Eungella honeyeater

AUTHORS: DARYL BARNES AND GRAHAM ARMSTRONG, BIRDLIFE MACKAY

PHOTOGRAPHY: DARYL BARNES AND GRAHAM ARMSTRONG

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Inland from the coastal town of Mackay in central Queensland and bordering the Pioneer Valley, is the Clarke Range. Recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area by Birdlife Australia, it is home to the endemic Eungella honeyeater (Bolemoreus hindwoodi). This honeyeater has the smallest distribution of any mainland Australian bird and is listed as Vulnerable under Queensland’s Nature Conservation Act.

In Eungella National Park, from 500 metres above sea level to the summit of Mt Dalrymple (1,227 metres), is a narrow stretch of plateau rainforest. This plateau is critical habitat for the Eungella honeyeater.

Since the recognition of the Eungella honeyeater, in 1983, as a separate species from the more northern bridled honeyeater, efforts have been made to learn more about its habits, movements and population size. However, much remains to be learned.

The most significant obstacles to this endeavour are the rugged inaccessibility of much of the Clarke Range and the bird’s mobility. An opportunistic feeder, the Eungella honeyeater relies on resources like nectar, honeydew, manna and lerps, which progressively become available across its range throughout the year.

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To add to the frustration of locating the honeyeater, the birds are in almost constant motion, flying in and out of flowering trees or vines, stopping but briefly to feed and often hiding amongst dense vegetation. Only the patient observer and dedicated photographer will enjoy the pleasure of seeing a stationary bird.

In the dry winter months, the birds are known to forage to the south in Crediton State Forest and to the north in Cathu State Forest. Concerns about the effect on the honeyeater of continued small scale, selective logging of these forest areas led to surveys being conducted in the winter months of 2014-2016 by members of the Mackay branch of Birdlife Australia and a Mackay Conservation Group analyst.

The work was funded by the Mackay Regional Council and Mackay Conservation Group. From this work the Eungella honeyeater population was estimated to be upward of 5,000 individuals. The report also included a consideration of the potential effect of climate change on the timing, frequency and abundance of flowering events in the Clarke Range and how that could impact the Eungella honeyeater.

More recently, the Eungella honeyeater has had to contend with rampant bushfires in Crediton and Cathu State Forests. The result of an unprecedented dry spell in November last year, the fires burnt into the rainforest habitat of Eungella. About 10% of the national park was burnt.

Observations in the days following the November fires indicated most of the damaged habitat occurred in adjacent state forests with the ‘true’ rainforest areas only marginally affected around the fringes. Small numbers of Eungella honeyeaters were encountered at various locations, with random sightings reported throughout the national park and in the Eungella township, where native garden plants attract occasional birds.

However, the longer-term effect of the fires and other factors on the Eungella honeyeater will need to be determined through formal population surveys in coming months and years.

The national profile of the Eungella honeyeater is increasing and we are slowly learning more about the potential threats it faces. A concerted effort to understand the bird more completely is required to help ensure its future.

Another important step has been the recent inclusion of higher altitude Eungella honeyeater habitat in a Banding of Bushbirds project. Recently, three Eungella honeyeaters were caught and banded, an important first step in understanding the bird’s movements. Local birders continue to visit the more accessible areas of Eungella National Park, including areas affected by fire, and reassuringly, the Eungella Honeyeater continues to be seen and heard in unburnt areas.

Through the Mackay and Whitsunday environmental groups, and members of the local community, interest in the Eungella honeyeater has increased over the years. The Mackay Branch of Birdlife Australia has provided labour, support and enthusiasm. We now have an improved knowledge of the bird and public awareness has also increased.