Category: environment

The fight to save the Golden-shouldered Parrot

In 1922, Cyril Jerrard captured the first and only photographs of the Paradise Parrot, the only Australian bird to be officially declared extinct since European colonisation. Jerrard was well aware he was looking at one of the last of its kind: “The one undisguisable fact [is] that the advent of the white man has spelled destruction to one of the loveliest of the native birds of this country,” he wrote in 1924.

The last accepted sighting of a Paradise Parrot – also by Jerrard – was in 1927, near Gayndah in the Burnett River district of southern Queensland.

Nearly a century later, in the fading light of dusk, I’m standing 20 metres from a bird feeder, clicking away in vain as a pair of Golden-shouldered Parrots, the Paradise Parrot’s closest surviving relative, accept a handout at Artemis Station, a cattle property on Cape York Peninsula in the state’s far north. My images are rubbish, but while I’m watching, I have an eerie sense of how Jerrard might have felt.

Male Golden-shouldered Parrot, Artemis Station, 13 July 2021

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I watched a flock of 50 Golden-shouldered Parrots beside the Cape Developmental Road at Windmill Creek, near the northern boundary of Artemis. For decades, the 125,000-hectare station has been the species’ stronghold. Today it holds maybe 50 birds in total. There are scattered groups on neighbouring stations, and an unknown number in the remote Staaten River National Park to the south.

Once, Golden-shouldered Parrots were common from Coen, 120 kilometres north of Artemis, to Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the first specimen was collected in the 1850s. They were trapped for aviculture (in the 1970s, a pair could fetch $10,000 on the black market; their value has decreased as the birds are now common in captivity). Over decades, their range has shrunk, as a combination of pressures took their toll.

Now station owners Sue and Tom Shephard, in collaboration with a team led by applied ecologist Steve Murphy, are taking radical, counter-intuitive action to save the species. Using a mixture of brush-cutting and herbicide, the aim is to declutter the landscape to the parrot’s benefit. It took nearly two years to gain the relevant approvals from the state Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

The project is a jointly funded venture between the federal government’s Landcare and Threatened Species Recovery Hub programs, and the Queensland government. Donations from the public are also being actively solicited. “People feel very invested in Golden-shouldered Parrots,” Murphy says. “A lot of people have been to Artemis. They know the station, they’ve met Tom and Sue.”

Land clearance is one of the most politically vexatious issues in Queensland. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening here. “We are clearing native vegetation, and the last thing the department wanted was a roughshod approach to giving their approval, which could have had all sorts of unforeseen consequences elsewhere,” Murphy says. The paperwork, finally signed off in late June, is an inch thick.

Once, the savannah country of Cape York consisted of open grasslands, studded with tall, mature eucalypts and the conical, witch’s hat-like termite mounds in which Golden-shouldered Parrots excavated their nests. Grazing and altered burning practices have transformed their habitat, which is now choked by an understorey of tea-trees and other low shrubs, as well as introduced grasses.

“It’s a long history of grass suppression through grazing – and I’m not having a go at farmers here – combined with low-intensity fire,” Murphy explains. “The very thing that keeps these plants in check in a normal grassland is intermittent high-intensity fire, early in the wet season. Without the grass layer to allow that higher-intensity fire, we’ve lost the very thing that’s kept all these plants in check.”

In the old country, the parrots had clear sightlines that helped them avoid predators. Small aerial birds called woodswallows would circle overhead, sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. But the infestation of the landscape saw the woodswallows move on, and the parrots – having lost their early warning sentinels – were ambushed by hawks, butcherbirds, goannas and cats hiding in the scrub.

Stephen Garnett, professor of conservation and sustainable livelihoods at Charles Darwin University and co-author of The Action Plan For Australian Birds, identified the problem in the early 1990s. “The Shephards have held the situation around Artemis by providing supplementary food. But all around there, areas that I found [the parrots] commonly in the 1990s are now empty of nests,” he says. He estimates the total population at around 900 birds.

First, the birds’ range began to contract from the north-east. The situation is little better south of Artemis, at Mary Valley. “When there are parrots in an area, they do a test scratch on a lot of mounds, and you can see the bits of dirt that they scratch out. We did not find any evidence of any recent breeding,” Murphy says.

“The termite mounds just sit there like gravestones. You feel like you’re walking through a cemetery.”

Conical termite mound with hollow excavated by Golden-shouldered Parrot

There are three types of termite mounds on Artemis, made by different species: magnetic, bulbous and conical. For reasons not fully understood, Golden-shouldered Parrots are fussy, nesting almost exclusively in conical mounds early in the dry season. They are almost never reused: after being bored into by the parrots, it’s thought the termites reseal and reinforce hollows more solidly, making them harder to burrow into.

Now, Murphy’s team is staging an intervention, getting to work with a circular saw. Standing close to a mound where five chicks had just fledged, the team’s first objective is to clear the immediate area around the nests. “What we’re trying to do is reduce predator density across the landscape, and provide the maximum amount of visual distance for the parrots to see predators coming,” Murphy says.

Timber and debris piles up on the ground. While the threat of aerial ambush predation is being reduced, in the short term, there’s more cover for cats. “We’ll put a fire through later in the year and remove most of this, and anything that’s left we’ll physically drag away,” he says. “We’ve got to be constantly vigilant about the impacts we’re having, and make sure we don’t have any perverse outcomes.”

There’s a chirruping call behind us, and Murphy cocks his head and grins. “Parrots,” he murmurs.

For now, they should be relatively safe. The breeding season is over, and the birds have stopped visiting the mounds. These have their own complex ecology: a species of moth lives exclusively in the nesting hollows and is entirely dependent on the parrot for its existence: the moth’s larvae eat the parrot’s faeces in the nest chamber, performing a hygiene role for the chicks (the moth’s specific name is scatophaga: literally dung-eater).

Artemis has been owned by the Shephard family since 1911. Sue and Tom have borne witness to the changes in the landscape, particularly since the property was fully fenced. The fence helped with mustering, but confining the cattle put pressure on the impoverished, sandy soils. “I can see we’re at fault, just as much as everyone else,” Sue admits. “But you’ve got to make money, prices go up and down, and when they’re down it’s really hard.”

She is being harsh blaming herself. Other than perhaps the traditional owners, the Thaypan and Olkola people of Cape York, who are assisting with re-establishing old burning practices, she knows as much about the parrots as anyone. For decades, she has helped lead banding programs to track individual birds’ movements. The parrots are also a tourist attraction, and the station charges a nominal ($10) camping fee.

In the old days, the Shephards had to see off poachers, who would set up traps for the birds at Windmill Creek. “We’d go to the races at Laura or somewhere and sometimes we’d come home early and find them,” Tom remembers. Once, he freed dozens of birds – not just parrots but finches and other species – from a mist net, which he then burnt, before confronting the trespasser. “I don’t think he liked me too much.”

If the grasslands can be restored, with appropriate fire management, the land should ultimately be better for both cattle and parrots. Murphy sees himself as an enabler. “The thing that makes this project unique at Artemis is that this is not an external, top-down, greenie conservation cause imposing itself on a grazing enterprise,” he says. “This is 100 percent coming from within.”

There is another driver. “The thing that motivates me a lot in this story is the Paradise Parrot, and it’s gone, we can’t get it back. This species is heading the same way.” Murphy puts himself in Cyril Jerrard’s shoes. “I often think, if I was transported back in time, what would you do? In some ways, I feel like a reverse time traveller. I’ve come back and I’ve gone, ‘Guys, if we don’t get in and solve this, we are going to lose these birds’.”

First published in the Guardian, 8 August 2021

Questions Raised by Quolls

All Harry Saddler really wanted to do was to see a quoll in the wild.

It was November 2019, and the Melbourne-based author was enjoying a surprise publishing success: his small book, The Eastern Curlew, a telling of the extraordinary migration of Australia’s largest shorebird, had sold through its hardcover print run, opening a new niche in Australia for natural history writing.

This was when Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were beginning to choke the eastern states, and before the pandemic that would force Saddler to write from home. It changed his focus. “It became impossible to write about the state of the environment in Australia and not confront those things head on,” he says.

Saddler’s new book, Questions Raised By Quolls, became more a work of moral philosophy than natural history. Written quickly, it became part-treatise on the legacy of colonialism, part-family history: Saddler’s ancestor Michael Farrell was transported as a convict to Sydney from Ireland in 1816.

“I think that aspect of the family story in the book was a way to write about the human effects of colonialism without co-opting other people’s stories,” Saddler says. “I touch on the damage done to Indigenous societies in the book too, but I was conscious that those are not my stories to tell.”

Another consequence of colonisation has been a wave of mammalian extinctions: 34 Australian species have been officially extirpated since European settlement. Eastern Quolls disappeared from the forests of the mainland decades ago and are now confined to Tasmania; Western, Northern and Spotted-tailed Quolls are all threatened.

It helps that these predatory marsupials are charismatic animals. Saddler wonders briefly if he should have written about rodents instead: “They’re the unsung heroes of the Australian mammal fauna, and they’ve really copped the brunt in terms of mammal extinctions,” he muses. “But it might not have been as appealing.”

So, instead of paying tribute to rodents, Saddler writes about those doing the work on the ground to save them – quolls and much else besides – in sanctuaries like Mulligans Flat in Canberra and Arid Recovery Reserve in northern South Australia, where long-gone species are being reintroduced in fenced-off environments.

“All these places run on the smell of an oily rag, because there’s no money in conservation at all, and yet people are nonetheless doing incredible work to restore ecosystems as best they can to bring the animals back, and you can see tangible results in some places,” Saddler says.

Unfortunately, the pandemic confined Saddler to writing about these places from his desk. Somehow, it increased the urgency. “Being someone who’s prone to introspection at the best of times, I think it helped me look beyond the four walls of my house, because I was thinking about larger things, looking back into the past, and potentially into the future.”

Writing Questions Raised By Quolls enabled him to focus on hope, instead of submitting to grief. “There is an understandable urge to despair in terms of the environment [but] there is still an enormous amount in the world to be saved. Yes, we’ve lost an extraordinary amount, but we haven’t lost everything, and we have to fight for everything that we have left,” he says.

It also raises ethical questions not often touched on by men. Saddler’s father instilled in him a love of bushwalking. Now in his early 40s, Saddler wishes he could pass on the knowledge he inherited to children of his own: “I get clucky when I see baby magpies begging for food,” he admits. (Saddler is currently single.)

But he worries about the world he would be bringing a child into. This is not, he says, a question of overpopulation: “I really strongly reject that argument, primarily because it presupposes that our systems and ways of living and organising society and our economy are just fixed and immutable and are never going to change.”

Saddler is more concerned with the question of raising a child on a planet that is literally burning up. But he prefers to imagine a more equitable world, where sustainability is possible – in which case the question of the Earth’s ultimate human-carrying capacity is less urgent.

It was with his own father that he saw his first Eastern Quoll, hiking in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. Soon, he hopes, he may be able to see one again. “If you’re going to write a book about an animal, you should be able to see the animal, that’s half the fun of it,” he says. “At least I saw some Eastern Curlews writing The Eastern Curlew.”

First published in the Guardian, 28 July 2021

The fig tree

On the east side of my apartment block is a large fig tree. In its halcyon days, its canopy covered the length of the balcony, providing shade from the morning sun. At the base of the trunk, an extensive buttress root system had pushed up and cracked the concrete driveway. This made the tree unpopular with the body corporate, but the tree is a protected species in Brisbane under the Natural Assets Local Law of 2003.

For a long time, that law protected the fig, and much else besides. Every spring, the fruit of the tree provided food for mobs of Grey-headed and Black Flying-foxes which chattered and bickered among themselves all night as they gorged themselves. Brush-tailed Possums ran riot. During the day, Australian Figbirds and Koels were regular visitors. The Koels would shriek their heads off at 4am almost every morning through October and November.

There were butterflies, too. When I started taking a serious interest in them, most of my early observations were from my balcony. I identified members of almost all the Australian families: swallowtails (Blue Triangles), whites and yellows (Lemon Migrants), nymphs (Evening Browns, White-banded Planes) skippers and blues (most thrillingly, a Bright Cornelian, which has vivid spots of orange, instead of blue, on the upperwings).

Bright Cornelian at home, 24 December 2018

Then in the month of May 2016, right after my marriage broke down, the tree was lopped. Not a branch, nor a leaf remained: just the trunk, which was left to protrude a few metres above ground like an exposed nerve that had been brutally hacked off. It looked how I felt. Sunlight flooded into my apartment. The sudden burst of natural light might have been welcome in other circumstances, but at the time I wanted only the cover of night.

There was no question about why the tree had been lopped. It had a habit of dropping large branches on my neighbours’ roof, particularly during Brisbane’s regular thunderstorms, not to mention huge quantities of leaf litter, which the local Brush Turkeys would determinedly rake through. It would only take one stray spark for that house, a decaying weatherboard which was nearly entirely submerged in the 2011 flood, to go up in a big woof of smoke.

Things were quiet for a long time around here after that. I was pole-axed by grief and feelings of shame, failure and loss. Mostly, I isolated myself, but I also felt abandoned. I missed the thump of possums on the roof and the constant squabble of flying-foxes, which had one less mature tree to feed on and disperse their seeds. Birds and butterflies stayed away. The whole block felt radioactive. So did I.

Thankfully, the body corporate didn’t kill the tree, much less uproot it. That would have meant cutting through a forest of green tape, and cost far more besides. They were doing the minimum that needed to be done for the sake of civic virtue and safety. But it stood outside my flat like a crippled metaphor for my life circa 2016. Still standing, but with no foliage for either decoration or camouflage, much less invite company.

After a while, regrowth began to appear. It was pathetic at first: a few thin branches growing out of the top of the stump, sprouting rebellious leaves. Eventually, they spread around the tree, not enough to attract much that I could see, but enough to provide shelter for the things I couldn’t. I accepted that if ever the fig tree was to return to its earlier glory, it would be in decades to come; long after I’d left the building, possibly in a box.

Then, on Christmas Eve of 2018 – another Christmas by myself – a pair of Bright Cornelians appeared. They were joined by an Orange Palm-dart. I grabbed the camera and snapped a couple of quick shots. I didn’t know it at the time, but within a fortnight everything, in Helen Garner’s words, would begin to heave and change. I’d awoken from my own coma, blinking in the fresh sunlight, and an old friend was about to walk into my life in a new way.

This summer, the fig began to bear fruit again. I can no longer see the trunk for the foliage, and the flying-foxes are swinging. A Koel found enough cover to hide (and scream) in. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn out to the balcony by a gaggle of squawking, pointing Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Noisy Miners and a Grey Butcherbird, and saw a young Carpet Python snaking its way up the tree. Judging by the occasional racket since, it’s still there.

Today I stood on the balcony having a long conversation on the phone with my brother. While we were talking, I watched. A migration of Blue Tiger butterflies was in full swing, and another species, a Varied Eggfly, was dancing in the understory. I suddenly became curious about the identity of the fig. I’d never paid attention to botanical matters, despite my mother having been an obsessive gardener.

The leaves were now just close enough to the balcony for me to reach between the louvres and pull one from its stem, which immediately extruded a thick white sap. The leaf was glossy and smooth and very dark green, rounded at the base, tapering to a fine tip. It is a weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. I had, I decided, taken it for granted, and much else besides. The creatures I loved were coming back, but there was more going on outside my window than I ever realised.

First published on my Patreon page, 29 February 2020; reprinted in the Guardian, 22 March 2020

Flight Lines

Nearly 20 years ago, in pursuit of a different sort of life, I spent six months commuting between Brisbane and Robbins Island, a remote chunk of privately owned land just off the far north-west coast of Tasmania. My job at the time was identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed windfarm.

The uninhabited island is a tough place to get around, accessible only by four-wheel-drive across the mudflats, at low tide. But its wild west coast is a haven for many thousands of migratory shorebirds, around 25 species of which perform marathon, nearly non-stop flights from the Siberian tundra, where they breed, all the way to Australia and back, every year.

Going through my notes from December 2002, a few numbers jump out: over 600 Curlew Sandpipers; 100 Great Knots; 180 Grey Plovers; more than 3,000 Red-necked Stints. One month later, these birds were joined by over 240 Bar-tailed Godwits. The numbers were impressive, but fairly typical at the time.

Five Grey Plovers over the Oregon coast, USA. Photo: Roy L Lowe

Now the windfarm proposal is back on, and Andrew Darby – a Hobart-based journalist and the author of a new book, Flight Lines – has been helping survey birds on the island again. In 2015–2016, the Curlew Sandpiper, great knot and the local subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit were all listed as critically endangered. Last year’s counts turned up just one Grey Plover.

But wind turbines are not the cause of the birds’ decline. The overwhelming threat is habitat destruction, particularly the mudflats of the Yellow Sea in China – a critical layover where the exhausted birds replenish themselves – and around the Australian coastline, including Toondah harbour in south-east Queensland.

It all sounds familiarly grim. And yet Flight Lines, which was written either side of a life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer in 2018, is far from it. In dark times, Darby looked for inspiration in the resilience of shorebirds, in particular the stories of two satellite-tagged female Grey Plovers named CYA and CYB.

Until recently, Darby was no more interested in birds than the average person and shorebirds existed on the periphery of his consciousness – until he learned about their ultra-marathon travel schedule. “They are the birds ‘out there’, on the edge of the tideline, not really very noticeable creatures, and yet they have such extraordinary lives,” he says.

He describes the Grey Plover as the “everybird” of our Siberian migrants: the greyest and drabbest of a group of birds which, in Australia, tend to be grey and drab, moulting into their brighter summer plumage on their breeding grounds. That interested Darby: “In life, there are many surprises to be found among the overlooked,” he writes.

Like Harry Saddler’s surprise hit from 2018, The Eastern Curlew (which follows the journey of another long-distance migrant), Flight Lines takes what appears to be a niche topic and turns it into an immense, heroic and surprisingly uplifting narrative of endurance and survival, with an obvious parallel to his own experience.

But whereas Saddler’s account is intimate and personal, Darby’s book, which was nearly curtailed by his illness, directly engages with, and celebrates, citizen science. The book opens with a tense account of a cannon-netting session at the head of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, that captured CYA and CYB.

Cannon netting, where birds massed on the shoreline are trapped via a net literally launched from a cannon, is a contentious method of study in some quarters. The hard truth is that birds, occasionally, are killed. But it has also greatly advanced our knowledge of shorebird movements and their conservation requirements.

Satellite tracking enabled close observation of the challenges CYA and CYB faced; CYB, for example, had to contend with a super-typhoon as she flew back to the Yellow Sea after breeding. Not surprisingly, Darby says, “I became very fond of them” and it was in science, as well as the pluck of the plovers, that he drew hope for himself.

There’s some lesson in that, particularly as science is being pilloried and politicised as never before. But there’s no politicising a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy, still a relatively new field, has Darby in better shape – though he says it would be wrong to say he’s cured. “Oncologists are learning about it as we go. It’s a new journey for all of us.”

The link to shorebirds, he says, is in the simple grunt work of gathering data. “It’s all about doing science for science’s sake – they didn’t start off looking for immunotherapy as an answer to cancer when they were investigating how it worked with the immune system; they were just looking at the immune system,” he says.

Similarly, he says, tracking shorebird migration didn’t begin with a particular goal in mind. The pioneer of shorebird study in Australia, the late Clive Minton, told Darby “we do it to answer a question, and that leads on to the next question”.

But the questions Minton asked helped provide the data pointing to the alarming decline of shorebirds worldwide. That’s led in turn to some more hopeful outcomes. Last year, the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China was placed on the UNESCO world heritage register, specifically aimed at protecting migratory shorebirds such as the tiny, charismatic and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper doesn’t occur in Australia, but it’s considered a flagship species, so inherently appealing that by saving it we might save much more besides. Listening to Darby describing his own encounter with one, it’s clear why: “It was like this cute little wind-up bird, I was sure he was going to fall over and [I was going] to see the key in his tummy.”

After a summer in which so much of our own wildlife has been obliterated by fire, he has retained his optimism. “The capacity of these birds to persist is what I found astonishing, and to someone who lives a precarious life with cancer, like me, it’s a lesson. You know, I will come and go – these birds will roll on.”

First published in the Guardian, 22 February 2020

Calls to prosecute landowner for eagle killings

Conservation groups have called for a Victorian landowner to face charges under the Wildlife Act, after he admitted to his part in killing 420 Wedge-tailed Eagles over an 18-month period in the Bairnsdale magistrates court last week.

John Auer pleaded guilty to charges brought by the state Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions of misusing agricultural chemicals. He was fined $25,000 and received a 12-month good behaviour bond. He was also given a 12-month community corrections order.

Auer and former farmhand Murray Silvester, a New Zealand national, used the insecticide Lannate and other chemicals to poison the eagles at Tubbut in the Snowy Mountains between October 2016 and April 2018.

Silvester was sentenced to two weeks jail, fined $2,500 and deported last year. The penalty was criticised for its leniency at the time, despite the fact that it was the first custodial sentence ever handed down for destroying protected wildlife in Victoria.

Emails and text messages presented in evidence showed that Silvester was acting under the instruction of Auer. The Age reported that magistrate Simon Barnett described his offending as “calculated, unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour”.

Dr Jenny Lau, from Birdlife Australia’s preventing extinctions program, called for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to charge Auer under the Wildlife Act before the statute of limitations came into effect.

“Birdlife Australia is concerned that one of the perpetrators of these deliberate, barbaric killings has only been prosecuted for the misuse of chemicals and no charges have yet been laid under Victorian Wildlife Act for the deaths of the eagles,” Lau said.

“The scale of the killings is so great, and the long-term impact on the population of wedge-tailed eagles across East Gippsland and beyond is unknown.

“With time running out before prosecutions can be made under the Victorian Wildlife Act, BirdLife Australia demands that further legal action be taken for these serious wildlife crimes.”

Wedge-tailed Eagle skulls recovered from the Snowy Mountains property. Photo: Department of Land, Environment, Water and Planning, Victoria

Tim Beshara, federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, said charging Auer for the misuse of agricultural chemicals for the purpose of killing wildlife was akin to “prosecuting a bank robber for failing to stop at a traffic light”.

“The Victorian government needs to explain why their environment department hasn’t brought charges under their wildlife laws. The credibility of Victoria’s wildlife-protection regime is at stake.”

“This is just another example of the state governments failing to protect our natural wonders and why we need the federal government to step in and do the job properly.”

Last month, the RSPCA called for national animal welfare laws after a spate of cruelty cases, including another poisoning incident near Violet Town, Victoria which led to the deaths of more than 200 birds, among them 25 more Wedge-tailed Eagles.

The largest bird of prey in Australia, Wedge-tailed Eagles have faced persecution in Australia since white colonisation for occasionally killing lambs, although rabbits and hares are principal prey items.

However, in arid Australia, groups of Wedge-tailed Eagles have been observed taking down prey as large as red kangaroos. Carrion, including livestock, is another major food source.

Until the 1970s, bounties were paid for the carcasses of hundreds of thousands of Wedge-tailed Eagles, before the species was officially protected in all states. It is listed as endangered in Tasmania.

A spokesperson from the DELWP said that it was “still investigating options in relation to future charges”.

It said Wedge-tailed Eagles were a protected species and “anyone found killing, harassing or disturbing them could be fined more than $8000 and an additional fee of more than $800 per head of wildlife”.

The maximum fine faced by Auer under the Wildlife Act if he was charged and convicted for killing 420 eagles would be $354,397, and/or six months jail.

First published in The Guardian, 22 November 2019

Vote 1: Regent Honeyeater

A few months ago, the bird-watching community in south-east Queensland went into a twitching frenzy. Two Regent Honeyeaters, a critically endangered species, had been discovered feeding on ironbark blossoms in the suburban heart of Springfield Lakes, on Brisbane’s south-western outskirts, near the satellite city of Ipswich.

Two Regent Honeyeaters at Springfield Lakes, Queensland, 1 July 2019. The female can be seen in the top right of the image.

The honeyeaters stayed for several weeks, spending the afternoons in a single, heavily flowering tree between a shopping village and childcare centre. When the blossom on that tree and the surrounding ironbarks began to dry up, they began feasting on lerps – tiny, sugary-tasting, sap-sucking insects which clung to the leaves of a small fig tree directly outside a coffee shop.

During that time, dozens of local birders, myself included, watched and photographed the two birds at close quarters. The honeyeaters seemed unperturbed, even as camera drives whirred from a few metres away. They slurped at the blossoms ravenously, and were observed preening each other while resting, indicating they were a closely bonded pair.

For many of the birders, it was the first time they had ever seen the species, and they happily shared their joy with curious passersby. But the joy was tinged with a quiet, collective sadness, too: the knowledge that for many of us, it could also be the last time we ever saw a Regent Honeyeater.

I’ve been watching birds for 40 years, and the first Australian bird book I ever owned described the species as “fairly common”. That was in 1980, and the book was already out of date, but it’s true that the birds were once abundant, swarming the box-ironbark forests and woodlands on either side of the Great Dividing Range in their thousands.

The title of the book was Every Australian Bird Illustrated. But instead of a photo, there was an ancient painting by John Gould (or quite possibly his wife Elizabeth). Most of the other birds in the book featured photographs. The paintings seemed to be of the rarer species. Maybe the honeyeater wasn’t so common any more, I wondered? I certainly couldn’t find any. But then, I was only eight years old.

By the early 1990s, alarm bells were being rung. “Regent Honeyeater: on the brink?” read a headline in the quarterly magazine of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (now Birdlife Australia). The bird’s population had crashed, and they were getting harder and harder to find even in old haunts like the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

I’d been birding for over 10 years by then and still hadn’t seen a single one. I’ve since encountered them on a handful of occasions. They are an eye-popping treat, with their chainmail breastplate and wings intricately embroidered in black and sulphur-yellow. (Thankfully, the unkind alternative name “Warty-faced Honeyeater” fell from favour. It really is Regent.)

The reason for the honeyeater’s decline is at once simple and also more complicated than it appears. Once widespread in the most densely populated part of the continent, from around Adelaide in South Australia to well north of Brisbane in Queensland, it is primarily a victim of land clearance and fragmentation.

As the box-ironbark woodlands on which it depended were felled for agriculture, livestock and urban development, the birds declined. Yet other larger honeyeaters, such as miners and friarbirds, seemed to be more resilient, and so did many smaller ones. So why has the Regent Honeyeater fared so poorly?

Research from the Australian National University in Canberra has suggested that a kind of death spiral took hold: the bird had relied on safety in numbers to defend territories and nests from other, more aggressive birds. As their homes fell to the axe and bulldozer and the Regent Honeyeater’s numbers thinned, the less they were able to breed.

Thankfully, the species breeds well in captivity. But how many wild Regent Honeyeaters are left? Estimates seem to depend on who you talk to. The official number is around 400. I’ve heard experienced observers with close knowledge of the species quietly suggest it could be a quarter of that, and more optimistic forecasts that there might be twice as many.

But even 1,000 Regent Honeyeaters thinly scattered in their fragments of remaining habitat between north-east Victoria, the Hunter Valley and western slopes of NSW and south-east Queensland would be a perilous few. The drought gripping NSW makes the remaining birds even more vulnerable: no rain means no blossom.

For a species struggling to catch a break, we’re not helping. The last birds found breeding in NSW were smack bang in the Hunter Economic Zone, a site flagged for the development of a new coal-fired power station. And the state government has passed legislation to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, which will drown another important parcel of habitat.

You might say that the Regent Honeyeater, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a damn unlucky bird: unlucky, mainly, to have lived so closely among and alongside us. And that’s why I’m voting for it in the Guardian/Birdlife Australia’s bird of the year 2019 poll. It’s a symbol of what we can watch disappear from under our noses, no matter how regent it is.

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2019