RELEASE OF CAPTIVE BRED REGENT HONEYEATERS AT CHILTERN VICTORIA
Text by David Geering, National Recovery Team Co-ordinator.
Photograph courtesy Ian Cheyne
It’s autumn and the ironbark has burst into blossom bringing with it a raucous chorus of honeyeaters, lorikeets, Swift Parrots, and, yes, even the Regent Hoeyeater. But this autumn there is another , very unfamiliar, sound in the Chiltern forest. A regular, electric ping…ping…ping carries through the trees.
It’s not an exotic bird species straying from afar – although this not all that far from the truth. The ‘ ping ‘ invariably signals the arrival of a pair of intrepid trackers hot on the trail of an often elusive prey. This ‘ prey ‘ is a Regent Honeyeater fitted with a small radio transmitter.
However, these are just not any Regent Honeyeaters. These are particularly precious birds for they have been bred in captivity and specifically selected for release into the wild at Chiltern.
This release has been long in the planning and was prompted by a steady, prolonged decline in the Regent Honeyeater population in NoArth-east Victoria. Over the past decade and a half there has been a range of activities undertaken in Victoria designed to slow, and ultimately arrest, this decline. However these are all medium to long term actions and it has become increasingly obvious that a short term fix may be required if the Regent Honeyeater is not to go the way of the Crested Bellbird and Gilbert’s Whistler in this magnificent forest.
With a viable captive population of Regent Honeyeaters firmly established it was decided that supplementing the wild population with captive birds may well be the answer to stave off potential extinction. All the necessary permits were obtained, hoops jumped through, and Taronga Conservation Society, Australia ( often known simply as Taronga zoo ) was instructed to go ahead co-ordinating a breeding program across a number of sister zoos. The first result was a flock of 28 Regent Honeyeaters earmarked for the release program. Half of these birds were young, first year, birds while the balance were older birds, ranging from two to seven years in age.
This release was always designed as a trial and success could well result in future releases . The strategy of releasing equal numbers of first year and older birds was to test whether age might effect survival after release.
To facilitate our ability to monitor post-release survival, all birds were fitted with radio transmitters. The very real prospect of tracking 28 birds simultaneously in a large forest area was always going to be a challenge. This challenge was met head on with a dedicated team of volunteers trained before the release in all aspects radio tracking, the use of GPS units and data collection.
So, it was with great excitement that, on April the 28th , the to-be-released birds were met at Albury airport and driven to Chiltern. Radio-tags fitted, the birds were then placed in four well-appointed tents for a two day settling in period during which they were regularly supplied with freshly cut branches of flowering Mugga Ironbark.
The release was a two-stage affair with half of the birds being released on May 1st. These birds quickly demonstrated their ability to locate the local food resources. As the birds in the first release were clearly doing well the second release took place as scheduled two days later. With all the birds now free the tracking phase of the project was well and truly under way.
The first week of the release was filled with expectation and was a real learning experience, for both the birds and their trackers. While many of the released birds were content to remain in the general area of the release site, some were more adventurous. Individual birds regularly broke away from the flock that had formed and headed off to destinations that were completely foreign to them. Several of these forays took the birds out of the park into the surrounding farmland using roadside vegetation and unformed road reserves as corridors. Following these birds often tested our tracking teams, particularly when the birds decided that they had experienced enough excitement and returned to the forest, more often than not actually returning to the release site itself.
Possibly the most exciting moments were when our released birds were located in the presence of wild Regent Honeyeaters. On one occasion this contact lasted several hours with the two birds foraging together and answering each others calls, despite the two very different dialects !
As we enter week three of the release not a great deal has changed . There are now essentially two major groupings of our released birds. One of these is still within four hundred metres of the release site, while the other is about two kilometres away on the edge of the park. The birds revelling in the nectar flow of the large roadside ironbarks. Individual birds are still heading off on exploratory forays to various points both within and beyond the park boundaries. However we are now much more relaxed , following the birds, comfortable in the expectation that they will eventually return to the security of ‘ home ’.
So far, the release has succeeded all of our expectations. What challenges lie ahead for our intrepid honeyeaters ? Their next real challenge may well be what to do once the ironbark finishes flowering. As this is likely to be a gradual process and may well be replaced by other eucalypt species, such as White Box, starting to flower. We are expecting half of our transmitters to have a battery life of nine weeks so it is even possible that we may even see the first of our released birds get the urge to really settle down and raise a family.
However we are clearly getting ahead of ourselves here. Better that we stick with following that monstrous ping….ping….ping… and keeping tabs on our birds and watching events unfold..