Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Little Gems...... Southern Emu-wren

I thought it was time I ventured farther afield, and with the run of great weather last week, I headed to the Gordon Road and into the South West National Park. Well it nearly didn't happen as the clear weather around Hobart, turned to heavy mist and later thick fog in the Derwent Valley, but more in hope than expectation, I pressed on, and I'm glad I did.

I finally drove clear of the fog at the Thumbs lookout, the highest point on the Gordon Road, and the weather beyond was fine, still and without a cloud in the sky. Time to start birding. I made several stops along the road, mostly alongside button grass plains, in search of one of my favourites, Striated Fieldwrens, and I wasn't disappointed. Although these birds are found widely around the state, my 'mental' picture of them is in these plains, singing from the tops of button grass stems, particularly during spring. But I'm digressing.

On one of these 'birding' stops, I
caught sight of an orange blob in a distant flowering banksia. I had hit 'pay dirt'! A single Southern Emu-wren, but I was sure there would be more. The area was beyond a drainage ditch on the edge of a vast button grass plain and among stunted burnt tea tree and hakea, cutting grass and sedges, with the odd regrowth bushy banksia marginata. It was extremely boggy. Pulling on gum boots I slopped my way towards them, trying hard, and failing, to avoid the ends of the burnt tea trees.

In an area of less than an acre and
all within 30 metres of the road, I found 2, possibly 3, family groups of Emu Wrens and I spent the next hour or so watching them as they went about their business. I say watching, but in reality, I spent more time watching the movement of grasses and shrubbery, as they hunted for insects, occasionally climbing higher to look around. All this was possible because of the total stillness of the day. By "pishing" and "squeaking", I occasionally managed to entice them close enough to get some images, but to say they were shy is an understatement, they mostly just observed me through the grass. Infrequently they gave a single note call, not unlike a pipit's, and for a while I thought there must be some other species present too. They spent some of the time on the ground, searching around the edges of the numerous pools, but never more than 'inches' from cover. In the past I've noted that they usually carried their long fine tail feathers 'cocked', but as you can see from the images, they weren't. Perhaps this is related to the breeding season being over. Late morning the action just stopped, and I have no idea where they disappeared to, but I know from experience they have a great ability to hide in clumps of cutting grass for extended periods and I just counted myself fortunate to have enjoyed their company. I sploshed my way back to the car, covered in much mud and bearing the 'scars' from burnt shrubbery, but feeling exhilarated and very content.

Southern Emu-wrens are by no means rare in Tasmania, but they can be difficult to locate. Much of the west and south west coast is arguably their stronghold, but they're also found in highland areas far from the coast.


Penny said...

Thanks Alan for this interesting post, I have yet to see one of these birds. Are the tail feathers as fragile as they look?

BirdingTas said...

Hi Penny,
Good question! The tail feathers give the Emu wren it's name, because of their similarity with emu feathers. They look as if they have a fairly stiff 'spine', so they're probably more resilient than they may appear.
The fineness of the tail structure also makes this diminutive bird even harder to spot. I have wondered why this species occupies such a harsh environment, but obviously it survives quite well. Perhaps the relative lack of predators may be the answer.

Carole M. said...

these are just delightful; so wonderful to have found this blog to enjoy the wonderful birds from Tassie

Unknown said...

Hi Alan,
I'm heading out towards the Gordon Dam this weekend and I'm hoping to see these little darlings for the first time. (Striated Fieldwrens would also be great!) Do you have any favourite birding spots along the road? Are the "official" lookouts any good or do you pretty much have to find a spot with good habitat and pull off the road? I'd be grateful for any advice.

BirdingTas said...

Both species are found in or around the edges of button-grass plains. The fieldwren is arguably the commonest bird in this habitat and found widely, but is somewhat secretive and will probably require walking through the button-grass. The Emu-wren is often found on the edge of these plains in low (c.2 metres or less) scrub. The lookouts are not generally useful and are mainly there for the view! I usually stop anywhere that looks "interesting", but walking far off the road is "challenging"!