Australian Bush Birds
Buff-banded Rail  -  Gallirallus philippensis
Buff-banded Rail. The tail flicks up and down as the bird walks. (Casino, NSW)
Buff-banded Rail. The bird in the lower picture has a more obvious buff ban across the breast. (Casino, NSW)
The Buff-banded Rail - Gallirallus philippensis - is a medium-sized bird (30 to 33 centimetres long) living in dense tussocky vegetation and shrubs around swamps and lagoons, in mangroves, along watercourses and on coastal lagoons. Fairly widespread and common but wary and thought to be more common than sightings suggest, it has been described as "secretive and cryptic".

The Buff-banded Rail has a long white eyebrow above a chestnut-red eye stripe extending to the back of the neck; top of the head is brown streaked black, throat is grey grading into a white chin. The eye is red, the bill is flesh-brown, sometimes reddish towards the base. The back and wings are brown, feather have blackish centres edged with white. Upper chest to undertail is black with white bars crossed by a buff-orange chest band (hence the common name); underside colouring extends under the tail. Legs and feet are pink-brown.

Buff-banded Rail - page 2
Buff-banded Rail Buff-banded Rail
Black and white barring on the front of the Buff-banded Rail is distinctive but the buff coloured breast band is not always as obvious as the white eyebrow or chestnut eye stripe. (Casino, NSW)
map map Male and female adults are similar. Juveniles are duller coloured with brown eyes and lacking the breast band and the russet on the back of the neck. Very young birds are very pale, nearly white underneath.

A ground-living bird which inhabits a wide range of terrestrial wetlands, as well as coastal beaches, reef flats sandbanks and mangroves. Often feeds in wet tussocky vegetation providing cover for roosting and nesting. Forages on damp ground in ones and twos pecking at insects, small molluscs and other invertebrates, seeds and some vegetation. When frightened it runs for cover rather than flying to escape. More often seen dashing for cover under clumps of grass, sedges or other overgrown vegetation. Call is a harsh squeek but usually silent. The tail flicks up and down as the bird walks.

This bird is widespread outside Australia; found in the Eastern Indian Ocean, the Celebes and New Guinea to the Philippines; also on southwestern Pacific Islands and New Zealand . There are 20 known versions (or races), two of them found in Australia. Variant mellori is found on mainland Australia, mainly around the coastal regions with erratic occurrence in Tasmania; tounellieri, found along the Great Barrier Reef and on islands in the Coral Sea, is darker in colouring. Members of mellori on Cape York are smaller with a narrower, darker breast band.

A sub-species once found on Macquarie Island (macquariensis) is extinct, the last recorded sighting was in 1879. Extinction has been attributed to predation by rats and cats combined with habitat destruction following the introduction of rabbits in 1878. The rabbits reduced the area of suitable habitat by grazing tussock and allowed the cat population to increase. In winter the cats may have hunted rails. Buff-banded Rail was not found in a search in 1894 and is presumed to have been extinct by then.

The Australian species of Buff-banded Rail is secretive and accurate population information is scarce. One way of determining numbers is to listen for calls from breeding Rail instead of relying on sightings. Another survey technique is to play recordings of Rail calls which prompt local resident birds to come out in defence of their territory; Rails are know to respond to calls by other subspecies.

Breeding in Australia takes place mainly from September to January but probably at any time of year if conditions are suitable. The nest is made of grass or reeds pulled down and woven into a cup under a tussock; sometimes a scrape under rocks and logs on an island. Usually five to eight eggs laid; sometimes up to 11. Eggs are pale brown, lightly blotched with red-brown and purple-grey; swollen-oval in shape, about 36 millimetres by 28 millimetres. Both parents incubate the eggs for 19 days and the young leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching. Both parents remain with the young who usually feed themselves although the female may feed them as well. Young are fluffy and black when hatched. A couple may raise two broods in a good season.