Thinking About Birds

I’m studying Rufous Scrub-birds in the Gloucester Tops area of New South Wales. The site is about 3 hours drive away from my home in Newcastle. The initial program involved lots of volunteer helpers and was focussed as a population study. Now I've become much more interested in attempting to study individual birds. I've co-opted several other people to help me work on this. Map Some of the volunteers from 2010

The Rufous Scrub-bird is an almost flightless bird which lives amongst dense ground cover and leaf litter in five high altitude areas in NSW and south-east Queensland. It is a species at considerable risk from climate change, as it has no way to escape the high altitude “islands” where it lives.

Males have territories about 1 hectare in size, with territories usually spaced many hundreds of metres apart. It is not easy to see a Scrub-bird but the males have loud and distinctive calls and that is how we find their territories.

There are several aspects to the project:

  • Identify where male Rufous Scrub-birds have their territories and if they maintain them year-on-year
  • Compare the Gloucester Tops sub-population with other Rufous Scrub-bird sub-populations
  • Study the calling behaviour of individual male Rufous Scrub-birds and compare with other male birds
  • Find ways to learn more about individual Rufous Scrub-birds (their biology and behaviour).

Here is a document which summarises the overall activity: Project outline (March 2019) 

Papers

Stuart, A. (2020). Rufous Scrub-bird population trend in the Gloucester Tops: results from 2010-2019 monitoring program.  The Whistler 14: 28-34 (also see here).

Stuart, A. (2019). Occupancy at two Rufous Scrub-bird territories in the Gloucester Tops. The Whistler 13: 35-37.

Stuart, A. and O'Leary, M. (2019). A method for investigating Rufous Scrub-birds using automated recording and rapid, semi-automated data analysis. Corella 43: 57-64. 

Stuart, A. (2018). Sizes of some Rufous Scrub-bird singing areas in the Gloucester Tops. Australian Field Ornithology 35: 107-110.

Stuart, A. and Newman, M. (2018). Spring bird communities of a high altitude area of the Gloucester Tops, New South Wales. Australian Field Ornithology 35: 21-29.

Stuart, A. and Newman, M. (2018). Rufous Scrub-birds Atrichornis rufescens in the Gloucester Tops of New South Wales: findings from surveys in 2010-2016Australian Field Ornithology 35: 13-20.

Newman, M., Stuart, A. and Hill, F. (2014).  Rufous Scrub-bird Atrichornis rufescens monitoring at the extremities of the species’ range in New South Wales (2010–2012).  Australian Field Ornithology 31: 77-98.

Stuart, A., Newman, M., Struik, P. and Martin, I. (2012).  Development of a non-intrusive method for investigating the calling patterns of Rufous Scrub-birds.  The Whistler 6: 24-34.

Newman, M. and Stuart, A. (2011).  Monitoring the Rufous Scrub-bird in the Barrington Tops and Gloucester Tops IBA – a pilot study. The Whistler 5: 19-27.

Newman, M. and Stuart, A. (2011).  Monitoring Rufous Scrub-birds in the Barrington Tops and Gloucester Tops IBA in the 2010-2011 Season. Hunter Bird Observers Club Special Report #6.

Talks

 Birds of the Gloucester Tops (presented at a Gloucester community forum, October 2019)

Investigating Rufous Scrub-birds in the NSW Gloucester Tops (July 2019, Australasian Ornithological Conference, Darwin).

Rufous Scrub-birds in the Gloucester Tops (March 2019, presented in Newcastle at the Australian Bird Study Association Conference).

What do we know about Rufous Scrub-birds? (September 2018, presented in Newcastle to local and visiting birdwatchers, at the NSW BIGnet meeting).

Investigating Rufous Scrub-birds (June 2018, presented in Albany to DPAW staff and the general public).

Status of Rufous Scrub-birds in the Gloucester Tops (November 2017, Australasian Ornithological Conference, Geelong, presented by Mike Newman).

An altitudinal study of birds in the Gloucester Tops (November 2017, Australasian Ornithological Conference, Geelong).

What have we learned after seven years of Rufous Scrub-bird surveys? (to the BirdLife Southern NSW & ACT Branch, March 2017).

Birds of the Gloucester Tops (to HBOC, June 2016)

Poster

Rufous Scrub-birds (prepared for HBOC's display at the Tocal Field Days 2019)

Poems

Alone With A Scrub-bird 

A Private Audience

How to see a Rufous Scrub-bird


Latest news

In mid-November 2018 we caught and banded a male Rufous Scrub-bird, and then a second male in early December 2018. After more than a year of planning, we'd done it! For Scrub-bird #1 the band details are: 042 84501 (metal band placed onto the left leg) and a yellow band placed onto the bird's right leg (i.e. using Schema 11). For Scrub-bird #2 we used Schema 1 i.e. a metal band (042 84502) on right leg, yellow band on left leg. Six months later, I had great views of the first bird in its territory, and the yellow band was clearly visible.

I'm sure that we can repeat the exercise on other birds (in the breeding season) as everything went remarkably smoothly both times. However,scrub-birds probably didn't breed in 2019 (because of the drought) so things are on hold.

We weren't able to attach radio transmitters to either of the birds - in November because of a minor technical hitch and then in December because we discovered that the harness was too big (we were using a harness designed for Noisy Scrub-birds). We have made smaller harnesses now.

Some older news

I've enlisted some local bird banders into the team and in October 2018 we finally completed the training and approvals process in order to be able to band Rufous Scrub-birds and place radio transmitters onto some of them. Our training included to spend a week with the people in WA studying Noisy Scrub-birds. Rob Kyte and Greg Little were with me and we learnt an enormous amount about Scrub-birds - their singing behaviour, their breeding biology, where they place their nests, how males and females interact, also how to catch and then track Scrub-birds, and much much more. I'm sure it will be very valuable background for studying Rufous Scrub-birds. See the project outline for more details. In March 2019 I was awarded a Wilma Barden Memorial Grant to assist these studies.

In June 2014 we (Mike Newman, Faye Hill and me) prepared a submission in support of the listing of Rufous Scrub-bird as Endangered under the Commonwealth EPBC act. The government subsequently made that determination. Our studies showed that scrub-birds are very sensitive to dry conditions in spring during their breeding season. It is expected that one consequence of climate change will be more erratic weather conditions and hence more probability of extended duration droughts. Coupled with the relatively short (4.9 years) generation length believed to apply to Rufous Scrub-birds, the potential impact to their population could be quite severe.