Birds of the Big Scrub

 Amateur ornithologist, Mark Graham, gave a presentation on the birds of the Big Scrub at the 2009 BSRD. This is an edited transcript of that presentation.


I’m here today to talk about birds of the Big Scrub, to show some photographs and talk about some of my thoughts on what makes the Big Scrub so special. I’d like to talk about the different types of birds, how the birds fit into the bigger picture of what makes the Big Scrub and some of my thoughts on the future of the birds and the Big Scrub. 

I feel a strong bond to the Big Scrub. My grandfather came out from Scotland in the 1870s and cleared a some of the Big Scrub, first at Newrybar and then at Eureka. I’ve been back to those farms on a few occasions; they are no longer in my family’s hands. For the last 12 years or so my father and I have been replanting Big Scrub at Buckombil, the southernmost of the Big Scrub remnants, south of Alstonville at a place called Meerschaum Vale. We’ve been rehabilitating an area of about 4 hectares and planted over 13,500 trees. It is a mixture of vegetation communities, not just the pure, subtropical, red soil country such as you get on the plateau and the like. There are warm temperate elements on the less fertile soils, there is sandstone and shale and the like, there is littoral rainforest, dominated by tuckeroo in particular, and there is also swamp forest, with additional species like swamp mahogany, forest red gum and swamp box.

A lot of people think that the Big Scrub was homogenous, that it was just made up of red soils and subtropical rainforests. It really wasn’t – if you drew a line, such as the classic boundary of the Big Scrub, from Meerschaum Vale out towards Lismore and Nimbin, and across to Byron Bay, there was an amazing array of different landscape types, different ecosystems and different vegetation communities. There were wetland areas, there were shrubby, rocky, outcrop areas, there were patches of eucalypt forest and, when it was in all of its finery, the Big Scrub was one of the world’s richest expressions of biodiversity. If you read some of the earlier accounts of pioneers and explorers, when they first came to the Big Scrub, the mornings were deafening with the sound of birds, now gone because the Big Scrub is mostly gone. 

My first picture is that of the iconic Coxen’s fig parrot; there might be fewer than 50 of them left. I consider myself very privileged to have seen one in the Buckombil Big Scrub remnant in 2005. It was at the top of a 35 m high Moreton Bay fig. I knew it was a Coxen’s fig parrot as I’ve looked after captive Marshal’s and Macleay’s fig parrots, they’re the very similar fig parrots from north Queensland, and their calls are very similar. Looking through my binoculars I could see it circling the canopy for some time before it became too dark to see. They live primarily on figs but they also eat other native fruits. They are infrequently seen and are possibly Australia’s rarest bird. There are no photographs of them; the best we have are line drawings and museum specimens. Apparently a gentleman called John Young has pictures of the Coxen’s fig parrot, and the new fig parrot found on the Lamington Plateau, but I don’t believe that they are publicly available. The Coxen’s fig parrot is well nigh gone from the Big Scrub. The big fig trees that sit in the paddocks and remnants are habitat to them but the numbers are so small that the habitat is functional extinct.

A bird that is extinct from the Big Scrub is the rufous scrub bird. The first specimen was taken from Eureka around 1880 but now days it only occurs above 500 m elevation. It is regarded as been primarily a high elevation rainforest species – in arctic beech and warm temperate forests at higher elevations. There was a recent sighting of one at around 100 m at Mt Seaview, back of Kempsey, and that is the only recent record at lower elevations. It is extinct in the Big Scrub and, given that its first record is from the Big Scrub, it is quite fascinating and sad that this species may not be seen here again as things currently exist; the forest is so fragmented. 

The wompoo fruit dove is one of the more magnificent of the Big Scrub residents. It has breeding populations in the Nightcap Range, in the northern part of the Big Scrub and also in the southern Big Scrub where there is a breeding pair at Buckombil; according to Stephanie and Julian Lymburner, a pair took up residence in their Coolgardie remnant for some months this year, feeding on figs. They are a very large colourful pigeon, 40 cm or so high, that can eat large fruit such as blue quandong and have a role in their dispersal. Elsewhere in the Big Scrub they are ‘patchy’ vagrants that come through as they respond to the seasonal availability of fruits. They only feed on fruit and they are one of the best dispersers of fruit around.

 The noisy pitta is another colourful resident. They migrate from the highlands to the coastal lowland remnants in winter. They are nocturnally active with a very distinctive “walk-to-work” call; if you hear that noise at night you literally hear the “walk-to-work” quite clearly. They forage through the understorey, turning over leaves, feeding primarily on large rainforest snails, which they crack against ‘anvils’ to break the shells. You can tell where there is an anvil because of all the snail shells surrounding the rock; I’ve come across several bottles, often the old North Coast Bottle Company bottles, which have been used as anvils in areas where there haven’t been rocks.

The rose-crowned fruit dove primarily feeds on camphor laurel berries and breeds upon the basis of camphor fruit availability. In most areas where camphor is abundant in the Big Scrub you’ll hear rose-crowned fruit doves calling in their ‘calling’ season. In the Coffs Harbour region, where there has been a lot of camphor removal and poisoning, I and other local ornithologists have noticed that, in some areas, we no longer hear them calling when previously we’d hear up to five birds at a time. We haven’t heard one around Coffs Harbour for over 18 months now. A few of us are getting concerned about that.

I’m not for camphor laurel conservation, but I’d advocate a cautionary approach to phasing it out and replacing it with subtropical rainforest. Taking out camphor groves, in the space of a few years, that might have taken 60 years to grow, may have unforseen repercussions. Driving through the Teven-Tintenbar road today I noticed that there was a large patch of camphor that had been bulldozed and burnt and, I also note, that the Broadwater sugar mill and its co-generation facility is seeking camphor. While camphor is not native, and it does have certain negative effects on aquatic ecosystems, it is fulfilling a vital role in maintaining the fabric of the Big Scrub, particularly on steep country. It is de facto rainforest that effectively reconnects remnants, facilitates the dispersal of rainforest seeds and allows rainforest seedlings to germinate in the dark, cool microclimates that they like. Far better a camphor grove to a dry, barren, degraded cow paddock in my opinion.

One of the more common rainforest birds is the Lewin’s honeyeater; it is abundant in the Big Scrub. They don’t just eat honey and nectar but disperse all sorts of rainforest seeds. Birds are some our best friends as they make up one of the few fauna groups that can move from remnant to remnant but, in many respects, they are also our worst enemies as they spread environmental weeds, particularly fleshy-fruited plants. Whenever we’re restoring or regenerating rainforest we need to put on our bird ‘goggles’, so to speak, and think “how are birds using this area, can we improve the ways that birds are using this remnant or can we act to favour birds?”. 

The spangled drongo is one of the more raucous birds of the Big Scrub. Once again, they come out of the highlands to the coastal lowlands in the winter. They have a ‘metallic-feedback’ sound, a strange scratching squawking sound. They are a really lovely local rainforest bird.

The little shrike thrush is a less common bird; in fact it is considered a bird of significance in north-eastern NSW. Where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, just south of Coffs Harbour, we have the extreme southern limit of the species and it is likely that, with accelerating global warming, species like this may move their way down the coast; we need to recognise this and make provisions for that by increasing bush and connectivity so that species have a better chance of surviving.

The white-eared monarch is one of the endangered or vulnerable species. It flutters around the rainforest canopy picking off insects; it is quite common on the coastal escarpment from Buckombil up to Broken Head and back onto the Nightcap Ranges. They will use camphor because of its dense canopy.

The yellow-throated scrub wren is one of the deep-forest birds that are quite uncommon in the Big Scrub. Many of the deep-forest birds, those that need moist, dark, cool conditions, are locally extinct or rare in the Big Scrub remnants. As is the log runner, which is basically extinct across 98% of the Big Scrub. They feed on insects in the understorey, picking through the leaf litter. They’re an ancient bird that was present in Gondwanan times, 65-90 million years ago. In north Queensland there is a closely related species, called the chowchilla, which was probably once the one species but, as Australia dried, they have been split between NE NSW-SE QLD and the wet tropics.  

The white-winged triller feeds upon fruits and insects. They are relatively uncommon, except in good rainforest areas. As their name implies, they have a trilling call. 

The black-breasted button quail is very close to extinction in the Big Scrub. It use to be very common in dense shrubby areas amongst rainforest but now, in NSW, it is pretty well only known from the Byrrill Creek area, west of Wollumbin, and patches on the Richmond and Koreelah Ranges. There have been some reports of it from the Big Scrub flora reserve but there is some doubt over those records. There may be less than five or ten of them left in NSW; they are a little more common in Queensland but they have a very limited range. They now rely upon lantana to provide the dense shrubby understorey. They make something called platelets, little round scratch marks, where they scratch for insects.

Another deep-forest bird is the rufous fantail; it is a real pleasure to see them as a flash of red in the deep-forest. Like many birds they migrate up and down the eastern seaboard. 

Another colourful bird is the emerald dove. It is a resident of the Big Scrub that mostly feeds on the ground.

The wonga pigeon is a big bird that eats seeds, as opposed to fruits, as well as insects from the understorey and the ground. They have a repetitive call that lets you know when they are around.

This is a picture of a brown cuckoo dove feeding on a poison peach tree. The poison peach is a small-fruited pioneer tree that is one of the best bird attracting species and can be used to encourage birds into areas.

Most of you will have seen the white-headed dove feeding on camphor berries along road edges during the camphor fruiting season.

I have pictures here of some of the wetland birds. Most of you will probably say “what wetlands?” There are fascinating wetlands within the Big Scrub. For example, next to Davis Scrub NR, on top of the plateau, about 140 metres above sea level, there are patches of swamp mahogany. There are also several patches of broad-leafed paper barks and melaleuca swamps, to the south and east of Alstonville, in seasonally inundated areas. 

The Big Scrub was not all just subtropical rainforest, there were patches of swamp within it where species like the black bittern, a vulnerable wetland bird, could forage secretively in dense vegetation beside creeks, waterways and dams. I’ve seen quite a number of them between the Coolgardie and Buckombil remnant over the last 10 or 12 years and I have reason to believe that they are a breeding population. They have also been seen through Eureka, Federal and that area up through to the Nightcap. 

Another vulnerable bird that likes dense understorey is the dun coloured bush hen. I heard one at Eureka and Cooper’s Creek a couple of weekends ago. They seem to do very well in dank grasslands beside creeks. They were thought to be only as far south as Meerschaum Vale but they are now going as far south as the Macleay. They make the most bizarre array of calls, squeaks and yowls – if you listen in the breeding season you’ll certainly know when they are around.

The black-necked stork is about to have its name changed to the satin stork. I’ve seen them in that patch of swamp mahogany next to Davis Scrub and between Lismore and Booyong on some of the swamp flats near the north coast railway line. There are fewer than 75 pairs of them in NSW; they are a big beautiful bird. They mostly eat eels, turtles, frogs and insects; they have even been seen flicking large ‘snakes’ in the paddock, which have actually been eels from nearby wetlands.

The jacana, or Jesus bird, lives around areas with open water. There are big populations in the Tuckean Swamp with many tens of birds there at any one time. 

The ibis is pretty common across the eastern seaboard but they do great things in pastures and grasslands as they eat a big proportion of their body weight daily in insects. They are one of the more beneficial birds for agricultural systems but they can get a bit raucous around tips and cafes when they’ve been introduced to an area.

The royal spoonbill is a very characteristic bird that will move its sensitive beak through water to find frogs, insects and anything else it can find.

The swamp pheasant, or coucal, gets into dense understorey and makes an omp-omp-omp call that you can hear all over the Big Scrub. A lot get killed on the roads, as they tend to just flutter close to the ground.

Because much of the Big Scrub has been cleared there is a general shortage of night birds. Most of the owls and night birds need hollows, as do a lot of other birds, bats and possums, and the hollows are gone. Barn owls like paddocks and more open areas to feed upon house mice so they are relatively secure and common. 

The marbled frogmouth, one of the endemic birds to this area, is also an ancient bird; I believe that there is still a breeding pair in Wilson Park NR and there have been recent sightings along the Blackwall Range from Uralba to Coolgardie and Buckombil. They are a dense deep-rainforest, subtropical dweller, in low numbers, which have refuges in the Nightcap Range, Wollumbin NP and the Border Ranges. They make a very distinctive clack-clack gobble-gobble noise at night.

The owlet nightjar is reasonably common across parts of the Big Scrub. They dwell within hollows but they are not so hollow dependent; they’re reasonably secure. They are insect eaters with quite a distinctive call.

The powerful owl is 60 cm tall, a large awe-inspiring bird that needs to eat at least one ringtail possum a night to survive. There are powerful owls in the Big Scrub, along the southern edge from Lismore down to the Blackwall Range and up in the Nightcap Range; I am not aware of any in the middle regions of the Big Scrub. They have a very big range of several thousand hectares and they need big hollows to roost and breed; there are not very many big hollows across the Big Scrub. They will often sit next to a flying fox camp for a week and pick the bats off. I’ve read reports of it attacking people aggressively in the breeding season. 

The sooty owl is another deep-rainforest bird. I’ve been hearing a lot of them calling at Buckombil over this winter; I saw one last night. They’re generally regarded as being extinct across much of the Big Scrub, but the Nightcap Range has several breeding pairs. They possibly need half a possum, or equivalent, per night. I actually have a road kill bird in my freezer at the moment that I found on the highway south of Urunga; I’ve never handled one before but the silken nature and sheer aerodynamics of the bird show how they are made for silent, stealthy hunting. The long talons can puncture your skin just by touching it, almost as if they were laser etched; they are designed to puncture the lung cavity of possums, bandicoots or rats. 

The tawny frogmouth is very common. They have a repetitive womp-womp call. They come out at dusk; they’re favourite food is the bladder cicada which also begins calling about dusk. They sit up in trees and think that you can’t see them, and I guess you often can’t. 

Bush birds. Within the Big Scrub there are areas of bush, eucalypts and the like. The scarlet honeyeaters come up here in winter and feed on the winter-flowering eucalypts, paperbarks, callistemons and the like. They are a really small, but beautiful, bird with a pretty song.

The Albert’s lyrebird is endemic; it only lives from Meerschaum Vale, where there is an isolated population on the Blackwall Range, to the Conondale Ranges north of Brisbane. The majority of its population is focused around the Wollumbin and the focal peak shield volcanos. It doesn’t live in the pure subtropical rainforests, as the leaf litter turns over too quickly; it needs sclerophyll forest. The highest densities of Albert’s lyrebirds are on the Nightcap Range. The isolated southern population, from Uralba to Coolgardie and to Tucki and Broadwater, has retreated in recent years because of native vegetation clearance and there may be fewer than 10 birds remaining. There use to be another isolated population at Federal in tallowwood, bloodwood and redwood forests which were bulldozed in the 1960s or 70s; these isolated populations are vulnerable and are probably genetically distinct. Given that we have lost the Federal population I am very keen that we keep the southern Blackwall population.

The golden whistler is a mixed deep-rainforest, rainforest and wet sclerophyll bird. Very colourful and with a distinct whistling call. 

The grey-crowned babbler is more of a woodland bird but it is now regarded as being extinct in Byron Shire where there were populations along the coastal strip. There were populations in Ballina, amongst some of the edges of the subtropical rainforest remnants, till the mid 1990s; it is now extinct in Ballina. There is a population that goes from Coolgardie down to Buckombil and into the Tuckean Swamp. (Sorry to keep referring back to this area but it is the place where I have the most experience.) These birds are colonial breeders that make a series of nests and the lower the numbers the less successful they are. When you have seven or eight, to over 10 or 12, then they are doing well. They have declined massively over the region; they are vulnerable to land clearance and we are losing them.

The grey fantail is a very common bird. There are massive populations of them in the coastal lowlands over winter. Most of the Big Scrub remnants will have lots of them. This area provides a really safe, warm, humid refuge for birds from as far away as Tasmania. 

The less bush that we have in this area the less we can provide for these migratory birds; it is critical that we hold on to all of our vegetation and even more critical that we hold on to, and expand, our coastal lowland vegetation. Strange though it may seem, birds are a bit like us: they don’t like flying up hill and they like flat fertile country because there is more food and it’s easier to live. There is a problem here as we like to live in the warm, fertile humid country; there is a direct conflict in the needs of these migratory birds and our rampant sprawl along the coast.

The white-browed scrub wren gets into rainforest and a range of eucalypt forests. It is a very common bird with large numbers through the bushlands of the Big Scrub.

The white-throated tree creeper isn’t very common. It nests in hollows and creeps up and down tree trunks where it forages amongst the bark for insects. There are very few remnants with these birds remaining; Johnson Scrub has some because it is big and in the middle of the Big Scrub, but very few other remnants, apart from those on the fringes of the Big Scrub, have populations.

I spoke a little bit about the migratory birds. Springtime is a time of awakening for many birds and, for me, this is defined by the first koel calls. I heard my first koel 2 weeks ago but I still haven’t heard my first channel-billed cuckoos or my first cicada birds, they are usually a bit later; I’ve heard most of the cuckoos. The big, fig-eating, channel-billed cuckoo has benefited from the increase in populations of birds like the currawongs, because all the cuckoos are parasites that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds; it has prospered on the back of pesky native species like the pied currawongs. They were quite rare, even when I was a young lad, and I’m not that old, but the numbers are now quite great. The fact that the pied currawong has succeeded isn’t necessarily a good thing. They are a voracious predator that preys upon small birds; they can penetrate into remnants. It might be good that the channel-billed cuckoo is coming back. 

You rarely, if ever, see the cicada bird. They have a call like a cicada. I haven’t heard one yet but perhaps in 2 weeks time I might.

The little bronzed cuckoo is quite a rare bird on the coastal lowlands and reached the end of its range in northern NSW. It is a significant species in NSW. 

I’d like to talk about some of the resources required by birds. Because we’re talking about the Big Scrub we’re mostly talking about subtropical rainforest, and subtropical rainforest is characterised by lots of fleshy fruit. Most of the birds of the Big Scrub eat and spread fleshy fruits. This picture is of a rare sight: the ripe fruit of the rough-leafed elm. They go black when they’re ripe, but the birds eat them just as they turn dark so that you rarely see fruit ripe. I can go on and on about fruit-bearing species but I will show you just a few examples: the blue quandong, which birds like the wompoo fruit dove can spread, is too big for most birds; the native grape, or water vine, produces a lot of fruit over much of the year, so it is a good resource for lots of fruit-eating native birds; the coxs-burr thorn, a native fig not liked by many people because it’s nasty to work amongst. I actually plant it in old paddocks because it fruits regularly and reliably, making it a critically significant fruit resource for birds and the grey-headed flying fox, and is a safe place for many little birds to nest in from cats and foxes in particular; we have 8 or 9 species of fig trees in the Big Scrub which are ‘keystone’ fruiting resources: a big old growth tree can provide hundreds of kilos of figs per day – absolutely amazing and the more figs we have the better; the hard quandong has a little hard fruit, currently it has little bell-shaped flowers that will bear fruit in 6 to 8 months from now; the tiny berries of the poison peach, a native look-a-like of lantana, are amazing for bringing birds into a patch and planting them will bring birds in from everywhere to eat them.

Areas of the Big Scrub, particularly towards the Nightcap Ranges, have lots of big rainforest fruit species like the red boppel nut, red lilly pilly and native laurels that have, beyond gravity and water, no obvious agent of dispersal; the Tweed Valley has even more large fruit species. Many of these large-fruited species have retreated to refuges like the Nightcap Ranges, Limpinwood and Wollumbin. It is likely that in the not too distant past there were cassowaries in this part of the world and maybe, just maybe, as the world warms, and things need to move about, we should be thinking about introducing cassowaries to this part of the world. 

We’re entering some tough times and everything that I’m reading at the moment is saying that we are headed for a 4C, or more, global rise in temperature. We’re seeing the manifestations of global warming daily in melting glaciers, changing distributions of species… the best we can do is allow space for our plants and animals to move in response. This may still not be enough and we are probably facing a lot of extinctions, particularly for upper altitude species and those in very small remnants that have nowhere to go. We need to think laterally about how we can make provisions for our biodiversity in the face of some very hot times. Some of the CSIRO predictions are showing that the Richmond and Tweed lowlands might be experiencing 7C temperature rises by the year 2100 – that is catastrophic! Most rainforests, as things currently sit, won’t survive those kinds of temperatures.

I mentioned our best friends and worst enemies. The camphor laurel is a problem, but it is also our friend. It disperses widely with a whole lot of fruit-eating birds, particularly native doves. Native birds began eating camphor laurels, during a couple of ‘starvation’ years, which had been planted around the turn of the century next to school yards, post offices and court houses. Camphor began to take over a lot of the steeper, rocky, marginal type country in the 1940-50s and then the fertile land at the end of the dairy industry, when land wasn’t as intensively managed. Camphor is a de facto rainforest community but there is a real need, in the longer term, to phase it out as it only sets fruit for a few months every year and, in this part of the world, there are 16 or more native laurels that fruit across the entire year. We need to look to create more biodiversity within our camphor grooves, which can be an excellent facilitator of that. There is a lot of biomass in camphor which, when poisoned and allowed to rot, returns an awful lot of organic matter to the soil, elevates and improves soils that have been degraded by intensive dairying and over grazing. The burst of nutrients that come, in tandem with the framework of dead limbs that allow birds to come in and roost, actually accelerates rainforest recruitment and re-establishment within camphor groves. I’m troubled by camphor ‘hate’ campaigns; I think that they are dangerous for our biodiversity. I am for targeted, good quality, careful replacement, over time, with a biodiverse sub tropical rainforest.

The climbing nightshade, Solanum seaforthianum, is a reasonably new arrival in the Big Scrub. Most Big Scrub remnants now have it. It has beautiful red berries that can be dispersed for kilometres; most birds go for red, black or blue, which can be contrasted from foliage. 

There are a host of bad asparaguses. Climbing asparagus, ground asparagus, filmy asparagus, asparagus fern – there are 5 or 6 in these parts. They all have dark brown to red fruit that are dispersed many kilometres by birds, invading deep-forest areas, climbing into the canopy and start to exert a degrading influence upon the rainforest.

If you walked into some of the Big Scrub Alstonville remnants, and you weren’t particularly botanically au fait, you might say that all is well. Serious proportions of some of our remnant understoreys are coffee masquerading as a rainforest species!

Murraya, one of the ‘blessings’ from our horticulture industry, has been planted as hedges. There are sterile cultivars, but birds love it and, as soon as it is available, they are eating and spreading it. I think that there is a big need for statutory intervention into the horticulture industry to effectively ban many of these new weed species. Because this area has a lot of ‘life-stylers’, ‘hippies’ and not-what there is always an interest in bringing in new plants; we need to ban most new plants, or at the very least, we need to undertake a risk assessment to ensure that these plants are not going to escape and degrade our rainforests.

That concludes my talk and I’d like to thank you for listening.



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