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Plains Wanderer. Photo Andrea Tschirner.
Plains Wanderer. Photo Andrea Tschirner.

Songs of the plains

Words by Bron Willis
Location: Adnyamathanha and  Wilyakali Country, South Australia
Published 17 Oct 2022
Despite their surprising choice of habitat, acoustic records of the critically endangered Plains Wanderer are on the rise at Boolcoomatta Reserve.

It’s a couple of hours after dark and the bumps in the track bounce PhD student Saskia Gerhardy around in the ute as she peers down at her iPad. Driver and Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager Graeme Finlayson watches the headlights reveal the open plains of Boolcoomatta Reserve, on Adnyamathanha and Wilyakali Country in South Australia.  

On one side of the ute is a mounted set of thermal binoculars and on the other, a spotlight. It’s June 2022 and the first night of Saskia’s sixth research trip here. She’s holding her breath for a sighting of a bird that has occupied so many of her waking moments.  

Saskia Gerhardy has found another Plains Wanderer.
“Plains Wanderers are beautiful, tiny birds, I just I adore them,” says Saskia.

“They make me laugh… they’re these wobbly little creatures – they look almost comical with their big, yellow, googly eyes.”  

Saskia’s eyes are glued to the iPad and Graeme waits for her call, “Stop! There’s one ahead!” The thermal binoculars pick up contrast in heat. While they also pick up other creatures, Saskia has now seen enough Plains Wanderers to know what they look like on the screen. Incredible, given they’re critically endangered.

Plains Wanderers, the only member of the Pedionomidae family, were once found roaming the lowland native grasslands of coastal and subcoastal eastern Australia, but they’ve experienced rapid decline since a large portion of their habitat was lost to land clearing. Now, their population is thought to be around 1000 with less than 85 confirmed sightings in South Australia since 1840.

A Plains Wanderer at Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo by Saskia Gerhardy.

At Boolcoomatta, sightings of these small, quail-looking birds had been relatively rare. But not long after the land began to recover from the extreme 2019-20 drought and Bush Heritage’s tireless on-ground management, that changed. “Four months after the drought broke, we started picking up calls on our song meter grid [acoustic recorders] and in October last year, we noticed a ridiculous number of calls, including breeding calls,” said Graeme. 

On Saskia’s most recent trip, she recorded an astonishing 11 birds.

“Usually after hours of searching, we’d find one at the end of the trip and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief,” says Saskia. “But two hours into our first night we saw our first bird, and then another and – oh, my goodness, there was another!”

After receiving ethics approval Saskia was also able to catch eight Plains Wanderers and on her next trip, she plans to attach tracking devices to the birds, as well as take samples of genetic material to uncover important genetic data.

Six weeks after picking up breeding calls in June this year, Saskia was delighted to find two fledgling chicks.

“The conditions at Boolcoomatta are now good enough that they’re not only surviving, but they’re having young. The recent rains have brought on ideal conditions and the ongoing management of the property has really improved their chances. It’s quite a credit to the Boolcoomatta team.”

The surprising thing for Graeme and Saskia is where the birds have been found: the Mundi Mundi Plains is chenopod country where bluebush and saltbush grow. But Plains Wanderers are recognised as grassland specialists. “It’d be pretty far-fetched to call those plains grasslands,” says Graeme.

Research from Victoria and New South Wales has identified strict requirements of Plains Wanderer habitat, including around 50% bare ground, where most vegetation is less than 5cm in height, spare a few widely spaced taller species. “We’re finding nothing like that at Boolcoomatta,” says Saskia.

The finding has intrigued Saskia and Graeme.

“When we see this large-scale modification to their habitat, we do wonder where these guys are going to move to. They’re already living in such a fragmented matrix of what’s left of their preferred habitat,” says Saskia.

But Graeme finds hope in the way that this tiny, industrious bird has brought together a raft of people. “It’s not just conservation-minded people that have come together for the Plains Wanderer. The whole community is getting on board. Stories like this give me hope.”

Bush Heritage gratefully acknowledges Chris and Gina Grubb for their continued support of PhD Placements across the organisation, including Saskia Gerhardy’s work on Plains Wanderers.

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