They’re determined, these volunteers.
Why else would they slog , day after day, through kilometers of spiky, hummocky grasslands in the dry heat of the Victorian mallee, searching for a tiny bundle of feathers with an absurdly flamboyant tail?
Well, to find it, for one thing. And to count it, for another.
Because no one is sure how many of these tiny birds, the mysterious Mallee Emu Wren, Stipiturus mallee, remain in the lonely, semi-arid shrub lands that make up the Wyperfield, Murray-Sunset and Hattah Kulkyne National Parks in Victoria’s north west.
PhD student Simon Verdon from La Trobe University, leader of this somewhat masochistic band, wants to find out. He’s on a mission to do the most comprehensive survey of the Mallee Emu Wren in years, if not ever.
It’s not going to be easy. The emu wren is tiny, about the size of a golf ball, not counting a tail that’s almost twice as long again as its body, and which more strongly resembles filament-y emu feathers than the tightly controlled rear appendages of other wrens . Males sport a sky blue head and frontal bib but apart from that, they are the same colour as the dry spikes of Triodia grass in which they hide.
And that’s the rub – the birds like to hide in the middle of the almost impenetrable clumps of what’s aptly described as porcupine grass. What they eat, where they go, and what they are doing when they get there are also mysteries, but that’s a story for another day.
In the spring, when the counting begins, the males are more visible, flaunting their blue bibs, sashaying through the topmost spikes of the Triodia, tails erect. But only briefly, dropping into the all encompassing spikes at the drop of a volunteer’s hat. And the females remain as elusive as ever.
So the volunteer army, some 35 strong, tough, determined and indefatigable, venture into the wilderness, day after day, searching, and listening, and searching some more.
And reporting back to the man who counts.