Since the rare and endangered The Gouldian Finch was the centerpiece of an elementary school assignment, Kacie Austin pursued what she thought was a unique insight.
- Gouldian finch numbers declined rapidly a few decades ago
- The decline of their number one predator could be behind the population rebound
- Avid birdwatchers flock north to Darwin to see the once-rare bird
She is a twitcher by definition.
“I had seen Gouldians once in the wild and it took a lot of effort,” she said.
All but one of his long trips to observe the small, colorful birds in their usual habitat, high in the trees on the edge of Katherine, 300 kilometers south of Darwin, were in vain.
But in an unusual twist of fate that has Top End birdwatchers excited, hundreds of revered finches are showing up in a place they haven’t seen in decades.
Ms Austin is just one of many townspeople in Darwin who woke up before dawn, expensive cameras and binoculars in hand, and walked the short distance to Lee Point, where to see flocks of diamonds de Gould is almost a guarantee.
“I’ve spent most days for the past two weeks seeing them,” she said.
“It’s really exciting to be able to wake up and drive 20 minutes to where there are dozens and dozens of them hanging around right next to my house.”
What’s behind the big numbers and the big move?
A few decades ago, people began to notice Gouldian finches rapidly disappearing, primarily due to threats to their natural habitat and changes in fire patterns.
They have become so rare that avid birdwatchers from around the world travel to the area to see them and often leave disappointed.
But they have recently made a comeback, said BirdLife Australia’s Top End organizer Robin Leppitt.
“Their numbers have really increased within their usual range and are seen much farther north in the Darwin area for two main reasons,” Dr Leppitt said.
“There is now so much further south [around Katherine] they push up.
“Seed-eating birds like finches depend on surface water for drinking and don’t get water from their food, so they really need surface water.”
Graeme Sawyer of Biodiversity Watch said the population rebound could even see the Gouldian finch removed from the endangered species list.
“I’ve personally seen them as far south as Borroloola…and now they’re spreading to new areas where they haven’t been seen in years, which is a good sign of population recovery,” Ms. Sawyer.
A national Gouldian finch recovery plan was drawn up in 2006, but Mr Sawyer said the boom was most likely due to its main predator, the goanna, being thinned out by cane toads.
“This led to an increase in nesting success,” Sawyer said.
Renewed calls to save Lee Point habitat
Mr Sawyer said the ‘highly publicized’ descent of the finch on Lee Point, a northern suburb of the city of Darwin, drew more attention to an effort to save one of the last remnants of natural bushland from urban sprawl.
Plans to build 800 tusk houses at Lee Point – a coastal reserve home to a range of endangered animals and protected bird species – have drawn the ire of residents and conservationists over the past year.
“[The finches] have really drawn a lot of attention to the fact that we now have a situation where the very habitat that holds them around Darwin is threatened by development and is subject to clearing,” Sawyer said.
The Northern Territory Government Department of Environment has been contacted to inquire if and when the Gouldian finch will be declared Least Concern.