BUFF-BREASTED BUTTON-QUAIL – THE FACTS
What follows is my response to two controversial stories published in the quarterly magazine Australian Birdlife Vol. 11:1, March 2022 “Missing in action: the mystery of the Buff-breasted Button-quail” and “Setting the record straight” as well as other recent writings about the Buff-breasted Button-quail.
THE TRUE FACTS ABOUT THE BUFF-BREASTED BUTTON-QUAIL Turnix olivii
The Buff-breasted Button-quail (BBBQ) was first described in 1899 when EAC Olive, a Cooktown businessman and natural history collector sent a specimen of a large unknown button-quail to London. The collecting locality was given as “Cooktown”. In those days, collecting localities of specimens were labelled with the nearest far flung outpost even though they were sometimes taken several hundred kilometres away. While there seems to be no suitable habitat for this button-quail around Cooktown, we suspect it was probably collected somewhere between present day Lakeland and Mareeba where habitat is more suitable.
It was not until 1921-22 that HL White, ornithologist, oologist and wealthy grazier from Scone, NSW who employed collectors to travel to remote places to collect skins and eggs for his large collections that the BBBQ really came to light. He employed William McLennan, a gold prospector but proficient naturalist to spend nearly a year around Coen in the middle of Cape York Peninsula to collect skins and eggs, with special attention to be paid to this species. McLennan eventually found scattered birds (about nine territories in all) of this button-quail during the wet season of 1922. However, the birds did not begin to appear until late in the previous year (1921) as the wet season was approaching. He eventually collected six birds and four clutches of eggs. To this day, apart from the type specimen collected by Olive, that is all the specimens which have been collected. It then remained unseen from that time until recent years.
Recent discovery: When I moved to north Queensland in 1991 I became aware of fairly recent sightings of BBBQ from an area between Mareeba and Kuranda in northeast Queensland, the majority made by John Squire, a well-known very reliable ornithologist running birding tours through this area. To me, to find it would be a challenge I could not resist. The habitat around Mount Molloy and Mount Carbine to the north looked a likely possibility to begin the search. Apart from meagre writings from McLennan’s time, there was nothing published that would give a clue. However, having had much experience with several species of button-quail in inland southern Queensland, my gut feeling was that it would be there.
I spent many weeks searching from Atherton and Mareeba, up to the Byerstown Range near Lakeland Downs. I walked most mornings for months, usually until the tropical heat became too much, in what I thought was likely habitat, mostly in the dry well-grassed ridges inhabited by Painted Button-quail (Painted BQ). One morning, I took a shortcut back to the vehicle down through an open, gravelly, dry, near grassless patch of very sparse vegetation at the base of a ridge, never expecting to see a button-quail in such open habitat. Surprisingly a button-quail flushed, noticeably larger than the Painted BQ I had been flushing occasionally higher up on the ridges. The size of it was rather startling. And from the manner in which it flushed and its sandy rump and back I knew immediately that it was not a Painted BQ. It was my first sighting of a BBBQ! I later came to realize, that with its large size it was a female!
It quickly became apparent that this was the special habitat this species preferred. So I searched these small, near grassless patches in surrounding areas. It was habitat that Painted BQ usually shunned, being so sparse. Over the next few weeks I found a small number of BBBQ individuals, all in this habitat – a male on a hatching clutch of four eggs and probably another with three newly hatched young which I could not absolutely confirm because the parent did not return over the next two hours, during which time the young lay flat on the ground. A Painted would have returned fairly quickly. Some years later, I was to realise that this was a rare “good year” for the species.
I discovered several other well scattered sites including the site at the Big Mitchell Creek truck stop area between Mareeba and Mount Molloy. Being easily accessible, I made the site public, thus allowing many people to see genuine BBBQ. And probably 50 or more people would not have had the experience of seeing such a rare bird if I had not done that. Within a few months, the birds were gone. I have not seen a BBBQ at the Big Mitchell site since that time.
Searching further afield: In 1998, the Queensland Ornithological Society (QOS – now Birds Queensland) following the results I had obtained, gave me a very generous grant for a 12 month study which enabled me to search further afield. Dr Stephen Garnett was the scientist appointed to oversee my project. At that time it was thought there were more than 2,500 birds present. However, only a few birds were found during my study, mostly about the Mount Molloy–Mount Carbine area. Through my work, it became apparent that there were probably many less than 500 individuals which enabled it to be added to the Federal Endangered Species List. I managed to have interim reports of progress published in the QOS newsletter but with some internal problems within QOS my project was shelved before it was completed. Because the species was now obviously so rare and sightings so infrequent, together with the apparent erratic occurrence of the birds, often several years between sightings, I did not have enough data to produce a worthwhile paper. After some discussion, it was decided that I should continue with the study by myself and produce a paper at a later date. I commenced writing a paper about 2016 which got to the stage of a second draft, then having enough data and experience with the species, but health issues forced me to temporarily set it aside.
For nearly 30 years I have followed this species intensely in the field recording just 28 positive sightings during this time, an indication of its extreme rarity. It seems to appear in the low rough foothills of the western edge of the Great Dividing Range about the time the wet season commences and later breeds (egg laying is almost entirely in March, usually one of the two wettest months of the year in the tropics). By late May, it seems to have vacated the area. Data to date seems to suggest that very wet seasons and wet seasons which begin early are unfavourable. The grass and herbage explodes into growth when the first rains arrive in these tropical areas and grows dense very quickly. When this happens early in the season any BBBQ present seem to quickly vacate. It seems that when rains arrive later in the season and breeding of BBBQ has commenced, birds remain.
How to Identify a Buff-breasted Button-quail: Despite the inaccurate information currently being bandied about by a small group of people who unbelievably have never seen a live BBBQ, yet claim to be “experts” on the species, the BBBQ is fairly easy to identify, more especially if one knows Painted as well as Brown Quail. In fact BBBQ is the easiest of the button-quail to identify and easily separated from other species inhabiting the same areas, as those who have seen genuine examples of the species will testify.
When flushed, BBBQ usually rise higher than Painted BQ. While Painted BQ rise to a metre or so and mostly fly off fairly parallel to the ground, BBBQ usually rise in an arc and fly off a couple of metres above the ground, sometimes higher or gaining height as they fly away, sometimes flying up and over the trees. The only other button-quail to do this seems to be the Chestnut-backed. I have never seen a Painted BQ fly high after being flushed. I suspect this habit of BBBQ may eventually prove diagnostic throughout its range. Brown Quail can be easily identified by their even colour and shortish bowed wings as they glide away before settling.
We are also fairly certain there is a diagnostic feature in the wing and flight of BBBQ as birds settle on the ground but more evidence of this is needed. It can only be positively seen from photographs. A photograph taken by John Young of a bird landing depicts this. My advice if following a flying bird and with camera is to shoot as many shots as possible as it prepares to land. It may help to prove or disprove the value of this feature.
Another advantageous feature is that sometimes when a bird rises from the ground, it will turn, showing the diagnostic plain buff breast and white underparts.
Size of the female: This is striking. When a female first flushes, one sometimes momentarily thinks it is a Squatter Pigeon or even a Common Bronzewing, perhaps a Bar-shouldered Dove before one quickly realises it is a button-quail. Many of those people who saw the species at the Big Mitchell truck stop in the early days later related their amazement at the large size of the female. See TESTIMONIES below.
Plumage colour: Despite the recent outrageous, unscientific attempt to discredit ALL BBBQ sightings in the southern part of the bird’s range where it shares range with Painted BQ, the assumption being, without an iota of proof, that we have all been misidentifying female Painted BQ in a “breeding flush” as BBBQ(!), it is usually fairly easy to differentiate between both species. Male BBBQ are more difficult than females to identify being about the same size as female Painted BQ, but the back and rump colour and pattern is quite distinct from Painted BQ. Primaries appear darker in BBBQ but that can be a subtle feature.
Habitat: BBBQ appear to avoid dense habitat. Initially, I unknowingly spent much time searching denser, grassy habitat, mostly that preferred by Painted BQ. When I finally stumbled on my first bird and shortly after realised that they do not inhabit dense habitat, I had success. Of all the birds I have seen, not one was in dense grassy habitat but always in sparse almost grassless slightly sloping areas. I recall when showing a prominent ornithological author, after flushing a BBBQ from an almost grassless area where I had seen BBBQ on a couple of occasions, he later related that he questioned my sanity attempting to find any button-quail in such sparse habitat! On a number of occasions, I have seen mostly single birds resting through the day on a completely bare, grassless gravel patch exposed to a scorching tropical sun.
Note that photographs of claimed BBBQ habitat in some recent published articles and papers is NOT BBBQ habitat.
TIPS: To find a BBBQ —
Habitat: Get to know the right habitat. Do not waste time and effort tramping through denser knee high vegetation where you will find Painted BQ. If you are flushing Painted, you are generally in the wrong habitat. Avoid the higher ridges. A good rule of thumb is to search the last, slightly sloping hundred metres or so as the ridges give way to the flats. The most likely sites to search are areas with almost no grass, often with small Melaleucas (mostly M. veridiflora) or Acacias as the dominant small tree species. These areas may be only half a hectare, perhaps two, never large but often within the general taller tree vegetation. Search the small pebbly patches if present, especially those devoid of much ground vegetation. Search also those open bare gravelly patches even if they have a few larger stones on them – these patches may be only five metres across, maybe 20 metres. If it looks unlikely that a button-quail would be found there because it is too sparse or too open, go and search anyway! However, they will also inhabit areas with larger stones and rocks but only if the grass layer is very sparse. BBBQ seems to avoid Eucalypt forest with a very dense ground layer of fallen leaves.
The most northerly record of BBBQ is from the Iron Range–Portland Roads area. However, to a human eye, there seems to be suitable habitat here and there right up to the Tip of Cape York Peninsula, 250 km to the north. I have searched these areas many times but to no avail. Still, it is worth checking.
Avoid the tall Eucalypt forests. There are magnificent stands of Darwin Stringybark or Messmate (Eucalyptus tetradonta) throughout Cape York Peninsula – great for Red Goshawk and a few others, but having spent much time in them, I have yet to see a BBBQ there.
On the ground: If lucky enough to see a bird on the ground, the huge bill, prominent whitish eyebrow (which is not depicted in the field guides), creamy-yellow eye and grey head and rufous crown stripes will be enough to identify it for you. Note also the plain sandy back and rump (rather than grey/rufous and black barred as in Painted BQ) and the distinct markings along the side of the body (wings).
Flight: When a BBBQ is flushed, note the flight method. If they fly up above the trees and away, there is a very strong chance you have flushed a BBBQ. If they turn as they rise to show the underparts, try to see the diagnostic pale buffy breast. If a female is flushed, the first thing you will notice is her huge size.
Occurrence: BBBQ seems to occur singly and in pairs although small parties of four have been recorded in the non-breeding season. These are probably family parties. If you flush a larger covey, they will most likely be Brown Quail. McLennan’s record of a covey of eight “half grown” birds at Coen would almost certainly have been Brown Quail.
Scratching and platelets: We are now fairly certain BBBQ do not scratch neat small platelets as do Painted BQ. On a few occasions where BBBQ have been present we have sometimes seen large disorderly scratchings much as a farmyard chook would scratch. Scratchings varied in size and shape, up to 35 cm or more at the widest point. More recently John Young found a larger number of similar scratchings at a new site and actually saw BBBQ making them.
Access to suitable habitat: Be aware that much of northeast Queensland and Cape York Peninsula is privately held or Aboriginal land. Permissions are needed to access those areas.
The Big Mitchell Truck Stop Midway between Mareeba and Mount Molloy. Many birders took advantage of this site soon after I had discovered birds there and many managed to obtain views of BBBQ. The birds remained at the site and nearby for a few months then disappeared. I have not seen a BBBQ there since though I have seen single birds occasionally, not too far away. However, down through the years, this has become THE BBBQ site. Unfortunately, some birders unfamiliar with button-quail flush a Painted BQ there, even Brown Quail in the surrounding taller grass and list it as a BBBQ. The terrestrial vegetation has changed to some extent at this site over the years making it unsuitable for BBBQ. However, it is probably still worth a search in a very dry season when the vegetation has died back.
The Airport surrounds at Iron Range: There are old reports from this site when one could wander around it but the airport has been fenced in recent years and access is now disallowed. From my experience with BBBQ about Mount Molloy–Mount Carbine, this does not seem to be suitable habitat. I would expect Red-backed Button-quail there but BBBQ would surprise. However, the area from the Iron Range rainforest running out to Portland Roads contains some worthwhile habitat with some genuine sightings from there. Most likely sites are the slight sloping near bare areas amongst the forest. There has also been genuine sightings of single birds actually from within heath at Tozers Gap and another from Brown’s Creek, to the west of Iron Range.
If you do find a genuine BBBQ: Try to photograph it even though that will be a difficult or a near impossible task. If the bird flushes and you can follow it with a larger lens, fire off as many shots as possible. You might be lucky enough to catch that wing feature we suspect could be diagnostic. All sightings should be submitted to the Birdlife Australia Records Appraisal Committee (BARC) for appraisal. Remember that in these times, with mega rarities such as the BBBQ, a photograph is almost obligatory to having the record accepted.
MYTHS AND MISINFORMATION
Recently an alarming number of myths and misinformation regarding BBBQ have been given prominence, some in recent publications including those listed at the heading of this paper. Unfortunately, it is originating from the small group of people who failed in their four year attempt to find a single BBBQ in the field yet declare themselves to be “expert” on the species! This misinformation is based on assumption then turned into “fact”. In the case of the BBBQ, and not having seen a live bird, their only “data” has been taken from seven dry museum skins collected a century ago, six prepared by the same collector under very primitive conditions. BBBQ in the field is a very different affair.
Regrettably, the proponents seem hell-bent in trying to prove other researchers and observers with extensive BBBQ experience wrong, incompetent and even deluded. They have shunned offers of assistance from local well-experienced researchers, preferring to do the “work” themselves. I offered them unlimited assistance, including access to my years of data, visiting all my sites, showing the correct habitat to work and so on but the offer was not taken up. Instead, I received this reply “The work you conducted was based on the best available knowledge on button-quail at the time. (underline mine). Now some 28 years since you commenced your work we have greatly increased our understanding of button-quail ecology and the ecology of Cape York avifauna. With these new insights we are able to reanalyse previous work and determine new and novel findings.” What a rebuff! What arrogance! Again an assumption which they got very wrong. And extremely condescending. There was no “available knowledge”. My work was not based on “available literature” but on gut feeling, some probability the species could be there, damned hard slog to find the first birds and well-considered thought and calculation from there on which paid off. So much for their “new and novel findings” which failed to find a single bird. Ironically there were four casual BBBQ sightings by others during the years they were searching. Unfortunately, the whole situation is now causing an unnecessary furore in birding circles.
In the name of factual, accurate science, these myths and misinformation which border on dishonesty, deceit and poor research need to be exposed.
(All underlining is mine to emphasise or to draw attention to a point).
1. False! Quoting from several recent articles, email and other communications concerning BBBQ, it has been claimed that females of BBBQ and Painted BQ are the same size, e.g.
1. “The females of both the Buff-breasted Button-quail and Painted Button-quail are the same size”;
2. “Painted Button-quail are near indistinguishable in size from Buff-breasted Button-quail so in flight a size difference is not discernible”
3. “I discovered that the Painted and Buff-breasted Button-quail are actually the same size, dismissing the commonly held belief that the Buff-breasted Button-quail are much larger”
4. “My study of museum specimens…… showed the two are actually the same size”
5. “Not only is the Buff-breasted no bigger than a Painted Button-quail, making size an ambiguous field character….”
Remember that none of these proponents has seen a live BBBQ, let alone a bird in flight. Secondly, NO live specimen of BBBQ has ever been measured (even in 1922) which alone renders these assumptions invalid. Further, these quoted “facts” are simply fiction. That the female BBBQ is very obviously larger than female Painted BQ comes from solid field observation by many people (all of whom have seen live birds!), including some of Australia’s foremost ornithologists as well as some very recent photographs from a camera trap set by John Young (which will appear in our joint paper). In summary, these poorly researched statements are simply misinformation which should never have reached the published literature and should be dismissed as such! Quoting a study of museum skins when there are only a minute number of BBBQ specimens in existence and without any field experience is far from acceptable, and neither convincing nor credible.
Moreover, disregarding body length, other features can still be measured accurately from these skins as HANZAB authors have done, i.e. wing length, 8th primary, tail, bill, tarsus. Let us have a look at these – they range roughly from 13% to 85%+ larger in female BBBQ when compared to female Painted BQ. Why were these ignored by the proponents?
Wing: 113 mm (BBBQ); 98 mm (Painted BQ) – 13% larger in BBBQ
Eighth primary: 76 mm (BBBQ; 41 mm (Painted BQ) – 85% larger in BBBQ
Tail: 46 mm (BBBQ); 14 mm (Painted BQ) – 67% larger in BBBQ
Tarsus: 26 mm (BBBQ); 21 mm (Painted BQ) – 23% larger in BBBQ
Bill: 18 mm (BBBQ); 13.5 mm (Painted BQ) – 33% larger in BBBQ
Additionally, nests of BBBQ are about 20% larger than those of Painted BQ – we have measurements from a number of authentic nests of both species. The female has to enter the nest to lay eggs. BBBQ eggs are noticeably larger than
northern Painted BQ eggs as well but we have avoided measuring these for obvious reasons.
More misleading statements from the dissenting group which need comment, used when attempting to support the same size assumption —
1. (he) “….viewed all Buff-breasted and Painted Button-quail skins in museums along Australia’s east coast……”
2. …..”examined over 100 button-quail skins in museum collections worldwide”. (As if there were many BBBQ skins in existence!! There are only seven BBBQ skins extant. This reeks of deceit and dishonesty.)
3. “….and had those in the Natural History Museum, Tring and American Museum of Natural History photographed and measured”.
In actual fact, of the handful of BBBQ skins in existence, four (three females and one male as per HL White’s paper and McLennan’s diary) are in the HL White Collection in the Melbourne Museum, Victoria. Two are in the Natural History Museum in London, a subadult male and a female donated to the Museum by HL White. The type, a female taken by EAC Olive is in the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Why was that not revealed and discussed factually and honestly instead of creating a distinctly deceptive impression?
2. False! “…..also discovered a previously undocumented colour variation in the plumage of painted button-quail. At the start of the wet season when they begin breeding, the female’s typical grey plumage is replaced by a much brighter rufous plumage. This brighter plumage is very similar to the sandy rufous colour expected of a buff-breasted button-quail.”
Another statement which has been repeatedly raised is the contention that female Painted BQ in brighter breeding flush can be easily mistaken for a female BBBQ with a “similar rump and back” colour. Again this is incorrect, misleading and quite insulting to careful and conscientious birders. Frankly, this assumption is just drivel! Several of us who have been following BBBQ have been aware of this “breeding flush” (Painted BQ) for many years when, over many occasions we have tried to call up BBBQ with digitally altered Painted BQ calls. We drew many female Painted to the calls (probably nearing a hundred birds over that time) despite the altered calls. Some were showing the breeding flush. Painted BQ are well-barred blackish and rufous/chestnut on the rump and back; BBBQ are paler, noticeably more sandy rufous or sandy and unbarred. The nonsense of this statement becomes more apparent when one considers that female Painted BQ has a very large, very obvious, diagnostic area of bright rufous or chestnut, brighter in a breeding flush, around the neck and shoulders. This area is rufous-brown in BBBQ and just slightly darker than the back and rump colour. No reasonable observer, even a novice would mistake Painted BQ in breeding flush for a BBBQ either on the ground or when flushed. I personally regard this statement as grossly disrespectful to those of us who have studied and worked on BBBQ for many years. Credit where credit is due!
1. BBBQ are “…..difficult to identify”.
2. “….there is real potential the birding and scientific communities have been unknowingly documenting the wrong species.”
3. “Our research has found the features and methods researchers and birdwatchers have used to identify BBBQ from Painted BQ are incorrect.”
Once more, another gross insult to responsible, reliable researchers and observers! And again absolute drivel! The fact is that BBBQ is the easiest of the button-quail to identify, especially when and after they flush from the ground. Even HANZAB indicates confusion/misidentification between Painted and BBBQ as only a “slight risk”. As already mentioned, the large size of the female is quite startling. BBBQ rise differently and distinctly and have a probably diagnostic flight pattern which distinguishes them from all other button-quail. Again, sometimes they will show the diagnostic plain buffy breast and paler underparts as they turn after rising to fly away (mid-grey and well-spotted white in Painted BQ). See TESTIMONIES below.
4. False! “….Due to our research there is now considerable evidence to suggest all reports from the region (southern part of its range) have in fact been misidentified Painted Button-quail”, and later after a protest from a number of researchers and birders, “all” was changed to “are probably”. Again a wild, baseless, unresearched, grossly arrogant claim made by the same people. Sure, some birds would be misidentified by casual birders, especially recent “sightings” from the Big Mitchell truck stop. But being an easy button-quail to identify, and with some very competent observers in northeast Queensland and further afield, there are a substantial number of positive records from the last 30 years and more. Ironically, this includes four casual sightings made in the last few years while observers were looking for other species but made during the time this group was searching for BBBQ but failed to find a single bird.
5. False! “Birders claim that the female is the same size as Squatter Pigeon”. This is nothing more than a brazen attempt to twist words around to suit a purpose. I have never heard nor read of this “claim” by any birder and I doubt if anyone has said those words in that context. My own writings and that of others state that when a female BBBQ flushes one momentarily thinks that a Squatter Pigeon (which can be common in the area) has been flushed but quickly realises it is a very large button-quail. A huge difference! One well-known ornithologist even recorded that he initially thought he had flushed a Bar-shouldered Dove that had lost its tail. Another, similarly well-known, momentarily thought he had flushed a Bronze-wing Pigeon. Again, not only is it twisting words but another attempt to turn assumption into “fact”. See TESTIMONIES below.
6. False! The contention that William McLennan saw birds on the ground at Coen in 1922 when he was collecting birds and eggs for HL White but all present day observers have only seen them in flight after flushing would seem an attempt to suggest that present day observers more readily misidentify BBBQ and that is how every bird has been seen by them. What is not revealed is that McLennan did much of his work from horseback. One of his Aboriginal helpers caught and saddled the horses most mornings. Further, McLennan often found that he had to climb trees to get a good look at the birds. From there he called the birds towards him by imitating their calls. He also had the advantage of being able to imitate their call to which they responded.
7. False! “As the Buff-breasted Button-quail was common in areas of Cape York in the early 1920s…. (a gross assumption made from McLennan’s diary without a skerrick of proof whatsoever). When McLennan’s diary is read properly, it was evident that BBBQ were far from common. McLennan found only nine well scattered territories over several months of searching and only about one area – Coen (he spent several weeks travelling to the McIlwraith Range at a time when BBBQ would be still breeding and back and also ventured to Port Stewart on the coast). It should be remembered that he used horses extensively so was able to cover longer distances from his camp. We do not know if the Coen event was a small irregular influx in that year which it most likely was from the species erratic appearances in more southern areas or a regular visitation. John Squire recorded BBBQ at Davies Creek, near Mareeba in “two years out of ten”.
8. False! On McLennan’s writings of 1921-22 “….provides the only first hand insights into the autecology of the species.” This statement is not only unbelievable but absurd! (One meaning of autecology: “It aims to measure factors such as nutrient availability, light, and humidity in relation to an organism or species thriving in a particular environment.”). It was 1922! Collectors were still being sent to remote locations for the sole purpose of collecting skins and eggs of rare and unknown birds, nothing else! The reports of these expeditions firmly demonstrate this. McLennan was merely a paid collector as his dairy reveals. His tools were a gun, a sharp knife and a couple of implements to blow eggs. In many instances, not even nests were described. It was to be decades before the idea of autecology came into being ornithologically!
1. “Painted BQ undergoes a wet season” breeding variation (flush).
2. “At the start of the wet season when they (Painted BQ) begin breeding…..”.
3. “The period during which the female Painted Button-quail have this more rufous plumage coincides with the period when there is an increase in reports of Buff-breasted Button-quail.”
4. (Because of congruent breeding seasons) “….there is real potential the birding and scientific communities have been unknowingly documenting the wrong species.”
These statements are again not only condescending but are riddled with assumption and devoid of science. One assumption, completely devoid of proof, is that Painted BQ with a breeding flush breed at the same time as BBBQ and females can be mistaken for them. This again is unresearched nonsense and nothing more than a wild guess. In actual fact in this northern area Painted BQ seem to breed at any time of year probably according to local conditions (at such time when they develop the brighter breeding flush). We have found Painted BQ nests in almost every month, not so many through the wet season. BBBQ are very different from Painted BQ, with a very short breeding season, breeding at the very height of the wet season (March).
Our 30 years + of research and experience with BBBQ tells us that it appears in these areas (in those years when it does appear) from about January and birds are gone after breeding, usually by mid May. Painted BQ are often present throughout the year, but can be absent for months.
10. False! “Breeding (of BBBQ) commences at the onset of the wet season, typically November to December and continues through to March or April”. There is NO data to support this statement. Had McLennan’s diary been read properly, it would have been obvious that the species breeds at the height of the wet season with nearly all clutches being laid through March, usually one of the two wettest months of the year in the tropics. McLennan found 13 active or recently active nests, all in March. We have found 14 active nests over a number of years. In all, eggs have been laid from late February through into March (nearly all in March), not at the commencement of the wet season (December-January). Apart from one recent failed breeding attempt in December, no active nests have been found nor recorded between November and mid-February.
11. False! “The BBBQ occurs in open savanna dominated by Darwin Stringyback Eucalyptus tetrodonta and Cullen’s Ironbark Eucalyptus cullenii with a high diversity of annual and perennial grasses in an understorey. It uses this habitat for breeding.” We have never found even a single bird let alone breeding birds in this habitat despite much time spent there over many years studying other species.
12. False! “There are less than eight people left who now still believe they have seen a BBBQ”. Not only is this misleading, demeaning and a very wild guess at best, it again constitutes unfounded assumption rather than fact. For example, there are more than eight people in my immediate district alone who would emphatically disagree.
More spurious claims:
Eye Colour: Firstly described in one of the articles as “corn-yellow” and a few paragraphs further on as “bright yellow”, it is rather intriguing to know the source when the proponent has never seen a live BBBQ. HANZAB describes the eye colour as simply “yellow”, as taken from the data labels on four of the specimens collected at Coen in 1922. This, along with the type specimen being listed as “yellow” are the only references in existence to eye colour. Iris is actually pale creamy yellow – personal observation of live BBBQs by both John Young and myself.
A clutch of eggs collected at Coen in 1924 by JD Anderson, school teacher and friend of McLennan is casually claimed as “the last confirmed record of the species (which) dates back to 1924”. This clutch differs from genuine BBBQ clutches. Another wild statement with poor research thrown in which needs explanation on how the clutch was confirmed as that of BBBQ! Button-quail eggs are mostly notoriously difficult to identify to species and really need the expertise of an oologist. Anderson was not an “avid” collector as claimed recently by these people but regarded as a non-serious/casual collector having collected only a relatively small number of clutches during his lifetime.
And the list goes on………..
In summary, it is a very sad day when such a plethora of misinformation reaches the literature to the extent as has happened in this case, especially when written by people who have never seen a live BBBQ, their only experience coming from examination of a mere handful of museum skins collected a century and more ago, then mixed with a high dose of assumption, and an audacious claim to be “expert” on the species!
These ongoing published articles relying on assumption, guesses and almost no “evidence” display a persistent and continuous attempt to prove others with considerable and extensive in-the-field experience of BBBQ wrong and inept! Far better to work with those who have put a significant effort into a study of the species over a long period. Had that been done instead of shunning the experienced, we would have been well on the way to learning much more about this endangered species and in turn closer to some form of management or protection.
As one senior well-known ornithologist related to me, the whole saga appears to be merely the twisting of words to justify a failed project.
Our path from here:
John Young: My good mate over many years and I are working together on the BBBQ. John is not only a very skilled photographer but the best rare bird finder who has ever lived. His incredible work on Australian owls, recognized worldwide is just one example which bears testimony to this. He is the best nest finder of all time having found the nests of probably all of Australia’s locally breeding birds.
Remember it was John’s exceptional efforts which resulted in the rediscovery of the Night Parrot which would still be regarded as “probably extinct” had it not been for his persistent skilled work. His rediscovery has allowed our knowledge of the Night Parrot to explode! And to think some people with far lesser skills scandalously ostracized him for it.
John has much experience with BBBQ gained over many years with over 30 positive sightings of his own and has found about a dozen genuine nests. John was given the job of locating BBBQ on Brooklyn Station (AWC property) surrounding Mount Carbine in north-east Queensland in 2016. He walked an incredible estimated 570 km over five weeks and recorded 17 BBBQ sightings (10 males and 7 females), during a season when Painted BQ seemed to be entirely absent. He also obtained photographs of two BBBQ in distant flight. He found six active nests, five of which I was able to confirm the identity.
In December 2021 he skillfully discovered several BBBQ at a new site by recognising the scratchings he was seeing were very different from the typical platelets of Painted (there were Painted with their typical platelets in a different habitat several hundred metres away). Returning to the site and camping there for a couple of nights, he was able to confirm, as we had always suspected, that the birds making these scratchings were BBBQ. He obtained identifiable photographs of BBBQ on a camera trap. He also obtained a photograph of a female BBBQ with a Common Bronzewing behind her which reveals her very large size.
Over the next twelve months or so we hope to obtain high quality digital photographs of as many individuals as we can along with vocalisations and additional data. Hopefully, we can follow some nests through to successful hatching and also gather data on the young. The problem is whether the birds arrive and remain but we have a number of other sites to check where birds have appeared previously. We may even be able to find a clue as to where the birds go after breeding.
It will be revealed in our eventual, joint substantial peer-reviewed paper where we will also be taking strong issue with all of the above misinformation. At the moment we are releasing the above but please bear with us.
And finally a note to dedicated twitchers and others who cherish their lists of the species they have seen, my advice is DO NOT remove BBBQ from your list simply because of the current published assumptions and misinformation if you are satisfied with your original identification. If you convincingly saw a button-quail, especially where a female was very obviously much larger than a female Painted BQ, rising high, with a sandy rump and back and with good documentation, retain it on your lists.
Lloyd Nielsen, OAM
Recipient of the BirdLife Australia John Hobbs Medal in 2014, awarded for “outstanding amateur contributions to Australasian ornithology by an amateur ornithologist.”
References (used but not necessarily cited in the text above)
Campbell, A.J. 1920. Notes on additions to the “H. L. White Collection” The Emu 20: 49–66.
Campbell, A.J. 1922. Buff-breasted Quail (Turnix olivii). The Emu 22:1–2
Collins, L. 2007. On the Button-quail trail, Mareeba. Contact Call June 2007:6
Garnett, S.T., Szabo, J.K. & Dutson, G. 2011. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Vic
Greenway (Jr) J.C. 1973. Type specimens of birds in the American Museum of Natural History, Part 1 150:3, p. 300.
Leseberg, N., & Watson, J., 2022. Setting the record straight. Australian Birdlife 11:1:22. Melbourne.
Macdonald, J.D. 1971. Validity of the Buff-breasted Button-quail. The Sunbird 2:1–5.
Mackay, B., 2000. Constructing a Life on the Northern Frontier: E.A.C. Olive of Cooktown. Queensland Review. 7, 47- 65.
Mason, I.J., & Pfitzner, G.H., 2020. Passions in Ornithology: A Century of Australian Egg Collectors. CanPrint Communications, Fyshwick, ACT
Marchant, S., & Higgins, P.J., 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds, Volume 2 Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press. Melbourne & Auckland.
Mathieson M.T. & Smith, G.C., 2007. National recovery plan for the buff-breasted button-quail Turnix olivii. Report to Department of Environment and Water Resources, Canberra. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Brisbane.
Mathieson M.T. & Smith, G.C., 2017. Indicators for Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii ? The Sunbird 47:1-28
McLennan 1922 Diary of a collecting trip to Coen district, Cape York Peninsula on behalf of H.L. White by William McLennan 1921–22.
Nielsen, L. 1999. Buff-breasted Button-quail survey — interim report — end of wet season 1999. Queensland Ornithological Society Inc. Newsletter 30:4.
Robinson, H.C. 1900. Description of Turnix olivii. Bul. Brit. Orn. Cl. 10:43.
Squire, J.E. 1990. Some Southern Records and Other Observations of the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii Australian Bird Watcher 13:149–152.
Webster, P., 2022. Is the buff-breasted button-quail still alive? After years of searching, this century-old bird mystery has yet to be solved.” The Conversation. Published 4 February 2022.
Webster, P., Watson, J., Murphy. S., Leseberg, N. Seaton, R., 2021. Essential research to secure the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii. Threatened Species Recovery Hub, National Environmental Science Programme. Canberra, ACT.
Webster, P., 2022. Missing in action: the mystery of the Buff-breasted Button-quail Australian Birdlife 11:1:22. Melbourne.
White, H.L. 1922a. Description of Nest and Eggs of Turnix olivii (Robinson). The Emu 22: 2–3.
White, H.L. 1922b. A Collecting Trip to Cape York Peninsula. The Emu 22: 99–116
Young, J., & Kanowski, J. 2017 Buff-breasted Button-quail Survey, Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary March–May 2016
I HOLD WRITTEN TESTIMONIES from a considerable number of Australia’s foremost birders and ornithologists who were successful in locating BBBQ through the 1990s–early 2000s, some sightings from the Big Mitchell site, others from further afield. Invariably, they commented on the large size of the female, the distinct flushing habits, the colour of the bird and the ease of identification once they had seen a bird.
Here are three examples:
1. “….flushing Painted, more Painted and then Brown Quail followed by more Painted until finally we began to flush a few Buff-breasted. Being so large they were relatively easy to identify. I heartily agree on the size of the females – they ARE huge and this is what struck me the most when I saw my pair!”
2. “Painted Button-quail in the tropics are a little smaller (about the size of a female Black-breasted BQ) than they are further south, but I would still say that the female Buff BBQ I saw was easily the biggest BQ I’ve ever seen – by quite a long way. I’ve seen heaps of southern female Painted BQ’s too & they are still much smaller”.
3. “There are Painted BQs in the area too (Big Mitchell), and care needs to be taken with ID. Don’t assume any BQ is the one you’re after! Among other pointers, a female Buff-breasted BQ is comparatively huge – the first time I flushed one it was more like putting up a bronzewing!”