Major breeding event triggers population rebound of nearly extinct plains vagrant bird

A stunning breeding event has given hope for the survival of one of the world’s taxonomically unique and most endangered birds.

The plains wanderer – a small quail-like bird found only in the grasslands of eastern Australia – represents an ancient lineage of birds that evolved in Gondawana more than 100 million ago of years.

It is so critically endangered and taxonomically unique that it has been ranked the number one priority for conservation action among the world’s birds by the Zoological Society of London.

But recently, researchers from La Trobe University discovered record numbers of plains wanderers during a survey in northern Victoria.

“We found about 60 adults and nearly 40 chicks,” said Dan Nugent, a PhD student and ecologist at La Trobe University.

“With the plains wanderer, it’s actually the male that does most of the incubation of the chicks and the eggs.

“We found that the males were often accompanied by two to four chicks, huddled under them for protection from predators.”

Dan Nugent, a PhD student at La Trobe University, holds a plains wanderer.(Provided: Tom Hunt)

La Niña triggers a breeding boom

The only member of its taxonomic family, Pedionomidae, it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 plains vagrants remain in the wild due to habitat loss.

Mr Nugent said the jackpot was the biggest bird find since monitoring began in northern Victoria in 2010.

It was also more than double the previous best result in 2018, when 30 adults and 17 chicks were detected.

A bird in the grass
A female wanderer of the plains, one of the most endangered birds in the world.(Provided: Owen Lishmund)

“Another encouraging sign was that 85% of monitoring sites hosted plains vagrants – the highest percentage of sites since surveys began 12 years ago,” he said.

Mr Nugent said the La Niña weather cycle was largely responsible for the recent population boom.

“A lot of rain has produced a lot of food for these birds,” he said.

“More food means more breeding opportunities. These birds can breed in spring and summer if the conditions are right.”

Technological advances help detect birds

This latest survey was conducted by the university, in partnership with the North Central Catchment Management Authority as part of a report for the Department of Environment Land and Water and Planning (DELWP).

Two men look at materials lying on the trunk of a car
Researchers recently discovered a record number of Plains Vagabonds during a survey in northern Victoria.(Provided: Rohan Clarke)

Aaron Grinter, DELWP’s natural environment program manager, said it was a difficult bird to keep an eye on.

“Plains Wanderers are very enigmatic,” Dr. Grinter said.

“They are almost never seen during the day when they are most active due to their excellent camouflage and distrust of predators, making detection a major challenge for researchers.”

But Mr Nugent said survey technology and methods had improved significantly over the years.

“Before, we only used spotlights,” he said.

“But now we’ve fitted our cars with thermal imaging cameras, and they’re able to pick up these very small birds in the grass.”

A bird in thermal imaging
A plains wanderer detected by thermal imaging.(Provided: Dan Nugent)

Goldilocks Species

While this increase in the Plains Wanderer population was celebrated by researchers, Nugent said they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Habitat loss due to overgrazing continues to be a major threat, as these birds – nicknamed “Goldilocks” for their need for ideal conditions – favor sparse, but not too sparse, ground cover.

“There is very little native grassland left in Victoria. Much of it has been cleared for agriculture,” Mr Nugent said.

He said more needed to be done to ensure the bird’s continued survival.

“Plains wanderers can benefit from cattle grazing, but as soon as that grassland is cultivated, they lose their habitat,” he said.

“Until we can put a stop to this, there is concern for the species. There aren’t many left.”