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Jul 23: The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

Globally, King Quail is an enigmatic species. Although officially listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, it is decidedly uncommon across basically all of its distribution, and that includes Australia, where it occurs from NW Western Australia around the northern and eastern coast to New South Wales (introduced into Victoria). It’s a what I call a “global 2000” species – less than 2,000 records in eBird, so when you tick “show points sooner” while exploring its range map in eBird, all the records in the world turn to flags (I’m such a nerd). Several folks are worried that King Quail is declining in various parts of its distribution, for example a paper I’m working on with Lizzie Boakes shows that it appears to be extinct outside protected areas in Sumatra. It’s a difficult species to detect even when it is present in an area, and correspondingly it’s hard to estimate population trends. Preferring rank grasslands, and keeping extremely well hidden, it’s only really when birds call that they can be detected. Seeing them is next to impossible, and usually  occurs when  one is accidentally flushed, or a vanishingly rare chance encounter on a track.

In Brisbane, there have been scattered records of the species, and there is insufficient continuity of records to consider it a confirmed continuous resident. The nearest known continuous resident birds are at Lake Samsonvale, for example at Golds Scrub Lane. In Brisbane, there was a spate of records from Kedron Brook Wetlands in 2013 and 2014, but only occasional records outside this period, despite the area being frequently visited at dusk by birders looking for Grass Owl. Otherwise, there have been tantalising records from locations as scattered as Sandy Camp Wetlands, Lake Manchester, and Oxley Creek Common, and there was a dead one in a northern suburban park, possibly an escape. I had considered it an essentially impossible species for this Brisbane Big Year, until March, when Steve Cunningham had one briefly run across the road near the Lake Manchester Car Park. With that record, it became a species on the radar in the Lake Manchester area, and birders listen out for it when covering Shelley Road Park, thus far without any joy.

Until yesterday.

When Ged Tranter, Steve Murray and Rick Franks were birding the Cabbage Tree Creek area last night, King Quail was probably a long way down their list of expectations. So it must have come like a bolt from the blue when one suddenly gave the main, down-slurred advertising call as clear as a bell only about 20 metres in front of them, in a grassy patch just north of where Lake Manchester Road crosses Cabbage Tree Creek!! The bird gave two calls and that was it. Stunned, and no doubt extremely excited, the three birders went on to have a cracker of a night, with Barn Owl, Powerful Owl, Masked Owl, and an unusual winter record of White-throated Nightjar.

Ged texted me about 10pm relating the story. I was stunned. When my mind was able to think again, I resolved to head up there at some point during the week, but it rapidly dawned on me that I should go right now. There was a King Quail calling within the last few hours, it was a moonlit cloudless night, and King Quail can be active all through the night.

Strike while the iron’s hot. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt during this big year.

So, despite being a little tired from my 2.30am start this morning, I jumped in car and drove back over to Lake Manchester. I arrived at Cabbage Tree Creek at about 11.45pm, and waited silently in the dappled light of the moon. After about 10 minutes, I suddenly heard a King Quail give the ‘snoring’ call that rises in pitch. Winner! I waited for the downward call to follow, but the bird completely shut up. It was in the same patch of grass just north of the creek bridge as the others had it earlier in the evening. I hung around, hoping it would call again and I could get a recording. But I had to wait another 40 minutes before it called again, and wasn’t ready at the moment it called, this time the main downward call. The bird had moved cross to west of the road bridge, and was somewhere near the road itself. But again, silence descended after the single call. Testament to how difficult this species is to detect even when one is nearby. I gave it another 20 minutes, and then went across the bridge into Somerset LGA and listened and from near where I thought the bird was coming from. No luck, so I headed home very tired but very satisfied. King Quail is alive and kicking in Brisbane!

With one year tick today (King Quail), my year list incremented to 291 species. I spent 1 hour 14 minutes birding, walked 0.178 km and drove 110.4 km. My chronological year list is here.