properties that Phil Maher visits on his Plains-wanderer tours, however, Phil himself has noted that they don’t nest there every year.
So unless you hear of a very recent sighting that you can get to quickly, the best method to find a Ground Cuckoo-shrike is probably still just driving the endless plains of inland Australia and hoping you connect with one.
This restricted range species is usually seen in grassy clearings among or adjacent to the rainforests of the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland. Even when present, it’s bright green colouring and quiet demeanour means it can go unnoticed in the rainforest. Compounding the problem is that even within their range they seem to very mobile, responding to the seeding of grasses in different locations.
Local birders may know of favourite haunts for this species, but reliable, regular sites are few and far between. One legendary spot is the grassy clearing near the top of Mount Lewis near Julatten. I’d venture a guess that an overwhelming majority of birders who have seen this bird in Australia have encountered it there. Yet even at this location it’s not guaranteed. I discovered this in my Big Twitch year, finally connecting with these delightful birds on Christmas Eve (my 700th bird for the year) after seven unsuccessful previous attempts.
While this species (recently elevated to full species status from Crested Shrike-tit) is now being seen more often than previously, with a slate of sightings from woodlands along the Central Arnhem Highway, I remain suspicious. It is a species I have yet to find, despite always keeping an eye and ear out whenever I’ve been in the savanna woodlands of the Top End and the Kimberley. (Clearly not often enough!)
The trouble with finding Northern Shrike-tits is that there is so much of this tropical savanna habitat across the Top End that is seemingly suitable yet the bird does not occur there. A better understanding is developing of which eucalypt species and woodland structure it prefers, yet the main areas where it is known to occur differ from each other in fundamental characteristics such as soil drainage or terrain. There is even a population further into Arnhem Land that inhabits paperbark woodland that is seasonally inundated.
We shouldn’t take the higher number of recent sightings for granted, however. This could be a cyclical thing, and there are now plans afoot to develop gas wells and fracking sites in much potentially suitable woodland across the entire Top End.
Very few people today would remember Alexandra, the Danish wife of the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) for whom the Princess Parrot was named. Few of those who have seen this beautiful desert parrot in the wild will never forget the experience.
Sadly though, the majority of birders are like me and have never experienced such joy. The chances of doing so are as remote as its ranges across the Western Deserts. For many years, the only likely chance of seeing a Princess Parrot was to mount an expedition along the isolated Canning Stock Route.
But every now and then, there is an influx of the species to areas that are within a day’s drive of Alice Springs such as in 2012 and 2010 when large numbers appeared and even nested. They soon retreat back to depths of the remote deserts, however, meaning only those that exercised their ‘fast-twitch muscles’ in time get to experience the wonder of these stunning birds in the wild. These events are so rare that researchers still have no clear idea of how many Princess Parrots are likely to be out there. The 2020 Action Plan for Australian Birds lists the species as ‘Near Threatened’ with an estimated population anywhere between 900 and 10,000 birds!
Using Birdata’s explore function, one can see that Grey Honeyeater is distributed from the Murchison Region of Western Australia, across the mulga country to the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges with a concentration of records around Alice Springs. This may not necessarily be because they are more common around Alice, but that more birders are out and about. Many of the records happen to be at places on the tourist trail such as the Alice Springs Desert Wildlife Park and John Flynn’s Grave, however, even at these sites they seem to only be intermittent.
The bird is seen so infrequently that the jury is still out as to whether it’s genuinely nomadic or simply overlooked within its territory. Some of Australia’s most experienced birders have never seen this bird, and my only encounter during my Big Twitch was totally flukey. I’d already searched in vain in Western Australia where it is reputedly more common, and when I arrived at a site at the start of the Tanami Track, about 50 kilometres north of Alice Springs, it was late morning and already quite hot. There was a lot of potential habitat in amongst the mulga trees so I decided to start looking at precisely the site mentioned in the guidebook. Pulling up, I was familiarising myself with the call by playing the tape in the car stereo. On stepping out of the car I thought I had left the engine on as the call was still playing, but I had the car keys in my hand, the engine was off. In a never-to-be-repeated moment in the history of birding, a pair Grey Honeyeaters were calling in a tree exactly where the book said to look (to the metre!)
Perhaps the ultimate boom-and-bust bird, these ethereal raptors have long held a sense of mystery as they would be rarely seen by birders unless they mounted an expedition into the Channel Country in western Queensland. Every so often, however, following boom conditions where their main prey, the long-haired rat, reaches plague proportions, the kites also boom in population and spread out all around the country, sometimes for a few years, before eventually contracting back to their core range.
Starkly, there was not the expected flurry of sightings of Letter-winged Kites following the huge La Nina years of 2010–11, and to date we haven’t yet seen it in the aftermath of recent conditions. Some outback tour operators have sites where they are still recording Letter-winged Kites, albeit in extremely remote locations in the Channel Country or along South Australia’s Strzelecki Track.
One of these tour guides—on his last-ever commercial guiding trip—was able to tip me off where to look for them to show my Californian friend. Twenty years earlier I had been unsuccessful until I had stumbled across the largest flock ever recorded—106 birds—on the edge of the Simpson Desert in the Northern Territory. The site of these elegant birds hovering above me is one that I will cherish forever. I just hope that one day these birds will be doing so well, and our knowledge of where to find them so good, that others will share such sublime sights.
Before I began my Big Twitch year, the bird I had least idea of where to look for it was the Australian Painted-snipe. It was at the height of the Millenium Drought, so there was a chance that some may turn up in an unexpected wetland away from their core range of the Murray–Darling and Lake Eyre Basins. As it was, I got lucky with a small flock turning up at wetland formed by a leaky pipe in a suburb in the Gold Coast.
This is one of the problems in locating painted-snipes—they are seen as often in seemingly substandard wetland habitats such as irrigation ditches or litter-strewn urban ponds as they are in their natural habitat of freshwater lignum swamps of the inland. In good seasons where flooding rains have made such wetlands flourish, they can be so vast and inaccessible that birds go unnoticed, and nobody can predict which wetland refuge they will turn up in during dry years.
In the drought year of 2002 there were sightings from at least 30 sites across mainland Australia, the majority of which were in coastal refuges. However, in 2022, despite the generally good conditions, Australian Painted-snipes were recorded at only one site. This rapid drop-off in sightings over the last 20 years has seen the bird elevated to a national Endangered status with a mooted population of as few as 340 surviving birds.
On a brighter note, 2023 has seen a few more sightings emerge with records at six locations in the first half of the year. There is a project run by ecologist, Matt Herring involving BirdLife Australia’s Wetland Birds Team that is hoping to attach satellite trackers to several Australian Painted-snipes to unlock the mystery of their movements, however, no birds have remained at any site long enough for the team to catch up with them. When even the experts can’t find their subject species, what hope for the ordinary birder?
It’s important to note, however, that in almost every instance, the initial sighting has been made by a general birder. So never give up—sometimes when you seek them here and seek them there, they, like all these Pimpernel birds, do allow themselves to be found!
With thanks to Rohan Clarke, Amanda Lilleyman, Phil Maher, Andrew Stafford and Peter Waanders for their input. I would like to add that the final list is down to my judgement alone, so if you disagree wildly with my conclusions, please don’t give any of them a hard time for what appears in the list!
This story originally ran in our Winter 2023 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.
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