BIRDLIFE NORTHERN QLD’S BOWERBIRD PROJECT

9 SEPTEMBER 2021

How do you track down a bowerbird when it lives in dense rainforest and mimics the sounds of other native birds?

Dominic Chaplin will tell you it’s no easy task. But he and other ‘birders’ have been at it for over 10 years regardless and they’ve mapped more than 700 bowers – which will be used to measure future climate change in the Wet Tropics.

Bowerbirds as climate change indicators

Golden bowerbirds and tooth-billed bowerbirds are known to return to the same bowers – which are built to attract mates – for years and even decades. So when a Malanda local noticed that some bowers at relatively low elevation levels were no longer being used, it prompted Birdlife Northern Queensland volunteers to begin a follow-up monitoring program. Luckily, more bowers were located close by.

“Golden bowerbirds only live in the Wet Tropics and they breed in upland rainforest, 95 per cent of them between 800 and 1600m,’’ Dominic says. “They’ve been ranked No.2 in a list of species considered the most vulnerable to future climate change in the Wet Tropics because, unlike many other species, they won’t be able to move to higher ground to avoid higher temperatures.”

Dominic and others have been locating and monitoring bowers from Mt Amos near Cooktown to Mt Finnigan south of Townsville, with sites including the top of Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere.

“About three years ago I was sitting at the top and I heard a little rattling call,’’ he says of the hike up Bartle Frere. “After making my way through the bush, I found a bower and saw a golden bowerbird. This bird would be the last one standing if the full predictions on climate change were to become a reality.”

The surveys have also led Dominic up dense forested slopes including on Mt Pieter Botte in the Daintree, Devil’s Thumb at Mossman, Mt Lewis, Edith and Baldy on the Atherton Tableland and Mt Elliot south of Townsville. He’s pretty much traversed the length and breadth of the Wet Tropics bioregion – with secateurs, binoculars and a high tolerance for mosquitoes, leeches and wait-a-while vine!

Mapping bowers across the Wet Tropics

Dominic and fellow citizen scientists have mapped the bowers of 118 golden bowerbird and 650 tooth-billed bowerbirds. The data is being used in an upcoming revision of the Action Plan for Australian Birds.

He says the bower mapping serves as baseline data. “Both species are still present across all of the known range. The next step is to try and count the numbers within this range. Climate change is happening slowly and steadily. A declining population might vanish from the northern or southern extremes of its range.

golden bowerbird

“We also need to look at bowers at lower altitudes. While birds have still be seen using the area, one bower in sub-optimal habitat at 635m, in Topaz, is of interest.

“Our next stage is to set up 25 different walks, 1km in length, for bowerbird monitoring and to compare counts over the years to determine any changes.

“This monitoring will be based on the tooth-billed bowerbird because they live in the same areas and are easier to locate. They mimic all kinds of other birds, especially drongos, so you can be thrown sometimes but they are consistently loud, unlike golden bowerbirds which are quiet and can be difficult to detect.”

The work has been recognised by agencies such as the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub and the Wet Tropics Management Authority. Dominic earned the WTMA Cassowary Award for Innovation this year, sponsored by Terrain, for his leading role in the project.

Bowerbird monitoring public talks

You’re invited: Birdlife Northern Queensland will host Bowerbird Monitoring talks at Cominos House in Cairns on Monday 11 October from 7.30pm and at the Malanda Hotel on Thursday 14 October from 7.30pm. There will also be a Birdlife Northern Queensland Monitoring Weekend on 23-24 October To find out more, contact dominic@pinecreekpictures.com.au

Become a Terrain NRM member

Terrain NRM is a community-based membership organisation. The Tree Kangaroo and Mammal Group is one of 80+ members in a network involved in natural resource management in the Wet Tropics. Find out more at https://terrain.org.au/membership/

Bowerbird image: Dominic Chaplin

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