Eyrean Grasswren in the spotlight

Tuesday 21 September, 2010

Ethabuka Reserve

Clever thinking and crafty techniques lured the elusive Eyrean grasswren into the spotlight at Ethabuka.

First described in 1875 but with no reliable sightings until 1961, the Eyrean grasswren is something of a mystery and has kept bird lovers guessing.

Although it has a high-pitched call and is always on the move hopping, bounding or bouncing along, this reddish-backed bird is a tricky one to spot. That's because it hangs out and hides in remote places where few people go.

At home in the desert

The Eyrean grasswren makes its home and feeds on insects and seeds in clumps of dune cane grass in the eastern and southern Simpson and Strzelecki Deserts in South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. 

Eyrean grass wrenFootprints in the sand helped locate the elusive Eyrean grasswren. Photo: Graeme Chapman.

'And', says Dez Wells of Birds Australia Southern Queensland (BASQ), 'it's only ever found on top of the dunes, never in between.'

Excited about the possibility of spotting these elusive birds for the first time, 14 volunteers took part in a recent BASQ survey at Bush Heritage's Ethabuka Reserve.

Their aim was to identify the presence of the Eyrean grasswren as well as other bird species.

Ethabuka lies at the northern end of the Simpson Desert on the Queensland–Northern Territory border and is part of an Important Bird Area (IBA) designated by Birds Australia.

Venturing out into the reserve's extensive dune system, the volunteers walked long distances in their mission to find the mystery bird and other species.

'It's an amazing landscape of far-off horizons and orange-red earth dotted with dune systems up to a kilometre apart with spinifex or gidgee swale in between,' says Dez.

Electronic trickery

Equipped with MP3 players with microphones and speakers, the volunteers used a version of a technique first used by Birds Australia North Queensland, having first received ethics approval for use of the innovative technique.

At regular 200-metre intervals, they played back the Eyrean grasswren's call to entice the birds out of hiding. 'Without playback we probably wouldn't have found the birds,' says Dez.

'When we did first come across them, they would make large hops across the sand and vanish into the next clump of cane grass, so we modified our survey method slightly and looked not just for suitable areas of cane grass habitat but also for signs of footprints.

Once we found those, we would play back the calls to see if we got a response.'

Birds on the reserve thriving 

Although Dez and his team surveyed less than 5% of the dunes, they were thrilled to find Eyrean grasswrens at more than 10 sites across the reserve.

This suggests the grasswren is not only more abundant than previously believed, but also that its range extends much further north.

Sightings of the Eyrean grasswren were not the only cause for excitement; BASQ experts recorded 124 bird species on Ethabuka over 10 days, bringing the total number of bird species recorded on the reserve to nearly 150.

Many of these – such as the red-chested button-quail and the western gerygone – have never been sighted at Ethabuka before.

Dr Jim Radford, Bush Heritage's Science and Monitoring Manager, was excited about the results.

'We've done surveys like this on Ethabuka before,' Jim says. 'But this is the first time we've joined forces with the IBA monitoring program. Being able to tap into the expertise of Birds Australia Southern Queensland and add that to our own is just fantastic.'

Species profile

Eyrean grasswren
(Amytornis goyderi)

Length: 140–165 mm

Identification: Cinnamon-chestnut above. Underparts, chin to belly are white except for flanks which are pale buff on the male but a deeper rufous-chestnut on the female. Face finely streaked black and white for male and female. Tail feathers brown, edged buff. Short finch-like bill is well suited for crushing the large seeds of the cane grass.

Distribution: Canegrass- and spinifex-covered dunes in the eastern and southern Simpson and Strzelecki Deserts across SA, Qld and the NT.

Nesting: Breeds August to September.

Threats: Habitat loss due to changed fire regimes, and over-grazing stock and feral animals, particularly rabbits.

Did you know?

Bush Heritage supporters are helping to protect the cane grass dunes where the Eyrean grasswren lives at Ethabuka.

Thanks to our supporters we've been able to protect their habitat by reducing grazing from livestock and feral animals.

By Charlotte Francis

Ethabuka Reserve was purchased for the purpose of nature conservation with the assistance of Diversicon Environmental Foundation and the Australian Government under the Natural Heritage Trust's National Reserve System program.

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