If we're talking about the most difficult bird to spot in South Australia, Plains Wanderers have got to be up there.
With less than 75 confirmed sightings in South Australia since 1840 and an estimated population of no more than 150 birds in the state, the chances of spotting one of these wobbly little characters are slim to none. They stand no higher than 19cm tall and weigh between 40g and 95g, with light brown coverings that blend seamlessly into their favoured habitat – the grasslands of southeastern Australia.
Plains-wanderers are highly specific in their grassland requirements, primarily inhabiting lowland native grasslands, showing a strong preference for grasslands composed of about 50% bare ground with vegetation that's sparse and less than 10cm in height, with few widely spaced plants up to 30cm.
This cryptic species (Pedionomus torquatus) is the sole representative from the family Pedionomidae, an unusual genetic lineage with the closest relatives being South American seed snipes.
The species was once widespread throughout the lowland native grasslands of coastal and subcoastal eastern Australia.
However, with the onset of widespread cultivation and agriculture, much of the Plains Wanderer's habitat has been lost and as a consequence its range has become more scattered throughout southeastern Australia and it's listed as critically endangered.
While the strongholds of these species are the Patho Plains of Victoria and the NSW Riverina region, South Australia holds claim to a small percentage of these birds in the northeastern corner of the state. Little is understood about this population and its movements are yet to be studied.
Over the past six months I've been working with Bush Heritage to better understand this South Australian population. I've been lucky enough to be working as one of the graduate interns for both Bush Heritage and Zoos SA. The basis of my project has been to assess the status and distribution of Plains Wanderers in South Australia, as well as study the fitness and behaviours of the captive population in Monarto Zoo, which is about an hour southeast of Adelaide.
In the past 20 years, Boolcoomatta Reserve, managed by Bush Heritage Australia on Adnyamathanha and Wilyakali country in the state’s northeast, has been one of the only sites in South Australia to provide somewhat consistent recordings of Plains Wanderers.
In this time there have been a total of 10 confirmed sightings through both targeted surveys and incidental sightings. Plains Wanderers are recorded in Boolcoomatta sporadically and it is hard to determine when and where they're present at the reserve. Not to mention that their markings, small size and habit of flattening themselves against the ground make them extremely difficult to spot.
With this in mind, we traveled to Boolcoomatta to try our luck at finding a Plains Wanderer. Adding further difficulty to our search, according to one of the lead Plains Wanderer experts- in the hotspots in Victoria, you can expect to search 30 minutes to 4 hours before you find a Plains Wanderer. At Boolcoomatta, you're looking at anywhere between 20 and 40 hours. Hopes were not high.
This trip we trialled the use of a thermal imaging camera as an alternative to spotlighting. This method has been successful in the eastern states and increases your chances of seeing warm, moving objects on difficult terrain. After four nights we had seen a stubble quail, inland dotterels, a black tailed native hen, a little button-quail and countless rocks that looked like Plains Wanderers.
On the last night, we piled into the car one last time. At this point we had spent up to 16 hours spotlighting and were far off the 40 hours deemed necessary to find one. At 1am after numerous false alarms, the thermal camera picked up something 20m from the car. A small little something that flushed into a nearby clump of vegetation.
Curious, we all got out to have a look and, sure enough, standing not too far away from us, was a male Plains Wanderer. I was so excited and shaking so badly I could hardly see through my binoculars! The distinctive markings and characteristics were undeniable.
We had recorded the 75th Plains Wanderer sighting in South Australia, and Boolcoomatta’s 11th documented sighting.
The sighting was made all the more exciting considering all the hard work and effort Bush Heritage staff and volunteers have put into maintaining Boolcoomatta throughout the most recent drought, and the countless hours staff and volunteers have spent searching for this elusive species.
Just three weeks later, the team saw a female Plains-wanderer in the vicinity of the 11th bird. These sightings are hopefully a sign of recovery after drought and an indication of good things to come.