Whipbird seen in Victoria for first time in decades


A scarce bird of Australia's mallee habitats has been seen in the state of Victoria for the first time in almost five decades.

White-bellied Whipbird was widely thought to be extirpated from Victoria and therefore endemic to neighbouring South Australia.

The species was never particularly common in the Victorian mallee. Records in the state's north-west gradually dwindled during the 20th century in the face of widespread clearance of mallee vegetation and changed fire regimes. Despite a few unconfirmed reports in the early 1980s, the last confirmed record of the species in Victoria was back in 1974.

Sensationally, after decades of silence, a White-bellied Whipbird was heard singing in an near-inaccessible section of the Big Desert Wilderness Park, north of Nhill, in October 2022, during a series of bird surveys being conducted as part of the Threatened Mallee Birds project. The survey was led by Dr Simon Verdon from the Research Centre for Future Landscapes at La Trobe University and involved a team of researchers and a band of dedicated community volunteers.

White-bellied Whipbird is a cryptic species, renowned for the difficulty observers have in seeing it among the dense mallee heathlands and shrublands it inhabits. Instead, like many other cryptic species that live in dense habitats, it is usually detected by its metallic-sounding song, which has been described as a series of "strange, rattling, staccato notes". That's exactly what happened during the recent survey, when its song was recorded by one of the participants. The recording has been verified as that of a White-bellied Whipbird by a number of experts.

There is a small population of White-bellied Whipbirds in adjoining parts of South Australia, but, because the species is sedentary, it is inconceivable that the whipbird in the Big Desert had simply ventured across the border; rather it is likely to be a representative of a tiny remnant Victorian population, whose survival was unknown until now.

The area where the bird was discovered is included within the Wyperfeld, Big Desert and Ngarkat Key Biodiversity Area, and the data collected during this and other similar surveys contribute to our understanding of the distribution of 10 key mallee bird species included in the Commonwealth-listed (Endangered) Mallee Bird Community. The data will also directly inform future management efforts to protect and drive the recovery of these threatened species through targeted research and habitat rehabilitation.

The surveys also detected populations of other threatened mallee specialists, including Red-lored Whistler and the Mallee Emu-wren. BirdLife Australia has suggested that the reason wet seasons have been beneficial to populations of these species.

The Threatened Mallee Birds project is an initiative of the Mallee Bird Conservation Action Planning Committee, which is coordinated by BirdLife Australia. The project is supported by the Mallee Catchment Management Authority, through joint funding from the Australian Government, Murraylands and Riverland Landscape Board and Department for Water and Environment SA.