A century ago it was common enough to see enormous flocks of Regent honeyeaters in woodland country from Queensland to South Australia. Habitat depletion has led to drastic decline in the numbers of this beautiful bird [see a photo and more info here]: it’s now extinct in SA and endangered elsewhere. When a single bird appeared in a Newstead Ironbark in 2003 it became an instant celebrity, and it’s been estimated that over a hundred people came to have a look at it [the regent appeared unphased by the attention and stayed for over a month.]
Efforts to save the Regent focus on restoration of its preferred box ironbark habitat. The model project for this is the one run by Ray Thomas in the Lurg Hills of North Eastern Victoria. Neville Cooper has written the following account of a visit to the project in late October:
Ray Thomas, the Regent Honeyeater’s Project Co-ordinator, took us to 8 different sites. On our travels he explained how the project is engaging the farming community in restoring the significant remnant Box-Ironbark habitat for the endangered species that are still living in the area. The Regent Honeyeater, the Grey-crowned Babbler, Squirrel Gliders and Brush-tailed Phascogales at the top of the list. Of the 150 species of birds known to reside in the area, 11 have been declared threatened in Australia.
The Regent Honeyeater, once seen flying in flocks of hundreds, are only spotted occasionally now (not on our trip). They have not returned in great numbers yet because the trees haven’t reached the optimum flowering age.
The main ecological problems the Project has had to deal with are fragmentation of the Box-Ironbark belt; loss of understorey; dieback; mistletoe infestations; loss of roadside vegetation; unsustainable agriculture; erosion; salinity; loss of bio-diversity; and habitat loss.
We discussed and, where possible, were shown solutions to some of these problems. For example, restoring the understorey to attract insect predators, which in turn helps restore the ecological balance.
Mistletoe can be controlled by cutting back if it’s getting out of hand; planting understorey and shrubs to support a greater diversity of woodland birds (which eat the fruit but drop the seeds harmlessly on the ground);and by planting Sticky Everlastings or Grey Everlasting Daisies to attract butterflies, such as Imperial Butterflies or Wood Whites. After a feed of nectar, the butterflies fly over and lay their eggs on the Mistletoe. The Mistletoe leaves are high in protein, which the newly hatched eggs love to eat, often stripping the plant bare, examples of which we were shown.
Fencing is another solution: to exclude the stock helps to allow natural regeneration. One site we saw was about 10 years old. The previous owners cared for it but sold up and in recent times the new owners have let their horses back in to graze. Nearly all the understorey was gone.
Other solutions were; replanting bare areas; thinning of re-growth (to allow stronger tree and understorey regeneration); reducing kangaroos numbers; large scale landscape restoration (connecting isolated remnant bush with wide corridors no less than 20m wide); and involving the whole community through education and action.
The results, as we saw, do speak for themselves. It truly is an amazing project. 115 landholders (approx.95% of local farms) have been involved since the project began in 1995. Very few farmers are offside. Approx. 1360ha of habitat has been restored. 490,000 seedlings have been planted with about a 90% success rate. (Ray is very stringent on the planting regime!) 23 schools are involved with seed collection, propagation and nest box construction. About 17,000 volunteers have been involved in planting, direct seeding and fencing.
Other restoration activities undertaken by the project include; environmental weeding; feral animal control; nest box replacement; and monitoring of threatened birds and hollow-dependant mammals. Ray and fellow project co-ordinator Rob Richardson are vigilant with their monitoring program. Over the past 15 years they have gained valuable information from the results and have learned from them.
While driving around the beautiful countryside we had a bit of time to look for wildlife. At one point we stopped the bus to rescue an upturned turtle on the road (we were sure it was ok), and the kids loved the goanna racing up a tree. We spotted quite a few birds, including Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Singing Bushlarks and White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes. We were also very thrilled to see a couple of Grey-crowned Babblers in the roadside vegetation. The Grey-crowned Babbler population has risen over recent years from around 50 to 110.
At our final site we saw what was a good example of how not to revegetate an area. The trees were too far apart, with not enough understorey, the result being a very unhealthy habitat with little or no regeneration, weed problems, Noisy Miners and dieback. It wasn’t a Regent Honeyeater Project site thank goodness.
If you want to know more about the project, go to http://regenthoneyeater.org.au