Notes on Cape York Subspecies and Rarities

To: Birding-Aus <>
Subject: Notes on Cape York Subspecies and Rarities
From: "" <>
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 2016 10:11:30 +0000

Max Breckenridge, Ashwin Rudder, Nathan Ruser and myself spent the first half 
of January up around Cape York and Cairns. I have prepared some notes on some 
of the new splits and mythical rarities around the area, along with our 
experiences. I am also happy to help out with further information regarding the 
below mentioned subspecies, etc. More information about our sightings and 
experiences over the whole 3 weeks can be found in our extensively detailed ~50 
page trip report at

Likely split in the next version of IOC, the Cape York (Iron Range) form will 
be different to the Cairns form. As others have noted, the northern birds are 
much more skulky than their southern counterparts, however in Iron Range 
National Park we had multiple views, particularly around the Rainforest 
Campground and the start of the Coen Track nearby. They would tend to perch 
briefly in trees calling, then as soon as we got close they would fly away 50m, 
then keep calling. In all, not too hard to get a view of if you try.

Described as Fuscous, reassigned to Yellow-tinted, then switched back to 
Fuscous more recently, this strange intermediate population is quite variable, 
and certainly doesn’t fit well with either Fuscous or Yellow-tinted as a 
species. I believe work is currently being carried out on these birds by Lloyd 
Nielson, but in the meantime, the birds are not hard to find at all. Best spot 
is in the forested square along Wieland Road, just south of Herberton, but they 
are quite common through most wooded areas in the surrounding region, including 
along the main track through Wondecla State Forest.

Not sure on whether this is likely to be split soon, if ever, but certainly the 
northern race of Brown Treecreeper is very different to the form down south 
(indeed, they were once different species). Best spot is the end of Pickford 
Road just north of Mareeba, and the first kilometre of the road into Mareeba 
Wetlands (we had a number of birds in this area). Apparently also at Wondecla 
State Forest, but we did not see them here (though we only visited for a short 
period of time).

A tricky subspecies to pin down properly, as numerous individuals are hybrids 
with ocellata, particularly on Mount Lewis it seems. January is not the prime 
owl time, and understandably we heard one bird during our many nights 
spotlighting around Cairns. We did manage to get eyes on this bird on Mount 
Lewis, though it appears to be not a pure lurida. Simon Gorta and Andrew Walker 
are in the region this week, and a few days ago night found two probable 
hybrids at Wallaman Falls (one of them potentially pure, though it is unclear 
from photos at this stage). There are very few photos of pure birds (Geoff 
Jones has some great ones from Rose Gums 
 but it is quite clear that you cannot count just any boobook you find in 
rainforest. The case for splitting in this case seems quite weak, however as 
Jeff Davies noted in a message to us, if Black-eared Miner is a species, Red 
Boobook is just as valid. Best sites are apparently Mount Lewis, Lake Eacham, 
Rose Gums, and the road to Tully Gorge.

Recent genetics have shown this form of Crimson Rosella is more distinct than 
Green Rosella is to the southern Crimson Rosella complex, so will likely be 
split in the near future. Unlike its southern counterparts, the ‘Tropical’ 
Rosella is definitely not an easy bird to come by, and should be specifically 
targeted for anyone interested. Best spots are the Gourka Road / Bartle Frere 
Road (signposted as the former, Google Maps labels it the latter), and the 
Seamark Road / Turner Road / McKell Road / Mount Hypipamee area. We saw 2 birds 
during our visit, and the differences really are quite obvious compared to the 
southern birds – darker back and facial patterns specifically. I heard today 
that Andrew and Simon saw some at both Mount Hypipamee and Hasties Swamp, 
though I suspect that they are very irregular at the latter site.

At the time of writing, this species has not been reliably recorded around 
Cairns (or anywhere?) since 2011. Areas need to be found with sparse grass, 
unburnt on the lower slopes of hills. In the past, the best areas have been to 
the east of Lake Mitchell, however we were not able to locate any suitable 
habitat here when we checked, as the unusual early December rains had caused 
rapid grass growth. The far western boundaries of Mareeba Wetlands have been 
very good in the past, however current ownership does not allow access during 
the wet season, and hence reduces any chance of finding this species to almost 
zero. AWC land towards Mount Carbine contained the best habitat we could see 
from the road, however Lloyd Nielsen, Australia’s leading expert on this 
species, has advised that checking these areas in the past did not produce any 
birds. If you intend to search for this species, Lloyd is certainly the best 
person to get in contact with (and indeed, he thinks he may possibly have 
flushed one bird at the traditional “truck stop” site last year), but currently 
the species may be best searched for further afield, towards Coen, and others 
more central areas of Cape York.

This seemingly cryptic bird was discovered in 2007 near Ravenshoe (see,
 however all details have subsequently been suppressed, seemingly due to the 
observer having bad experiences with taxonomists wishing to collect specimens. 
Judging off available photos, a number of Australian experts agree that these 
abnormally rufous birds represent a new species of quail-thrush, but for any 
classification to be attempted, birds need to be caught, recorded, measured and 
have feathers taken. Note that a bird would not necessarily need to be 
collected. Initially, the bird was thought to be critically endangered, however 
exchanges with the finder (both by us, and other North Qld birders we have 
spoken with) indicate that in fact these birds are flourishing in the right 
areas, and are widespread around Ravenshoe (some birds apparently seen just 
outside town), and as far north as at least Dimbulah. Despite this, nobody has 
been privileged with site information, even almost a decade after discovery, 
and it appears the only way to find out more about this probable species is to 
locate some. A number of locals have searched for the quail-thrush every now 
and then, but as of yet, nobody has had success. This is likely due to a very 
small number of birdwatchers actually looking, since the area they are to be 
found is devoid of almost all other bird life, as we discovered over a three 
day search. Armed with multiple weeks of research and GIS data, correlating all 
available information as best we could, our group put a concerted effort into 
locating the quail-thrush. Despite not having success, we believe we were on 
the right track, and with a few more people looking, birds could be found over 
the next few years. This would allow research to be carried out, and probably 
result in the first bird to be described from Australia in a long, long time.

Information that we collected included:

1: All the available photos online were taken in late November 2008, according 
to EXIF data still present on the shots. The habitat has been recently burnt, 
and so, by cross-referencing with burn scar data from, we 
narrowed down the most likely search areas.

2: GIS satellite-based analysis of both the southern Spotted Quail-thrush and 
Buff-rumped Thornbill / Painted Button-quail (noted by the finder to be 
‘surprisingly common’ in the areas he found quail-thrush.

3: Geological and botanical maps based off what we could see visually in the 
photos. This was difficult online, but in the field we found a number of areas 
which matched exactly.

All in all, we decided the best way to search for these birds would be to focus 
on burnt areas. From experience with birds in NSW, they may well still be 
present in more densely-grassed habitat, however they are much easier to spot 
in recently burnt areas, being quite an unobtrusive bird, often easy to 
overlook. Those familiar with the very high-pitched contact call can’t go wrong 
by searching any good rocky areas of burnt ridgeline between Silver Valley and 
Herberton, however we picked out some prime areas we think warrant further 
searching. This map ( highlights major areas 
which probably should be checked. We hiked up Mount Klaatsch (right marker at 
-17.459248, 145.301385), though the grass was very dense, and no areas of 
ground quite matched up to that available photos of the quail-thrush. If this 
area was burnt one year, it would be worth checking a few weeks afterwards. We 
also followed a number of the 4WD tracks visible on Google Maps to the west 
(left marker), though again found mostly quite dense habitat, needing a good 
fire to be suitable for searching the steep slopes.

There was a long stretch along Mt Misery Road (from about a kilometre south 
before it intersects Gibbs Creek all the way almost in to Irvinebank) which was 
unburnt, but looked relatively sparse, and perfect for quail-thrush which is 
easily accessible even without a 4WD. Further south, we had been following the 
road which runs west, then subsequently north from Silver Valley, and found a 
good patch of burnt bush along a ridge which we spent a good chunk of time 
searching, though no thrush. This was perfect habitat, and certainly any bits 
similar in the same general vicinity could very easily hold individuals (GPS: 
-17.593949, 145.276960).

Again, please feel free to contact us for further information – I will happily 
help out anyone who is intending to go and have a look for this species, and 
have been very interested in the form ever since I heard about it half a decade 
ago – email me at  or contact Nathan Ruser, Max 
Breckenridge, or Ashwin Rudder.


As a side note, for those who followed ‘The Decline of Birding-Aus’ email 
thread, one of the key points noted was that the reduced use of BA in favour of 
Facebook has been cutting the number of recent trip reports and up-to-date gen 
available. I encourage everyone to have a look at, as it 
is an excellent website, allowing easy uploads of PDF files, or linking to a 
birding blog, etc. It has up-to-date information from all over the world, and 
is my go-to research base nowadays. Australia however, is quite 
underrepresented (eg: only 15 trip reports from 2015, and 12 of which were 
uploaded by companies such as Birdquest or Tropical Birding), however with more 
local contributors uploading reports, it could become very useful to Australian 
birders. Over the next few weeks I am intending to go through and upload all my 
more recent trip reports from the Gawler Ranges, Tasmania, Broome, Bowra and 
central west NSW, but if others follow suit over the next year or so, trip 
information like this will be easily accessible in the future.

Cheers, and good birding,

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