Ian’s Bird of the Week – Lord Howe Woodhen

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Lord Howe Woodhen ~ By Ian Montgomery

Newsletter ~ 5/11/13

My sister Gillian and I arrived for a week’s visit to Lord Howe Island this morning. I haven’t been here since a visit with my mother on her last trip to Australia in 1992. That was in pre-digital photography days, so I am of course keen to photograph some of the local specialties. Perhaps at the top of the list is the famous flightless Lord Howe Woodhen, saved from probably extinction by a captive breeding program in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had barely finished unpacking when a pair came past our front door to welcome us to the island.

The bird in the first photo has, like many of the population of 200-300 birds, coloured legs bands to assist in monitoring the population. Its partner, second photo, lacked bands and is naturally more photogenic from a wildlife viewpoint, so I concentrated my efforts on it.

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

In the gloom of the Kentia Palm forest that covers much of the lowland of the island, the birds look greyish and are quite difficult to see. When they move into the sunlight, like the one in the third photo that has found fruit from the tree outside our room, the warm chestnut colour of the plumage becomes apparent.

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Woodhens form permanent pair bonds and defend their territories which are several hectares in size. Both these birds are adult, recognisable by their red eyes. With a length of 36 cm/14 in these are largish rails, bigger than the related Buff-banded Rail which is also present on the island (and has also wandered past our room).

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) by Ian

Being flightless, tame and good to eat the population declined seriously after the island was settled and by the 1970s only a few survived on the fairly inaccessible tops of the two tall mountains, Mounts Gower and Lidgbird when some of the birds were captured and bred in a protected enclosure in the lowland area. A fellow postgraduate student of mine at Sydney University in the 1970s, Ben Miller, played a major role in the project. You will be able to read all about it in a book, The Woodhen, due for publication next month by CSIRO Publishing and written by Clifford Frith. See http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/7011.htm. Cliff is also a friend of mine, so I feel quite a strong connection to the Woodhen and am happy to now be able to offer it to you and include photos of it on my website.

Next target is the Providence Petrel, so wish me luck. After its extinction on Norfolk Island – where it was regarded as ‘Provident’ – it survived only on Lord Howe, though a small colony has recently become re-established on Phillip Island off Norfolk.

Best wishes

Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Check the latest website updates:

Lee’s Addition:

… how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! (Luke 13:34b KJV)

Never heard of a Woodhen before. Thanks, Ian, for introducing us to another one of the Lord’s creations. According to my list from IOC, there are only three Woodhens; the Lord Howe, Samoan and Makira Woodhens (The last two seem to be called woodhens only by IOC). They are in the Rallidae – Rails, Crakes & Coots Family. One other bird sometimes refered to as a Woodhen is the Weka.

“The Lord Howe Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) also known as the Lord Howe Island Woodhen or Lord Howe (Island) Rail, is a flightless bird of the rail family (Rallidae). It is endemic to Lord Howe Island off the Australian coast. It is a small olive-brown bird, with a short tail and a down-curved bill. The Lord Howe Island Rail lives in sub-tropical forests, feeding on earthworms, crustaceans, fruit, and taking the eggs of shearwaters and petrels.

Woodhens mate for life and are usually encountered in pairs. They are territorial and will appear from the forest’s understory to investigate the source of any unusual noise. A mated pair will defend an area of approximately 3 hectares, with offspring being expelled from this area once grown. The population of birds is thus restricted by the amount of available territory.

Today there are about 250 birds, which may be the optimal population size for the island. (Wikipedia with editing)


Ian’s Rails and Allies

Rallidae – Rails, Crakes & Coots Family

Lord Howe Woodhen – Wikipedia

Woodhen (Weka)  – Wikipedia


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