July 17 2023: No sign of Gouldian Finches in Ord Valley

Three years with no sign of endangered Gouldian finches in Ord Valley prompts environmentalists’ concern

July 17 2023: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-17/gouldian-finches-disappear-in-ord-valley-but-thrive-elsewhere/102602092

When nearly 10,000 hectares of land was approved for clearing on the fertile soil of the Kimberley’s Ord Valley, protecting an endangered population of tiny birds was a key government stipulation.

Now, a little more than a decade on, there’s no trace of any Gouldian finches in the habitat that was carved out as a refuge for them.

Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s 2022–23 monitoring report shows no breeding activity recorded in any of the 137 artificial nest boxes installed to replace the finches’ natural hollows lost to the clearing.

It marks the third consecutive year without a sign of the small, seed-eating birds in the 11,000-hectare Weaber Plain environmental buffer.

Jaru man and environmentalist Donny Imberlong hadn’t seen the environmental buffer site for years. When he returned, he was disappointed.

“This habitat is slowly becoming sterile,” he said.

He pointed to the range of introduced vines and shrubs that were dominating the native ground cover and the old trees that were losing their leaves, an indication of spray drift.

“It’s evident that the country around here is becoming sick,” Mr Imberlong said.

According to Gary Fitt, chief executive of Save the Gouldians, the story is different 100 kilometres north-west of Kununurra’s Ord Valley, around Wyndham, where the volunteer group surveys the endangered species each year.

“Last year, we saw the biggest numbers of Gouldians that we’d seen since 2008,” Dr Fitt said.

“So it’s surprising that there don’t appear to be any in that area now. That’s disappointing to see.”

Up and gone?

Dr Fitt said that the birds likely migrated to a new home where they could find more suitable conditions.

“Gouldians are a highly mobile finch,” he said.

“They’re likely responding to a combination of environmental factors.”

Those factors could be poor fire management, overgrazing or a weak wet season, although the last two were unlikely given the region’s recent strong summer rainfall and the lack of cattle within the protected area.

Head east about 200 kilometres to Bullo River Station, where wildlife photographer Col Roberts assured ABC Radio Darwin that Gouldian Finches could be found in the thousands.

“I did a count of about 10 waterholes there and counted over 2,000 Gouldians,” Mr Roberts said.

He questioned the current nature of their decades-old endangered listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

“They did suffer a decline [in numbers], but they are well and truly on the way back,” he said.

Reworking attitudes towards conservation

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development said they would continue to monitor the nest boxes, including those that they moved in late 2022 to more desirable locations, flagging this as a potential explanation for the lack of nesting.

“Routine, ongoing buffer management measures include removal of any cattle that find their way into the buffer area, maintenance of fencing and firebreaks, weed control, and restriction of access to the buffer area,” DPIRD said in a statement.

But for Donny Imberlong, this effort is treating the symptom, not the cause.

“It does seem like a lot of these conservation buffers are islands in the middle of exposed farmland which, if I was a tiny little finch, I wouldn’t be game to fly across to,” he said.

“All the farmland here is fragmenting the habitat corridors that allow the animals to move freely between the hill ranges and the connecting plains country.”

Mr Imberlong believes the process of allocating land to environmental buffers, then later managing that land, needs to be reviewed.

“It’s a very colonial way of looking at these conservation areas, that idea that you just lock up an area of land and let nature look after itself,” he said.

“Removing humans altogether from the equation isn’t right, especially here where humans have been part of the environment for such a long time.”