The Emu/volume 10/Haunt of the Rufous Scrub-Bird

The Haunt of the Rufous Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens, Ramsay).

By Sidney Wm. Jackson, R.A.O.U., Chatswood, N.S.W.


I left Sydney on the 19th September, 1910, for the elevated Dorrigo scrubs at the head of the Bellinger River, New South Wales, where I arrived on the 24th of the same month, and pitched my camp in the forest, near the Little Murray River, on the same spot where my brother and I had camped during October of 1898, when we found the type nest and eggs of the Rufous Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens). My mission this time was on behalf of Mr. Henry L. White, of Belltrees, Scone, New South Wales, and was undertaken for the purpose of procuring the female of this interesting species, hitherto undescribed, and securing another nest and clutch of eggs, as the types of these still remained the only specimens extant. I walked through and carefully examined the scrubs day after day without getting the slightest indication as to the existence of the Atrichornis therein. It was not until the 7th October that I met with any success, and heard an Atrichornis calling out. On this date I had just left a tree wherein I found a new nest of the Rifle-Bird (Ptilorhis paradisea) situated in a dense clump of vines at the unusual height of 74 feet from the ground, and was walking slowly through the scrub in a northerly direction, and when I arrived at a sloping part I heard a note which immediately brought me to a halt, for I felt convinced that it emanated from an Atrichornis; only one single note was rendered. I went quietly in the direction of the sound and towards an immense mass (No. 1 mass in plan) of fallen trees and other scrub débris, and hid behind a rosewood (Dysoxylon fraseranum) log. Very soon the shrill note issued from the confused mass of débris and only about 10 feet away. The bird was moving about, mouse-like, amongst this heap of rubbish in the heart of the scrub (see photo.) It went through the same antics as I had frequently noticed in 1898 and 1899, walking stealthily under the heaps of débris and along under the sides of large logs as it called out, and moving cautiously from place to place. I have always noticed that this noisy little bird inhabits the most impenetrable parts of the scrub, and where the undergrowth is thick and the ground is strewn in many places with great masses of débris, consisting of an accumulated entanglement of trees, branches, vines, and other rubbish (see photos.)

After I had waited for some time the Atrichornis suddenly showed itself out of the débris for a second or two, and stood on a dead stick about 20 feet away, with its tail erect and wings rather drooped. Then in a flash it disappeared again in the rubbish, and continued at intervals to call out as it travelled about completely hidden from view under the heap. From what I saw of the bird, it was typical of the male birds that I collected previously. While still under the débris, it accurately imitated the
Emu volume 10 plan of Atrichornis site.png


Plan of Area Frequented by Atrichornis.

1.—Indicates spot, No. 1 Mass, where male was first heard (7th October, 1910).

2.—Nest found 16th October (see photo.)

3.—Large sheets of old pine-bark which were examined, with other lots, for No. 2 nest (supposed).

4-—Part No. 2 Mass of débris, where female was seen in company with male (22nd October, 6th November).

5.—Where male was shot (4th December), in thick débris.

6-—Where male uttered single note at 7 p.m. 17th November.

7.—Where I made five attempts to capture the female with the net (16th October) when she was in the nest.

8.—Where male sunned himself 14th November.

9.—Where best view of the male was obtained, when he was feeding on the ground. No. 2 Mass (17th November).

10.—Play-ground of the Lyre-Bird (see photo.)

11.—The roost of male Atrichornis, on small limb under pine log, about 30 ft. from nest.

Note.—Shading of black dots denotes areas where large quantities of fallen trees, vines, and other débris were removed when searching for female and No. 2 nest. The upright lines and black dots together indicate where débris was searched but not carried away. Shading of black upright hues denotes the large, confused masses of fallen trees, vines, &c., under which the Atrichornis lives (see photos.) The male frequented the heaps of débris marked A, B, C, D, and E, Nos. 1 and 2 Masses.

PLATE XXXV.

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Mass No. 1.—Portion of scrub débris daily frequented by male Atrichornis, and where it was first observed (7/10/10).

Mass No. 2.—Portion of scrub débris where female Atrichornis was observed twice upon the ground below white cross on tree.

FROM PHOTOS. BY S. W. JACKSON, SYDNEY.


PLATE XXXVI.

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Site where Atrichornis Nest was found (16/10/10).
(Nest below white cross.)

FROM A PHOTO. BY S. W. JACKSON, SYDNEY.


notes of the following birds:—Yellow-throated Scrub-Wren (Sericornis barbara), Spine-tailed Log-runner (Orthonyx temmincki). King Lory (Aprosmictus cyanopygius), Yellow-rumped Robin (Eopsaltria chrysorrhoa). White Goshawk (Astur novæ-hollandiæ). White-throated Tree-creeper (Climacteris scandens). White-throated Thickhead (Pachycephala pectoralis). White-fronted Scrub-Wren (Sericornis frontalis), Lewin's Honey-eater (Ptilotis chrusotis), &c.; and when imitating the note of the Yellow-throated Scrub-Wren these fussy little birds came over to the heap of débris and sat on a twig over the Atrichornis as it called out beneath them. The loud alarm note of the Spine-tailed Log-runner it very frequently utters to perfection, and it is most difficult to discriminate which bird is calling—an Atrichornis or a Log-runner. On account of the breast bone and muscles of the voice apparatus being unusual, the Atrichornithidæ have been classed "Abnormal Song-Birds." The discovery of the male Atrichornis to-day gave me encouragement, and I naturally expected the bird had its mate somewhere in the vicinity. I first heard the bird to-day at 3 p.m., and I remained at the spot observing until after 4 p.m. I named this part of the scrub "Atrichia Slope," and it lies a few miles from my camp. Before leaving this locality to-day I examined a great many tufts of scrub-grass or sedge (Gahnia and Carex longifolia) close about the large heap of débris which the bird frequented, but I saw no sign of the nest or female. I then travelled through more scrub, and returned to camp before dark. I have never at any time seen an Atrichornis in a tree or bush; they live entirely on the ground, partly hidden amongst the masses of fallen timbers and débris, and never for a moment do they leave these places, and therefore appear quite terrestrial in their habits. Their strong legs and very small wings prove that they spend most, if not all, of their time on the ground.

After this date (7th October) I worked on and hunted day after day, and thoroughly searched all the dense scrub, tufts of scrub-grass or sedge, heaps of débris, &c., at "Atrichia Slope," and immediately surrounding the place where I had first seen the male bird; but my efforts were fruitless.

On the morning of the 16th October I sat on a log and listened for three-quarters of an hour at one of the large piles of débris, but there was no indication of or sound uttered by the Atrichornis, much less getting a glimpse of the bird. This silence was rather disappointing, so at about 9 a.m. I made a fresh start, and once again continued a systematic search. Shortly after 10 a.m. the area of my operations brought me to a small open space in the scrub, which was well covered with many tufts of a narrow, flat grass (Carex), which varied from 1 foot to 2 feet 6 inches in height, growing rather closely together. Through the western side of this growth the large section of the topmost portion of a fallen hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghami) was lying on the ground. This top part of the tree measured 65 feet long, and was about 3 feet thick at the larger end. This looked to me a very promising spot, as the broken and tangled mass of branches and débris on the ground at the head of the tree would form a safe and natural retreat for the Atrichornis. I worked all the eastern patch first, which was much more extensive than that on the western side of the log, and I began to lose hope regarding success in this patch; so at 10.30 a.m. I visited the growth on the western side of the log, and in the centre of the third tuft I examined—which was rather close to the log and much spread out and open—I found a rounded mass of dead and thoroughly bleached grass (Carex). This was really a dome-shaped nest, and the material from which it was constructed was so old-looking and thoroughly weather-worn that it had the appearance of having been built a few seasons ago. At first glance I thought it might belong to some small scrub marsupial or rodent, so I knelt down, and, on examining it closely, found it had a neat, round opening on the north-west side, and that the nest resembled that of an Atrichornis. In order to view the interior of the structure through the small round opening, I had to bend the tuft of grass back a little, and was thus enabled to look in, finding, to my delight, that it was undoubtedly the nest of Atrichornis rufescens, and contained two eggs, typical of those I took 12 years ago. The nest was situated down the slope, 65 yards westward from the western side of the large heap of débris wherein I had first seen and heard the male Atrichornis on Friday, 7th October. It did not stand quite upright in the grass, and had a slight inclination to lean westward. Possibly a scrub wallaby or other animal may have walked over the tussock, thus causing it to be opened out so much and the nest moved from the perpendicular.

The nest was constructed of dead grass (Carex longifolia) and leaves, and lined inside with the same hard, cardboard-like material or dried wood-pulp as before, and the eggs rested in this rounded and hardened receptacle, devoid of any other lining. On close examination of this hard and remarkable lining, one finds that it is dried pulp of soft and decayed wood and grass that the bird had probably worked up and put together while in a wet state. To remove the eggs I took the lid off a small round matchbox and fastened it to the end of a large straightened safety-pin, which acted admirably as a sort of ladle. They were heavily zoned at one end with reddish-brown markings, and were typical, but appeared somewhat incubated—probably about seven days. The pair of eggs measure in inches—(a) 0.87 x 0.69, (b) 0.87 X 0.70.

My next most important endeavour was to capture the female, so I returned to camp and got the lantern and butterfly net. After a long, hot walk I arrived back at the scrub. I cut a strong stick, about 10 feet long, and securely tied the green butterfly net to it. I put both eggs back into the nest, and got under cover to watch developments. It was now 12.30 p.m., and at 1.15 I heard a gentle rustling in the grass and dead leaves on the ground along the western side of the thick log of pine, near

PLATE XXXVII.

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Nest in situ of Rufous Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens).

FROM A PHOTO. BY S. W. JACKSON, SYDNEY.


the nest, but no note of any kind. After a while the bird slowly entered the nest, but I could only see her head from where I sat, and I plainly noticed the nest shake as she entered and turned round. I was sitting almost at the back of the nest. I now raised my body slowly, and, taking careful aim with the long net, dropped it down over the nest and tussock; but to my amazement and disgust the bird escaped before I got over. She was as quick as a flash, and I could hardly credit that she had gone. I examined the grass around the nest in case I had accidentally hit and stunned her, but no such fortune. While I was thus engaged trying to capture the female, I could plainly hear the male bird calling loudly some 70 yards away up the slope of the scrub, and at the same large heap of débris (mass No. 1) as I had first seen him in on 7th October. From that date on he had taken particular care never to call or utter a sound anywhere in proximity to the nest. I sat down again in hiding, and in about half an hour I heard the female creeping about again like a mouse or small lizard in the grass and dead leaves. With the field-glasses at this close range I faintly caught sight of her twice as she moved along under the side of the log, close to the nest. I could not see her colour well in such subdued light, but from what I saw she did not appear to differ from the male in general colouring. However, after she had carried on some good manœuvring (in a crouched position) under the side of the log, inside the edge of the grass, she cautiously went on the nest once more; and, although I was most careful in using the net, I lost her again, notwithstanding that I had actually seen her fluttering in the net as I rushed over. I was now trembling with eagerness, thinking I had captured her beyond doubt this time. I was perplexed to know what to do for the best. I certainly could not safely shoot her at such a close range without blowing her to pieces, and there was the danger of destroying the nest and eggs; and if I removed the eggs from the nest the chances were that she would abandon the spot altogether. My previous experience with these shy birds was that they usually showed themselves at very close range when they did appear. This female went into the nest five times, at intervals ranging from half an hour up to an hour and a half, and all my care endeavouring to capture her went for nothing save disappointment. What I really required in the first place was a heavy iron hoop, with the net attached, so that when it was placed over the nest it would press its way through the surrounding grass and go right down flat on the ground. There can certainly be no doubt that the bird got away owing to the space between the rather limp ring of the net and the ground. Certainly I could have cleared a space all around the tuft of grass, and so let the net go flush to the ground, but the chances were that the bird would never have gone near the place again.

The nest was built about 16 inches from the side of the pine log, and in a tuft of scrub-grass or sedge about 2 feet high, which Mr. J. H. Maiden, Government Botanist of New South Wales, has kindly identified and named for me from samples of the grass, flowers, and seed which I collected on the spot. The grass, which is also common in some of our forests, is known as Carex longifolia (R. Br.) In all probability, if the eggs had been fresh instead of so heavily incubated, then the female might not have returned again to the nest, as was the case with the type clutch, which was quite fresh when found. The nest I left for the time being, as I wished to photograph it in situ later; and, in order to protect it from the impending hail and rain, I stood a long sheet of pine bark over it on a slant from the ground against the pine log.

During the whole time I was near the female Atrichornis she did not utter any sound, though the male called out frequently in No. I mass of débris some 70 or 80 yards away. The male never appears to leave his haunt in this large heap of débris (as far as I can detect); consequently, he is perhaps something like the Lyre-Bird (Menura superba) in this respect, and does not feed the hen on the nest, and she has to go out and collect her own food. I would not be surprised if this is the case, and also that the construction of the nest is carried out entirely by the female.

The opening of the nest was about 9 inches from the ground, and a platform of grass and dead leaves sloped up towards it, and on this the female went to and fro The opening was unusually small, and measured 1¼ inches across; height or length of nest over all, 7½ inches; width, 4½ inches. In the case of the type nest the opening had been enlarged through removing the eggs from it by inserting the fingers. The bottom of the present nest was 6 inches from the ground in the tussock, and such was the case with my other finds of these interesting structures in 1898 and 1899.[1] After photographing the nest I had decided to dig the tussock up containing it. Some 30 feet along the western side of the log from the nest, and close to an old cedar saw-pit, and at part marked "II" on the plan, I found a place that was undoubtedly the roosting-spot of the male Atrichornis, and the loose feathers and excreta found there proved it to be such. The roost consisted of a small limb a few inches long, which projected from the pine log low down, and well underneath it, and where the log was up from the ground several inches. The nest was about 30 feet south from the old cedar saw-pit (see plan), where cedar logs were sawn up some 20 or 30 years ago, and the area of sedge-like scrub-grass (see plan and photos.) was growing on the small open part where the scrub trees had been cut down in order to make room and light for the men when at their work.

The Lyre-Birds (Menura superba) live in the scrub here, and one of their large dome-shaped nests which I found, and which the young bird had recently left, was picturesquely placed up against the foot of an old red cedar (Cedrela australis) stump at a steep

PLATE XXXIX.

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Nest of Lyre-Bird (Menura superba), within 30 yards of Nest of Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens).

FROM A PHOTO. BY S. W. JACKSON, SYDNEY.


PLATE XXXVIII.

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Playground of Lyre-Bird (Menura superba), near where the male Scrub-Bird (Atrichornis rufescens) daily frequented.

FROM A PHOTO. BY S. W. JACKSON, SYDNEY.


part, and within 30 yards of the nest of the Atrichornis (see photo, and plan). It is remarkable that this pair of Lyre-Birds, which I frequently noticed at "Atrichia Slope," should have their nest so close to that of the Atrichornis, and the male to have his hillock or play-ground within 15 yards of the large heap of débris (mass No. I) which the male Atrichornis daily frequented when carrying on his mimicry.

The ordinary note of the Atrichornis is a prolonged and shrill note, resembling "Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp," and usually repeated four times or more (generally four) in succession, with about half a second duration between each call; but sometimes the interval is a little longer, and the sound gradually lowers in pitch towards the last "chirps." The male only calls, but I have often known him to remain silent for a whole day. Another note which he utters here is "Sweet-sweet-sweet," rendered often slowly, and with a pause of 3 or 4 seconds between each of the "sweets." This note is apparently copied from the White-throated Thickhead (Pachycephala pectoralis), and I have often heard this bird answering the Atrichornis' s call.

Owing to their being incubated, the ground colour of the eggs is lighter than those of the type set, which were perfectly fresh: so, judging by this, I would conclude that the nest must have just been ready for eggs on 7th October, when I first saw the male bird in No. I mass of débris.

On the following day (17th October) I again visited "Atrichia Slope," and found the nest safe under the bark, but I saw no sign of the birds, and the male was silent. Next day (18th October) I visited the locality again, and photographed the nest in situ, also the pine log and surrounding area. In one of these photos, a few fallen scrub saplings, which lie close together, happen to appear somewhat like a fence, but I want to point out that they are lying just as they fell. I also took other photographs, showing the heaps of confused débris frequented by the Atrichornis.

I visited "Atrichia Slope" daily, in hopes of again seeing the female, and on 22nd October I discovered both birds in a mass of fallen trees and débris (see figure 4 in No. 2 mass on plan, also white cross in black square in photo.) about 80 yards north-east from where the nest was. I only once got a glimpse of the birds as they peeped out of the débris. After the "shocks" the female received when I tried to capture her, I fancied she would not build in such a place again. The birds kept well out of sight in the débris, and from what little I saw of the female again to-day there appears to be very little (if any) difference between her and the male in general colouring. Only the male bird made any call or note, and he left the female and travelled through the tangled rubbish to the northwards, from where he called, the female remaining perfectly silent. Here the male rendered a peculiar note resembling the squeak of a frog; then, again, rather a clear and loud flute-like whistle. Getting another sight of the female Atrichornis to-day pleased me very much, and it was my intention to carefully watch, and later on remove and thoroughly search this mass for No. 2 nest; I would then lose no opportunity of shooting the female. If No. 2 nest should be in one of these huge masses of débris, then the chances of finding it are very remote indeed, for to remove one of these large heaps of confused rubbish and trees is a big undertaking (see photos.)

I still continued to hunt day after day, and removed tons of débris, sometimes spending several hours at a time, following the male Atrichornis as he called and continued his wonderful mimicry. I walked to and fro over these heaps for days, with gun ready with extra small charges of dust shot, in case the female might possibly be in company with the male. I saw the male many times, but did not want him unless I ultimately failed to secure the female. When following him it is often very difficult to locate the sound on account of his ventriloquial powers. Sometimes he sounds quite close, whereas the bird is perhaps many yards away; again, the notes often appear to be overhead though they are actually issued on the ground.

The food of this Scrub-Bird consisted chiefly of snails' eggs, young tender-shelled scrub snails (Helix and Panda), worms, insects, and the larvæ and pupæ of various Carabidæ and other Coleoptera living in the masses of débris and under the damp leaves on the ground.

On 6th November I heard the male calling out at 11.15 a.m. in the mass of débris marked No. 2 in the accompanying plan, and 80 yards north-east of the spot where I had found the nest on 16th October. However, suddenly he became silent, and remained so until about noon, when he started, and frequently imitated the scolding and other notes of the Yellow-rumped Robin (Eopsaltria chrysorrhoa). White-fronted Scrub-Wren (Sericornis frontalis), and other species, and he gradually ran along through the pile of rubbish towards the western end, and I followed and saw him several times. Now, under the débris here, and close to a tall green iron wood tree[2] (Tarrietia, sp.) which was growing up through the rubbish, he made a scolding cry, for possibly he saw me; then he became silent, and later on went away unobserved to the eastern end of the heap, and, while he was calling out loudly there, I suddenly saw the female for a few seconds at the extreme western end of No. 2 mass of débris (see plan), and in the same place as the male had made the scolding cry just previously, and where I had seen the female also on 22nd October. This was encouraging, as I concluded that No. 2 nest was in this heap of rubbish or its immediate surroundings. When the female vanished under the débris she gave three faint and feeble whines or cries similar to those uttered by a very young domestic kitten; this was the first and only sound I ever heard her make.

The following day (7th November) I was about shortly after daybreak at "Atrichia Slope." with the view to removing large quantities of fallen trees, vines, and entangled rubbish at the western end of No. 2 mass, where I had twice seen the female Atrichornis. The scrub was hot and steamy after the continuous and heavy rains, and scrub leeches troublesome. After spending some hours watching for a shot at the female, I finally set to work with axe and hoe to remove more of the débris, in hopes of finding No. 2 nest, if there were one.

On 14th November I watched the male Atrichornis in a mass of débris ("B" in plan), and at the part numbered 8 in the plan, and standing behind an ironwood tree, ready in case the female should also show herself. He called again and again, and I saw him move in a mass of dead pine twigs and limbs on the western side of the long fallen tree. I felt hopeful the female was with him, as he was ruffled and cleaning his plumage and behaving in an unusual manner, and until he called again I was beginning to think he was the female. He ventured out into the sunlight, kept silent, and sat on a twig with his feathers puffed and wings drooped, just as a domestic fowl will often do when she has chickens feeding about. He did not see me, and I got a really splendid view of him. He remained in the sun for several seconds, and, shaking his plumage, broke the silence with a loud and shrill "chirp," and disappeared in the mass of débris. I remained watching, and again saw him a few times before I made another search in that heap for No. 2 nest. While I was watching the male here, a Dollar-Bird (Eurystomus pacificus) was calling in a tall tree near, and the Atrichornis promptly answered by imitating its notes. I never on any previous occasion got such a good sight of the Atrichornis as I did to-day. My radius of search had by this time (14th November) extended to a distance of 250 yards from the locality of the nest found on 16th October, and most of the work was carried out in rain. On the 17th November, when removing débris in No. 2 mass, I heard a strange noise at the pine log which lies through the northern side of this heap, and the sound resembled a bird in an excited state, and as if it had young ones. It came from beneath the log, where it was up 6 inches from the ground. After much heavy work moving tangled masses of débris, limbs, &c., away, I discovered that the sound emanated from a small grey frog, which was sitting on a dead vine caught under the log.

This day I again tried to follow the male Scrub-Bird to his roosting-place, and so get an idea where the female and No. 2 nest (if it really existed) were. But this I found impossible. He was in No. 1 mass of débris at 6.30 p.m., when he called, and, leaving it, he apparently worked his way through the dense scrub and débris (silently) and crossed the southern end of the narrow timber track and entered the mass of débris shown in the bottom left-hand corner of the plan, for here he uttered one note at the part marked 6 about 7 p.m., and the scrub at that hour was very dark. This was the only time that I heard this bird call on the western side of the narrow timber track, as the heaps of débris it daily frequented were on the eastern side, and are all shown on the plan and marked "A," "B," "C," "D," and "E," and these include Nos. 1 and 2 masses. I obtained a still better view of the male Atrichornis to-day, when it was feeding on the ground in No. 2 mass of débris, and I watched it for 3 or 4 moments, ready if the female appeared. The spot is shown on the plan by the figure 9.

I still continued to visit the locality, and examined numerous places and turned over numbers of large sheets of loose curled pine bark (see plan), in hopes of finding No. 2 nest. I often sat on top of the remaining parts of No. 2 mass of débris and other heaps for hours with gun ready, sometimes in pouring rain, waiting to get a shot at the female Atrichornis; but I never saw her again during my visit. Failing to procure her after having seen her several times was very tantalizing, and it was now my painful duty to shoot the male in order that my find of the nest be thoroughly authenticated, because there are sceptics even amongst naturalists. On the 4th December the opportunity came, and I have the body of this wonderful feathered mimic preserved in formalin. The eyes are dark brown, with a jet black centre. The wings are unusually small, and when folded have the same appearance as those of the Lyre-Bird. The legs are strong, and, strange to say, the three front toes of the right foot were missing, evidently having been lost for some time by accident.

From personal observations, and from the evidence of other persons who have also investigated the matter, this remarkable bird is fast becoming scarcer. What is to be learnt of its natural economy should be done soon, or it will be too late.

[Members will appreciate the art and technique of Mr. Jackson's excellent illustrations. Thanks are also due to Mr. H. L. White for his goodness in defraying the cost of the blocks, so finely engraved by Messrs. Patterson, Shugg and Co.—Eds.]

  1. The nest found in 1899 was in the Richmond River scrubs, and the young had gone from it. The nest is now in Mr. H. L. White's collection, and is constructed of dead scrub-grass (Gahnia).—S. W. J.
  2. Not to be confused with the ironbark tree (Eucalyptus) of our forests.—S. W. J.