Endangered plains-wanderer birds elude scientists who turn to acoustic 'song meters'
Scientists hope acoustic monitors will help locate a population of critically endangered plains-wanderers at Boolcoomatta Reserve in far-east South Australia.
It is estimated there are fewer than 1,000 of the birds left in the wild, where populations once stretched from Victoria to Queensland.
Bush Heritage Australia, a not-for-profit conservation organisation who own the property, are leading the study that has seen 30 "song meters" set up across the reserve.
Graeme Finlayson, an arid rangelands ecologist with Bush Heritage, said little was known about the elusive bird.
"We just don't know about their population size," he said.
"We're really keen to find out with these song meters where they are and how they're using the landscape.
"Then [we would] potentially grow the project into doing some catching and radio tracking and finding out a bit more about their biology and numbers."
Listening for their song
Sightings of the bird are few and far between, but a Bush Heritage intern spotted eight of the birds on the property after a tip-off from kangaroo harvesters
"The intern had records of them last year and that triggered us to think we need to find out more about this species in this region," Mr Finlayson said.
"Their numbers have declined thanks to the usual suspects; introduced predators such as foxes, as well as changes to land."
Small and masters of camouflage, the quail-like birds lived in grasslands in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
Mr Finlayson said he hoped the monitors would help detect the birds with minimal disruption.
"With this new method you can put out a recording device and it detects the frequency of the call when the female is calling to the male," he said.
"It's a fantastic way of detecting them without going out and spotlighting and disturbing them."
He said the bird was unique because females were more striking than the males. Males also raised the chicks.
"In contrast to most bird species, the female is a really striking bird, the male's more dull and has less striking features."
Bush Heritage buys working stations, takes them out of production and works to restore them to their natural state through de-stocking and the eradication of introduced species.
"One of the key aspects for protecting plains-wanderers is predator control," Mr Finlayson said.
"Controlling the introduced species such as foxes and feral cats."
But he said even with sheep and cattle removed from the property, booming kangaroo populations were adding pressure to the habitat.
"As a lot of people know, in this region at the moment there's been a lot of kangaroos and they graze just like sheep do," he said.
"It's a real fine balance maintaining some grazing pressure but not too much.
"For this species in particular, they rely on having some grazing [for easy navigation through grasses], but they also rely on some of those grasses still being there for their food and shelter."
Reserve manager at Boolcoomatta, Kurt Tschirner, said research projects like plains-wanderer monitoring was important for the long-term management of the reserve.
"The ecological research side of things is really important, it underpins all of our management on here," he said.
"From that we get long-term trends on the recovery of plant life and animal life and how that's tracking — it's a long term process."