2015 Hobbs Medal awarded to Lynn Pedler

By Associate Professor David Paton, Peter Copley and Dr Leo Joseph

Few people alive have a bird named after them. Lynn Pedler has two — the Flinders Ranges Chestnut-rumped Heathwren Calamanthus pyrrhopygia pedleri and the Gawler Ranges Short-tailed Amytornis merrotsyi pedleri. They bear his name in recognition of the fact that only someone with Lynn’s patience and extraordinary field skills was able to find them and bring them to the attention of taxonomists.

A Short-tailed Grasswren pauses briefly in view between triodia clumps on Mt Ive in the Gawler Ranges. Credit: Lynn Pedler
A Short-tailed Grasswren pauses briefly in view between triodia clumps on Mt Ive in the Gawler Ranges. Credit: Lynn Pedler

Lynn grew up on his family’s farm in the Mid-North of South Australia, where his environmentally aware parents and grandparents began planting trees and fencing off remnant vegetation long before it was popular to do so. Lynn continued this work, developing an awareness of the environment that went further and he became an unusually acute observer of birds, with a knack of getting inside their heads, particularly those that are hard to find and see.

 

In 1973, at the age of 17, Lynn joined the South Australian Ornithological Association (SAOA); he has now been an active member for 41 years. In his 20s, Lynn and a group of friends from the SAOA spent much time investigating ornithologically little known areas as well as rare and cryptic bird species across South Australia, particularly in the arid zone. During the exceptionally wet years of the mid-1970s, he and friends traveled to the north of the state, contributing many new records to the ornithological literature as a result.

His first contributions to the bird literature were the first South Australian records of Spangled Drongos and Barn Swallows. He has contributed reviews of observations on button-quails and quails in South Australia’s Mid-North and numerous reports of range extensions and new regional records. A consistent theme in these notes has been the cryptic terrestrial birds so often overlooked in grasslands and croplands. His reputation grew through this work and he formed partnerships with those needing his skills and so became a leading member of the South Australian ornithological community.

 

That the fledging rate doubled and the population has been increasing ever since is largely due to Lynn. Without him the island’s Glossy Black-Cockatoo may now be almost extinct.

One of Lynn's first photo's of the Flinders Ranges Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. Credit: Lynn Pedler
One of Lynn’s first photo’s of the Flinders Ranges Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. Credit: Lynn Pedler

As his knowledge grew of birds in the drier parts of South Australia, he consistently found and studied the secretive birds that others have trouble locating. In the 1990s, by interpreting what earlier ornithologists had recorded of the South Australian endemic, the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface, Lynn rediscovered the birds in areas near the Stuart Highway now accepted as the species’ core distribution. By using the same approach, coupled with his determined leg-work and a keen ear, he has also found them at many other places. He researched the species’ range, status and conservation biology to a degree still unmatched decades later. His review of the species surely remains a landmark in knowledge of this species, at that time one of Australia’s least-known birds. He also explored the hilltops of the Gawler Rangers that are the home of ‘his’ subspecies of Short-tailed Grasswren and the ridgetops of the Southern Flinders Ranges where ‘his’ heathwrens live.

Lynn left full-time farming in 1989 and pursued his passion for birds, as well as his passion for photographing them. He has worked on a range of projects for the South Australian Environment Department, many of which led to publications on cryptic and little-known birds. Examples include faunal surveys of remote South Australia and Western Australia, a paper on Nullarbor Quail-thrush and field study of the Glossy Black-Cockatoos of Kangaroo Island.

 

Lynn on Pandie Pandie Station with a dingo pup
Lynn on Pandie Pandie Station with a dingo pup

For years he has worked with David Paton of the University of Adelaide on the birds of the South Australian mallee, and with the Black-eared Miner Recovery Team around Gluepot Reserve. He could be relied on to provide accurate data on birds like Mallee Emu-wren, Slender-billed Thornbill and Black-eared Miner, undertaking significant work to improve the genetic viability of the latter.

He also has undertaken practical work in conservation and management of birds. Of all those who worked on the Glossy Black-Cockatoos on Kangaroo Island over the years, Lynn can take by far the lion’s share of credit for saving it. From 1995 onwards he collared hundreds of cockatoo nesting trees so they could not be climbed by predatory Brushtail Possums. He also trimmed outer branches, often 25 or more metres above the ground, to ensure no possum path was possible from other trees. He banded over four hundred nestlings and was one of the few with the patience and skill to read the bands accurately through a telescope — he made over 2000 identifications of cockatoos during 17 years! That the fledging rate doubled and the population has been increasing ever since is largely due to Lynn. Without him the island’s Glossy Black-Cockatoo may now be almost extinct.

Another huge part of Lynn’s time over last 40 years has been his contribution of hundreds of specimens to the South Australian Museum, Australian National Wildlife Collection and Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, Philadelphia. Rather than waste birds opportunistically found dead, Lynn prepared them for the South Australian Museum and other scientific institutions. He also assisted Fred Sheldon during some of the 1970s fieldwork that eventually led to improved understanding of the origins and relationships of Australian birds by North American ornithologist Charles Sibley. Almost all of these have been his own voluntary contributions, characterised by his meticulous attention to detail in curating and preparing specimens.

Lynn’s partnerships with museum researchers have been critical to understanding conservation-relevant genetic relationships in Australian birds and have resulted in a string of peer reviewed literature from recent decades in which his contribution to fieldwork and specimens have formed the basis for taxonomic revisions and resulting refocused conservation objectives. With colleagues Andrew Black and Graham Carpenter, he has helped reveal that both Thick-billed Grasswrens and Grey Grasswrens have complex patterns of distribution and are in decline, and that isolated subspecies and subpopulations require renewed approaches to conservation. Most recently, he assisted his son, Reece, on a project trying to unravel the remarkable movements of the Banded Stilt.

Birds have been Lynn’s vocation for over half a century, as evidenced by a portfolio of research and photographs that could only be compiled by someone who understands birds to their core.

The J.N. Hobbs Medal is awarded annually to an amateur ornithologist who has made a significant contribution to the knowledge or conservation of birds in Australian. Birdlife’s Research and Conservation Committee assess nominations and select the winner.

An edited version of this article appeared in the article was also featured in the December issue of Australian Birdlife, and the full citation of Lynn’s nomination was published in the December edition of Australian Field Ornithology.