12 Nov 2021

REGENT HONEYEATERS BY DAVID WATERHOUSE

David Waterhouse has been supporting WWF’s work for over 60 years, he continues his support through a Gift in his Will to WWF-Australia. In the year 2000 David went on a search for regent honeyeaters in NSW’s Capertee Valley and was delighted by what he saw. Twenty years later and the prized Regent has been listed as Critically Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). WWF-Australia’s work to protect and restore large areas of habitat is essential for our native species to survive.  

I was in the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains. It was mid-afternoon on a sunny day in August. A white box tree by the roadside was in profuse blossom. I pulled over onto the verge just beyond the huge eucalypt, switched off the engine and lowered the side window of the car. The sounds of nectar-feeding birds filled the air. Now and then among the familiar calls of the red wattlebirds and the little lorikeets, I could detect sounds which resembled the metallic notes a coppersmith would produce with a small hammer striking a metal bowl. A clear, repetitive clink clink clink noise.

Soon after getting out of the car, I looked for movement in the tree’s outer branches, it wasn’t long before I spotted several fairly large honeyeaters emitting those louds ‘clinks’. Their colour patterns were most striking. When a bird remained still for long enough, I could take in the detail of its unusual plumage, instead of merely seeing intermittent flashes of black and white and gold.  

There was no doubt about it, they were regent honeyeaters.  

At the time (August 2000), they were known to have declined considerably and I considered myself privileged to have seen them. Fifteen years later, they would be classified as critically endangered due to a variety of factors. Chief among these were habitat reduction and degradation.  

It was the first time that I had seen the birds at a close quarters and had been able to appreciate their splendid markings. 

David Waterhouse in Gujaret, India
© Courtesy of David Waterhouse

David Waterhouse has supported WWF since 1961 - Courtesy of David Waterhouse 

Their heads were jet black, contrasting with pale pink, bare patches around the eyes, larger in the male birds. Below their necks, their undersides were chequered like an elaborate tapestry. In fact, they were commonly seen in the past, they used to have a variety of local names, one of which was Embroidered Honeyeaters, a most apt name, I thought as I viewed them through my binoculars. When caught in full sunlight, the gold panels on their wings and backs stood out boldly and the sides of their tails were margined bright yellow.  

The Capertee Valley, one of the last strongholds of the species, is rich in flora and fauna and has an impressive variety of open woodland birds. Regents favour the area of rich soil, now mostly farmland, where the white and yellow boxes grow, along with the large narrow-leaved ironbarks. Also interspersed are stands of casuarinas, adorned with mistletoe, which is another food source for these birds.  

The district was settled by farmers as early as the 1820’s, soon after the Blue Mountains were crossed. It is bordered by a series of sandstone tabletops, similar to the grassy Drakensberg landforms in South Africa. There they were named inselbergs (island mountains) by the Dutch settlers. To motor through the valley, or to stand in one of the broad paddocks in the silence of the early morning or in the evening, is a therapeutic experience.  

Photographers and artists alike are well aware of this as they contemplate the scene and try to capture the atmosphere of the place on film or canvas. 

The valley also attracts birdwatchers hoping not only to see regents, but also swift parrots, turquoise parrots, square-tailed kites, barking owls, painted honeyeaters and other seldom-seen species.  

In the early 2000’s I become involved in a voluntary conservation scheme to help monitor the regents and plant more box trees, under the guidance of David Geering, who had studied the birds for some years. He had netted and banded some in order to learn about their movements. They appear to be nomadic in response to food supply and move as far afield as South East Queensland and north-eastern Victoria.  

During the planting operations, droughts in the valley were frequent and our efforts could well have been in vain if a sympathetic local council had not brought in water tankers to supply the thousands of seedlings with much-needed moisture.  

After our day-long planting sessions, David took us to try to locate some of the birds which he tried to net in order to band them. To help in this, he had an impressive-looking model of a regent honeyeater to act as a decoy. He also had sounds recordings of the birds’ calls, which he played to lure them closer. His attempts were unsuccessful on that particular occasion. As if in compensation for our disappointment, he managed to locate a bird sitting on its nest in the fork of a narrow-leaved ironbark, a favoured nesting tree. 

As honeyeater nests go, the regent constructs a relatively large nest bowl.  

The sitting bird, observed quietly from a respectful distance, was conspicuous because its long tail was facing us and protruding above the nest’s rim. The whole underside of the tail was a brilliant yellow colour and it stood out like a beacon.  

Although the brooding bird did not seem perturbed, we backed away from it after a short time so as not to alarm it, every new recruit to the dwindling population would be important if the whole species was to have a reasonable chance of survival.  

Tanya Pritchard, Darren Grover and Prishani Vengetas at a tree planting event with our partners at Envite in Swan Bay, NSW.
© WWF-Australia / Free Vreman

Tanya Pritchard, Darren Grover and Prishani Vengetas at a tree planting event with our partners at Envite in Swan Bay, NSW. 

Twenty years since I saw that nesting regent honeyeater, efforts are still being made to conserve the bird, both in New South Wales and Victoria, but its fate still hangs in the balance.  

Much is now known about regents, but a lot more needs to be learnt as the reasons for their now drastic decline are still not entirely clear.  

If they were to finally go extinct, only a few people would know or care. Those of us who knew them would pass away too in a few years. A century or so later, the trees in which those honeyeaters sought their sustenance would also die. Finally, only the silent inselbergs would have been witness to those unusual embroidered birds which had shared the Capertee Valley with them for millennia.

Large scaled regeneration projects like WWF-Australia’s Towards Two Billion Trees are required to restore native habitat that has been lost, providing animals like the regent honeyeater with a chance of survival into the future. 

But we can’t achieve this alone. Together with your support, we can make the changes needed to move Australia from a deforestation hotspot to a reforestation leader.  

One of the most effective ways to have an impact on this work into the future is by leaving a Gift in your Will. Australia’s forests are our shared heritage and our legacy, and can be a part of yours.  

Have you made a legacy or are you thinking of making one? Share your story with us, we’d love to hear about it. Email us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au