Buff-breasted Button-quail (Turnix olivii)
Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 152511307
Increasing our understanding of the distribution, life history and ecology of the endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii
The endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii is endemic to north Queensland, Australia and is arguably the least known avian species in the country. It has never been photographed in the wild and there is no known recording of its calls. Since observations of the species were first made during the early 20th century, there were few reported sightings made until the mid-1980's. They are currently known to occur in a small number of localities. A recovery plan has been written, detailing actions that will increase understanding of the distribution, life history and ecology of the species as well as protecting key ecosystems. This project will enable survey and research as recommended by the recovery plan to further conservation of the species.
Using a touch of technology, a little understanding of habitat developed from a scant, rag-taggle of historical records and persistent searching in hot, often uncomfortable conditions, the quest has renewed in earnest to reveal more of the endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii of north Queensland, Australia.
The first record and specimen of this enigmatic species collected by Mr E.A.C. Olive of Cooktown in 1899 gave very little clue as to the country occupied by this species and until William McLennan began his 9 month expedition around Coen on Cape York Peninsula in 1921-22, little remained known. In that era, an ornithologist like McLennan rode around on horseback, used the gun to collect specimens and collected eggs prodigiously. He produced a detailed diary of his observations of a handful of sighted birds, as well as collections of eggs and six adult specimens, all but two of which are housed in the H.L. White collection of the Museum of Victoria.
After 1922, few birds were reported. Cape York Peninsula became increasingly settled, beef graziers developed their leases, road infrastructure kept on rolling out and the Cape was burnt on a regular basis to encourage grass growth for cattle and reduce risk from wildfire and snakes. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that records of Buff-breasted Button-quail began to emerge once again. Presumably few went searching for birds in the intervening years. In recent years, despite some earnest searching, there have been only some 21 credible sightings made, largely to the south of the original Cooktown and Coen sightings in the vicinity of Mt Molloy. Concern for the well-being of the species has been increasing. It has been assigned an endangered status and a Recovery Plan for the species was written in 2009.
With funds from the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund we have just completed a trip to the hot, humid tropics to locate the endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail. After a week of searching the stony hills and plains of the savannah woodlands, we have located the species in a few localities, including a small enclave of up to four birds. These are the first birds of this species to be confirmed and accurately located in more than 4 years.
We have also secured some of the first recordings of what is presumed to be one type of call of the species on automatic recorders, placed at the locality where we flushed birds on a number of occasions. Confirmation by observation of calling birds is still required. These calls fit the description previously made by William McLennan: Monday 21st November 1921, “a deep booming call Oomm-oomm-oomm repeated rapidly for about 20 seconds, it begins very low & gradually gets louder & of a higher tone, last notes about 5 times higher than first.” Such recordings will be an invaluable tool for future surveys of the species.