How lit­tle brown birds get over­looked in the pro­tec­tion peck­ing or­der

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Calla Wahlquist

In Jan­uary 2016, a keen bird­watcher named Dion Hobcroft walked into the Pe­garah state for­est on Tas­ma­nia’s King Is­land with a recorded bird­call and took the first blurry pho­to­graphs of the King Is­land brown thorn­bill.

The brown thorn­bill, Acan­thiza pusilla archibaldi, is a sub­species of the Tas­ma­nian thorn­bill, distin­guished from its cousins on the big is­land by a slightly longer beak.

It is about 10cm long, coloured var­i­ous shades of brown, and thor­oughly un­ex­cit­ing to the un­trained eye. Hobcroft’s was only the fourth con­firmed sight­ing since 1974.

Ac­cord­ing to a forth­com­ing re­view of Aus­tralia’s avian threat­ened species pro­grams, the King Is­land brown thorn­bill is most likely to be the next bird to be de­clared ex­tinct.

It shares the podium with the King Is­land scrubtit, Acan­thor­nis mag­nus gree­ni­anus, which, with a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 50 adults spread across three iso­lated ar­eas of ever-shrink­ing melaleuca swamp, is No 3 on the list.

The or­ange-bel­lied par­rot, which stops off on King Is­land on its pre­car­i­ous an­nual flight from south-west­ern Tas­ma­nia to the Vic­to­rian coast, and has a wild adult pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 20 in­di­vid­u­als, is the se­cond.

The dif­fer­ence is, you have prob­a­bly heard of the or­ange-bel­lied par­rot. As of Wednesday, it had gar­nered more than 1,700 votes in the Guardian’s bird of the year poll, and last year a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign raised $140,000 to fund field­work dur­ing its breed­ing sea­son. The thorn­bill didn’t make the list.

The King Is­land brown thorn­bill heads a list of un­mar­ketable, crit­i­cally en­dan­gered lit­tle brown birds. Nei­ther it nor the scrubtit, which shares its habi­tat, have re­ceived mean­ing­ful fund­ing. Nor have they been the sub­ject of a con­certed re­search ef­fort.

The King Is­land nat­u­ral re­source man­age­ment group ap­plied for a share of the $5m fed­eral threat­ened species re­cov­ery fund ear­lier this year, but was re­jected.

The group’s co­or­di­na­tor, Kate Ravich, is try­ing to raise the pro­file of the King Is­land scrubtit, a “happy lit­tle bird” whose habi­tat backs on to her back­yard.

“They are a lit­tle brown bird. They are not sexy,” she says. “Or­ange-bel­lied par­rots are very sexy be­cause they are rare and colour­ful. Some birds are easy to sell and ev­ery­one loves them, and oth­ers are very hard to sell be­cause they are lit­tle brown birds.”

The Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity re­searcher Matt Webb led the most re­cent pub­lished re­search on the King Is­land scrubtit in 2015. Scrubtits have been listed as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered since the 1990s and the pop­u­la­tion fell by 75% af­ter a bush­fire in 2007 which de­stroyed 90% of avail­able habi­tat at Nook swamp, one of its last re­main­ing strongholds.

When Webb spoke to Guardian Aus­tralia he was on the Tas­ma­nian main­land work­ing on the swift par­rot con­ser­va­tion pro­gram, which is part of the dif­fi­cult bird re­search group, along­side the or­ange­bel­lied par­rot. Sugar glid­ers have been eat­ing the young swift par­rots, ham­per­ing re­cov­ery ef­forts.

Webb says it would be much eas­ier to save the King Is­land scrubtit than any of the headline-grab­bing Tas­ma­nian par­rots if only it could at­tract some de­cent fund­ing.

He is not op­ti­mistic. There are hun­dreds of threat­ened species vy­ing for a share of lim­ited an­nual fund­ing. De­spite be­ing two of the most im­per­illed birds in Aus­tralia, King Is­land brown thorn­bills and scrubtits are not high on the list.

“Any money that has gone to­wards the King Is­land scrubtit … it’s been through NRMs [nat­u­ral re­source man­age­ment groups] or other smaller bod­ies, and it’s really small amounts of money, $5,000 or $10,000,” Webb says. “You look at what’s re­quired for things like [or­ange-bel­lied par­rots] and swift par­rots and the amount of money re­quired is or­ders of mag­ni­tude greater than any­thing that’s ap­peared [for the scrubtit]. I would be so pleas­antly sur­prised if se­ri­ous money was put on the ta­ble for the species but really, un­less we’re go­ing to try and do it prop­erly, it’s prob­a­bly not worth do­ing.”

Pre­serv­ing the species would mean pro­tect­ing the re­main­ing melaleuca swamp, con­trol­ling haz­ardreduc­tion burns, manag­ing the acid sul­phate soils which can cause sig­nif­i­cant habi­tat de­struc­tion, and pos­si­bly trans­fer­ring birds be­tween the is­land’s three iso­lated pop­u­la­tions to give it the ge­netic di­ver­sity nec­es­sary to sur­vive the hun­dred or so years un­til the burnt-out melaleuca swamp grows back into the ideal habi­tat.

Not enough is known about the brown thorn­bill to tai­lor a re­cov­ery ef­fort, but the habi­tats of the two species over­lap, so Webb says it’s a fair guess that what’s good for one would ben­e­fit the other.

So far nei­ther species has at­tracted sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion.

“One of the is­sues with the King Is­land scrubtit is it is a sub­species, and of­ten sub­species don’t get as much at­ten­tion,” Webb says. “It’s funny how that’s not very con­sis­tent, be­cause there’s things like the Tas­ma­nian wedge-tailed ea­gle that’s a sub­species – some would say it’s not even that – and that re­ceives a lot of at­ten­tion.

“But then, they’re an ea­gle. This is a lit­tle brown bird. If you look up closely it’s ac­tu­ally quite beau­ti­ful but barely any­one gets close to it.”

The prob­lem is not en­demic to King Is­land. Two other lit­tle brown birds iden­ti­fied as among the most im­per­illed by the threat­ened species re­search are the clum­sily named Mount Lofty Ranges chest­nut-rumped heath­wren, Hy­la­cola pyrrhopy­gia park­eri, a 20g bird from South Aus­tralia’s Fleurieu penin­sula; and the Grey Range thick­billed grass­wren, Amy­tor­nis mod­es­tus ob­scu­rior, newly re­dis­cov­ered in west­ern New South Wales.

Nei­ther has a de­tailed re­cov­ery plan be­cause there is lit­tle sur­vey data avail­able.

“You would be sur­prised how many birds out there have a hand­ful left and there’s not much hap­pen­ing,” says BirdLife Aus­tralia’s head of con­ser­va­tion, Sa­man­tha Vine.

BirdLife is us­ing the threat­ened species re­search, led by Charles Dar­win Univer­sity’s Prof Stephen Gar­nett, to shape its pre­vent­ing ex­tinc­tions pro­gram, fo­cus­ing on the 20 most im­per­illed species.

Vine, who is also an in­for­mal ex­pert ad­viser to the com­mon­wealth threat­ened species com­mis­sioner, says ac­cess to threat­ened species fund­ing takes a lot of lob­by­ing.

“It really is up to those sort of com­mit­ted cham­pi­ons to raise the alarm and lobby for re­sources,” Vine says. “You would be sur­prised how many times a species has been saved from ex­tinc­tion by a hand­ful of peo­ple.”

An ex­am­ple can be found in a 10,000km square patch of na­tive grass­land in west­ern NSW, just south of Hay, where the plains wan­derer, an odd lit­tle bird that looks like a cross be­tween a quail and a very short emu, is en­joy­ing some­thing of a re­prieve.

The state’s pop­u­la­tion of plains wan­der­ers, Pe­diono­mus torqua­tus, de­clined by 90% since 2001 be­cause suc­ces­sive years of drought, fol­lowed by a few years of flood, de­prived the fussy bird of its pre­ferred level of grass cover. A sim­i­lar de­cline was seen over the bor­der in Victoria.

BirdLife Aus­tralia con­vened a sum­mit on the bird in 2014, as part of a cam­paign on for­got­ten species, and warned that the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered bird – the only mem­ber of its fam­ily in Aus­tralia – could be lost.

The NSW gov­ern­ment re­sponded. A cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram has be­gun at Syd­ney’s Taronga Zoo, a na­tional re­cov­ery plan was de­vel­oped, and threat­ened species of­fi­cers from the of­fice of en­vi­ron­ment and her­itage have been work­ing with lo­cal land­hold­ers to de­velop graz­ing man­age­ment strate­gies to sup­port the birds.

One of those threat­ened species of­fi­cers is David Parker.

“A really core part of it is main­tain­ing ap­pro­pri­ate graz­ing regimes and most of the time it’s just sta­tus quo with what land­hold­ers typ­i­cally do out there,” he tells Guardian Aus­tralia. “In times of drought it’s usu­ally mak­ing sure that the habi­tat isn’t over­stocked, or in wet times mak­ing sure there’s lots of graz­ing in there that sort of kept ahead of the grass growth. If it’s too bare they dis­ap­pear and if it’s too tall they dis­ap­pear from that area as well.”

Parker said the bird was not widely known among the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, but “if you’re a bird­watcher, a mad twitcher, it’s one of the birds that’s on the top of your twitch­ing list”.

“I like to think it’s all about the legs,” he said. “The fe­male is more brightly coloured, again a real odd­ity amongst the bird world … she’s got really strong straw-yel­low legs and bill. And she’s got a ru­fous breast patch and a nice col­lar around her neck, black and white col­lar, whereas the male’s quite dull.”

An­other species tar­geted by BirdLife’s for­got­ten birds cam­paign, which has since been sub­ject to a con­certed con­ser­va­tion ef­fort, is the Mallee emuwren, Stip­itu­rus mallee.

Weigh­ing about the same as a tea­spoon of sugar and with a tuft of blue feath­ers on its chest, the Mallee emuwren has the ad­van­tage of be­ing ob­jec­tively adorable.

A bush­fire in 2014 wiped out the South Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion, and the re­main­ing habi­tat in Victoria’s Mallee re­gion is in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to bush­fires sparked by cli­mate change. South Aus­tralia has now be­gun a cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram and is work­ing to rein­tro­duce the bird to the state.

The bush­fire was the wake-up call needed to direct fund­ing and at­ten­tion to the lit­tle bird, which is ru­moured to be a favourite of the threat­ened species com­mis­sioner, Gregory An­drews.

“It shows what can hap­pen if we re­spond in time,” Vine says. “I ac­tu­ally think in a few years we will be look­ing back at the Mallee emuwren and see­ing a really dif­fer­ent story there, but it’s one that could have eas­ily gone off the radar if peo­ple hadn’t ral­lied around it.”

Some birds are easy to sell and … oth­ers are very hard to sell be­cause they are lit­tle brown birds

A King Is­land scrubtit: No 3 on the list of birds most likely to be de­clared ex­tinct. Pho­to­graph: Dion Hobcroft

A rare sight­ing of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered King Is­land brown thorn­bill. Pho­to­graph: Dion Hobcroft

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