by Paul Fraser
When we think of our beautiful Australian birds, we usually think of coastal environments, forests and the large, tree-lined inland river systems, and this is the case for the vast majority of our ~800 bird species. However, the arid regions of inland Australia are home to some of our most unique, interesting and beautiful bird species.
The 15 or so Dotterel and Plover species (closely related) are usually associated with water. Some occur in coastal environments while others can be found around inland lakes and rivers, but never too far from water.
It is therefore surprising that one species, the Inland Dotterel, lives on gibber planes and clay pans of the arid inland. Their choice of habitat typically has very little vegetation, no trees, and can be 10’s or even 100’s of kilometres from water.
They eat insects and the fleshy tips of desert shrubs. Inland Dotterel have supraorbital salt glands, and it is thought that these glands enable them to remove salt from the plants, and hence use herbivory to source water.
The Gibberbird as the name suggests, is another species that makes the sparsely vegetated stony deserts of central Australia it’s home. What is especially interesting about this species is that it belongs in the Honeyeater family, most of which feed on nectar from flowering trees and shrubs and need to drink several times each day. In contrast, the Gibberbird feeds mainly on insects, and rarely has access to water.
Australia has ~13 species of Grasswren. These tiny birds, weighing only in the order of 15-20 grams, often inhabit rocky hillsides vegetated only with Spinifex, an occasional stunted shrub, and no water except during brief and infrequent periods of rainfall. It is thought that Grasswrens are able to gain whatever moisture they need to survive from their diet of small insects and seeds.
The question that many of us might ask is, why do these birds choose to live in these very harsh, unforgiving environments, rather than in areas where food and water is more freely available?
The answer is simple, they have evolved over millions of years to be ideally suited to these environments, and that’s what makes them unique, interesting and precious.
If you’re fortunate enough to travel to our beautiful arid interior, in addition to looking at our iconic landscapes, take some time to scan the gibber plains, clay pans and rocky hillsides, you may be lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful birds.