A bird in the hand is better than a bird in the bush, as the saying goes, and I had a wry smile on my face, looking at a forty-spotted pardalote in the cup of my palm.
I had set off to find the forty-spot, which is confined to just a few stretches of gum woodlands in Tasmania, and here I was holding a bird retrieved from the mist-net used to catch it.
The location was north Bruny Island, the main stronghold of the pardalote, and my services had been enlisted by a researcher studying the species, Amanda Edworthy.
There was something extraordinary about holding that tiny bird in my giant hand. It had been given a health check and weighed by Amanda, with surer hands than mine, and then given to. A fragile bird is transformed by such proximity. I felt the hollow-boned weightlessness of it, the warm life that nestled there for a moment, looking at me and looking around it with black pinhead eyes.
I held it while Amanda took out pliers and a silver ring from her tool kit ready to band it for future identification. And when this was done, I opened my hand, fully flat, and this bundle of feathers and bone fluttered into the air and was gone, vanishing into the blue-green foliage of the nearest white gum. At that moment, the connection broken, I felt something precious had been lost.
In a boarder context, it looked just a few years ago as though the entire population of these birds – at nine centimetres second smallest, after the weebills, in the nation – would be lost. Already depleted numbers were in freefall, falling by an estimated 80 per cent into the second decade of the 21st century.
It was then that Amanda Edworthy, funded by the Australia National University as part of a bigger initiative co-ordinated by the Tasmanian government environmental agencies, came to Bruny Island with plans building on previous ones to save the pardalote.
Although the forty-spot conservation effort is largely centred on Bruny, other populations survive on Maria Island off Tasmania’s east coast. Sadly, a once thriving if small population in the Peter Murrell Reserve, in Kingston south of Hobart, appears to have collapsed. Along with Tasmania’s orange-bellied parrot, it remains one of the rarest birds in the world.
Once off the Bruny Island ferry, however, forty-spots are not hard to find in their favoured white gum woodlands right across the twin Bruny islands. Sightings are virtually guaranteed along the dirt road that turns off the main north-south road and ends at Dennes Point in the far north. Another place to find them on the north island is along the Queen Elizabeth Track, leading off the main road just before the island’s airstrip, to the Bruny Island Neck Game Reserve.
In recent years the forty-spot hunt has been made easier by the placement of more 200 nesting boxes for these cavity-nesting birds across the islands and finding these will reveal birds during the nesting season. Out of this, the birder takes his or her chances, but it is likely the forty-spots will remain in the general areas of boxes because these are all placed in white eucalypt woodlands and forty-spots are not known to travel great distances from breeding ranges.
The decline of the species in Kingston in recent years appears to mirror the bird’s fate across most of its limited range. When Amanda, who hails from Canada, arrived in Tasmania in 2012 on her pardalote project as part of PhD studies with ANU, the forty-spot looked in dire straits.
Numbers of forty-spots had plummeted by 60 per cent to just 1500 birds from population counts a decade earlier. No one knew why, and Amanda was charged with finding out. Before this the population of forty-spots was thought to be secure until birders stopped seeing them in places where they were virtually guaranteed. In a couple of years Amanda, who had never worked with forty-spots before, came up with solid reasons for forty-spot decline.
The clearing of white gum forests – in which the forty-spots feed and breed exclusively – have led to forty-spot decline since Tasmania was first settled by Europeans two centuries ago and in more modern times further decreases in populations have been attributed to die-back in gums hit by drought. This might play a part but Amanda also discovered the forty-spot young were subject to attacks by a parasitic fly when they were in the nest. Many of the young died of anaemia after fly larvae fed on their blood.
This could well have been an historic problem facing the species but, with large thriving numbers in the past, it might not have affected overall breeding rates. With a drastically smaller population, the loss of young species was magnified, possibly making a difference between the loss or survival of the species.
Together with mist-netting flying pardalotes, Amanda had to climb trees to study young in nest boxes, and she brought these nestlings down to the ground for inspection. Along with the adult birds, I also held chicks in my hand and could see for myself the scarring of their bald bodies, the result of fly larvae attaching themselves to the skin and draining blood.
To protect young in nests from such parasitism, Amanda chose to spray an insecticide in nest cavities which was harmless to the nestlings but lethal for the pests.
During her research Amanda also confirmed a fascinating fact about the forty-spot, noted by earlier researchers. The species is seen to “farm” manna, a sugary secretion produced by the tree in response to insect attack. The birds peck holes in the leaves, and then return a little later to feed on the flowing manna produced to “heal” the damaged leaf.
When I tell birders I have actually held a forty-spot in the hand, they always ask if I counted the spots. I’ve tried and reached about 20, which I’m sure is a more correct number. I’m mystified why the forty-spots were given this common name but the spots on the blue-black wings certainly help the birds blend in with the lustrous leaves of the white gum foliage. The upper head and back is bottle-green, and the face and chest are lime green. The birds, with short tails, appear very stumpy when viewed in the canopy from below and they always remind me of giant bumblebees.
Habitat and distribution: Dry eucalypt forest and woodland only where white gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) occurs. Diet: A variety of insects, and also lerps (a protective insect coating) and manna. The birds are called “foliage gleaners” because of the way they pick the insects from the leaves and branches. Breeding: The nest is built of fine bark and usually placed in the hollow of a mature tree. Four white eggs. Song: This differs seasonally, a high-pitched double note “te-wint” in the breeding season, and at other times a “where… where… where… where”. Size: 9cm.