When the flames of the destructive fires were extinguished, a quiet fell across the 379-hectare feral predator-free refuge established by Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), Terrain Ecology, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife (KI LfW) and local landholders (the Doube family) to protect a suite of endemic and endangered wildlife from predation by feral cats. The birdsongs of two species – the Western Whipbird and Southern Emu-wren – that once filled the refuge’s Mallee Woodlands and Heathlands, could no longer be heard as huge tracts of their vegetation had been incinerated. Their calls have remained absent since and the species was uplisted to endangered.
Fortunately, conservationists believe that there has been a change of flight, with recently retrieved camera trap images capturing a pair of Western Whipbirds inside the western boundary of the Western River Refuge.
“The Western Whipbird has a very loud and distinctive call, it reverberates through the bushland,” said Pat Hodgens, principal ecologist of Terrain Ecology, contracted by AWC to deliver a science program on Western River Refuge. “Before the Black Summer fires, you could go into most pieces of bushland and expect to hear at least one.”
“Following the fires, the Western Whipbird could be found in fire scars within the Flinders Chase National Park and in the large unburnt North West Conservation Alliance, but within the refuge area, they were persisting in a little unburnt patch of bush. We were looking for Kangaroo Island Dunnarts and came across other species including a few Whipbirds. There was so much competition within this tiny patch, that despite providing supplementary feeding, the birds slowly moved out and eventually just disappeared.”
Pat and the Western River Refuge team conduct bird surveys twice a year in the hopes of encountering the missing birds but despite looking, listening, and playing recordings of their calls, they have been unable to detect the Whipbird at the site.
“We have 28 camera traps set up within the refuge that we use to monitor the progress of the Kangaroo Island Dunnart and the Southern Brown Bandicoot, but they also incidentally pick up other species,” said Pat. “A couple of weeks ago, we were flicking through a few thousand camera trap images and by chance, there was a pair of Whipbirds in two of the images.”
The pair just happened to land and start foraging across from a little drift fence where Pat and the team had set up a camera.
“It was like finding a needle in a haystack, a chance encounter,” said Pat. “The vegetation within the refuge is back to a point where there is enough habitat for the Whipbird to live and thrive. It has been a waiting game to see how long it will take for the species to recolonise the fire zone at this site and although it has taken a little longer than expected, it looks like they are slowly making their way back.”
Pat continued, explaining that as a mid-sized species, the Whipbird forages amongst the leaves on the ground, making them vulnerable to predation by feral cats.
“This pair is currently living in Western River Refuge, the only cat-free area on Kangaroo Island,” said Pat. “We’re hoping they will stay and breed up within the safety of the haven.”
Over the last year, Pat and the team have been encouraged by the number of Kangaroo Island Dunnarts captured on camera traps as well as the increase in Southern Brown Bandicoots. Although Pat says bandicoot numbers are still low, they are being seen more frequently in new locations, indicating that they are breeding.
“The ecosystem within the refuge is in a much healthier state,” explained Pat. “We are hoping this leads to more dunnart, bandicoot and Bush Rat encounters as well as the return of other species, such as the Southern Emu-wren.”
Western River Refuge is a joint project between AWC, Terrain Ecology, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife and private landholders on Kangaroo Island. For more information on the predator-free safe haven, click here.