Australian endangered species: Regent Honeyeater

The male Regent Honeyeater is larger and brighter than the female. Dean Ingwersen

The Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) is a spectacular, black, white and gold, medium-sized honeyeater. It has a bare, corrugated pale face, giving rise to its earlier name of Warty-faced Honeyeater.

Regent Honeyeaters are most often found in box-ironbark woodlands west of the Great Dividing Range and sometimes in river-side River Oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana) forests.

Their preferred food is nectar of eucalyptus trees. However, like most honeyeaters, they have a broad diet, including nectar from mistletoes and other plants, insects, manna and lerp. They build stick nests high in trees and are as successful as other honeyeaters, which have not declined.

Status

Regent Honeyeaters originally occurred from Adelaide through south-eastern Australia to 100km north of Brisbane. They no longer occur in South Australia and western Victoria. The species is now most regularly seen in the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains, parts of the Hunter Valley and on the Central Coast of NSW.

The population was estimated to be about 1,000 birds in 1997. Groups of more than a dozen are rarely seen now, and there are perhaps only about 500 birds. However, it is difficult to estimate population size, as Regent Honeyeaters may be absent from sites for many years.

Threats

The Regent Honeyeater Recovery Team has been unravelling the life history of Regent Honeyeaters since 1994 and coordinating activities to help the species recover. The reason the honeyeaters are critically endangered is the loss, fragmentation and degradation of their habitat.

Regent Honeyeaters depend on a series of high-quality food sources, which they follow through the year and over several years within their range. The loss of any one of these would have an impact on their populations.

We do not know all the links in the chain of resources on which Regent Honeyeaters depend. Sometimes the birds cannot be found anywhere. Regent Honeyeaters, like other migratory birds, probably have a tendency to move in a fixed direction at certain times of the year. Flocks may contain birds that hold detailed knowledge of where they previously found food. As the species becomes less common this collective knowledge could be lost.

Strategy

As well as undertaking research, members of the Recovery Team are involved in management and conservation of the species.

As an insurance policy in case the species goes extinct in the wild, 20 Regent Honeyeaters were taken into captivity. Through the diligent husbandry of Taronga Zoo and supporting institutions, they have survived well and bred prolifically. In fact, 80 captive-reared birds have been released, mostly in north-eastern Victoria.

Close monitoring of these birds revealed that they survived very well for several months then left the release site. They also showed all the appropriate behaviour of wild Regent Honeyeaters and bred, with one individual rearing a fledgling. So, several generations in captivity had not affected their ability to cope in the wild. Most excitingly, seven of the birds released in 2010 were resighted from 10 to 23 months later in various sites in Victoria and southern NSW.

The success of releasing captive-bred birds depends on there being suitable habitat and the birds finding it. Therefore a major effort has been put into protecting key habitat, much of which is on private land and Travelling Stock Routes, rather than reserves. Furthermore, extensive replanting and rehabilitation has been undertaken, especially in Victoria and the Capertee Valley.

Conclusion

The Regent Honeyeater is an icon for many other woodland birds, which are declining though not yet in dire straits. Hence, protecting and providing habitat for Regent Honeyeaters will benefit many other birds.

Anyone wanting to hear more about conservation of our woodland birds or wishing to report sightings of Regent Honeyeaters, should contact Dean Ingwersen or visit BirdLife Australia’s website.

The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here

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