Ian’s Bird of the Week ~ Pilotbird

Ian’s Bird of the Week ~ Pilotbird ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter ~ 3/31/15

The primary targets in East Gippsland were the Sooty and Masked Owls, but there were several daytime birds on the wanted list too. One of these was the Pilotbird, a smallish – 17cm/7in long – brown, ground-dwelling bird of the mountain ranges and dense coastal scrub of southeastern Australia from just south of Sydney almost to Melbourne. I’d seen one only once before, near Mittagong in New South Wales 16 years ago, but that encounter was only a glimpse and no photography was involved.

Pilotbird (Pycnoptilus floccosus) by Ian

It’s an unobtrusive bird and easy to overlook, unless you know its flutey, far-carrying call, sometimes rendered as ‘guinea-a-week’. My Victorian friends knew a good spot for it in coastal scrub and we found one there with relative ease, returning the following day (first photo) to get better photos. It rummages around in thick undergrowth looking for invertebrates. The second photo has a red dot showing the exactly location, beyond the sinuous brown branch, so you can appreciate that we are lucky to be able to see anything much of it in the photo. It has unusual buff dark-edged feathers on the breast, giving it a scaly appearance. The plumage is apparently dense and silky as reflected in its scientific name: Pycnoptilus means thick-feathered, and floccosus is derived from the Latin floccus and means ‘full of flocks of wool’, which, I must admit, left me not much the wiser.

Pilotbird (Pycnoptilus floccosus) by Ian

Pilotbird (Pycnoptilus floccosus) location by Ian

It’s common name Pilotbird arises from the bird frequently associating with Superb Lyrebirds, taking advantage of the digging habits of the latter (third photo) to snatch up revealed invertebrates. Some sources say the name Pilotbird comes from the similar habit of Pilotfish which associates with large marine predators such as sharks; other say that the Pilotbird by its call led early settlers looking for food to lyrebirds. I prefer the first explanation. Lyrebirds are very vocal in their own right and don’t need another species to advertise their presence. Lyrebirds are perhaps the world best mimics and are known to mimic Pilotbirds, and it would be easy to imagine that this attracted Pilotbirds in the first place and they then learned that this was an easy way to get dinner. We did in fact see several Superb Lyrebirds dashing across the roads of the forests where the owls lived, though the coastal scrub didn’t strike me as good lyrebird habitat.

Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae by Ian

This photo of the lyrebird digging vigorously reminded me both of Scrub-turkeys and Chowchillas (fourth photo) and I wondered whether the Pilotbird had a behavioural counterpart in the forests of Northeastern Queensland. The Pilotbird is usually placed in the Acanthizidae, the family of thornbills and their allies (though it shows some affinities with the bristlebirds Dasyornithidae), so I checked up on the Fernwren (fifth photo) another brown, rummaging Acanthizid endemic to the Wet Tropics.

Chowchilla (Orthonyx spaldingii  by Ian

Sure enough, HBW (Handbook of Birds of the World) reports that the Fernwren “sometimes associates with Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) and Chowchilla (Orthonyx spaldingii), following in close proximity and catching prey disturbed by their feeding actions”. The Orange-footed Scrubfowl is, of course, a cousin of the Brush-turkey.

Fernwren 9Oreoscopus gutturalis)  by Ian

So maybe this week’s bird of the week should be entitled ‘small brown rummaging birds of the forest floors of eastern Australia’.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/

Lee’s Addition:

For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; (Psalms 31:3 ESV)

Teach me to do Your will; for You are my God; Your Spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness. (Psalms 143:10 MKJV)

What great protection colorations these birds have received from their Creator. I am sure when the birds of prey are in the area, rummaging types of birds are very thankful for their less colorful outfits.



Ian’s Bird of the Week – Chowchilla

This week’s photo wouldn’t win any photographic competitions, but the Chowchilla – http://www.birdway.com.au/orthonychidae/chowchilla/index.htm – is an interesting bird and there’s a story to go with the photo.

Chowchilla - Orthonychidae family - by Ian

Chowchilla – Orthonychidae family – by Ian

The Chowchilla is one of two Australian members of a rather obscure family, Orthonychidae, or Logrunners. The Chowchilla, which used to be called the Northern Logrunner, is a wet tropics endemic and is reasonably common in dense rainforest between Paluma, north of Townsville – where this photo of a male was taken – and Cooktown, north of Cairns. They’re best known for their loud, ringing calls – ‘chow, chowchilla, etc’ – made by family groups at dawn and dusk to maintain their territories. It’s one of the great sounds of the wet tropics rainforest.

When they aren’t loudly proclaiming their sovereignty, they use their very strong legs to rummage around in leaf litter looking for food. If you’re lucky, you can hear them scratching around and you may seem them dart across the path in front of you. They are reasonably approachable, but usually stay well hidden in the tangled undergrowth of the rainforest which – in combination with the poor light – makes them very hard to photograph. The females, incidentally, are brighter than the males and have a rufous breast and white belly, though in the gloom of the rainforest, rufous is perhaps less conspicuous than white.

On this occasion, I was waiting – flash at the ready not long before sunset – in the hope that one or other of a small group of Chowchillas would cross the path, when I felt a faint wriggling sensation on my lip and then on my upper gum. ‘Yuk, leech!!!’ I thought and was then faced with the dilemma of whether I should remain still in the hope of getting some photos or try to get rid of the leech. Clearly, the photo opportunity won the tussle and I then had the problem of extracting the leech. It’s hard enough to grab hold of one at the best of times, but quite impossible when its covered in saliva and out of sight. In the end, I had to make my way back to the car, half a kilometer away so I could use the mirror to find and get rid of it.

Anyway, back to the Ornthonychidae. The other Australian species is the (Southern) Logrunner – http://www.birdway.com.au/orthonychidae/logrunner/index.htm – which has a limited distribution in coastal forests in southeast Queensland and New South Wales as far south as the Illawarra – common in SE Queensland, much rarer in NSW. There is a third species in New Guinea, the New Guinea Logrunner, which looks like the Southern Logrunner. There are also a few other little known species in New Guinea – the Greater and Lesser Melampittas and the Blue-capped Ifrita – which may belong to this family too, but little is known about them.
I’m at last reasonably up-to-date in posting birds to the website, so I’ve now started adding photos of other wildlife, starting with Australian mammals. This doesn’t mark any great change in emphasis, but I do photograph other wildlife when I stumble across them and I do get requests for photos of things other than birds. So far, I’ve added Platypus and Echidna and Antechinus (marsupial mouse) – http://www.birdway.com.au/dasyuridae/index.htm – and will soon add more marsupials. The new section is accessible via a new navigation button called ‘Other Wildlife’ that replaces the old ‘Contact Details’, now combined with the ‘About Ian’ section. Watch this space, as they say.
Best wishes,
IanPreferred Email: ian@birdway.com.au

Website: http://birdway.com.au

Lee’s additions:


To Hear a Chowchilla – Click Here

Several nice videos  from Internet Bird Collection: Chowchilla (Orthonyx spaldingii) especially the first one “A male removing dry leaves and feeding”

LOGRUNNERS Orthonychidae from Bird Families of the World, 9th ed.