Second home gives Victoria’s endangered honeyeaters a flighting chance

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Second home gives Victoria’s endangered honeyeaters a flighting chance

By Miki Perkins

Above the roar of the swollen O’Shannassy River you can hear it, a light weet-weet-weet call coming from the damp understorey of the forest.

Look up and there they are: half-a-dozen gregarious vivid yellow and black birds that flit and flutter between the branches, calling to each other.

A helmeted honeyeater hangs onto the outside of an aviary at the release site.

A helmeted honeyeater hangs onto the outside of an aviary at the release site.Credit:Joe Armao

These helmeted honeyeaters are part of a nationally significant experiment under way in dense bushland east of Warburton, near the confluence of the O’Shannassy River and the Yarra.

The new site is likely to have previously been home to helmeted honeyeaters. Their former range covered the tributaries of the upper Yarra River and Western Port catchment.

This week, for the first time, about 30 helmeted honeyeaters – one of Victoria’s faunal emblems along with the endangered Leadbeater’s possum – were transferred to this forest in an attempt to establish a second wild population of this critically endangered bird.

Until now, the only place where helmeted honeyeaters lived in the wild was the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve in the Upper Yarra Valley. There is also a breeding program at Healesville Sanctuary.

Since 1989, the combined efforts of a host of conservation groups and funding from the state government has prevented the extinction of this charismatic bird, with the wild population at Yellingbo growing from just 50 birds to 250.

Nick Bradsworth, a Zoos Victoria helmeted honeyeater field officer places a group of wild birds into an aviary.

Nick Bradsworth, a Zoos Victoria helmeted honeyeater field officer places a group of wild birds into an aviary.Credit:Joe Armao

Over the past fortnight, 18 birds have been trapped at Yellingbo and transported to the new site 30 kilometres away, where they joined 14 birds bred at Healesville Sanctuary.

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It’s a delicate process. Healesville Sanctuary staff had a list of individual birds they wanted to target, for genetic reasons, and when these were captured they were anaesthetised by a mobile vet team.

The birds were microchipped, had blood samples collected and were fitted with tiny radio transmitters on their tail feathers, before being transported. To aid their recovery when they woke up, they were given orange slices.

Zoos Victoria threatened species biologist Dan Harley said this release was the result of a multi-disciplinary program to recover the species.

Mr Bradsworth tries to locate some of the birds released into the wild.

Mr Bradsworth tries to locate some of the birds released into the wild. Credit:Joe Armao

“Several strong years of breeding success at Healesville Sanctuary, combined with the highest number of birds ever recorded at Yellingbo has meant we can establish this new population,” Dr Harley said. “It greatly strengthens the long-term survival prospects for this species.”

Establishing this second population will increase the distribution of the rare birds so they aren’t as vulnerable to extinction through, for example, a bushfire destroying their habitat.

Finding the right kind of place to release the birds was essential. Restoring degraded habitat is expensive and takes a long time, so the team decided to search for high-quality existing native bush that would be appealing to honeyeaters.

At the new site near Warburton, a number of large, camouflaged aviaries hold the birds that have just arrived. The birds inside act as an “anchor” to honeyeaters that have already been released. When The Age visited honeyeaters often alighted on the aviaries to communicate with the birds inside.

A critically endangered helmeted honeyeater.

A critically endangered helmeted honeyeater.Credit:Joe Armao

Dr Harley says the scientists want the honeyeaters to have site “fidelity”, to create a critical mass in the nearby area rather than have them disperse through the bush.

But the flip side of that approach is that by concentrating them in one location they become conspicuous to predators. Already, a sparrowhawk has taken one of the released birds.

Dr Harley and his small team have been working to prepare this site for months, hauling metal aviary panels over the flooded creek and trying to prepare for every contingency.

“We have tried to select the right site, have the right methods for capturing and translocation and set the birds up in the best manner possible,” he says. “But what happens at that point of release is then out of our hands and that can be tough. We want it to work.”

The Victorian state government has contributed $60,000 through the Faunal Emblems Program to support this translocation and the federal government has provided $125,000 to Zoos Victoria.

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