PLAINS-WANDERER Pedionomidae The Plains-Wanderer is a small, unique bird of the open plains of eastern Australia. It is the sole representative of a family whose affinities have been uncertain. Like phalaropes, the female (below right) is larger and more brightly colored than the male (left). Yet until recently it was often classified alongside the buttonquail (Turnicidae) in the order Gruiformes. Males (especially) look like buttonquail when hunkered down on the ground. Olson & Steadman (1981), however, studied its anatomy and behavior, and this research, along with the results of DNA-DNA hybridization, showed that it actually is a Charadriiforme (like the phalarope) and that its closest relative may be the South American seedsnipes (Thinocoridae). The current thought is that it is "an ancient member of Australia's avifauna, with origins dating back to when Australia was part of the Gondwanan supercontinent and connected to South America via the Antarctic landbridge" (Baker-Gabb 1996).

The female Plains-Wanderer (right) has a collar of black-and-white, and a rusty blotch on the breast (not shown here; this was possibly a young female as her coloration was fairly muted). I've already noted the resemblance to buttonquails when the bird is crouching among the light cover on the barren plains it inhabits, but it is a much stranger beast when standing up or running (below). It walks among the tussucks, occasionally stretching up to peer around for danger. That danger is much greater in the day when numerous raptors hunt the open plains and the birds are very shy; accordingly, most efforts to locate them are at night (as in these photos).

 
 
 

Before we had the chance to see this species in the wild, I had a very difficult time trying to figure out just what size it would be. In life, it was much smaller than I had expected, being perhaps the size of a Sora Porzana carolina or a baby chicken. The birds are very reluctant to fly, although they do disperse widely and unpredictably, flying like ponderous quail with legs trailing out behind (Baker-Gabb 1996).

Seeing a Plains-Wanderer is an adventurous experience. They are actually diurnal and crepuscular birds (Baker-Gabb 1988), but because they are so shy in the day, most searches are done at night when the bird tends to run from the sound of a truck with a floodlight rather than crouch still as during daylight (presumably nocturnal predation pressure is much less). Most folks (including Rita Carratello and I) secured the services of Phil Maher (below; a soft-spoken Aussie who lives up to one's expectations of those residing in the "outback") to show them this rare and difficult species. Phil makes his living leading birders, and the Plains-Wanderer is a big part of his success (it is also an expensive experience).

 
 

After a day's birding and dinner on the hood of Phil's four-wheel drive landcruiser at dusk, one awaits the dark before venturing into the paddocks where the Plains-Wanderer (and sometimes several species of buttonquail) can be located. Numerous gates are opened and closed until one reaches the "right" type of shortgrass prairie on Robert Murdock's (the media mogul) sheep ranch. Phil then drives in ever-widening circles watching for one to run a short distance in his floodlight. Sometimes this happens quickly; at other times it takes hours. Phil says that his banding studies show that, while the population is fairly sedentary, the individuals he finds from night to night are often quite different, thus living up to the name "wanderer." Phil is also careful to avoid harassing the same birds from night-to-night, and his efforts to show birders this weird and wonderful species has had no apparent impact on their well-being. Indeed, he is a powerful voice for their preservation.

Phil Maher can be reached at P.O. Box 385, South Yarra 3141, Victoria, Australia; or via email HERE.

This is a scarce and vulnerable species. "Lowland native grasslands are among the most depleted ecosystems in eastern Australia, and threatened grassland fauna have undergone a marked decline. There are now possibly fewer than 11,000 Plains-Wanderers left in the wild, and in drought years, when overgrazing of habitat occurs, the population may be halved" (Baker-Gabb 1996). While habitat loss is the greatest threat, introduced foxes and hunting are also problems.

Photos: These Plains-Wanderers Pedionomus torquatus were photographed just before midnight on 31 Dec 1997 on the Riviere Plain, north of Conargo, New South Wales, Australia. I can think of few better ways to spend New Year's Eve. All photos © D. Roberson.

Bibliographic note

There is no "family book" per se, but an excellent introduction to this family, incorporated the more recent research, is in Baker-Gabb (1996).

Other literature cited:

Baker-Gabb, D. J. 1988. The diet and foraging behavior of the Plains-Wanderer Pedionomus torquatus. Emu 88: 113-115.

Baker-Gabb, D. J. 1996. Family Pedionomidae (Plains-Wanderer), pp. 534-537 in del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, & J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3 (Hoatzin to Auks), Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Olson, S. L., and D. W. Steadman. 1981. The relationship of the Pedionomidae (Aves: Charadriformes). Smithsonian Contrib. Zool. 337: 1-25.

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