After the fires, rare bird’s appearance surprises scientists

The last time ecologist Dr Rohan Clarke and his colleagues visited Howe Flat, near Mallacoota, there was dense smoke in the sky, flames on the ridgeline and their bird nets filled with burnt leaves.

It was a delicate rescue mission: a crack team of bird handlers flew on a defence force Chinook helicopter to capture an “insurance population” of 15 critically endangered eastern bristlebirds, before the 2020 bushfires swept in and decimated their habitat.

The survivors were released at the same site some months later, after the fire threat had gone.

Given the intensity of the blaze, Dr Clarke and other researchers was surprised at what they found when they returned to the area just before Christmas.

Researchers Hayley Ricardo and Tony Mitchell (L-R) from DELWP and Dr Rohan Clarke from Monash University capturing eastern bristlebirds at Howe Flat, east of Mallacoota.Credit:Marcia Riederer

“I was driving my car with the windows down and out the window – across this sea of low, green regrowth – I heard a bristlebird,” he says.

Surprised, and a little incredulous, the Monash University lecturer walked 50 metres from the road and saw one of the shy, extremely rare birds. “Its call is melodious and ear-splitting if you’re up close, it’s really complex. If they didn’t call you would have real trouble finding them.”

Dr Clark and other scientists that returned to Howe Flat recently – including researchers from Monash, the University of Wollongong and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning – made a number of interesting discoveries.

The most significant was that the eastern bristlebirds are now occupying areas that had been burnt in high-intensity fires and left a “blackened wasteland”, only a year ago.

An eastern bristlebird.

“It doesn’t mean everything is going to be OK but it tells us there is resilience in this species, and there are possibilities for recovery here that we might not have considered,” Dr Clarke says.

“If some areas get burnt that’s not necessarily all bad – they can occupy areas that are recently burnt, and they can use those.”

The Victorian population of the eastern bristlebird is confined to Howe Flat and estimated to be around 120 to 160 in the wild.

There were similar numbers in NSW and a much smaller population in Queensland, but the 2020 fires had a significant effect on the NSW birds.

Dr Clarke with an eastern bristlebird.Credit:Marcia Riederer

Mick Bramwell, the environment department’s team leader for the eastern bristlebird recovery project, said the species had always favoured heathland and scrub areas and not previously been recorded in forested areas.

“A lot of grasses have grown up in the burnt forest areas making it suitable habitat for the species,” he said.

Unfortunately, about six of the 15 birds that were originally captured and taken to Melbourne Zoo did not survive. Most of these succumbed to a bacterial infection always present in their system that can overwhelm some species when they get stressed, Dr Clarke said.

It shows the inherent difficulty of trying to secure insurance populations of rare animals that don’t have a history of being kept in captivity, Dr Clarke said.

All of the 15 birds originally captured had a genetic sample taken, which showed they were closely related, which is not genetically ideal. Scientists captured 16 more birds on their return trip (none of the same birds as the original insurance population) and are waiting on the results of genetic testing to see what they reveal.

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