The Eyrean Grasswren, Amytornis goyderi, was until the late 1970s known only from specimens collected in 1874 at Macumba River, north-west of Lake Eyre, South Australia.
The absence of records in the century since the 1874 collection had raised the possibility that the species had become extinct. However, in 1961 and later in 1972 and 1976, several observers reported seeing birds on vegetated sandhills in the Simpson Desert that fitted the description of the Eyrean Grasswren, and in 1976 the South Australian Museum was able to collect a specimen. Grasswrens (genus Amytornis) are larger relatives of the better known fairy-wrens. They are renowned for living in remote areas, often in inhospitable habitats. Many species of grasswren are sparsely distributed through limited ranges, so it is not surprising that many are not well known.
The National Photographic Index of Birds, based at the Australian Museum, was at the time building their collection of bird photographs to include all Australian species, with plans to publish a large book in conjunction with Reader's Digest largely illustrated by these photographs. One of the species for which no photographs existed was the Eyrean Grasswren, and a joint field trip was organised between the National Photographic Index and the Australian Museum's Ornithology Section, with the objective of locating a population of Eyrean Grasswrens and obtaining photographs. The plan was that, once the birds were found, several would be captured and photographed in a portable studio. In September 1977, John Disney and Walter Boles of the Australian Museum Ornithology Section drove up the Birdsville Track to Birdsville, towing the portable studio and conducting other fieldwork on the way. At Birdsville, John and Walter were joined by Donald Trounson of the Photographic Index and Kerry Muller, Curator of Birds at Taronga Zoo, an expert in capturing birds.
After establishing a base camp in the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert, Walter and Kerry were joined by two local guides and headed west along the border between South Australia and Queensland. After several days the group had not come across any evidence of the birds or even of suitable habitat and it appeared that the trip had failed. The decision was made to return to the main party at Lake Muncoonie. Before departing, one vehicle was dispatched to make a quick inspection of a sand dune visible in the distance, that appeared to be better vegetated than those surrounding it or dunes the group had visited previously. Apparently, a very localised fall of rain had stimulated the growth of vegetation on this single dune. Upon their return, the crew said that there were good stands of sandhill canegrass and some small birds running among these. A return to the dune confirmed the presence of Eyrean Grasswren. Several birds were soon captured and the grasswrens were photographed in the studio.
It is now know that the range of the Eyrean Grasswren is wider than originally thought and the population numbers fluctuate dramatically depending on climatic conditions. Since this rediscovery, several populations have been located and birds are seen reliably as part of natural history tours through the forbidding Simpson Desert.
Dr Walter Boles , Senior Fellow