New Gouldian finches found in Kimberley

By Natalie Muller 24 January 2012
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Conservationists in WA’s Dampier Peninsula have discovered a breeding population of the rare Gouldian finch.

THE RARE AND BEAUTIFUL Gouldian finch is hardly ever seen on the Dampier Peninsula in the western Kimberley, but indigenous rangers have now found a population of the birds breeding there.

The Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae) was once common in the savannah woodlands across northern Australia, but numbers have dwindled in the past 50 years.

The 2500 or so remaining are mostly scattered in the eastern Kimberley around Wyndham, and in parts of the Northern Territory and northern Queensland. But the birds change their breeding and feeding spots from year to year, depending on conditions.

Not a transient population

Trevor Sampi an indigenous ranger with the Bardi Jawi people says that locals had reported seeing the brightly-coloured birds, but it wasn’t until he went to do fieldwork in the bush that he saw them for himself.

“We sighted the Gouldian finches a couple of weeks ago whilst undertaking weed control and decided we needed to have a concerted look in areas that we knew they had been seen before by our old people,” he says. “It was great to find more of them.” The rangers, who are working with WWF Australia and Environs Kimberley, spotted juvenile birds, and believe the area is a breeding ground.

“The fact that they’re breeding there means that the population isn’t just a transient population,” says Louise Beames, Environs Kimberley projects coordinator. “It shows how important it is to continue to care for land and improve fire management on the Dampier Peninsula.”

Threats to birds

Scientists say fires, cattle grazing and weeds are the main threats to Gouldian finches across northern Australia. The birds are also picky about their preferred habitat, and are susceptible to any change in their environment.

Louise says conserving woodlands in the area is critical now that breeding populations have been discovered there. “The monsoon vine thicket on the Dampier Peninsula is a threatened ecological community,” she says. “It’s been really important that we try to manage fire and keep it out of that more sensitive ecosystems.”

The next stage of their conservation work will be to work out the size of the population. In the east Kimberley there are 8-12 isolated breeding populations with 40-120 birds. In Mornington there are around 700 birds. It is as yet unknown how many are in the Dampier Peninsula.

Gouldian finches in the eastern Kimberley (Credit: Bruce Doran).  

Improvements in finch numbers

Dr Judit Szabo, an expert in threatened bird conservation at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, says Gouldian finch numbers have improved in recent years, and the discovery of a new breeding population is a sign of sustainable fire and cattle grazing management.

“It’s a good thing that the birds are there because it signifies a grassland in good health,” she says. “It’s really difficult for this finch…it’s moving large distances for feeding and breeding and it needs a patchwork of different grasslands to find food.”

Judit co-authored The Action Plan for Australian Birds, an assessment of threats facing species in 2011. In this latest evaluation, the Gouldian finch’s status was downgraded from endangered to near-threatened, because their numbers in the wild have been slowly growing.

The new population now needs to be carefully monitored. “It’s a good thing that it’s breeding there,” she says. “They just need to make sure there aren’t too many feral animals grazing, and that the fire regimes are kept in a pattern which is good for the finches.”