Australian Bush Birds
Australian Pratincole  -  Stiltia isabella
australian pratincole
Australian Pratincole in non-breeding plumage. This is one of a pair foraging over short grassy flat near the dam wall. The long, tapering, black wing tips folded over the tail are an identification feature. (Fogg Dam, NT.)
map map The Australian Pratincole - Stiltia isabella - is a medium to small (20 to 23 centimetres), long-legged, wader. Sandy brown above with paler edges to feathers giving a mildly scalloped appearance. Long, finely tapering, black wingtips extend beyond the tail when folded. White throat shading to sandy breast, belly white shading into pale chocolate on the flanks. Legs are long and grey. Tail is square and white with black bends. Head is sandy with slightly darker short streaks; darker patch between eye and bill. Eye dark brown. In non-breeding birds the bill is sepia with a darker tip.

In breeding plumage the bill is red with a black tip; there is a broad chestnut band across the belly, white undertail and black underwing, flanks are dark chocolate washing over the upper belly.

This is primarily an insect eater. The long, pointed wings and broad mouth are adaptations to catching insects in the air and the long legs fit it for catching insects on the ground.

Lives in small, loose groups of up to 20 birds on bare or semi-arid plains, claypans, gibber or dry floodplains running about snatching insects. Frequently stands motionless for extended periods.

Both nomadic and migratory. From February to April they fly to far northern Australia, Papua and Indonesia for winter then return to central and south-eastern Australia to breed in September and October. Widespread during southern summer in eastern inland Australia south to Hay and the Adelaide Plains and sparsely west to Port Hedland. Few nests are established north of 20°S.

On hot days they do not seek shade but pant to regulate body temperature. Water is drunk often, excess salt from drinking brackish water is excreted through salt glands above the nostrils.

Breeding takes place between August and January, mostly October to November. Male and female display to each other on the ground and select the nest site together taking it in turns to shuffle on the ground at various sites before making the final choice. There is no nest, eggs are laid on a bare, flat, piece of ground, in loose colonies on open gibber plains or bare gravelly areas, usually within 2 kilometres of water. Two eggs are laid; pale buff or yellow-tinged, with dark spots, blotches or short streaks; rounded-oval shape, about 30 by 23 millimetres.

Pratincole - page 2
Eggs are incubated by both parents in 90 minute spells. On hot days they remain on the eggs with their backs to the sun opening wings and back feathers to stay cool while panting. Parents change over on the nest by calling, throwing pebbles and sometimes a brief greeting display.

As soon as they hatch the young are led to the shade of a clump of vegetation or a burrow where they hide. When insects are bought to them, the chicks emerge long enough to take the food then return to their hiding place.