birding-aus Mystery Birds

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Subject: birding-aus Mystery Birds
From: Lloyd Nielsen <>
Date: Thu, 04 Mar 1999 20:56:01 -0800

Michael Todd has mentioned  the subject of some old 'mystery birds'.  As
I was involved with the Red-tailed Quail, some detail after all these
years may be interesting.

Firstly  the 'Purple-crowned Honeayeater' from Lamington NP in southern
Qld - a forestry Officer (J. Gresty) saw these birds on Mt Hobwee (one
of the highest peaks), feeding on the flowers of Queensland Waratah
(Embothrium - now Oreocallis ??) in early 1939 on two occasions, four
birds the first time, two the second.  He described them as being about
the size of a spinebill, olive-green on the back and pale yellow below
with a suggestion of grey in the tail 'but the most striking feature is
a cluster of plum-coloured or lavender-coloured feathers on the crown of
the head'.  Apparently the birds were quite tame and seen at close
range.  Interestingly though Arthur Groom (founder of Binna Burra Lodge)
also reported the birds independantly at the same time from nearby Mt
Merino  in the same month.  The sugggestion that the plum colour of the
head may have been from fruit or pollen staining was dismissed by
botanists of the day on the grounds that they knew of no plant capable
of staining the heads of the birds that colour.

I used to see Alec Chisholm occasionally during the 1960s and 1970s when
he visited Qld and asked him about this bird but he had no more to add
to it.  The Blue Regent seemed to run into a dead end as well.

As to the Red-tailed Quail, E.A.R. Lord (Ernie or Earl as some people
called him - he was always 'Mr Lord' to me) saw these birds in 1929 on
his farm at Murphy's Creek near Toowoomba in SE Qld.  I knew him well
(he was my mentor in those days) and I corresponded with him right up
until his death (about 1961) and visited him quite a few times at
Murphy's Creek.  I was always impressed with his ability and accuracy.

In June 1959, a year or two after I had left school and went to work
with my father on the family farm at
Inverramsay on the eastern Darling Downs (SE Qld), we flushed many of
these quail on one occasion though I had seen a small number a short
time earlier.  My father had sold the farm and our final job was to
harvest a paddock of sudan grass.  1959 was a prolific year and there
was a dense growth of clover amongst the sudan grass.  My job was to
work the comb of the harvester by raising or lowering it so that not too
much straw went through the machine.  As we got into the clover area, we
started flushing these small quail,  probably slightly larger than a
King Quail.  Most were dark brown and plain but about one in four or so
were much darker- almost black - and had a blood red rump.  My first
impression was  that the tail had been cut by the harvester and that
they were bleeding.  There was a prominent white spot or marking in the
vicinity of the eye.  I saw many from only a few feet away as I sat on
the harvester.  They rose right in front of the machine and flew rather
weakly away.  Some even left escape too late and went into the machine.
We flushed probably about 60 or more that afternoon.

Being fairly inexperienced and not being able to find a bird which came
near it in the standard reference in those days - (Cayley's What Bird is
That?) I wrote to Ernie Lord at Murphys Creek.  He was estatic.  It was
the first report since he had seen them in 1929.

Unfortunately we left the district a few days later and I was unable to
look further for it though I walked the paddock for quite a few hours
the next day but strangely did not flush a single bird.  However, I was
back in the general area  6 months later and flushed quail probably of
the same species (all brown birds) a few kilmetres up the valley.

Over the next few years, I wrote to many regional newspaper editors from
about Gladstone in the north to about Port Macquarie in the south
seeking information from farmers who may have seen it.  I received quite
a few replies some of them very interesting - from Wingham in the south
to Gympie in the north and west to Moree and the Darling Downs.  I still
have these letters.

( I also wrote to a few of the eminent ornithologists of the day with my
observations.  Their replies were mostly down-putting - 'Its only a King
Quail son - there's no new species of Australian birds to be
discovered,' one guy told me - not the sort of thing to tell a very keen
young birdman!  (Least to say, it was an insult to one's intelligence
and a greater one to their own if they only realized it).   I also
contacted Alec Chisholm who thankfully had a very differnt attitude.  He
loved a mystery and also believed in people, and will always stand tall
in my memory for that reason.  He took it up with enthusiasm.)

Ian Gall, the then nature column writer for the Courier Mail ('Going
Bush with Ian Gall') also took it up.  He had himself seen a quail with
a red tail in old cultivation 'off Serpentine Road just opposite the
one-time Hedley Park Gun Club at Nudgee' (now a suburb of Brisbane).
His column also brought a few replies.

A few excerpts from those letters  -

>From Gympie (SE Qld) - 'I have seen this quail in this district for some
years.  I am plouging a paddock now and smallish blackish quail with a
reddish under-carriage are present, usually with which the red quail are
associated.  My neighbour also knows the red quail.'

>From Rosewood - (Ipswich SE Qld)  '.....I am sure this is the quail I
saw dozens of times 30 years ago.  It was by no means rare.  I saw it
often while mowing lucerne at Wacol.  From memory, it was small, very
dark with a splash of vivid red either under tail or wings'.

>From Old Bonalbo (NE. NSW)  ...'while mowing excess paspalum growth
birds fluttered up in front of the cutter bar.  Sometimes there would be
3 or 4 together.  They were small - about the size of a day old chick
but definitely had a red tail, as I at first through I had cut their
tails off with the mower but realised that every bird was the same and
it would not be possible to cut every one the same.'

>From Woodford (SE Qld)  (pre 1938)  ' ...what we called when we were
schoolboys the Red Rump or a more vulgar word..... the very light
yellow-grey bird the female we thought, and the nearly black bodied cock
with the fiery-red tail end.  These birds only lived on the flats where
the long foxtail grass gave them cover.'

>From Pallamallawa (NSW)  '....I saw one of these during harvesting last
year.  I thought it to be an ordinary quail which had its tail severed
by the header knife.  It was in wheat stubble which had quite an amount
of summer growing weeds in it.'

>From Port Macquarie (NSW)  '....I had 1700 acres on Pipers Creek and
Maria River.  There were at that time, plenty of that type of quail

>From Grafton (NSW) (Member of Grafton Field Naturalists Club)   '....I
saw birds answering to the description of the birds you mention.  My
impression was of a small dark bird ... and the bright red on back and
wings, quite distinctive.  We were inspecting a stand of sub. clover at
the time.'

>From Pomina (SE Qld)    'I flushed a small quail from a patch of legume
and in flight showed a red tail.  This type of quail is very rare here
as I have only noticed a few here in my lifetime.  My uncle informs me
that 30 years ago they were to be seen in quite large numbers but of
latter years he has never come in contact with one.  The female showed
no red colouring.  (The male) ....had deep red (tail) - beautiful colour
like red velvet - like a deep red rose.'

>From Boonah (SE Qld)  'About 2 years ago I saw a good many of these
red-tailed quail.  I was mowing some old grass and clover.  I didn't
notice they were any different in colour to the others except when they
fly, you could not help but notice their red tails.  Yesterday while
minding cows in a paddock of clover about half a dozen flew in front of
my horse.  I noticed two of these had red tails.'

>From Boonah (SE Qld)  'I have observed these birds on several occasions
in recent years mainly in lucerne crops.  They are smaller and darker
than the ordinary quail and the flash of red can clearly be seen.'

>From Clifton (Darling Downs SE Qld)  'I saw two blackish coloured quail
- both were observed on the ground from a distance of about 6 feet.
When they flew only one had a red tail.  On the next day I saw a second
pair from a few feet and again only one had a red tail.  This is the
first time I have seen this species of quail.'

>From Greenmount (Darling Downs) 'This quail has been in this district
for years.  I have not seen many but each harvest we have just a few in
the stubble, mostly where there is a lot of undergrowth.  They do not
seem to fly far when they rise but settle within 20 or 30 yards.  We
spent a fair while at different times trying to catch one as they are a
very pretty bird....finally we got one to settle in young corn so we had
a good look and around the head or above the eyes it has a white line
something like a male Willie Wagtail.  ....the red is more underneath
the wings? and rump....when it flies there is a brilliant flash of red.'

I had always intended following this mystery up after my intitial
efforts but the pressures of everyday life and running a business over
the years meant I never got around to it.  My intention was to seek help
from those farmers who regularly cut lucerne (and those who replied) and
have them notify me when they saw the quail. But that was as far as I

If anyone in SE Qld or N NSW wants to follow the mystery up after all
these years I would gladly supply more detail.  Perhaps the bird still
exists out there.

I metioned this bird in an article in an early Bird Watcher.  Ernie Lord
wrote a later note BW 1:140 and stated 'This quail...will definitely add
a new species to the quail now recorded in our R.A.O.U. Check List'.
Having seen so many at close range on that occasion and still with a
vivid memory of them, I have always agreed with that.  My impression was
that they were close to the King Quail,  males (?) being more brightly
coloured than females and juveniles; weak flight etc.  I never saw blue
on the breast etc as the King Quail has and none of the correspondents
mentioned that either.  The impression was of near black underparts
similar to the upperparts. The white about the eye seemed to be confined
to a large spot (or perhaps an 'eyebrow' as one correspondent remarked
which really stood out on the dark males), certainly nothing like the
facial/throat marking of the male King Quail.

Lloyd Nielsen
PO Box 55,
Mt Molloy   Qld  4871

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