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The 2013 Captive release program at Chiltern in NE Victoria

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Glen Johnson, from the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), outlines an exciting program to monitor the release of captive bred Regent honeyeaters, a nationally endangered bird species.     
The captive release program is centred on the box ironbark vegetation within the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, in NE Victoria. At this (Autumn Winter) time of the year the characteristic Mugga Ironbark and a variety of box species flower, creating a seasonal honey pot for nectar specialists, including semi nomadic honeyeaters like the Regent, who along with others follow episodic flowering events across south eastern Australia.

Victoria’s first captive bred Regent releases were undertaken in 2008 and 2010 and this year’s (2013) release involved 38 Regent honeyeaters which were reared at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.
The collaborative project is a partnership between Birdlife Australia, DEPI, Parks Victoria and Taronga Zoo (and affiliated institutions) on behalf of the national Regent Honeyeater Recovery Team.

A key feature of the release is the community engagement and the provision of real opportunities for the public to be hands-on involved in the delivery of this threatened species program. Key participating groups include the Friends of Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, Bird observers and Landcare. All of these resources contribute to coordinating a large scale volunteer monitoring program to help determine the success of the captive release.

Different aspects include survivorship of individuals, movement and habitat use. Twenty five birds have been fitted with small transmitters enabling daily radio tracking for the first 11 week (battery life) period. Birds with transmitters are tracked, and GPS waypoints capture specific location and habitat information. Importantly this process inevitably leads to wild and other captive release birds being located.

All released birds have four uniquely colour coded leg bands that enable individual bird identification that can be linked back to Zoo breeding (and genetics) records. With a bit of luck volunteers are likely to be able to continue monitoring for up to another 10 weeks post the tracking period, being reliant only on observers being able to hear and spot Regents in core areas (including hopefully breeding sites).

To date (three weeks post release) this year’s survival rate is over 90%, equitable with earlier Regent releases. This is a great result compared to other animal releases worldwide which generally have much higher failure rates.
Part of the secret of the Regent project success is timing the release to coincide with the start of the biennial (once every two year) box ironbark vegetation flowering.

What happens to the birds once the box ironbark stop flowering is not yet known.
Other bird species move to mountain areas in Victoria or further north into NSW and beyond.
This is where the colour leg banding of the Regent honeyeaters (both wild and captive released birds) enables us to learn more about longevity, movements and critical habitat requirements.

One wild banded Regent has recently been recorded having moved some 600 kilometres from Gippsland Victoria and central NSW.
So the next seven weeks radio tracking of these captive release Regents are crucial – and who knows you might spot one in your patch in a few months (or ten years) time? For the Regent honeyeater everyone seems to be on the right track.

Glen Johnson was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. All images are from the Chiltern release site, provided by Paul McQueen. Summary text by Victor Barry, May 2013.

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Introducing the Regent Honeyeater Week 18 of the 2013 Captive Release

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