There’s nothing else like it in the world, but the Plains-wanderer is also critically endangered and at risk of imminent extinction.
Found only in the arid grasslands of south-eastern Australia, there are estimated to be between 250 and 1,000 of these small, ground-dwelling birds left in the wild today.
Although a Plains Wanderer resembles a quail with lankier legs and a finer bill, it’s actually a closer relative of gulls and shore birds. The South American Seedsnipe – a plant-eating shorebird – is its closest relative and it’s thought the bird’s evolution could trace back 60 million years to when Australia was connected to South America and Antartica! 1
Standing about 12-15cm tall and weighing 40 to 95 grams, Plains Wanderers are small fawn coloured birds that blend in seamlessly with the plains of arid Australia. Their dappled feathers include white and blackish marks, with spots and streaks on the head and neck.
Adult males are light brown and have fawn-white underparts with black crescents. Females are larger and sport a distinctive white-spotted black collar around the neck and reddish brown chest.
Where do Plains Wanderers live?
Once found from Victoria through to Queensland, small fragmented populations are holding on in western Victoria, eastern South Australia and in the western riverina region of NSW.
Habitat structure is very important. Their preference is for semi-arid, native grasslands with a diversity of plant species, which usually occur on red-brown soils. Typically, good habitat contains around 50% bare ground, 40% herbs, forbs and grasses (mostly under 5cm but with some tussocks for concealment) and 10% fallen vegetation litter in which they’ll forage for seeds, leaves and insects.
Most recorded sightings in the last 30 years have been in the western riverina of NSW, but surveys across 5,000km2 of this area in the 1990s found even in this stronghold, only about 5% of the land was suitable habitat, shrinking to 1% or 2% in very hot or wet years when grasslands became too dense or were grazed too low. 2
Plains Wanderer behaviour
In suitable conditions, Plains Wanders are largely sedentary, although they may be more active during droughts.
Each bird would have an average home range of around 12 hectares. Males and females with overlapping ranges form breeding pairs, with the larger females defending their territories and mating with several birds in a season while the males incubate eggs and raise the young.
In suitable conditions females can lay multiple clutches of two to five eggs a year.
Threats to Plains Wanderers
Plains Wanderers are easy prey for foxes. If disturbed their first instinct is to run. While not entirely flightless, they tend to fly low and poorly, relying on camouflage to avoid being seen (we can attest to the fact, they’re very hard to see in daylight and easier to find at night with spotlights).
The main reason for the bird’s dramatic decline since European settlement has been the conversion of native grasslands for agriculture or dense pastural use.
What’s Bush Heritage doing?
When we bought Boolcoomatta Reserve in South Australia’s arid rangelands back in 2006, it was to secure a landscape under-represented in Australia’s National Reserve System. At the time there had only been a few records of Plains Wanderers on the property.
With sweeping plains of saltbush shrublands and grasslands, Boolcoomatta has enjoyed more than a decade of conservation management and has also benefitted from effective goat and fox control through the state government’s Bounceback baiting program.
Enter science intern Emily Matthews who spent three months at Boolcoomatta in 2017. We can only imagine her surprise when a Plains Wanderer ran in front of her as she was driving across the property.
Slamming on the brakes to let it pass, Emily counted herself lucky to have seen the rare bird at all. But then, just a few hundred metres further down the road, she spotted a second.
“Our first thought was, ‘What’s happening here?’” recalls the Federation University graduate. “We couldn’t believe it. One night we found a female and then we found a male nearby, so we assume they're a pair. We also found an active nest with eggs,” she says.
Overall, Emily recorded eight Plains Wanderers during her three months! This led us to working with the National Plains Wanderer Recovery Team to implement a new monitoring program. Thirty acoustic ‘Song Meters’ were deployed across the reserve and on neighbouring properties in suitable habitat. Sound recordings from each device are analysed by a call-recognition software program.
Since then Bush Heritage Ecologist Graeme Finlayson has also recorded three of the birds while out working out in the field.