Balwyn Meeting report, 26 April 2016
One of the most challenging birds to see in Victoria is the Regent Honeyeater, so members were keen to hear from Dean Ingwersen about their current status. Dean has been at Birdlife Australia for 10 years; first as Threatened Bird Network Manager and now as Woodland Bird Project Manager. He is Coordinator of the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Program and also serves on the recovery team for the Swift Parrot.
The striking Regent Honeyeater can be found from the Mitchell River near Paynesville, Victoria; north to the Capertee Valley, west of Sydney and the Barraba area in NSW. They rely heavily on nectar, the favourite sources being big, old Mugga Ironbark, E. sideroxylon, but also White box, Yellow box and stringybark species (e.g. E.macrorhyncha). When these are not blooming, flowering Box Mistletoe and Needle-leaf Mistletoe in River Oaks along the NSW rivers can sustain them. They have been seen at the flowers of exotics. Lerps also form an important part of the diet. Regents are often seen with other species such as Fuscous Honeyeaters, White-naped and Black-chinned Honeyeaters, Little Lorikeets; and they favour the largest trees.
Historically there are records from Brisbane arcing south and west as far as Adelaide; but now western Victoria is their limit. Flocks of 1000 birds were seen 100 years ago. Dean says it is difficult to get the current number but it could be as little as 500 nationally and 50 in Victoria. They are highly motile but regular movement patterns are emerging, birds moving between Chiltern-Mt Pilot NP (wintering) and Capertee Valley (breeding). The Bingara-Barraba area west of Armidale is currently in decline due to drought, but the Hunter Valley is producing good sightings.
Why are Regent Honeyeater endangered? Largely it is due to loss of habitat to farming and forestry. Competition from Noisy Miners is a major threat, also possibly bees. Climate change and its effect on habitat is emerging as a problem. The recovery plan for Regent Honeyeaters has recently been redrafted and it includes:
- Improve the quality and extent of habitat
- The Captive Breeding Program
- Increase the knowledge of birds’ ecology
- Increase community awareness and assistance
Most people would know of the tremendous habitat restoration work done by Ray Thomas in the Lurg area of Victoria. Since 1997 500,000 trees have been planted at 500 sites, with 30,000 people involved. 1,400Ha of habitat has been rehabilitated. At Capertee approximately 110,000 plants have been added to a valley which has been largely cleared for agriculture. Most importantly, Birdlife Australia has been able to secure covenants on parcels of private land which have good sighting records for Regent Honeyeaters; one such property, ‘Iomar’ in the Hunter Valley, has reserved 47Ha where birds have been sighted for 8 out of 12 years.
The captive breeding program has occupied much of Dean’s time in the last few years. There are seven breeding centres (e.g. at Brisbane and Adelaide Zoos, Taronga, Healesville). So far there have been four releases of captive bred birds, all at Chiltern-Mt Pilot NP, each time approximately 45 birds. After the first release in 2008, the initial 10 week monitoring showed a 75% survival rate. Each subsequent release also produced a better than 70% 10 week survival rate. In 2008, within five months, breeding involving released birds had occurred, but no live young were recorded. A currawong predated one fledgling. The overall result was encouraging and captive-bred birds had been seen to be integrating well with wild birds. In 2010 a wild male paired up with a captive-bred female though without nest success. In 2013 conditions were such that there was immediate breeding after release. Surveys between releases showed that released birds were travelling away from the release site and returning. 2015 saw the largest release of 77 birds followed again by successful breeding post release.
However offspring from these breeding attempts were not surviving. A PhD student started last year to study, in part, the cause of these losses. Cameras were set up to record nest activity and to the teams great surprise caught taking eggs were a Sugar Glider, a Squirrel Glider and a House Sparrow. In addition a Magpie attacked a pair of chicks and devoured one. In 2015, 26 out of 28 nest attempts failed. Fifteen nests were abandoned, predation was high and it is strongly suspected that excessive heat can cause nest failure.
To further the ecological knowledge of wild Regent Honeyeaters surveys have been ongoing since 1989, and show that an estimated 1500 Regent Honeyeaters in 1995 has dropped to 130 in 2015. But there are unexplainable yearly variations – even good spots in Capertee Valley vary from year to year. So the big question is where do they go? Colour banding begun in early 1990s has revealed that birds banded at each of Chiltern, Mitchell River and northern NSW all passaged to Capertee. This ability to fly 400-500km creates challenges for study and conservation of this species.
In order to check whether birds from different areas were different genetically, blood samples were taken from 1989 to 2012 from both wild and captive-bred birds caught in N-NSW down to NE Vic. No difference was detected between areas, or over time (though the time span was very short), between captive-bred and wild birds, and no dispersal of female genes from male.
The four releases have been well bolstered by community support, to the tune of $500,000 in voluntary man hours, which Dean deems as priceless. The tree plantings form an enormous contribution by the community. Workshops are held to help people recognise Regent Honeyeaters and increase reporting. Dean responds gleefully to every promising report, dashing to confirm any potential sighting. Media coverage has also been worthwhile.
Since 2002, 65% of Regent Honeyeater sightings have come from private land. Management of these sites is critical to the survival of this species. Significant 10 year funding was obtained by partnering with Taronga Zoo, the Nature Conservation Trust of NSW and arms of NSW Government for a Regent Honeyeater recovery program. The Nature Conservation Trust has been instrumental in getting covenants on 150 parcels of prime Regent Honeyeater habitat, seven properties in the Capertee Valley. The total comprises 1300Ha of high priority habitat in NSW. Noisy Miners have been identified as aggressive competitors in the Capertee Valley. Funding has been obtained to cull some populations of Noisy Miners.
Dean summed up by saying that there has been a significant decline in Regent Honeyeaters over the last century. There is a long running recovery plan in place which includes a successful captive breeding program. Subsequent predation control must be targeted. Finally, there is a great need for more observers on the ground doing surveys. Get in touch with Dean or Caroline Wilson if you can help.
Contributor: Daphne Hards