Just a short update on my previous post.
I have just opened my mail. Over lunch I read through this month’s newsletter of Birds SA (South Australian Ornithological Association). In it there was a report of recent sighting of a Mallee Fowl on the road at Ferries McDonald Conservation Park.
It is good to see that they are alive and well in this area.
In yesterday’s post I highlighted seeing six Mallee Fowl in a ten minute period one exciting day last year. This almost doubled the total number of this species I had seen in over thirty years of birding. Previous to that eventful day I had seen seven individual birds on five different occasions. (On two of these occasions I saw two birds at the same time.)
Mallee Fowl – Leipoa ocellata
Other names for the Mallee Fowl include Lowan, Incubator Bird and Malleehen. It looks like a smallish turkey and ranges in size from 55 to 61 centimetres in length. It is sparsely distributed throughout south western Western Australia, southern parts of South Australia, northern Victoria and south western New South Wales where suitable habitat remains.
The Mallee Fowl has a preference for mallee scrub and eucalypt woodland habitats. Over the last century large tracts of this type of habitat have been cleared for cereal production and sheep grazing. The Mallee Fowl has been slow to adapt to these changes and is now extinct in some regions of its former range, and highly endangered in other areas. The widespread occurrence of the introduced fox has also had a devastating impact on the population.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of this species is its nesting habits. The Mallee Fowl is one of three mound nesting species in Australia. The male makes a nesting mound of earth, leaves, twigs and bark from nearby trees and bushes. These he scrapes together into a cone shaped mound. The rotting vegetation causes the mound temperature to rise, just like in a compost heap.
The male maintains the internal temperature at about 33 degrees C while eggs are in the mound. The male excavates a hole each time the female comes to lay an egg, usually at intervals of 2 to 14 days. During the breeding season, which stretches from September to April, the female can lay anything from 5 to 33 eggs. Once laid, the male refills the hole and continues to monitor the temperature of the mound on a daily basis.
The mound can vary in size from about 2 to 5 metres in diameter and up to 1.5 metres high. In my searches through Ferries-McDonald Conservation Park some 20km SW of where I live I have found seven of these mounds, some still in active use. I have even sat quietly for many hours near a nest hoping to see the birds – to no avail. Finding the nests seems easier than finding the birds!
When the chicks eventually hatch – often after more than 7 weeks – they struggle through the sand of the mound to the surface. This struggle can take hours. They then run off rapidly into the surrounding bush. They are not tended by the adults at all but are left to fend for themselves. The chicks can fly a few hours after hatching.
The Mallee Fowl is indeed an amazing bird in its habits and nesting methods. Its status is a major concern. The local zoo, Monarto Zoological Park used to have a special recovery programme. The keepers were given special permission to remove eggs from mounds in the district and incubate these eggs artificially. The chicks were raised by hand and released back into the wild. Some were fitted with radio transmitters and tracked. Most were taken by foxes within days of their release. Farmers in the district often have a baiting programme to kill the foxes (because they kill their lambs) but there are so many the Mallee Fowl is still extremely vulnerable.
I haven’t heard in recent years whether the zoo is still pursuing this breeding and conservation programme. There is currently no information in the conservation section of the zoo’s web page.
UPDATE: this article was updated with photos on 14th October 2011.
This article was updated on October 3rd 2015.
Last year we visited Mt. Boothby Conservation Park in the upper South East of South Australia. This park is about 20km south west of Coonalpyn where we were staying with friends of ours. We had experienced driving through some very interesting country to the east of Coonalpyn during the weekend, including Ngarkat National Park. This park had been severely burnt by a bushfire about six months previously, and the regrowth was amazing.
But I digress.
Mt Boothby Conservation Park is predominently mallee and banksia country. The “mount” is actually just a hill about 200 metres (a guess) above the surrounding wheat and sheep farming country. Two tracks lead to the summit, one from the south east and one from the south.
As I was driving slowly towards the summit – it is a very rocky 4WD track – friend John said, “A perfect ending to a great weekend would be if a Malleefowl were to come out on to the track in front of us.” I had to agree.
Right on cue, a malleefowl came into view and strutted along the track in front of us for some 200 metres before disappearing from view in the dense scrub.
Duck! Duck! Duck! (Goose???)
It was Julie, his wife, who saw it first. “Duck! Duck! Duck!” she shouted in excitement. Of course it wasn’t a duck – but that was the first thing to come into her mind! Now I need to explain several things here.
One, a Malleefowl is nothing like a duck! In fact, it is the size and shape of a small turkey.
Two, Julie had never seen a Malleefowl in the wild before, so she had no reference point for her possible identification.
Three, the Malleefowl is a rather rare, endangered species. In fact, in nearly 30 years of birding I had only ever seen about 6 of these beautiful Australian birds. Anticipation all weekend had been high; sighting one heightened the excitement level to fever pitch!
An Even Better Weekend
After we calmed down – and explained to Julie that it was NOT a duck and that she wasn’t even close with her ID – we stopped at the summit for a few minutes. The view was unspectacular, so we headed of down the south track to the boundary track. This took us along the farming country next door.
John commented, “Wouldn’t it be an even better end to the weekend if we saw another Malleefowl?”
You guessed it. As if responding to a director’s cue, said Malleefowl strolled casually out in front of the car! Whoopee! Two in ten minutes! Wow time!
The Best Ending
I do not to this day know what made me turn away from looking at the second bird and look over the fence into the adjacent paddock. Not thirty metres away, in full view, were another FOUR Malleefowls casually feeding.
Six in ten minutes!
It had taken me 30 years to see the other six – now six in ten minutes!
Wow! Wow! Wow big time!
The only downside was the resulting photos. It was a few minutes after sunset and the shots we took were all rather dark and a little blurry. Never mind! Next time, perhaps.
To see a photo (not mine) of a Malleefowl click here.
Update: Since writing this article I have taken the photo below which shows an active Mallee Fowl nesting mound. This nest is in Ferries McDonald Conservation Park near my home town, Murray Bridge.
I recently had occasion to drive out to Karoonda, a small farming community in the Murray Mallee 65km north east of Murray Bridge. On the way one passes through wheat and sheep farming country with a little remnant vegetation on each side of the road. This mallee habitat is often surprisingly rich in birdlife.
The dominent species one observes along this road (and many others in the district) is the Australian Magpie. Little Ravens are also common as are Crested Pigeons. Flocks of Galahs are a common sight too, ranging in size from four or six through to hundreds.
Summer Road Toll
During summer, when the wheat trucks are carting freshly harvested grain, many Galahs are killed because they feed on the spilled grain on the side of the road. They gorge themselves on the bounty left by the trucks and are then sluggish in their attempts to fly out of the way. Because pairs bond for life, if one is accidently killed in this way, so, too, is the other of the pair eventually killed. The pair bonding is so strong that they stay with the dead one until they, too, fall victim to a passing truck or other vehicle.
Many other birds are encountered on this stretch of road. Mallee Ringneck Parrots cross the road like green and yellow arrows darting through the trees. Willie Wagtails flit to and fro catching the insects disturbed by passing vehicles. Welcome Swallows swoop across the road or skim the nearby paddocks looking for their meal. Red Wattlebirds and Singing Honeyeaters are observed checking out if any of the mallee trees (various eucalyptus species) are in flower. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of the bright yellow feathers of the Yellow Tailed Thornbills as they fly from one patch of vegetation to the next.
From time to time one can see larger birds like the Little Eagle or the Wedge Tailed Eagle, or the smaller Nankeen Kestral and Black Shouldered Kite. Two other larger species in this area are the Grey Currawong and the White-winged Chough. This latter species is quite often seen walking along the side of the road or in the nearby scrubland. I have often been amused seeing them strutting along rather than flying.
We stayed with our daughter in Clare in the mid-north of South Australia recently. While we were there we went to the nearby small town of Blyth, about twenty minutes drive to the west. We especially went to visit the Medika Gallery run by Ian Roberts. We have known Ian for some years through the Australian Plants Society. Ian has regularly grown plants for sale at our sales in Adelaide. He also exhibits his paintings at the plant sales.
Although we often visit Clare and have driven through Blyth many times we had never visited the Medika Gallery. Ian has converted an old church in the middle of the town into a wonderfully welcoming gallery displaying both his paintings and the works of several other local artists. Ian specialises in painting Australian birds. He has a wonderful gift of being able to capture not only the beauty but also the unique characteristics of our birds. He is also able to beautifully portray the birds in natural settings, highlighting many of our native Australian plants where the birds feed, roost or nest.
To view some of Ian’s beautiful paintings click here. You can also order his works through his site.
This post was updated on 23rd February 2017.