Hot on the trail of Painted Button-quail

For birders, there is very little that matches the thrill of seeing and 'ticking' a new bird - or a 'lifer' in birding vernacular. The only thing that can really enhance this experience for Louise and I, is for that lifer to be found on our own slice of bush... and that is what happened this long weekend.

We left for Finches Gully with plans for a productive, long weekend of work on our cabin. As we entered through the gate, Louise spotted the partially obscured figure of a bird fossicking around in the leaf litter... we grabbed our binos and peered through the windscreen, soon realising we had in our sight the highly elusive Painted Button-quail! Another bird was seen before they promptly disappeared as I exited the car with my camera. Typical.

Our best laid plans went out of the window and were instead replaced by two days of slow, quiet and steady stalking; with CB radios ready we split up to cover more ground (which for Louise included sitting up a large Yellow Gum for a while as you will read below) and our newly focused attention was rewarded with a further four sightings over Saturday and Sunday in two areas of the block. It's hard to say how many individuals there were but we saw two birds at any one time in either location, with their different markings we believe them to be pair(s).

Note from Louise...

I first learnt about the Painted Button-quail (Turnix varius) when doing work experience with Connecting Country in Castlemaine. It is one of "The Feathered Five” focal species that they ask landowners to keep a track of because they are very susceptible to the pressures that are causing woodland birds to decline. Although I didn’t see them in the week I spent doing bird surveys with Tanya Loos, Woodland Bird Project Officer, she told me about the little clues they leave behind. 

As they forage for insects in leaf litter, they scrape the dirt away with their feet and form a circle of bare earth called a platelet. I found a few platelets near our track (see below), then kept following them up towards our fence line and found a load more. I decided to climb up and get settled in my favourite Yellow Gum, allowing a slightly elevated view of the area. I felt sure this would coax out the little blighter, whoops, I mean bird. But no! And my arse went numb after a while so I jumped down and went back to searching on foot. 

Back to me...

On the second, third and fourth of the five sightings the birds almost literally evaporated into native grass tussocks before my very eyes! On the fourth sighting, the bird was directly between us as I was talking to Louise and trying to zone her in to where the bird was - at the time it was running straight at her and about 15m from her she saw its head and then it dematerialised into the ether.  On the fifth sighting we both had superb, prolonged views as it did a seriously rapid, long loop before flushing (flying away) and never being found again. They are remarkable, bloody quick and so well camoflauged. It was here I snapped my award-winning shots which I have presented at the foot of the page for your ocular gratification* ;)

We have been musing if they have always been around and we just haven’t seen them (it took very active and deliberate scouting to see them after the initial fluke sighting) or have they just decided to come and camp recently? We suspect the latter - either way we are incredibly happy to have seen them and we hope they do decide to hang around.

The Painted Button-quail is listed as vulnerable nationally, and secure in Victoria. That doesn’t translate as easy to find however! You can read more about these most excellent of birds here -

*I managed to get four photos - that is it and yes, disappointingly these two below really are the best of the four. PBQs are furtive and quick, they hide behind long grasses that your camera wants to focus on and I was doing a rapid, trying to be quiet and invisible canter, and waaaaahhh!. There is a dirty, wee secret us bird photographers like to squirrel away but I will let you in on it now… often, the vast majority of the shots are average and a high number you take are frankly really crap. To the point where you have to consider the existential nature of your existence and wouldn’t it all be more productive if you started making models of the Eiffel Tower out of toenail clippings instead. You see the shots we want you to see, generally you will not see the 99/100 that didn’t make the cut and are of a ‘blurd’ (blurry bird), or a lovely shot of where the bird was a second ago, a super sharp branch with the out of focus ghost of a bird sitting on it, or a dark frame because you didn’t check your settings in the heat of the moment.

Update: 15 September 2017
A week or so after our initial sighting in June, a good friend and fellow bird photographer Warren Palmer managed to catch these incredible shots of one of the female PBQs. As you can imagine, I was absolutely over the moon that he managed these killer shots and I wasn't at all jealous or gutted it was him behind the camera instead of me... no really... ahem.

We have been finding lots of new sites where the obvious platelet activity is high, so we have been placing motion-activated trail cameras in some of these spots with the hope of catching some activity - after watching literally hours of footage of everything but PBQs over the past 6-8 weeks, last weekend in two of the last files in the batch we struck gold!  You may need to watch carefully to see them haha - very exciting nonetheless! Some of the cool distractions we did capture on the cameras though were a Southern Boobook in flight, a microbat, a possum, an echidna, lots of 'roos and a couple of swamp wallabies... and an annoying number of hares - the main one I have now named 'Trigger' due to the amount of times he set the cameras off.

There is a second bird there believe it or not! Whether it is a chick or an adult is hard to tell but we are certainly hoping it is a chick! Fingers crossed we will get some further footage soon.