OPINION: The case for saving regent honeyeaters

As many of you know Friends of Tumblebee is currently mounting a Land & Environment Court challenge to a decision by Cessnock Council to approve a development which would clear 3.2 hectares of Regent Honeyeater habitat in the HEZ.

This excellent article from Birdlife Australia explains the situation.

James Ryan

OPINION: The case for saving regent honeyeaters

RARE: A regent honeyeater. Picture: Dean Ingwersen

RARE: A regent honeyeater. Picture: Dean Ingwersen

BIRDLIFE Australia would like to clarify some issues in regard to article “Endangered bird could block Coalfields workshop” (Herald 2/6).

The suggestion that regent honeyeaters are “widespread” is misleading. The regent honeyeater is one of Australia’s most endangered species.

Recent estimates put the population at between 350-400 adult birds.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and NSW government list the regent honeyeater as “critically endangered”, meaning that it is at extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.

According to expert assessment the population has declined by more than 80 per cent over the last 20 years. This coincides with the fact that, since European settlement, more than 80 per cent of temperate woodlands have been cleared.

Without detailed knowledge, one might be left with the impression that they are widespread by consulting a range map in a field guide. However, a range map (and supporting text) in a field guide is no basis for rigorous assessment, as these depict a broad area within which the species could potentially occur.

In the case of the regent honeyeater the actual habitat occupied within the species’ range is extremely small – they now only occur regularly in four “core areas”; the dry forests of the Cessnock area being one.

Regent honeyeaters are now extinct in South Australia and are just hanging on in Victoria and Queensland. In fact, Taronga Zoo release captive-bred birds in an attempt to keep the Victorian part of the population viable.

Biannual range-wide counts involving dozens of experienced field ornithologists have been occurring for more than 20 years. In reality, nowadays these “counts” are really “searches” because regent honeyeaters are becomingly increasingly difficult to find. Only two regent honeyeaters were found during the recent count and so far in 2014 just 10 individual birds have been reported in all of NSW, with a maximum of three birds at one time. It is considered unlikely that 12 birds would have occurred in a bottlebrush tree (as reported in the Herald story).

Regent honeyeaters can be easily confused with several other common birds, such as the white-cheeked honeyeater.

Using an “evidence-based approach”, a recent federal government-funded study recognised the Hunter Economic Zone (HEZ) as the most important site for regent honeyeaters in the Hunter Valley. This is likely due to it supporting the largest remnant of forest on the floor of the valley.

One just needs to look at Google Earth to see that virtually all of the valley floor forests have been cleared. It is within the few last remaining large remnants (such as HEZ) where threatened flora and fauna can now thrive.

Regent honeyeaters have shown a high degree of site fidelity to HEZ, having been recorded there in six of the past 10 years.

Most significantly however, more than 50 regent honeyeaters were recorded breeding there in 2007-2008 over a period of several months. At that time they weren’t known to be breeding elsewhere in their range, so this would have provided a significant boost to the dwindling population.

Regent honeyeaters are not as widespread as field guides may suggest and simply cannot withstand any further loss of habitat, however small, particularly in identified core areas such as the HEZ.

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