Saturday, 9 January 2016

Baillon’s Crake

Baillon’s Crake (Porzana pusilla) is the smallest of the three Porzana genus crakes found in Australia and is named after Louis Baillon (1778-1855) a French professional naturalist. This species is widely distributed across Eurasia from Spain to Japan and is found in the Southern Hemisphere in East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Click on images to enlarge.

Adult Baillon’s Crake
These water birds inhabit dense vegetation generally around the margins of fresh or saline wetlands. As for most rails and crakes, their secretive and wary behaviour, plus their very small size, makes them hard to find and see as they often only venture to the margins of their preferred dense vegetation habitat early in the morning or late in the day. They are easily frightened and retreat rapidly into cover. When they do emerge into more open habitat to feed, often along the margins of dense vegetation at the water’s edge, they move rapidly and nervously forward, only stopping very briefly to pick up and consume a food item.

So getting photos of these birds is challenging.

When I only knew the crakes from images in bird books and field guides I had the mistaken impression that crakes are much larger than they actually are. So when I saw my first crake, an Australian Spotted Crake (19-22cm) I was somewhat shocked to find they were only about the size of a Common Starling (20-21cm). I suspect this is a common experience. The Baillon’s, at 15 to 16 cm long is even smaller, about the size of a Sparrow or a Red-capped Plover. So when in the field looking for crakes we need to think small and pay close attention to their visually complex habitat, ideally with great patience from a concealed position.

I recently had the opportunity to photograph an adult Baillon’s Crake and its young chicks on a local farm dam. A hide was required to get close enough for photos and to allow observation without frightening the birds into cover.

View from the hide to a section of the dam where the Crakes in this post were photographed.
This dragonfly perched on the camera lens hood for most of the photo session.
While I observed the adult and the young crakes at the dam for a total of about 3 hours during two separate sessions in the hide, I was only able to get reasonable photos in one location during a 10 to 15 minute period. The adult only put in one appearance for less than a minute. The chicks were a little more obliging being clearly, but perhaps foolishly, less cautious. The chicks need to grow rapidly through that period when they are very vulnerable which means paradoxically they have to spend more time foraging for food in the open.

It was hard to estimate the number of birds present as it was impossible to see them all at once in one area. However, it appeared there were two adults (a rather obvious requirement I guess) and up to five young (clutch size 4-8). There looked to be young at three stages of growth. So if these different sized chicks are all from the one brood, this is possibly explained by the fact that the hatching of the eggs is asynchronous. In other words, incubation starts with the first egg laid, with eggs laid at 24 hour intervals.

Finally one of the adult birds puts in an appearance.
The bird did not stop at any stage as it walked about briefly in the open.
This photo is a little soft however has been included because it shows clearly the large feet which are used very effectively to walk across floating vegetation.
One of three chicks foraging in this area.
This chick stopped briefly to preen and stretch.
The chicks also have large feet.
The chicks rarely stopped, so many of the photos are taken of birds on the move.
A brief head-up stop to survey the immediate area.
The areas they searched for food ranged from up in the long grass above the dam edge and in the water when they often plunged their heads in to pick a food item.
This was my last and closest photo of a foraging chick.
The last photo above was taken just before a small gust of wind swayed the grass and reeds and the young birds took fright and disappeared into the thick vegetation – they did not emerge again. Some 15 minutes later, I called it quits and packed up the session thankful to have been able to get some photos at last and observe these cute but shy birds at close range.

There are of course always other animals and activity to view from the hide while waiting for the target species to appear. A lone Australasian Grebe kept me entertained as it moved about the dam diving for food and foraging amongst the Cumbungi.

The grebe has just popped up from a dive.
Encounter between the Grebe and a Long-necked Turtle.
As I drove away from the dam I was closely watched by two Swamp Wallabies.


  1. Excellent post John, great photos.

    1. Hi Lorraine (Bushranger), Thanks for the feedback and happy blogging in 2016. Cheers, John

  2. Hi John, a fantastic set of photos! This is the only crake I'm still yet to see so I'm very jealous! So much diversity in such a small farm dam.

    1. Hi Matt, Thanks for the comments. The Baillon's in the post were my first tick for this species. The diversity around the dam is mostly due to fencing to keep stock out - it makes a huge difference to both water quality and biodiversity. Cheers, Avithera