Tagged: regent honeyeater

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 That was in 1980, and the book was already out of date, but it’s true that the birds were once abundant, swarming the box-ironbark forests and woodlands on either side of the Great Dividing Range in their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

All things dull and ugly

The headline on the Climate Spectator website said it all. “Approval of Adani’s mega coal mine overturned – for a skink and a snake, not a fried planet,” it read. The federal court’s decision, it went on, came down to “protecting two animals you’ve probably never heard of”: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The trade minister, Andrew Robb, apparently suffering from reptile rage, described the skink as a “patsy”, implying that opposition to the mine was based on a hatred for coal more than concern for a lizard that is rarely seen even by herpetologists. (The best way to find one is to look for the little piles of poop outside their burrows.)

Not since former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett called the Orange-bellied Parrot a “trumped-up corella”, when its critically endangered status proved problematic to the planned relocation of a chemical plant, have we seen such disdain heaped upon a critter for getting in the way of development.

Kennett’s attitude to the parrot – which has a wild population of about 35 – summed up the general care factor towards any animal that’s smaller than a whale and not as cute as a koala. Species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum and Tasmanian Devil have benefitted from broad public recognition. The skink has attracted mostly derision.

But the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act isn’t just there to protect the fauna and flora that adorn our national and state emblems. The act protects the obscure as well as the iconic. Or, as Monty Python put it: “All things dull and ugly; all creatures short and squat.”

So someone has to write in defence of the skink and the snake, for they are equally entitled to the benefit of the law that was introduced by the Howard government in 1999 (in exchange for the passage of the GST). The EPBC recognises, very simply, that these animals have a inherent right to exist and deserve our protection.

Actually, the Yakka Skink is pretty cool, as far as skinks go. For most people in the cities they’re those tiny black lizards that like to make their homes in and around ours. But the Yakka Skink is a whopper, up to 40 centimetres long. Unfortunately, it lives in Queensland’s brigalow belt, which has been smashed by land clearing.

The causes by which our fauna and flora become endangered might be obvious – habitat destruction, introduced predators, environmental pollution, changes to fire regimes – but the processes are often silent, as even formerly abundant species begin vanishing before our eyes.

The Regent Honeyeater, for example, once roamed in flocks of hundreds. Now it’s down to just a few hundred individuals, total. Last month, Birdlife Australia reported that even some of our most familiar birds, such as the Willie Wagtail, Laughing Kookaburra and Magpie, were suffering significant declines.

Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. We have already lost nearly 10 percent of our mammals – around 30 of approximately 380 species. Many, many more as well as hundreds of our birds, reptiles, insects, plants and even trees are in imminent danger of joining the choir invisible.

Most of them are species we will never know the names of, let alone have direct experience with. Many are poorly known, or even yet to be scientifically described. But that does not make them any less worthy. All of them play a unique role in their respective ecologies.

We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs; with resources scarce, we are being asked to decide what we can and can’t afford to save. Cases like the Yakka Skink test the depth of our commitment to environmental protection.