The Plains-wanderer is an avian oddball, a mysterious little grassland specialist with no close relatives. Elusive and shy, these birds are most often encountered spotlighting at night, startled from their roost on the ground. They crane up on tiptoe when alerted to danger then crouch down to make a dash for cover. With an estimated population of just 250, this is one of Australia’s rarest bird species.
AWC is assessing the extant conservation values and undertaking biodiversity surveys to confirm the presence of key threatened species, like the Plains-wanderer, across NAPCo properties. This will inform the development of a targeted survey program.
The Plains-wanderer has declined greatly since European colonisation. Over and under-grazing by introduced and native herbivores and invasion by weeds is significantly decreasing habitat quality. Other threats include predation by feral cats and foxes – the species’ ground-nesting habits, poor flying ability, and tendency to run rather than fly from predators make it easy prey – and the impacts of altered fire regimes.
Standing about 12-15cm tall with a wingspan of 28-36 cm and weighing less than 100 grams, Plains-wanderers are small fawn-coloured quail-like ground-dwelling 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. The larger female is easily distinguished by her prominent, white-spotted diamante collar above a rich rufous breast patch.
Plains-wanderers live in semi-arid, lowland native grasslands. Their nests are shallow, grass-lined scrapes that are scratched into the ground.
They forage during the day for a wide variety of seeds and ground-dwelling insects and do not require regular access to water bodies, instead fulfil their hydration requirements through the food they consume and via pecking dew and raindrops from leaves.
Each bird is solitary and has 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 favourable conditions, females can lay multiple clutches of three to five eggs per year.
Range and abundance
Plains-wanderers were once relatively widespread throughout the grasslands of eastern Australia, with records from the Victoria–New South Wales Riverina up through northern South Australia and into western Queensland. However, detection rates have fallen and numbers have declined dramatically, and they are now thought to be restricted to strongholds in the Northern Plains of Victoria and the Riverina region of New South Wales. Even here, populations are critically low.
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