Gouldian Finch Project

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Australia/New-Zealand > Australia

Red headed male Gouldian finch
© Mike Fidler

Summary

The project aims to improve the conservation status of the Gouldian finch Erythrura gouldiae, with a particular focus on introducing more appropriate fire regimes.

The focal area to be targeted by this project is predominately a group of adjacent indigenous pastoral lands in east Kimberley (Western Australia), totalling an area of approximately 1.8million ha (18,000km2).

The project is driven largely by the information, objectives and actions outlined in the recovery plan for the Gouldian finch.

Background

The Gouldian finch is an endangered seed-eating bird, one of several granivore species occurring in the northern savannahs which have declined dramatically since the onset of European settlement. Large flocks of up to a thousand of these brightly coloured small birds used to be a regular feature of the northern savannah landscapes from Queensland to Kimberley.

However, within the last 100 years, Gouldian finches have all but disappeared from the wild in Queensland, and now exist in a number of small populations in the Northern Territory and Kimberley region of Western Australia. Population estimates at the best-studied site in the Yinberrie Hills near Katherine suggest that fewer than 250 adult birds survive through the wet season to breed in the following dry season. It appears that numbers fluctuate significantly between years, dependent on the previous season’s rainfall or wildfire pattern.

Vegetation change caused by inappropriate fire regimes and grazing impacts of stock and feral herbivores are the factors most likely to be contributing to the ongoing decline, or absence of recovery, in Gouldian populations.

The contemporary fire regime in northern Australia is dominated by frequent, extensive, hot, late dry season wildfires, with large tracts of the region burning every year. This regime is believed to differ markedly from that imposed by Aboriginal people prior to European settlement, when fire was used regularly to manage country so that a patchier pattern of smaller burns existed, and single fires were less likely to travel hundreds of kilometres as they do today.

The current fire regime is believed to be detrimentally affecting a range of species, including granivorous birds, fire-sensitive plant communities, and a suite of medium-sized mammals.

Fire is also known to affect seed productivity in key wet season grasses that Gouldian finches rely on to tide them over the resource bottleneck period that occurs early in the year. Both cockatoo grass and curly spinifex seed production is reduced in areas burnt in successive years. Fires can also affect the availability of tree hollows for nesting, and Gouldian finches tend to avoid hollows that have been burnt.

There is some evidence supporting a link between Gouldian population persistence and the maintenance of heterogeneous fire patterns in landscapes – either due to management intervention or due to topographic features that restrict the spread of wildfires.
Grazing intensity has been shown to be correlated with granivorous bird decline across the northern savannahs, and data suggest that the negative impacts of grazing may be worse where pastoral settlement occurred earlier, as in Queensland (Franklin et al 2005).

Key Gouldian finch wet season grasses - cockatoo grass and golden beard grass - are selectively grazed by cattle and horses, which negatively impacts seed production in these species. Feral pigs have also been shown to cause significant damage to patches of cockatoo grass in the Yinberrie Hills, and both cattle and buffalo can reduce or degrade waterholes used by Gouldian finches in the dry season by trampling and eating surrounding vegetation.

Objectives

To improve the national conservation status of the Gouldian finch through improvements in population trends, focusing on the east/central Kimberley region and the key threat of altered fire regimes.

Solution

Areas have been targeted for action based on:

- Suitability of habitat for Gouldian finches.
- Current fire management regime on property and potential for improvement.
- Proximity of properties (adjacent properties will be favoured).
- Willingness to become involved in project.
- Consideration for the geography of current fire projects (recognising the need to build on, not duplicate other efforts).

Specific measures include:
1. Once properties and stakeholders have been finalised, an agreed fire management plan for the region will be developed in collaboration with the Gouldian finch co-ordinator.

2. Land managers of selected properties are engaged in proactive fire management through working with project officer based in the east Kimberley.

3. Implement early dry season fire management plan for 3 years, incorporating on-ground work and aerial control burning

4. Annually monitor Gouldian populations’ responses to the fire management at selected sites. Sites will be selected based on the best available science (CSIRO modelling).

5. Report on the management actions (measurable via satellite mapping) and make the Gouldian finch numbers public and distributed to the stakeholders involved, and also the wider community.

In summary, the solution is to provide the vehicle for land mangers to be engaged in proactive fire management, with that vehicle being a mix of education, support for on-ground operations, and skills to plan and implement aerial control burning works.

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