Plains-wanderers and grassland management

To: <>
Subject: Plains-wanderers and grassland management
From: Philip Maher <>
Date: Sun, 02 Dec 2012 22:24:33 +1100
I haven¹t had time to follow the plains-wanderer and land management thread
on birding-aus closely but I think I have the general drift. Richard Nowotny
kindly asked for my perspective. Belatedly here it is: I have little idea
about current management at Terrick Terrick or Oolambeyan national parks
although I know both properties well, having surveyed and located
plains-wanderers on both in the 1990s and recommending that they be
purchased by their respective State governments. Terrick Terrick and
surrounding reserves would most probably now be wheat fields if not bought
by conservation bodies.
The article in the Weekly Times (and Deniliquin¹s Pastoral Times the
following week) is about a few landowners enjoying their ?told-you-so¹
moment but not having a grasp of the bigger picture with plains-wanderers.
Tying it in with the cattle in the high country issue was overreaching
somewhat. Having said that, seeking advice from landowners and highly
experienced plains-wanderer experts occasionally should be in Parks¹
The best land management in the world would not have made a skerrick of
difference to the dire situation that plains-wanderers are currently in. The
overriding factor has been the weather. From 2001 to 2010 we had nine years
of drought or near drought conditions, which rendered the Hay plains, for
the most part, too bare for plains-wanderers. They retreated to ever
diminishing areas that still had cover and while they continued to breed
throughout the drought years it was in greatly reduced numbers. Then we had
the drought breaking rains of late winter 2010 after which the cover
re-established and by October 2010 plains-wanderers had returned from
wherever they had been and commenced breeding like crazy in their old
haunts. Over about a two-week period in November 2010 we located six nests
in one paddock, by far the most nests we¹d located in a single year. This
was their big chance to get their numbers up but it was not to be with
another deluge flooding all nests. This was the pattern for the remainder of
the summer, with chicks or nests with eggs repeatedly flooded out. A few
young possibly made it through in late summer and autumn. By the end of the
2010/11 summer the native grasses had become so thick in areas usually
inhabited by plains-wanderers that many of the birds disappeared, presumably
looking for somewhere drier and barer. We started spotlighting buff-banded
rail and brown quail in paddocks normally inhabited by plains-wanderers. The
few remaining plains-wanderers retreated to the barest remaining areas on
the property. The rains ceased in autumn/winter and we were expecting
plains-wanderers to resume breeding but nothing happened. It was as if they
were too exhausted from their futile breeding attempts in the summer to have
another go. (Over the last 32 years, we¹ve recorded them breeding in every
month of the year). In the spring of 2011 the rains started again and
although not as much fell as the previous year, it was still fairly wet.
Strangely, although the remaining plains-wanderers were paired up, they
seemed disinclined to breed. Whether the food supply wasn¹t conducive to
breeding or they were still knackered from the previous season¹s exertions,
I don¹t know. Towards the end of the last summer some breeding occurred as
the odd juvenile was recorded.
About five inches of rain fell early March this year, which again flooded
plains-wanderers out, after which we went into one of the driest
winter/springs in living memory.

Plains-wanderers have been in pairs since about August but this spring seems
too dry for them to breed, which is odd for a bird that does best on average
or below average rainfall. Unless they breed soon this will be the third
season with little to no breeding and with limited breeding during the
drought years. The rainfall has now become so erratic with months of no rain
at all, and then a huge dump. Winter rainfall, once the most reliable rain
in the Riverina, has all but disappeared over the last fifteen years.  The
survival of plains-wanderers seems entirely dependent on the weather
returning to some sort of normality.
In our area of the southern Riverina, many of the passerines and some of the
non-passerines are now breeding during the winter months, having become more
opportunistic in their breeding attempts like species in true desert
No amount of grazing by sheep could possibly have kept down the volume of
growth that occurred over the last two summers. Remember also that sheep
numbers in 2010 were very low because of the previous nine years of drought.
>From where were all these sheep going to materialise?
Very low numbers of plains-wanderers, whether they are in national parks or
on private, well-grazed properties, are a result of extreme weather events.
Simple as that. 
FYI, all our plains-wanderer sightings are written up on the latest news
page of our website. The plains-wanderer weekend checklist documents ten
years of sightings over the spring/summer period up to this current weekend.

All the best

Philip Maher

+61 3 58813378

Australian Ornithological Services Pty Ltd
PO Box 385
South Yarra 3141
Tel: + 61 3 98204223
Mobile: 0417310200
Skype: patricia.maher3141


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