One of my hopes is to see each of Australia’s finch species in the wild. I’ve managed to tick a fair few off the list, including all the firetail species. As a freshwater ecologist you’d think the widespread and common species often found near water courses where I do most of my work would have been amongst the first I’d account for. But Plum-headed finches have eluded me.
In August 2016 volunteers Lynette and Peter Haselgrove, visited Edgbaston Reserve to assess the possibilities for a 2017 Queensland Naturalist Club field excursion. On a brief familiarisation tour we stopped at the boundary share bore for a look around – it’s a high point in the flat landscape and a focus for birds. Amongst the familiar toy trumpet Zebra Finch calls I heard a different twittering and a caught a fleeting glimpse of what might have been a Plum-headed Finch.
A quick word to Peter had him scanning as well. He spotted them and directed Lynette and I to a pair having a drink on the edge of the waterhole. It was a new record for Edgbaston. We spotted another small group near some cumbungi in the spring country that afternoon. Those two observations fitted the description in the guide books – pairs or small flocks near tall grasslands, reeds, cumbungi fringing rivers/wetlands, occasional influxes of thousands. On subsequent trips to Edgbaston in 2016 I often saw small flocks, now that I knew what to listen for. Were they increasing in numbers, or had I just overlooked them in the past?
During the drive into Edgbaston for the first field trip of 2017 volunteer ecologist Christina Kindermann and I spotted dozens of small groups feeding on seeding grasses alongside the track or flying into nearby shrubs. It had been a very good growing year at Edgbaston and without cattle, sheep and goats the grasses had seeded well. Although we counted several hundred birds on that short drive I still wondered what an “influx of thousands” would look like.
Well let me tell you it is memorable. We arrived at the old shearing shed camp just before dusk. I was priming the bore pump so we could have a shower, when I spotted flocks of small birds flying over the acacia trees and diving into the cumbungi stand in the old house bore dam. Happy that my plumbing efforts meant a shower was imminent I left the pump and wandered over to the dam to listen and watch.
They sounded like plum-heads. Yet another flock of birds crashed into the reeds. Yes, they were plum-heads. I looked to the sky and could see another couple of approaching flocks in undulating flight over scattered trees. They dived into the cumbungi and disappeared. More and more flocks did the same thing for the next half an hour, perhaps three flocks a minute at the peak.
We had our “influx of thousands”. Although there were so many plum-heads roosting in the cumbungi, I couldn’t see a single one of them. I didn’t want to get too close and disturb them. I knew they were in there though – what a symphony of twittering!
Christina and I decided to get up before dawn to see if we could photograph what I thought might be a single huge flock erupting from the cumbungi. But they left the cumbungi the same way as they arrived the night before; small groups disappearing onto the Mitchell grass and acacia scrub. The last flock left just after the sun appeared on the horizon. And then a reed warbler warbled its relief at having some space back.
In a changed landscape with altered grazing and fire regimes it's rare to see large flocks of finches. I like to think that this is just another example of the good things happening to flora and wildlife on Bush Heritage Reserves.
I wonder if we can entice some Black-throated Finches to the neighbourhood...
* Plum Headed Finch image from Greg Miles reproduced under Creative Commons License.