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BANQ Buff-breasted Button-quail Search: 3-4 December 2011

Dominic Chaplin

Summary

A successful search for the Buff-breasted Button-quail was carried out by BANQ in December, 2011. This report reviews information and some recent sightings.

(Lloyd Nielsen should be consulted for more comprehensive information.)

Participants in BANQ search

Dominic Chaplin, Murray Hunt, Kath Shurcliffe, Dave Houghton, Greg Bortolussi, Cate Small, Nick Morris, Colin Reid, Rob Dougherty, Bruce Reynolds, Marcus Banton, Xenia Dennett, Sue Abbotts

Background

Birds Australia North Queensland has an interest in birdlife occurring in an area about North of Ayr, stretching to the NT border and to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula. A number of species occur in very low numbers in this area. These species include, amongst others, the Palm Cockatoo, Eclectus Parrot, Golden-shouldered Parrot, Carpentaria Grasswren, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and the Buff-breasted Button-quail. The large colourful iconic species such as the parrots have received some level of research interest in the past. The smaller dull brown species attract limited interest and funding.

The question to ask is what can or should Birds Australia do, as a volunteer organization, to help these less colourful species?

For the Carpentaria Grasswren, we have carried out surveys in NW QLD to gain an understanding of its current range and status. We now have a better feel for its current status and are concerned about its vulnerability to fire events.

For the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, we are attempting to gather more information on its current range and hoping to find out whether numbers are steady or decreasing.

The Buff-breasted Button-quail is a different case altogether. In recent years it has been recorded in very low numbers on the dry infertile rocky hillslopes West of the Great Divide. Although there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of square kilometers of this habitat, this area is very sparsely populated. It is even more rarely visited by birders. Coupled with this low density, clear identification, even by experienced birders, is very difficult. A button-quail is usually viewed at best as a brown blur visible for a few seconds as it races away from the observer before plunging back into grass cover. The BBBQ has never been photographed and its call has never been recorded.

The Birds Australia, Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010 (Garnett et al.) lists the following

Conservation Objectives

  1. Stable numbers at monitored locations
  2. Conservation burning for the species at least at 1 site

Information Required

  1. Reliable means of detecting the birds
  2. A photograph & sound recording
  3. Better knowledge of distribution, life history & ecology
  4. Impacts of fire, cattle & pigs on habitat

Management actions required

  1. Follow up all sighting to record ecological details and attempt to improve knowledge of habitat management needs
  2. Undertake fire management at known locations ,including storm burning

For the time being perhaps all BANQ can hope to do is to is to attempt to improve our knowledge of this bird.

We decided it would be worth revisiting some local sites where the BBBQ had been reported in the last ten years and to consult with local experts for advice.

Very fortunately, Peter Marsh from Sydney also organized a BBBQ survey the previous weekend which greatly helped our search.

Details on habitat, techniques and identification are not repeated here as they are very well covered by the references below. Based on existing records Lloyd Nielsen speculates that the BBBQ moves towards the Gulf area during winter, returning perhaps to breed in the Mt Molloy/Mareeba area around Dec-Feb. Whilst not the most comfortable time of the year to be out walking in the tropics, this is the best time of the year to be out looking.

References

Appendix 1: (1.3MB) A Mystery with History - The Buff-breasted Button-quail Danny Rogers. Wingspan, March 1995 (The best review and also comparative identification guide, still very applicable today)

Appendix 2: (160KB) Buff-breasted Button-quail Lloyd Nielsen. Nov 2009

The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010, Steven Garnett, Judit Szabo & Guy Dutson

Buff-breasted Button-quail observations near Lake Mitchell, Robert Morris, Birding aus Jan 06, 2012 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2012-01/msg00112.html

Buff-breasted Button-quail Search 11-13/12/12, Carl Billingham, Birding aus Dec 20, 2011 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2011-12/msg00370.html

Access to Buff-breasted Button-quail Site, Mt Molloy, Lloyd Nielsen. Birding aus Dec 03, 2011 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2011-12/msg00028.html

Bristly Bastards Button-quail Quest. Peter Marsh. Birding aus Nov 30, 2011 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2011-11/msg00525.html

Photos of Buff-breasted Button-quail. Richard Baxter. Birding aus May 18, 2011 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2011-05/msg00303.html

Photos of Buff-breasted Button-quail, Andrew Stafford. Birding aus May 17, 2011 http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/2011-05/msg00297.html

RFI: Buff-breasted Button-quail. Lloyd Nielsen. Birding aus Aug 12, 1998 (More good info on identification & habitat) http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/birding-aus/1998-08/msg00184.html

Local Consultants

Thanks to all who provided advice and assistance

Lloyd Nielsen lloydnielsen@westnet.com.au

PO Box 55,Mt Molloy, QLD 4871

Lloyd is the foremost expert on the BBBQ and has been studying the bird for two decades.

Del Richards www.finefeathertours.com.au

Local birding guide Del Richards has been assisting Lloyd for many years.

Martin Cachard mcachard@hotmail.com

Local birding expert who first recorded BBBQ at Mt Mulligan

Lisa Gale lisa.gale@derm.qld.gov.au

Previous warden at Mareeba Wetlands who organized surveys and trapping program at the wetlands

David 'Chook' Crawford www.closeupbirding.com.au

Local guide 'Chook' also worked at the Mareeba Wetlands

Jonathon Munro www.wildwatch.com.au

Southern Tablelands local guide who has recorded BBBQs near Ravenshoe & Herberton

Some sites where BBBQs have been reported

Mount Mulligan (50 km North of Dimbulah, 60 km west of Mt Molloy)

Martin Cachard & Adam Arnold recorded 2 BBBQs here at the end of Sep 2004. Del Richards has also received a report of 4 seen East of Mt Mulligan.

I visited the site for a recce in Sep 2011. There is a vast expanse of rocky hillslope at the base of the mountain. This is the site of Australia's worst ever mining disaster. In 1921 75 coal miners were killed in an explosion that was heard as far away as Mt Molloy. Birding in the deserted ruins of the township, the fluting calls of currawongs echoing off the red cliffs of the giant monolith towering above, is a spooky and surreal experience. Camping is available at Mt Mulligan Station 07 4094 8380

It was very dry here after no rain for many months but grass was still fairly thick.

Map of Mareeba Wetlands showing possible PBBQ sightings
Marreba Wetlands showing Location of possible BBBQ Sightings,
Lisa Gale

Mareeba Wetlands

BBBQs have been recorded sporadically at the Wetlands over the last ten years by Lloyd Nielsen, John Barcla, Glenn Holmes, Lisa Gale, David Crawford & others. A sighting of one female seen well by David Crawford in April 2010, at the base of a rocky ridge on a slashed track is the most recent record I am aware of.

Lisa Gale reported 4-5 good sightings from 2005-2007 over 3 years working as a warden there. Her attempts to trap a BBBQ were unfortunately not successful. .

Bakers Road Mount Molloy

Thomas & Thomas (Where to find Birds in Australia, 1996) recorded BBBQs. I visited this area for a recce beforehand and the hills appeared to be covered in unsuitable dense grass.

Springvale Road, Wondecla

This area south of Herberton is well known by local birders looking for the Crested Shrike-tit. It is also good habitat for Painted Button-quail. I recorded one small party of PBQ here in Jan, 2011.

About ten years ago Jonathon Munro reported BBBQ here. I visited the next day and flushed one bird. This large quail had a pale rump and flew about 80m, no higher than 1m high. It was at the base of a rocky hillslope beside the creek. This area is now becoming overgrown by Lantana.

Jonathon Munro also reported BBBQ on the Wondecla Bluff Access Road.

Vine Creek (Near Ravenshoe)

Jonathon Munro reports his best ever viewing of a BBBQ when one walked past him whilst he was sitting quietly at the edge of Vine Creek Gorge in Aug, 2008. This area of tussocky grass on a shale covered hillside is on private property.

Rookwood Station

West of Chillagoe, info provided by Del Richards

Lake Mitchell Truck Inspection site

Map of Lake Mitchell Truck Inspection Site showing possible PBBQ sightings

Map of Lake Mitchell Truck Inspection Site showing Locations of possible PBBQ Sightings, Carl Billingham

This is the site where we believe we recorded the BBBQ this time. 21 km North of Mareeba the road widens for a truck inspection area. There is a car park here and a track leads towards the hills. Similar habitat exists for perhaps most of the way on the East side of the road between Mt Molloy & Mareeba but this is the easiest place to park. This is currently the best known site for the BBBQ and there are several records from here.

Lloyd Nielsen & Del Richards surveyed this area in Nov 2011 without success, seeing plenty of PBQ.

This area had been burnt about 4 months previously. We originally thought it would not be suitable but in late November after a few recent showers, fresh grass was coming up, not too thick and a lot of seed was forming. This is perhaps very good habitat. The burning may well accidentally fit conveniently with the conservation burning objectives of the Action Plan fro Australian Birds 2010

Surveys (Results of surveys that I (DC) attended)

Mt Mulligan 19 September 2011 08.00-11.00 DC only - No Quail

Lake Mitchell Truckstop 25 November 2011 06.30 - 11.15 DC, P. Marsh, R. Broomham, B. Way, R. Burgoyne - 7 PBQ*, 2 BQ**, 1 BBBQ

Lake Mitchell Truckstop 3 December 2011 07.00 - 11.00 DC + 10-12 participants listed above - 1 PBQ, 4 BQ, 1 BBBQ

Mt Mulligan 3 December 2011 17.00-18.30 DC only - No Quail

Mt Mulligan 4 December 2011 07.00-10.00 DC only - 7 BQ

Lake Mitchell Truckstop 4 December 2011 17.00-18.30 DC only - No Quail

Lake Mitchell Truckstop 11 December 2011 06.00-10.00 DC, Carl Billingham, Michael Kearns, Phil Gregory, Adam Arnold, Martin Cachard - 1 BQ, 2-6PBQ

* PBQ - Painted Button-quail, ** BQ - Brown Quail

Discussion of BBBQ Sightings

No BBBQ sighting should be reported without a detailed description of what the observer thought they actually saw.

HBNZAAB Quail illustration plates

Quail illustration plates. Jeff Davies. S. & P.J. Higgins 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds Vol 2.

Nov 25, 2011 Lake Mitchell Truckstop - During four hours of walking we flushed several PBQ which were characterized by having a relatively dirty dark uniform back as they flew. On some PBQs it was possible to distinguish a slight contrast between the dark wings and slightly less dark body. Eventually, as detailed in the report by Peter Marsh, we flushed one very light quail. I noticed a distinct contrast on the wings with dark primaries and lighter wing coverts and body. It landed approx 30m uphill. On walking up to an area about 60m further up again, 2 PBQ flushed flying roughly uphill, one nearly taking my hat off. Then the very light quail, distinctly different in appearance to the 2 PBQs, also flushed, flying downhill and over the trees to a flat area at least 200m away.

This bird was about the same size as the PBQs, leading me to think there is a strong possibility it could have been a male BBBQ.

Dec 03, 2011 Lake Mitchell Truckstop - We walked roughly the same areas as the previous weekend but also walked to about 1 km south of the pylon with the nest. Conditions were generally more overcast and slightly cooler than the previous weekend. After only 5 minutes one quail was flushed not far from the Nov 25 bird. It flew a short distance at first then reflushed to fly a few hundred meters low through the trees. None of us got a very good look at this bird. To me it appeared quite light but dappled sunlight through the trees made clear viewing difficult.

About 1km south of the pylon on flat land we flushed a small covey of Brown Quail. These were seen well by everyone. These very evenly dark brown birds were clearly Brown Quail. No more quail were seen for 2 hours and 3 of the participants went home.

As we walked back to the cars, on flat land not 30m from the car park one very large pale quail flushed. This was the largest quail I have ever seen. It flew for about 50m north, not more than 1m above the ground. We walked towards it and another 50m further past its landing spot it flew again. This time it flew low about 150m. On walking to about 50m past this spot a few of us observed a large quail running fast along the ground through the grass tussocks. It then flew 150m uphill and we lost it.

We walked back to the point where the bird originally flew and spooked another quail at the same spot. This was much smaller and darker than the bird we had just seen. It had a rather dark back and somewhat pointed dark wings This bird was clearly a PBQ and was clearly different to the large pale bird that we had just been looking at.

I asked the 8 remaining participants to give me a description of what they thought they saw and made the following notes of their comments:

"Pale"

"A few sparse dark markings on overall light bird"

"Uniform buff brown rump"

"Large - a bit smaller than a Squatter Pigeon"

"Larger than the Brown Quail we saw earlier"

"Buff bird, black markings"

"Darkish wings"

"Black wingtips"

"Pale stripes on flanks, giving the same impression as the white outer tail of a Pipit flying"

"A few stripes on back of head and down back"

My impression of the bird running on the ground was of a very large pale quail, more upright than in the drawings. It appeared a similar body shape to drawing #6 on plate 1 of the HANZAB button-quail drawings.

We also brought with us the devil's advocate. While we were looking at the bird moving on the ground one observer reported seeing a bird with a "chestnut shoulder". Painted Button-quail have a chestnut shoulder. Other observers contradicted and said that the bird was just plain in the side. This description was so different to everyone else's that we are uncertain if he was looking at the same bird. But he might have been . . .

Thus, as usual, identification of this bird is not 100% certain. But overall I believe there is a very strong possibility this bird was a female BBBQ.

Dec 04, Lake Mitchell Truckstop - As a control I walked the same area by myself in hopeful anticipation from 17.00-18.30 the next day. Not a single quail of any description was encountered, demonstrating the advantage to searching with a larger group. One Eastern Grey Kangaroo and five Varied Sitellas, not seen on either previous survey, were recorded. This demonstrates how wildlife is sparsely distributed through this infertile habitat and no sighting of any particular animal is guaranteed.

Suggestions for further work

1. Continue to attempt to improve our knowledge of the BBBQ.

2. Make the BANQ BBBQ survey an annual event to keep up general interest.

3. See if BANQ members can be of more assistance to Lloyd Nielsen in his surveys.

4. Keep an eye on some of the other known locations to see if conditions become suitable.

Dominic Chaplin, BANQ, Mareeba, Dec, 2011; Mobile: 0419 028 077; Email: lisa01@activ8.net.au