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The remarkable discovery of the Sarus Crane in the Gulf of Carpentaria by a most remarkable woman

Rob Reed and Jean Ffrench | Guest Contributors


In early October 1966, Mrs H.B. (Billie) Gill noted “… an undescribed form of G. Rubicunda [sic] (Brolga)… with… unusually extensive red collars…” 25 km south of Normanton near the Glenore crossing of the Norman River, north Queensland. The next day she noted two more near Burketown to the west.


Late in October after their return from the Gulf, one of her party, Fred Smith – noted ornithologist and wader expert – visited Melbourne Zoo where there were “four Brolgas and one Sarus Crane on exhibition in adjoining pens… a glance at the Sarus Crane with its red upper neck was enough to confirm that the birds seen in north Queensland were this species.” He immediately wrote to Billie to confirm her suspicion – that this was a very different bird to the Brolga.


Billie returned to photograph the birds in April 1967 and made detailed notes on morphology and behaviour. Included in her party was “… Miss Jean Gill…” (Billie’s 13-year-old first-born daughter and co-author of this article: now Mrs Jean Ffrench). Jean recalls that the mosquitoes were so profound while they were camping at Glenore Crossing, that the party was prompted to go into Normanton to purchase the newly-on-the-market Aerogard personal insect repellent, which Jean still thinks of very fondly today!


A colleague on the 1967 trip (Bruce Cook) “… took 35 mm colour slides and some 8 mm colour motion film of birds… from a hide”. Jean recounts that the hide was unbearably hot, and it took two days or more to get the required shots. This time the grass was long, and it hid the Cranes’ pink legs making identification harder. In her paper Billie concluded: “In view of the numbers of antigone [sic] recorded in this note, the species is evidently established in the area and has probably been overlooked for some years. It is however quite doubtful when they first arrived in Australia.”



First photograph of Sarus Crane in Australia in Normanton area (near Magowra Station) 1967 by Bruce Cook. A black and white facsimile appeared in the 1969 journal article by Billie Gill. Image courtesy of Jean Ffrench.



This was a remarkable discovery for many reasons.


First, roads and other infrastructure in that region were rudimentary, and the bitumen ceased at Mt Garnett in those days. October and April in the area is HOT. There were none of the luxuries we take for granted with travel today (e.g. air conditioning, fridges etc). Dust was an ever-present accompaniment to which Jean attests.


Second, Billie Gill was a woman undertaking field work with a view to publishing very much in a man’s world of academia. By then, as her husband Reg had died in 1968, she was a widow, raising a family of eight children in Innisfail. Reg had established, with his brothers, a sugar cane farm in the area before World War 2. The family believes that during WW2 Reg saw service in North Africa (a “Rat of Tobruk”) and New Guinea.


Third, there was no working reference Billie could readily utilise to prove that the cranes she had seen in the field were different to Brolgas: thus Fred Smith’s confirmatory trip to Melbourne Zoo. We must recall that the first truly robust field guide was not available until 1970 (Slater) and until that time Caley was the closest: but it was a bulky item to carry into the field, and it was notably out of date (1931). Prior to this there existed only arcane tomes available to the wealthy or privileged institutions (Mathews and Gould). The explosion of guides, tape-recorded calls, point and shoot digital cameras, and now interactive apps that some younger birdwatchers have only known, were decades away.


Fourth, she and her initial party were unable to photograph the birds on that first trip in 1966 (Billie herself was not a fan of taking photographs, rather enjoying the moment in the field with the birds without the added pressure). At that time, coloured slides and coloured movie film and the necessary equipment were fairly expensive, and there was no instant guarantee that the image you purportedly captured is what you ended up with, as we expect today. So Billie decided to return in 1967 for photographs to make the potential paper more robust.


Her paper describing the detail of her discovery was published in 1969 (some years after submission – another story!). She refers to detailed descriptions of the Indian and Malaysian “forms” of Sarus Cranes. I wondered how she sourced this information. Jean has the answer: by happenstance Billie had a copy of “Illustrated Birds of the World” that a grateful American birdwatcher gifted her.


In 1971 Billie published again about the Sarus Crane, as after five further trips to the Gulf of Carpentaria area, she had also collected data on their migration patterns and locations on the Atherton Tablelands in the Atherton and Kaban areas; and in the Ingham region, etc.



Billie Gill in 1986, birding in Central Park, New York, USA. Image courtesy of Jean Ffrench.



There exists some conjecture as to when this bird was first present in Australia, and this argument can be viewed in HANZAB. In 1989 the subspecies was finally named for Billie Gill by none other than her former boss Richard Shodde. The final word as to who first brought this beautiful bird to our attention in Australia rests with the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) (or any shade or hue of taxonomy dear to your heart) where the subspecies universally remains named as gillae today.


Billie Gill was active birding and publishing until her passing at age 91 in 2015. She also published unusual sightings and range extensions of species as varied as Yellow and Grey Wagtails and Barn Swallow. However, Billie’s most prolific achievement, according to Jean, remains her paper of 1970 published in the Emu, where she systematically covered the 298 species of Innisfail and Hinterland that she had personally accrued between 1954 and 1969. A review of this paper today shows that it is still a unique and valuable reference. She also published a list of birds from her trips to Opalton, south of Winton in Outback Queensland.


This fame led to academic birders seeking her out, having read hard copies of the Emu in their libraries. Billie somehow found time to volunteer for field work in north Queensland, e.g. for Jiro Kikkawa and Len Webb, who Jean credits for influencing her to take a more scientific approach to birding.


However, notoriety also led to an incessant stream of birders to her door, usually unannounced, requesting tours of the species she had listed for the area. Billie was always willing to help, but with eight children to raise on a pension (eco-tourism was not yet in vogue), it eventually wore her down. This partly prompted her move to Canberra in 1974 where Jean was then living, and still does, to attain some sense of balance to her life.


But her natural vigour and passion for birds could not be suppressed, and she soon became a curatorial assistant at the Australian National Wildlife (Reference) Collection in Canberra in 1975, where Richard Shodde described her as “… the most valuable helper he had…” in establishing the National Reference Base. Remarkably again, this was her first ever paying job – in her fifties! She stayed on until her retirement in 1988.



Holotype specimen of Sarus Crane at the Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra with Billie Gill’s handwriting on the label. Image courtesy of Jean Ffrench.



Although birding for pleasure decreased due to work commitments, Billie’s time in Canberra afforded her the opportunity to spend time on CSIRO-led field trips, e.g. an inventory of fauna in the Northern Territory, which involved multiple trips a year over three years. This was prior to that area becoming gazetted as Kakadu National Park. Meticulously kept diaries of these trips when read today show how indefatigable and thorough Billie was.



Billie Gill in the field at Kakadu during the 1982 Wet Season. Image courtesy of Jean Ffrench.



Her achievements were again recognised in 1997 when the Queensland Museum included Billie in their exhibition entitled “Brilliant careers: women collectors and illustrators in Queensland”. Her binoculars and a specimen skin of a Sarus Crane were displayed.


Billie commenced birding relatively late in life (at age 30) for one so skilled in both the field and in print, but remained actively involved until 80 years of age when hearing loss reined in her love of birding in the field. Not to be outdone she continued to write and, as late as 2014, a year before her death at 91, she co-authored an article on the Sarus Crane in the national BirdLife magazine.


Billie Gill was a remarkable person and role model for us all. I am reminded of her every time a Sarus Crane comes into view during my many trips to the Gulf of Carpentaria. She was an astoundingly gifted birder from north Queensland, born of humble, self-taught origins, who reached international fame.


Billie's ashes were scattered by family members in the tropical rainforest near Innisfail. Appropriately, the Whipbirds and Chowchillas were calling.


Written by Rob Reed and Jean Ffrench.



Note: References available on request. Opinions expressed in the article above are not necessarily those of the Editor.


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