Threatened Birds of King Island
King Island Scrubtit Acanthornis magnus greenianus
Description: Length 11-12 cm; weight 10 gm. Note short, slender, slightly curved bill, brownish above, with white spot on wing, white throat, yellowish underbelly and blackish narrow subterminal band on tail.
The King Island Scrubtit is a subspecies of the Tasmanian Scrubtit. It lives in tall, old growth melaleuca forest with good understory, foraging high up in the canopy. Shy and quiet it is hard to find and observe.
Due to loss of habitat through fire and land clearing, it was listed with the EPBC Act as Critically Endangered in 2002, however, while a number of expeditions surveyed the remaining birds and observed a continued decline in population, no recovery work was commenced until 2019.
King Island Brown Thornbill Acanthiza apical Archibaldi
Length 10 cm; Weight unknown - about 7-8 g. Slightly darker and with a much longer and larger bill than other brown Thornbill species. Previously considered a Brown Thornbill subspecies, it is now thought to be a separate species but this has not been established as at June, 2019. Shy and quiet, it forages high and is associated with old growth eucalyptus and melaleuca forest with healthy undergrowth.
Listed in 2000 as Endangered, the KI Thornbill was recognised as the most likely next bird extinction in Australia in 2018 (Geyle H. M. 2018). At that time only one bird had been seen at any one time in one location on the island over several decades. Two photographs taken in 2015 and another in 2016 by different photographers proved they were still extant (existed).
King Island Black Currawong Strepera fuliginosa colei
Length 47-49 cm. Large black bird with white wing tips and tail feather tips and strong heavy bill. Smaller than Tasmanian species. Otherwise looks very similar. Bright yellow eye in adults and black eye in immature birds. It has a loud raucous voice and is most commonly observed during the autumn months when they band together in loose flocks and roam further afield. It has a rarely seen, breeding resident that prefers dense scrub for breeding and protection, but utilises open paddocks and other vegetation for foraging.
Once prolific on King Island, it has been in noticeable decline since the 1960's. Listed as Vulnerable under the EPBC Act in 2015, it has been assessed as Critically Endangered by the Action Plan for Austrlian Birds, 2020 (Garnett and Baker, 2021).
King Island Yellow Wattlebird Anthochaera paradoxa kingi
Length 37-45 cm. Australia's largest Honeyeater the King Island Yellow Wattlebird is a subspecies is regarded as being slightly smaller than the Tasmanian species. The Yellow Wattlebird as its name suggests, has pendulous yellow-orange wattles and a bright yellow belly. Common prior to the 1960s, it has been in a slow decline. While not listed under the EPBC Act as yet, it has been assessed as Endangered in the 2020 Action Plan for Australian Birds (Garnett and Baker (2021).
King Island Threatened Birds Conservation Action
We started in 2018...
In 2018 funds were raised by the King Island Natural Resource Management Group and BirdLife Australia to undertake a systematic search for both the KI Brown Thornbill and KI Scrubtit. This was undertaken by Dr Matthew Webb and colleagues from Australian National University in March, 2019. They found several birds of both species in the known sites and importantly they also found new sites where the birds are still existing.
Following these discoveries a workshop was held on King Island with stakeholders from all levels of government, local community, BirdLife Australia and several universities, to develop a Conservation Action Plan (CAP) for both species.
The official statement from this first CAP workshop produced the following statement:
"The King Island Scrubtit and King Island Thornbill are nationally significant and they are a unique part of King Island’s biodiversity.
Populations of both birds are now less than 50 individuals each, and without intervention they are facing imminent extinction
Taking decisive action now is essential to saving these two species from extinction
Successful recovery will rely on strong partnerships between the King Island community, State and Federal Governments, NGOs and specialist scientists to address their key threats.
We urgently need to:
Complete the surveys of potential habitats to better understand both species' distribution and requirements
Update State and Federal assessment processes with improved habitat descriptions, vegetation mapping and on ground assessment methods
Increase the level of protection at Pegarah State Forest and focus management on strengthening this area as a stronghold for both species
Increase capacity to prevent and respond to fire in key habitat
Identify and protect critical areas on private land through a range of measures including incentives to maximise landholder participation"
March 2021: Update on Progress
King Island Scrubtit and Brown Thornbill: Under BirdLife
Australia's King Island Threatened Bird Conservation Plan (KITBCAP)
further searches for KI Brown Thornbill and KI Scrubtit are continuing
as funds become available through various sources. Several new sites
have been found where these species are still hanging out, but both
remain very low in numbers so their status hasn't changed. It is now
estimated that the total populations of both will be 50-100 individuals
remaining which is very concerning from a genetic diversity point of
view and will significantly impact on their long-term recovery.
Searches are also being undertaken across all vegetation types across the island, to establish exactly what the habitat needs of the KI Brown Thornbill. This information will be extremely important as we develop the action that will be required to help increase their populations. We have a lot yet to learn.
TWO NEW EDITIONS TO KING ISLAND'S THREATENED SPECIES: King Island Black Currawong and King Island Yellow Wattlebird.
Both of these birds have been identified in the 2020 Action Plan for Australian Birds (Garnett and Baker, 2021 - in print in April, 2021) as having declining populations with the KI Currawong now regarded as Critically Endangered (less than 250 individuals remaining) and the KI Wattlebird as Endangered (between 250-2500 individuals remaining). In both cases the decline is directly caused by scrub and windbreak clearing across the island that is continuing to reduce the amount of habitat were they can live. This clearing is condoned by the the Tasmanian State Government that changed the clearing laws in 2017 from a moritorium on clearing on King Island to allowing up to 40 ha to be cleared per annum per property. Applications to the FPA are required to clear trees or plants that have the potential to become trees more than 5 meters in height. However, many landholders don't know what plants they have so a lot of potential tree-height scrub is being cleared without applications. This is a disaster particularly for the KI Currawong that is heavily reliant on mature scrub for breeding, shelter and foraging. The KI Wattlebird is more adaptive and uses a larger range of habitat types, but is still being adversely impacted by this on-going clearing.
Hydro are also adding to this issue. Once they trimmed under the wires to keep everything functioning and safe. Now and increasingly they are removing all vegetation from wide areas around the wires. While this will no doubt save them money in the long-run, they are clearing large linear areas of sometimes very mature eucalypts and other native vegetation that is increasing the degree of fragmentation of remaining native vegetation across the island. In turn this is increasingly forcing many birds into isolated populations that are consequently losing genetic diversity.
At this stage, the KI Yellow Wattlebird and the KI Black Currawong have not been included into the KITBCAP, but will be in due course. An application to have the King Island Scrub Complex, a vegetation complex unique to King Island that is used extensively by both species, to be listed under the EPBC Act (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act), as a threatened ecological community has been submitted by the King Island Landcare Group, but the result of this will not be known for some time.
April 2021 - COMMUNITY MEETING: Addressing the issue of Land Clearing and Loss of Habitat on King Island
WAKE UP CALL FOR KING ISLAND: OUR BIRD’S SEND A GRAVE
OUTCOMES FROM A COMMUNITY MEETING:
THE IMPACT OF LAND CLEARING ON OUR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
The integrity and health of King Island’s Natural Environment is declining rapidly.
This was the sobering message that was delivered to the community meeting held on the
24th April in the Cataraqui Room, King Island Hotel. It is a wake-up call to King Islanders
that our land management systems are no longer balanced.
Two of KI’s unique bird species, the King Island Black Currawong (Black Jay) and the King
Island Yellow Wattlebird, have been respectively identified as being Critically Endangered
and Endangered in 2020, having been assessed as Vulnerable in 2010.
Both of these King Island endemic birds areremembered as being common in
the 1960-70’s so the speed of decline leading to their nowthreatened status,
has been extremely steep in ecological terms and is well inside the lifespans
of many localresidents. The primary cause is the compounding impacts of
on-going land clearing across the island from windbreaks to large tracts
Over forty people attended the meeting. Some were visitorshere for the Wings on King surveys, but the majority were
local King Islanders representing all sides ranging from those concerned about the extent of land clearing to those
undertaking it. This was a great mixand allowed a strong and balanced discussion. Interestingly, all land holders
present agreed they were conservationists so the differences
were more about economics than about caring for and
preserving the island.
Kate Ravich opened the meeting with a brief explanation of how the presence,
absence and populations of birds indicate overall environmental health.
- Matthew Fielding, PhD candidate at Utas, who presented his research on
Ravens (Crows) on King and Flinders Islands.
- Dr Barry Baker, ecologist who knows KI well and is co-editor of
‘The 2020 Action Plan for Australian Birds,’ a decadal publication that, after
rigorous assessment and evaluation of research, advises on the status of all
Australian birds. It is this substantive process that identified the King Island
Black Currawong (Jay) and Yellow Wattlebird as Vulnerable (V)* in 2010 but
now as Critically Endangered (CR)* and Endangered (E)* respectively.
- Mark Holdsworth ecologist and threatened species
recovery expert gave an update on our other two
Critically Endangered species explaining that the KI Brown
Thornbill is being found in small remaining patches across
the island, but still in tiny numbers so while searching is still
occurring, the status of this little KI bird remains as the
next most likely Australian bird extinction.
Primary causes of these declines:
These presentations together identified the following, in order of degree, as the
primary issues causing the declines is some bird species and population
explosion in others:
- Loss of habitat: the clearing of windbreaks and large expanses of KI scrub andunderstory are significantly reducing breeding and food supplies for many species and increasing the fragmentation of remnant patches. This fragmentation reduces the ability of many species to mix together as they cannot disperse beyond their patch, ultimately leading to patch extinctions through loss of genetic diversity.
- Exacerbating this is the mass death of birds and other animals that occurs
when an area is cleared. Most of these species cannot just go somewhere else.
Neighbourhoods are already full and without a home territory to support them
they die often within hours or a few days. This may involve hundreds to
thousands of individuals for each clearing. So, the overall populations of
common species such as Superb Fairy-wrens (Blue Wrens) and Dusky
Robins will also be declining.
- Wallaby carcases left in paddocks and roads isthe primary cause of the
overpopulation of Ravens (Crows). This in turn, exacerbates the pressure on
small birds as Ravens take nestlings as a part of their diet.
- Cat and Magpie predation of small birds and starlings taking over nesting
hollows were also mentioned as contributing towards the decline for some
- State Government land clearing policies are not appropriate for King Island
which is ecologically not a part of Tasmania but functions separately and is
unique. Current laws are confusing, ineffectual and in some cases
Overall, it was agreed that preserving the island’s unique natural heritage as
well as its productivity is important and possible to do by using sustainable
farming methods. Ideas included:
- Habitat Loss and fragmentation of remnants: Further land clearing and
windbreak clearing should not be necessary other than for legitimate fire breaks. Landholders need to look beyond theirown land when making decisions. They are farming on a small, biologicallyunique island and everything they do on their land impacts on the island as a whole, so their impact is not isolated but is compounding. This also applies toHydro who need to be less zealous in clearing under lines.
- A number of alternative ideas were discussed regarding clearing for
fence replacement but allowing for regeneration noting it is much cheaper to
retain than to replant. More education for landholders into sustainable methods
of land management is needed. These include pasture improvements
and retaining windbreaks and forest/scrub patches that is demonstrably
beneficial for stock thus increasing productivity.
- Wallaby carcass removal: Due to the volume of wallabies, disposing of culled
carcases is always going to be difficult and costly. Never-the-less, the current
practices need to change. It was noted that the KI multi-species abattoir does
process hygienically killed wallaby and this is a valuable source of high-quality
meat for human consumption, so a mechanism to turn wallaby culling
into a productive extension of KI land management is already in place.
- Cat predation and Raven population control could be achieved by limiting
their food supply through better carcass management possibly including the
rewilding of Quolls and/or the introduction of Tasmanian Devils. Overall,
the meeting felt that if the Quolls could outdo wildcats that could be useful,
but introducing a new species to the island, Tassie Devils, was not acceptable.
- Starlings and excessive Magpie populations were not dealt with.
- Government policies are causing confusion and division across the island. KI
Landcare will again write to the relevant Ministers about this and others are
encouraged to do so. Landholders need an economic incentive to not clear land.
These could take a number of forms including carbon sequestration. While
retaining KI’s Clean and Green profile was not discussed it is relevant.
How we manage King Island into the future is not about blame or one side
Currently, we know we are failing. There is no longer a balance between the
natural environment that we all rely on for clean air etc and agriculture.
King Island’s birds are telling us that.
It is about us collectively deciding what we want and working to achieve that. At this
meeting there was overall agreement that we want to maintain the islands uniqueness and
retain it as a healthy and productive island for ourselves and for future generations. This
must include the retention of our wildlife diversity - flora and fauna - that add so much to its
richness, attracting tourism and new residents alike.
It is also about recognising that King Island is unique and that we, as its guardians, are all
responsible for keeping its environmental integrity. This doesn’t just apply to those who
own land although they do have the greatest influence, but rather belongs to each of us.
And finally, it is about discussing how we achieve this together. At the end of the meeting,
attendees were asked to take this information and message out into the community and
discuss it with friends and family. We hope this is happening.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria •
• V = likely to become endangered
• E = between 250-2500 individuals remaining
• CR = no more than 250 individuals remaining
Photo captions - top to bottom of this report:
1) Black Currawong x Dion Hobcroft
2) Yellow Wattlebird x Kate Armstrong
3-5) Matthew Fielding, Barry Baker and Mark Holdsworth presenting at the Meeting
6-7) Examples of recent clearing on King Island - photo 6 Forest Clearing in 2018 and photo 7 King Island Scrub clearing in 2021
8-9) Examples of healthy King Island scrub that is critical habitat for the KI Black Currawong and used extensively by KI Yellow Wattlebird
10). King Island Tasmanian Scrubwren and King Island Superb Fairy Wren - two endemic species that will also be in decline due to land clearing.
Attendees of the King Island Threatened Species workshop, 2019