The year 2018, a.k.a. the year from hell!
Last year saw one of the lowest rainfalls ever recorded on the Riverine Plain. My revegetation area on the sandhill, a couple of kilometres south of Wanganella township, took out the prize for the lowest rainfall l have knowledge of in the district with 115.5 mm (4.5 inches).
Out in the plains-wanderer country John recorded 181 mm (7 in) for the year. David at Booroorban to the north recorded 151 mm (5.9 in). The Monimail revegetation area south of Wanganella recorded 133.5 mm (5.2 in) while Deniliquin recorded 218.5 mm (8.6 in) a little over half the long-term annual average. (The Gulpa revegetation area, about 20 km south of Deniliquin, and which historically receives more rain than Deniliquin, recorded only 181 mm, the same as that recorded on the plains north of Wanganella!).
Out on the plains the months of February, March and September recorded zero rainfall while April only recorded 3 mm. Yes, 3 mm was the total rainfall in the three months February, March and April. Very little rain fell in the months of July and August. A small amount of rain was recorded in May and June, with October. November and December being the better months of the year. November was the standout month out on the plains with 58 mm (2.2 in) recorded. However, this was nowhere near enough to make up for the serious deficiencies in the previous months and there was little change in vegetation.
The year 2018 was the toughest year for plains-wanderers since we first found them north of Wanganella in 1980. We went out searching for plains-wanderers on a total of 40 occasions in 2018 and missed finding them on 15 occasions — all during the spring /summer period. This is the first time in almost forty years that they have moved out at that time of year. While we did miss them on a record 17 occasions in 2016, that was mostly in the dry late summer/autumn period when they do sometimes clear out. Conversely, we had trouble finding plains-wanderers in spring of 2016 when it became so wet we couldn’t drive on the paddocks — and they were temporarily flooded out of some paddocks. Nevertheless, they were still present. Also, we went out on many more occasions looking in 2016 (and successfully found them) than in 2018.
While we had 50 sightings of plain-wanderers over 2018, many of these were the same birds we located repeatedly over subsequent nights. To hazard a guess, an estimated thirty individuals were seen during the year.
The year started off well enough with our first outing on 21 January recording a mating pair and an adult female. There had been good rain in December of 2017 that had stimulated breeding in January. We had no trouble finding plains-wanderers in February, March, April and July (we did not go out in May or June).
By August, with virtually no rain all year, any paddock that had sheep in it was becoming decidedly bare. John and Robert, heroically given the ever-increasing dire conditions, kept sheep out of a paddock and this paddock was pretty much the only one that now had enough cover for plains-wanderers. Even in this paddock the cover was fairly marginal due to the lack of rainfall over the previous couple of years. On 14 August I took out a young Swiss couple and we found no less than eight plains-wanderers in this paddock including two counting pairs and a male on a nest with eggs! How incredible that plains-wanderers were attempting to breed in such diabolical conditions. My guess is they were going for it before it started to heat up and dry out completely in the spring. On 29 August we located a courting pair as well as a male with tiny chicks. With virtually no rain in August or September it was now becoming extremely dry and I believe that all breeding attempts failed. (The male with the chicks was never seen again). By early September it was becoming obvious that plains-wanderers were on the move. We recorded a pair on 3 September and a single female on 7 September. By late September none could be located in this paddock. On 4 October I did some reconnaissance in another paddock that still had some cover and located an adult male in a fairly short time. We went back looking for this male the next night but he had already moved on. On 6 October we located an adult pair back in the original paddock and over the next couple of weeks we relocated one or the other of this pair on six occasions. By 24 October this pair had also moved on. From 24 October to 6 November we had an unprecedented eight consecutive misses (including one night’s reconnaissance on a neighbouring property). On 6 November there was 41 mm of rain. Two nights later a pair of plains-wanderers was back in the original paddock. This pair hung around for a bit over a week but with no more rain and only marginal cover they too decided it was time to move. Some more rain fell on 13 December (21 mm) but it was not enough to entice any plains-wanderers back and I guess by this time they had settled in to breed wherever they were, so weren’t inclined to move.
While breeding was not successful in 2018, it is astonishing that plains-wanderers even attempted to breed in such dire conditions. Such is nature’s powerful desire to regenerate.
The atypical climatic conditions over the past couple of decades have caused environmental upheaval. The plains-wanderers are hanging on as best they can but it is certainly testing their resolve as it is most living organisms. We are at the mercy of the climate as to what will and will not survive into the future. While it is important to see areas reserved for the plains-wanderer and managed correctly, it will amount to nought if the climate is too challenging for their survival. Likewise, it is great to have a captive population as a backup but if, when released into the wild, the climate is too severe for their survival, nothing will have been achieved.
Conditions have not been quite so harsh in eastern parts of the Riverine Plain nor in southern parts of the plain in Victoria, so it is to be hoped that plains-wanderers have not only hung on in those areas but have managed to breed.
Hopefully when it eventually rains on the Hay Plain, the plains-wanderers will again recolonise their old, favoured breeding grounds.
26 January 2019
In 2018 Robert, John and I went out 41 times looking for plains-wanderers including three reconnaissance searches.
The number of clients including Australian and international tour leaders who joined us in a plains-wanderer search totalled 214.
We had 124 birders see at least one plains-wanderer (one lucky couple saw 8!) and 90 were disappointed not to see any plains-wanderers (unquestionably a record, hopefully not to be repeated!).
As always, Trisha and I thank the Nevinson family for putting up with us for nearly forty years. Robert is essential to the operation, David has been conscripted several times this year for the larger groups and John took the honours in finding a pair of plains-wanderers, after my and Robert’s eight consecutive misses, for sixteen grateful North American birders and their Australian leader.
While it's been a tough year for Riverina birds and bird tour guides, it's been a horror year for wool growers with no end to this drought in sight.