The Emu/volume 13/Spotless Crake and Western Ground-Parrot

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Notes on the Spotless Crake and Western Ground-Parrot

By F. Lawson Whitlock, R.A.O.U., Chiltern, Tudor Siding, Denmark Line, W.A.

Our rainy season commences as a rule early in April, the annual fall being 36 inches and upwards, and the country, generally speaking, is well supplied with swamps and wet ground. During the months of January, February, and March, however, our climate is usually hot and dry, when all surface water quickly disappears. The haunts of the Spotless or Tabuan Crake (Porzana immaculata) and other semi-aquatic birds are subject, therefore, to a certain amount of local change.

In the wet months—and these include the breeding season—pairs are more frequently met with in what may reasonably be termed flooded ground rather than around the large and more or less permanent swamps. My first experience of the Spotless Crake occurred in the hot, dry weather, when I picked up a chick only a few days old in a wheel-rut near Torbay Junction, about 10 miles west of Albany. Probably others of the brood were concealed in the long grass close at hand. This was in March, 1905. The general appearance of this newly-hatched chick was black, with just a tinge of deep brown in the thick down clothing the body. The legs, feet, and beak, too, were black, with just enough gloss to suggest they had been black-leaded.

Again, in December, 1911, I was engaged in ornithological work within a couple of miles of Albany, when I was shown a pair of rough skins of the Spotless Crake. These were the remains of birds brought in from a neighbouring thicket by a cat. At the time of my visit to this particular locality, a third example was brought home by the same cat; I secured this, practically undamaged.

The following year a pair of small Crake's eggs, from a clutch of four (unblown), were given to me. The identity of these eggs, which are a little larger than typical eggs of the Spotless Crake, is not absolutely certain, however. The same season, in searching for nests of the Grass-Bird (Megalurus striatus), I heard peculiar but Crake-like notes issuing from a large clump of reeds. I enticed the creatures out by imitating the notes as well as I could, and had a good view of a Spotless Crake a few feet away. I could clearly distinguish the peculiar pinkish-red of the irides.

In November, 1913, I had occasion to camp on an extensive

PLATE XIX.


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Haunt of Spotless Crake (Nest in tussock where white flowers appear). Also haunt of Stipiturus and Sphenura.)


FROM A PHOTO BY F. L. WHITLOCK.


PLATE XX.


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Nest of Spotless Crake (Porzana immaculata) in situ.


FROM A PHOTO BY F. L. WHITLOCK.


black-boy (Xanthorrhœa) flat. On either side of the bit of dry ground on which my tent was pitched were tracts of sloppy ground, with dwarf tea-tree, Banksia, Xanthorrhœa, Leptospermum, and long herbage growing profusely all over them. At dusk I heard the notes of a pair of Spotless Crakes which came out to feed as the light faded. I spent the whole of one morning paddling about in water which varied in depth from two to eighteen inches in a vain quest of their breeding place. I saw nothing of the birds nor of their nest; but on 11th November, whilst searching for the nest of another species of bird, on the opposite side of my camping-ground, I came across four eggs of the Crake, laid in an apology for a nest, concealed in a tuft of long grasses and beautiful white-flowering plants. The eggs were placed with their thin ends pointing to the centre, after the manner of a clutch of Plover's eggs. The nest itself was a slight cavity, formed by the half-exposed roots of the surrounding grasses, with a mere pinch of dead grass as a lining. I photographed the eggs in situ. The surrounding ground was totally devoid of water; the nearest pool was a hundred yards away, and rapidly drying up.

A little later in the year I encountered a family (probably six birds) in the Megalurus swamp before mentioned. This party was a noisy one, the individuals continually calling one to the other. The most frequent note resembled the syllable "Quip," sharply uttered in a whistling tone, and one readily imitated. Another very curious sound was frequently uttered, too. I can only compare it to the rattle made by a sewing machine running at a high speed. This can be imitated by pressing the in-doubled tongue against the palate and blowing hard through the nearly closed lips. Another sound resembled a very liquid and bubbling noise; but this was only occasionally uttered. During these observations I had members of the party all around me, and as I tried with more or less success to imitate their notes, one or other would take a peep at me, or run from one clump of reeds to another. They are dainty and pleasing little birds in their movements, and with each step the short little tail is jerked downwards. On the water drying up on this large swamp the Crakes, Bald-Coots, and other aquatic birds repair to a neighbouring bulrush swamp, which I regard as permanent water, and when waiting for a shot at same I often hear their notes, and at times get a glimpse of them on the margins of vegetation beds.

Eggs of the Spotless Crake have been described from specimens taken in Tasmania, or from islands adjacent to Australia; but a photograph of the nest in situ, discovered on the mainland, will not be without interest. (See Plate XX.)

Mr. A. J. North has separated the Western Ground-Parrot from the Eastern form, under the name Pezoporus flaviventris. Information as to the character of the nest and eggs of the Western form became, therefore, desirable. I found it a very difficult bird to study, and the task of finding its nest and eggs trying in the extreme to one's patience. It is absolutely the most silent and unobtrusive bird I have yet encountered in Western Australia. Occasionally one may unexpectedly flush an individual in some more or less frequented spot; but as a rule to find these birds one must go to the undisturbed flats and systematically tramp through all the closely-growing vegetation, and, if in luck, an odd bird, or at times even a pair, may be flushed, with a startling suddenness, into a flight of 40 or 50 yards, when they drop into the herbage again just as suddenly as they rose. I have never seen this species fly at a greater height than 8 or 9 feet. The flight is slightly undulatory, but very different to that of ordinary Parrots, the wings being very rapidly beaten at intervals, with periods of gliding flight more like that of a Quail between, the tips of the wings being pointed downwards like those of the latter bird. It never flies any great distance, and when about to alight appears to fall headlong to the ground. Usually it can be flushed again if followed immediately, as it does not appear to run along after alighting. Once or twice I have been able to watch a bird at close quarters. Despite its long legs, it does not appear very active on the ground, but it certainly moves with more grace and greater ease than the average Parrot, the awkward, waddling gait of the latter being quite absent.

The early settlers in this district tell me this species is not so frequently seen as formerly. Common, in the true sense of the term, I can hardly believe it ever was, and, with the numbers of large lizards haunting the flats, the wonder is it has not been exterminated years ago. Mr. James Knapp, who was born in this district over fifty years ago, states that as a boy he has more than once marked a bird down, and by carefully crawling on hands and knees has knocked it over with a stick. He attributes the diminishing numbers of these beautiful Parrots to Quail-shooters; but there are many square miles of flats as absolutely undisturbed now as they were fifty years ago. Bush-fires are probably more frequent now than formerly, and in dry seasons there may be some destruction of young not yet strong enough on the wing to escape.

In the spring of 1912 I spent many tiring hours tramping the flats on behalf of Mr. H. L. White, of Belltrees, N.S.W., in quest of the eggs of this species. Though I not infrequently flushed the birds, it was not until after weeks of plodding search that I discovered a nest containing two young birds a few days old. This was on 20th October. The nesting-site was on a low but dry ridge, thickly clothed with herbage, amongst which a few small, rounded, prickly bushes were growing—probably a species of dwarf Hakea. A slight hollow had been scratched out by the parents and scantily lined with dry grasses. The young birds uttered feeble and querulous cries when handled. Their bodies were clothed with a neutral-tinted down, with beak, legs, and feet lead-coloured. I photographed them as they lay in the nest. I saw absolutely nothing of the parents, nor could I flush them near at hand.

PLATE XXI.


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Nesting site of Western Ground-Parrot (Pezaporus flaviventris).


FROM A PHOTO BY F. L. WHITLOCK.


The present season I found a nest of the previous year, with remains of the hatched eggs, and was also fortunate, after a long and weary search, in securing three fine and freshly-laid eggs from a nest sheltered, as before, by a prickly ( (?) Hakea) bush. This was on 20th November—just a month later than the previous season. I flushed the female from this nest at a distance of about 10 feet away, and, though I made several attempts to see her sitting on her eggs, I was unsuccessful in this respect. The eggs were well sheltered by the overhanging bush, and the nest was very neatly lined with fine dead grasses, the latter being arranged in a true circular manner. When flushed the female flew a short distance away, and uttered no sound. I saw nothing of the male. As far as I can judge, he spends the day at some distance from the nest, lying concealed in low, thick scrub, from which he will not emerge until nearly trodden upon.

In searching for a nest of this species I may state that I examined no less than nine nests of the Emu-Wren (Stipiturus westernensis)—all this season's. It is a curious fact that such a small and feeble-flying species as the Emu-Wren can hold its own when larger species like the Noisy Scrub-Bird (Atrichia clamosa) and the Western Bristle-Bird (Sphenura longirostris) are, in this coastal district, verging upon, if not quite, extinct.

The eggs from this nest were described by Mr. H. L. White in The Emu, January, 1914. They now form part of his fine collection.