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Rescuing the Regent Honeyeater -

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Robyn Williams: And so back to Australia and the regent honeyeater. It doesn't hum but it is in danger. Matthew Crawford is there in the field in north-eastern Victoria.

Dean Ingwersen: The regent honeyeater is critically endangered, we think the population in the wild is 500 birds or less, and if we don't do something to arrest those declines, within a decade or two we could have no regent honeyeaters left in Australia.

Matthew Crawford: So there is a sense of urgency about the work he is doing here. That's Dean Ingwersen. We are at Chiltern Mt Pilot National Park in the north-eastern corner of Victoria near Albury Wodonga. It has really been rainy here but it's not holding back anyone as they get ready to release some captive-bred regent honeyeaters into the wild. Dean has dashed off with his camera, but I've got someone else here to tell me what's going on.

Glen Johnson: Yeah, Glen Johnson, I am the senior biodiversity officer with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This is the exciting part, this is the culmination of many, many years. And as we speak, the lucky 10 people are approaching the tents now, and they are getting ready to do the unzipping.

Matthew Crawford: They're regent honeyeaters that hail from Taronga Zoo in Sydney. They've been working on captive breeding for 20 years. The birds here are aged about 5 to 18 months.

Glen Johnson: Yes, roughly there are 38 birds that we are releasing today. The first couple of tents are mainly the radio transmitter birds, so these are the ones which have got transmitters on and their long antenna which enables us to do the tracking.

Matthew Crawford: So all of your 38 birds today, not all of them have the radio transmitters, right?

Glen Johnson: About half, yeah. There's a bird just about I can see come to the edge of…

Matthew Crawford: I can see some movement in there.

Glen Johnson: There's one, one has just come out, the first release, two birds have come out…

Matthew Crawford: Welcome to your freedom, regent honeyeaters.

Glen Johnson: Three, four, five…five birds from one tent have just come out…six birds, and they've all gone into the blossom which has been placed in shrubs only two or three metres out from the tent.

Matthew Crawford: You've actually put some blossom out to lure them, haven't you.

Glen Johnson: Yes, and there's seven out now, one's flying underneath the tarp and come out again, so there's the first two, three birds right above us.

Matthew Crawford: They are right above us, beautiful!

Glen Johnson: Look at this, look at that, that is incredible! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten birds have all taken flight above us. Now 11, 12, 13, and they are all the birds from the tents which have got the radio transmitters, so…

Matthew Crawford: So you're feeling good about this, yes?

Glen Johnson: So they are all ticking and they are underway now.

Matthew Crawford: And with those tents open and those birds free, I can grab Dean Ingwersen again. He's with BirdLife Australia, and he brings together state governments, universities and other groups in his work as the national regent honeyeater recovery coordinator.

So how's it going?

Dean Ingwersen: Fantastic, it's been a really great morning, despite the rain. They've probably defied my predictions at least, I thought they would have stayed in the tents for a bit longer, but we got a really good rush of birds as soon as we opened the tents, we had a nice flock of…it was amazing, just such a thrill to see birds come out like that. When you get a flock of regent honeyeaters fly around your head it's really like turning back the clock and seeing regent honeyeaters as they should be. We should see them in flocks in the landscape, so it's a really positive experience.

Matthew Crawford: Just describe to me the plight that the regent honeyeater has found itself in.

Dean Ingwersen: Yes, it's a sobering thing to think, that regent honeyeaters are critically endangered. So they are one step away from extinct and we will never see them again in the wild. If we turn back the clock 100 years, 150 years, they occurred in thousands in some locations in good years. You would get flocks of hundreds of them moving around the landscape. At the moment we have an estimate for the population of about 500 at most across to the whole range, so that's from southern Queensland down to central Victoria. So it's the proverbial needle in a haystack when you are trying to find them in the wild.

Matthew Crawford: What are some of the reasons for the decline?

Dean Ingwersen: Yes, it's a really typical case in terms of conservation, it's habitat loss, that's the primary driver for why regent honeyeaters are in the situation they are in now. If you consider south-eastern Australian woodlands, which they would have used historically, we have cleared 85% to 90% of those, and we have preferentially cleared the best bits. So all of those beautiful lowland fertile woodlands that had really big trees and would produce great nectar flows, we've now got crops and we raise livestock on them. So we've lost habitat out of the system and we've also in the process created beautiful habitat for things like noisy miners.

So it's a double-edged sword in that we love birds and particularly noisy miners, they are a native bird and they are very charismatic, but they are real bullies, and so they like habitat that is fragmented and chopped up. And it means that if regent honeyeaters, which we know can move long distances, if they are on migration between flowering events, they land in an area, they are going to get beaten up by noisy miners. So as well as reducing the amount of habitat, what's left is also full of bullies, so there's a multitude of factors that start to build up.

And then the pervasive threat that exists for everything now is changing climate, which ultimately changes the way trees flower and the nectar available. So that's something that's hard to manage but it's probably going to have an impact; if trees don't flower and provide nectar often enough then there is not the resources there for them to feed on.

Matthew Crawford: So what they can do around here is control the numbers of noisy miners. And Dean knows that this doesn't sit well with everyone, but before the regent honeyeater release they went shooting to reduce noisy miner numbers. They say it's instant and they think it's the most humane way.

Also there is work going on to protect and improve native vegetation. So that could be cooperating with landowners to plant native trees, or working with those who want to put conservation covenants on their land. So that was Dean Ingwersen who is the national regent honeyeater recovery coordinator. And here is someone who is testing how effective all this work is.

Gemma Taylor: I am Gemma Taylor and I'm from the UK and I'm doing my PhD with the University College London, Zoological Society of London, and Monash University here in Melbourne.

Matthew Crawford: And what's your project?

Gemma Taylor: I am hopefully going to research the efficacy of the reintroduction programs, look at what contributes to their success and how the birds do once they've been released, look at the survival of the birds and look at other impacts such as the noisy miner control and the revegetation of the landscape.

Matthew Crawford: And she's holding a big radio antenna in one hand, and that's connected to some receiver gear that is hanging off her shoulder.

Gemma Taylor: I'll find one that is fairly close. North, east, south, west. So the strongest beat was south. So now that's quite a low gain, so we would head off in that direction and try and track him down to his location.

Matthew Crawford: If you were going to take a guess, how distant do you reckon the bird might be now?

Gemma Taylor: He would have been moving around in the area, but at the moment he is probably on a flowering tree about 200 metres away, and he's probably with some others. So we will track him, and once we find him we will have a scan and see if we can find any others that are with him.

Matthew Crawford: The transmitters don't last forever, but what kinds of information can you get that's going to help measure the efficacy of the release?

Gemma Taylor: Well, survival. So they are going to last about 12 weeks, so we will track them…

Matthew Crawford: That's the transmitters we're talking about, not the birds!

Gemma Taylor: Yes, definitely the transmitters. So that will give us an idea of how long they are surviving after they've been released. If we track them every day we can say, okay, well, in the first week 100% have survived, the second week 90%, something like that. We will also see where they are going, which trees they are feeding from, interactions with other birds, are they flocking together, are they on their own? Because we've already had some that have been off on their own, whereas others are flying around in small groups. So it gives us a lot of information about how the birds are using the park, their ecology and their behaviour, and ultimately their survival.

Matthew Crawford: And what's your gut feeling at this point in terms of how this might work, do you know?

Gemma Taylor: My gut feeling has been really, really positive. The birds are feeding, we've seen them moving around, there has been no negative information back yet. So the gut feeling has been really good. Fingers crossed, yes!

Matthew Crawford: Gemma Taylor. And I'll leave you with Dean Ingwersen:

Dean Ingwersen: In my mind I feel like we are making a difference and we are actually putting birds into the landscape, and it's helping to hold the decline. At the same time we also know from the monitoring that we do that post-release they can breed, after we've let them go. We've seen captive released birds breed with wild birds, and we've seen captive released birds from 2013 pair up with captive released birds from 2010. So I feel like we've got to the point with the release program that we are making a difference.

And it's also probably coinciding with the time where our long-running revegetation programs, the habitat is getting old enough for the trees we put into the ground that they will start to support regent honeyeaters. So we are not going to kid ourselves, we've still got a long way to go, but I feel like we are just on the cusp of really getting a stronghold and a foothold in saving this bird.

Robyn Williams: Dean Ingwersen, saving our birds, with Matthew Crawford. And don't miss Matthew's Tweet of the Week on Sunday Extra with Jonathan Green.

Dean IngwersenRegent Honeyeater Recovery Coordinator
BirdLife AustraliaGlen JohnsonSenior Biodiversity Officer
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning
VictoriaGemma TaylorPhD candidate
University College, London
Zoological Society, London
Monash University

Further Information
Regent Honeyeater Project Benalla VictoriaLandcare Australia - Regent Honeyeater ProjectRegent Honeyeater breeding program

ReporterMatthew Crawford PresenterRobyn Williams