Slaty-backed Thornbill in SW Qld; some personal comments

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Subject: Slaty-backed Thornbill in SW Qld; some personal comments
From: "Robert Inglis" <>
Date: Mon, 14 Jul 2003 06:46:39 +1000
Hi all,
The discussion about the veracity of Slaty-backed Thornbill sightings in SW 
Queensland is of special
interest to me for a number of reasons - personal, philosophical and 'academic'.
Particularly as Lloyd Nielsen in his Mon, 09 Jun 2003 22:19:07 +1000 posting, 
Thornbills at Cunnamulla (W Qld)" refers to my sighting near Eulo in SW 
Queensland which effectively
extended the eastern limits of the range of this species.
(ref. "Notes on Recent Sightings of Slaty-backed Thornbills in South-western 
Queensland", Inglis,
Smyth, Joseph - Sunbird 22:46 - this paper summarises SW Qld records until 
about 1991).)

Perhaps some additional comments may help those observers and bystanders who 
may be 'struggling'
with the concept that this species may be more common in SW Queensland than has 
been accepted until

At this point I must emphasise that I am in no way intending to be critical or 
concerning anyone's ideas or opinions on this topic; my hope is simply to 
provide another point of
view based on personal experience.

My sighting of Slaty-backed Thornbills (Acanthiza robustirostris) is mentioned 
in HANZAB (Handbook
of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds) Vol 6.
Unfortunately the details as provided in HANZAB are a little confused and 
The single bird sighted c. 70 km east of Windorah on 28 Sept 1984 was actual 
recorded by a party
including Anita Smyth; I was not in that party and can therefore not claim that 
However, the 5-6 birds sighted 15 km east of Eulo (at the location commonly 
called Eulo Bore and
more correctly known as Nine Mile Bore) on 26-27 July 1991 is my record. The 
details of these two
sightings were described in the edition of the Sunbird (The Journal of the 
Queensland Ornithological
Society) mentioned above.
The impression could be taken that I was accompanied by other observers at the 
time of the "Eulo"
sighting but that was not the case. For that reason I would understand 
completely if the claim was
considered doubtful, after all, we all from time to time have our suspicions 
concerning the odd
'surprising' reports.
Not that I have ever had the impression that it was doubted.

Checking through notes from my other excursions into the SW Queensland area I 
found two more records
of possible sightings of Slaty-backed Thornbills:
- 11/8/1985 between Charleville and Quilpie (a rather large area, 
unfortunately, with no reference
to precise location);
- 21/8/1985 at Lk Bindegolly east of Thargomindah.
Sadly, I do not possess "total recall" so, although I can certainly remember 
the trip I cannot
remember the precise details and nature of the two sightings.
At that time my experience with the birds of the region, particularly the 
thornbills, was limited
but I was accompanied by a very experienced observer whose observational 
abilities I did, and still
respect very much.
As my notes are marked as "possible" only, we must have been aware of the 
unusual nature of those
An interesting point is that I did not list sightings of Chestnut-rumped 
Thornbills during that trip
whereas a number of subsequent excursions to the same area always produced that 
A number of photos I took of thornbills with chestnut rumps from around Lk 
Bindegolly are only of
Chestnut-rumped, A. uropygialis.

By the time of the Eulo sighting (26-27/7/1991) I had enough experience to be 
able to immediately
see that these thornbills were 'different'.
I also knew that the recognized eastern extent of the Slaty-backed distribution 
was around Eromanga
in far SW Qld, approx 175 km west of Eulo, by longitude.
I was and am still quite confident that the birds I was observing on that 
occasion were Slaty-backed
An interesting point is that I don't appear to have recorded Chestnut-rumped on 
the same occasion.

Eulo is only about 50 km west of Julie McLaren's "Bowra" (located approx 1 cm 
NW of Cunnamulla on
the RACQ SW Qld map, QDM6) and, as far as I am aware, is still 'mulga' country. 
Therefore it would
not surprise me at all if Slaty-backed Thornbills were recorded there, however, 
confirmation of
these sightings would probably mean an official eastern extension of the 
accepted distribution.

Identification of Slaty-backed Thornbills can be a little difficult (from my 
experience) and the
current field guides can be a little misleading.
For example, the 1997 edition of the Pizzey and Knight Field Guide to the Birds 
of Australia
actually shows an illustration of an 'immature' Chestnut-rumped Thornbill with 
a very dark eye,
similar to that of the Slaty-backed.
This feature is also mentioned in "Morecombe" but HANZAB seems to contradict 
HANZAB indicates that there is virtually nothing known about 'immature' 
Chestnut-rump Thornbill but
does have descriptions of 'juveniles' which are said to have irises similar to 
adult but slightly
duller. This would seem to indicate that Chestnut-rumped Thornbills in all 
plumages will have
distinctly different iris colour to that of the Slaty-backed thornbill. This 
should, therefore, be a
prime identification feature.
(Comment: The terms 'immature' and 'juvenile' often seem to be used rather 
loosely in publications
such as field guides and illustrated bird books.)
I must admit I have often found it very hard to determine the iris colour of 
many of the
thornbills I have observed; a great deal of patience and close observation is 
often required to be
sure. Fortunately it is not necessary to determine the iris colour in most 

Wingspan, Vol 7 No 1, March 1997, has an article on the identification of 
"arid-land thornbills".
The text is very detailed but, unfortunately, this article relies on photos 
only for the
illustrations which, in my view, limits
the value of the article.
Having said that, the photos in the National Photographic Index of Australian 
Wildlife, "The Wrens
and Warblers of Australia", are much better for comparing Slaty-backed with 

The number of different observers claiming sightings of Slaty-backed Thornbill 
from "Bowra" in SW
Qld should indicate that this species is more than likely there. However, to 
fully satisfy some
elements of the ornithological fraternity it would be best if someone could 
present a report (with
photos and witnesses) to the state and/or national "Rarities" committees.
Personally I wouldn't bother having experienced this process myself and would 
be quite content to
accept my own judgement and observational skills.
But to make life easier for Julie McLaren at least some photos would be handy.
Or perhaps a visit and a sighting by one or two of the bird-watching 'elite' 
would settle the issue.

In the meantime, Julie, I can readily believe that Slaty-backed Thornbills have 
been observed on
your property.
Thank you for providing the facility to allow so many people to gain so much 
more pleasure from
their chosen pastime.

Bob Inglis
Woody Point

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