A flash of black and yellow streaks across the lens of the binoculars I’m peering through. I swing them around and manage to focus on a bird for a brief moment before it darts off again through the trees. It flies back and forth, but never stays still long enough for me to get a good look at it. It pauses briefly and I get another quick peek at it, before the wind blows through the tall yellow box tree in front of me and the little regent honeyeater launches out across the valley and disappears from view.
* * *
I’ve come up to the Capertee Valley for a couple of nights to help a PhD student, Ross Crates, with his work looking at the conservation of the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera Phrygia), a critically endangered bird. Krish, Shiyao and myself drove up from Canberra to the Capertee Valley, which is about 4.5 hours north of Canberra, on the western fall of the Blue Mountains.
We met Ross in Lithgow, and then followed him out towards Capertee. We stayed at Ross’ place, which was a sweet little set up in the back of a farm shed on a friendly landowner’s property.
The new morning we woke uo early, packed our food for the day and drove off into the Capertee National Park. NSW Parks and Wildlife bought the valley about 6 years ago for conservation purposes, as it is one of the last valleys that has viable habitat for the Regents, and is one of three key breeding sites. It’s mostly been cleared in the last 60-100 years for grazing but would have been yellow box/ironbark/red gum grassy woodland.
Now there are a few paddock trees that dot the valley, and along with the casuarinas that line the river, provide the habitat for the last of the honeyeaters. Like much of eastern Australia, it is dusty and dry at the moment – the Capertee river is a rocky water course with only a few stagnant pools in the shade below tall stands of casuarinas.
It was really windy for most of the day, roaring up through the valley. We followed Ross around as he pointed out the different species of trees that support the birds, and showed us some of the nesting trees.
We saw quite a few pairs of birds as well as some on their own. The regents are breeding at the moment, because the yellow box has started flowering, as well as some of the other food sources – mistletoe in the casuarinas and some of the mugga ironbark. Ross reckons there’s about 350 wild honeyeaters left, only a fraction of the population that would have existed before European colonisation. Habitat loss is the driver behind their rapid decline – they fill a niche in the box gum grassy woodland that provides for them to breed and feed safely. As this habitat declines, the pressure amongst populations of birds increases, as well as competition (from other species such as friarbirds and noisy minors) for limited resources.
Most of the arvo that day was spent watering trees (yellow box and mugga ironbark’s) that had been planted the season prior. We spent a good hour or more trying to start the little Davey water pump, but to no avail. Instead we watered the trees by hand, siphoning the water out of the tank when the level got to low for gravity to work in our favour.
Ross is hoping that the honeyeaters can hang in for another 30-40 years whilst the trees mature to an age where they begin flowering and producing nectar. Its a slow process. The changing climate and predictions in weather forecasting will no doubt make strategies like this harder to execute in the future.
The highlight of the trip was the time we spent birdwatching – it was a pretty amazing opportunity to observe such a rare species in the wild. It was a funny feeling to watch the regents, knowing that there was a fairly good chance they might be found out here in another 30 or 40 years.
The journey back to Canberra was quite pleasant, with a quick stop at the bakery in Lithgow for an esteemed pepper steak pie. Most of that drive was at night and luckily the wombats and kangaroos were having a quite one, so there wasn’t too much swerving or swearing.
Here’s a short video of some of the footage from the trip – no regent honeyeaters were harmed… (or filmed for that matter, they’re bloody quick!)