Three of Australia’s five resident crakes are found in Victoria including East Gippsland. They are the Australian Spotted Crake (Porzana fluminea), Spotless Crake (Zapornia tabuensis) and Baillon’s Crake (Zapornia pusilla). (1)
If you read a number of bird guides regarding crake behaviour you will find descriptions such as these: very small birds, inhabit dense wetland vegetation, extremely elusive, secretive, wary, shy, unobtrusive, seldom leave dense cover, nervous, high-strung, difficult to observe, chance of being observed by casual observer slight, more often heard than seen, dash to cover when disturbed.
Unless you target this species in their preferred habitats – for example wetlands dense with vegetation such as Giant Rush (Juncas ingens), Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and Cumbungi (Typha species) then in a life of birding you may never or rarely see a crake unless by sheer luck. That said crakes can be relatively easy to find and observe if you look in the right places (2) at the right time (early mornings with no wind are probably the best times).
On a recent BirdLife East Gippsland Monday morning outing to Macleod Morass on the outskirts of Bairnsdale, myself and a few members found an Australian Spotted Crake foraging in a small clear area of shallow water and exposed mud surrounded by Phragmites and Cumbungi – ideal crake habitat. It was about 10.30am with no wind and an overcast sky – perfect conditions for crakes to venture from the dense reeds into the open. Two of our small group had not seen crakes before.
As we watched the Spotted Crake, a Spotless Crake came out of the reeds and commenced foraging. The excitement level increased with a second elusive crake species now clearly visible to our small party. At this point two of our members now had life ticks for two of Victoria’s three crake species. And then a Baillon’s Crake emerged from the reeds and proceeded to move about in the open as it foraged in the shallow water and mud. A third life tick for two very lucky birders in one location within the space of 10 minutes or so and very good views with plenty of time for close observation – simply amazing! It took me years to finally tick these three elusive crakes and here all three species were foraging right near us – a rare occurrence for sure.
As the group enjoyed this very lucky encounter I kept busy trying to nail some photos as the crakes appeared in small openings in the vegetation and slowed down enough from their busy foraging.
The following selection of photos from the crake encounter are arranged by species in the order of their appearance.
Please click on photos to enlarge.
The Australian Spotted Crake from my experience is the most often seen crake in our area and is probably the least shy crake – it can sometimes be found out feeding in the open well away from cover.
The Spotless Crake from my experience is probably the most shy or nervous crake. It is more reluctant to come out into the open and often dashes for cover at the slightest provocation.
The Baillon’s Crake is the smallest crake and in terms of its wariness (once again based on my experience) falls somewhere between the Spotted and Spotless Crakes.
After about 15 minutes observing the three Victorian crake species – all with justified reputations for being hard to find and observe - we returned to the main group for morning tea knowing we had just been privileged to have enjoyed a rare birding experience.
1. Regarding the origin of the names crake and rail, Fraser & Gray have the following to say:
The two key base names (crake and rail) go well back to their British relations and did not arise in Australia. As might be expected for such cryptic though widespread birds, both names are onomatopoeic.
The names crake and rail are interchangeable, there being no taxonomic significance to these names. Crake tends to be used for the smaller birds in the RALLIDAE (crakes and rails) family.
2. Crakes and rails can be nomadic and may migrate. The prolonged severe and widespread drought in Australia at present may have resulted in an increase in crake species and abundance in Macleod Morass which benefits from the managed input of treated wastewater from the Bairnsdale wastewater treatment plant. Many local wetlands and farm dams are either dry or have very low water levels at present. These conditions may have increased our likelihood of finding three species of crake in one location.