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.
“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.
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.