The Plains-wanderer is an elusive little bird that is found only in the grasslands of south-eastern Australia. It is also threatened and in decline.
Read on to see how Trust for Nature is working hard to turn its numbers around.
Photo by: Eris O'Brien
The Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus) is a small, quail-like bird, which only lives in native grasslands. Like many other species of Australian animals, is found nowhere else in the world. In fact the Plains-wanderer is unique because it is the only species of bird in the taxonomic family Pedionomidae. Even though it looks like a quail, the Plains-wanderer is more closely related to gulls and terns and other shorebirds. Its closest relative is thought to be the South American seedsnipe, a shorebird that eats plants. Researchers think that because of this link to South America, the Plains-wanderer may have a lineage that traces back over sixty million years to when Australia was connected to South America and Antarctica (Baker-Gabb 1995).
Plains-wanderers were once common throughout the lowland native grasslands of southern Australia – across Victoria’s Volcanic Plains, throughout south-eastern South Australia and in parts of New South Wales. Now they are mainly found in only three major areas: Victoria’s Northern Plains, the New South Wales Riverina and south-western Queensland. Within these three areas there are no conservation reserves with a viable population of the bird. Instead, most Plains-wanderers are found on private land. Due to the ongoing loss of native grasslands to crops or sown pasture, the range of the Plains-wanderer is in serious decline. Plains-wanderers are now listed nationally as ‘vulnerable’ and as ‘critically endangered’ in Victoria.
Surveys of the Plains-wanderers carried out in northern Victoria in the early 1990s led biologists to estimate that only 500 individual birds lived in the Northern Plains (Maher & Baker-Gabb 1993). In 1995 an Action Statement was drawn up to plan the recovery of the species. It recommended that a population of at least 1,000 birds was needed in Victoria to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Recommendations in the Action Statement included:
Protect and manage the 1,400ha of privately-owned native grassland at Terrick Terrick;
Seek management agreements with the owners of other private properties that have Plains-wanderers;
Continue extension work with 20 landholders in northern Victoria to ensure that their native pastures are neither cultivated nor over-grazed; and
Reserve or covenant native grasslands.
It is fifteen years since the release of the Action Statement.
What has been achieved?
Trust for Nature has been pivotal in the protection of the remaining Plains-wanderers. One of the turning points for the conservation of the species was the purchase, in 1999, of the ‘Davies Property’ at Terrick Terrick. The 1,277ha property had been identified as the highest priority site in Victoria to protect and conserve Plains-wanderers (Maher & Baker-Gabb 1993). The purchase was negotiated by Trust for Nature’s Conservation Manager at the time, Paul Foreman and it represented a major milestone for grassland conservation.
Trust for Nature was a key player in the process as it purchased the land on behalf of the State Government and then transferred it to the Crown to incorporate into Terrick Terrick National Park. Since 1999, the Victorian Government has purchased another 14 private properties on the Northern Plains, using funds provided by the State Government and the National Reserve System Program. This has increased the grassland reserve area to more than 6,000ha.
The Victorian Environment Assessment Council River Red Gum Forests Investigation final recommendations report in 2007 also recommended incorporating other additional parcels of grassland found on public land into the Terrick Terrick National Park. This has resulted in a total of 8,500ha of grassland on the Northern Plains now being managed as part of the Crown land reserve system.
At the same time, Trust for Nature has also begun purchasing land for conservation on the Northern Plains to help save some of the best grassland areas from the threat of cultivation. To date, Trust for Nature has acquired six privately owned grassland properties for conservation at Budgerum, Mystic Park, Kinypanial, Korrak Korrak and Kotta, all with support from the National Reserve System program, philanthropic donations or the Revolving Fund. The most recent acquisition of grassland by the Trust was the purchase of the substantial 1,895ha Wanderers Plain property on the Avoca Plains (see the story in this issue on page X). This was made possible with funding support from the State Government and the National Reserve System program. Altogether, Trust for Nature has protected more than 2,600ha of high-quality grassland areas on the Northern Plains through land purchase, all important habitat for the critically endangered Plains-wanderer.
These land purchases are all the more significant because, in the same time that Trust for Nature and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment have been securing grasslands on the Northern Plains for conservation, an area of at least the same size has been lost to cultivation. Luckily, as a result of this conservation work, Plains-wanderers have survived on these protected areas and successfully raised young.
Even with the land purchases undertaken to date by Trust for Nature and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, it is still fair to state that the reserve system on the Northern Plains is not large enough in its own right to support a viable population of Plains-wanderer. Collectively, there are now 11,200ha of grasslands protected in northern Victoria on Crown land reserves or properties owned by the Trust. However, the draft Recovery Plan for Plains-wanderers in New South Wales (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service 2002) recommends that one or more reserves measuring at least 20,000ha in size is needed to conserve the bird. In addition, at least 10,000ha of habitat should be managed for Plains-wanderer conservation.
Trust for Nature firmly believes a network of protected areas on private land to build on and complement these core conservation areas is needed to conserve the Plains-wanderer. Trust for Nature staff have worked closely with many landholders on the Northern Plains over the past fifteen years. Now, more than 400ha of privately owned grassland are protected forever with conservation covenants. These covenants help to improve the overall extent and connectivity of native grassland areas across the Northern Plains and are key to the survival of not just the Plains-wanderer but many other species of grassland animals and plants.
The covenants also act as a way to link members of the Northern Plains Conservation Management Network (a community-based group of like-minded individuals) and land managers. The network was formed in 2005 to encourage conservation of native habitat on the Northern Plains. Thanks to the collective efforts of covenantors, Trust for Nature officers and staff from the Department of Sustainability and Environment the Plains-wanderer’s future on the Northern Plains is better today than it was fifteen years ago.
This article was printed in Issue 49 of the Trust for Nature Conservation Bulletin.
To view the current as well as past editions of the Conservation Bulletin click here.
Photo by: Eugene O'Brien
Dr David Baker-Gabb is the preeminent Plains-wander specialist and he has recently published The Wanderer, an occasional newsletter to cover important information and stories for those interested in Plains-wanderer conservation and management. Read the Summer 2016 edition here.
If you have articles, photos or snippets on Plains-wanderers that may be of interest to others, please contact David at email@example.com.
Baker-Gabb, D. (1995, reprinted 2003). Flora and Fauna Guarantee Action Statement. 66. Plains-wanderer Pedionomus torquatus. Department of Sustainability and Environment, Melbourne.
Maher, P.N. & Baker-Gabb, D.J. (1993). Surveys and conservation of the Plains-wanderer in northern Victoria. ARI Technical Report Series No. 131. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Melbourne.
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. (2002). Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus) Recovery Plan. Draft for public comment. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney.