Cockies continue to prove elusive

Image Rick Dawson
More than 175 volunteers participated in the annual count for the endangered South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo back on 5 May across the cockatoo’s range in the South East of South Australia and South West Victoria.


Despite the huge search effort, which saw over 3600kms of stringybark forest tracks covered, our cockies proved once again elusive with less than a third of our counters locating Red-tails on the day.

After taking into consideration double counts and two additional sightings of Red-tails recorded on days either side of the count the final tally stands at 839 birds - which is slightly more than the 810 birds recorded last year.

A total of 43 sightings were made on the day, however many of these were double counts of the same birds.

The distribution of sightings was again widespread with one flock seen as far north as McCallum (40km NE of Keith). Flock sizes were also smaller than usual with only four large flocks (greater than 80 birds) recorded.  

Red-tails are notoriously difficult to find. What makes it more challenging is when flock sizes are small, widespread and located in areas that our counters can’t access, such as private land.

Larger flocks are often noisier and so more likely to be detected than smaller flocks, while birds on private land can be easily missed if not for the support of the landholder.

Weather conditions also play a big part in the number of birds counted on the day. This year we experienced less than ideal conditions (wet and windy) in both the lead up to the count and on the day -  across most parts of the range. Windy conditions make hearing birds difficult and let’s face it - you’re more likely to hear a Red-tail before you see one.

Although total numbers are down, it’s unlikely the population has suffered a mass decline since our biggest count of over 1500 birds back in 2015. Its more likely that birds were scattered widely across their range and simply missed on the day.

The overall prognosis for the population, however, is far from good.

Flock counts, which are undertaken after the annual count and provide our best indication of breeding success, have revealed a disturbing trend with declining numbers of females and juveniles recorded in flocks over time.

Fewer adult females means fewer breeding pairs and thus fewer offspring; fewer juveniles means less birds available to replace present breeding pairs in future.

Unfortunately, the last good breeding event was more than 10 years ago. Breeding success is strongly linked to stringybark food availability, with more successful breeding in years of plentiful food.

Counts of large flocks are currently underway based on the information gained through the annual count. Once completed, this will indicate how well the birds bred last season.

This year, large flocks were found near Rennick, Chetwynd, Wattle Range (west of Penola) and Mumbannar. The biggest of these comprised 135 birds drinking from a trough on private land adjacent Rennick State Forest.

Other sightings were made near Harrow, Goroke, Charam, Wandilo, Dry Creek, Dergholm, Lake Mundi, Heywood, Willalooka, Clear Lake, Lucindale, McCallum and Casterton.

Interestingly, many flocks seen this year were found on private land which is why the widespread efforts of landholders to put feeding habitat back on their properties is so important.

The annual Baileys’ Rocks campout was again well attended with around 30 volunteers braving cold conditions to share results and tales from another long days counting. This year’s biggest counters were Adrienne and Trudy who counted the large flock at Rennick.

BirdLife Australia and the Red-tail Recovery Team would like to thank all the wonderful volunteers involved on the day including those that reported sightings in the lead up to the count.

This year we had a great mix of new and returning participants comprising interested local volunteers, farmers who chose to survey their own stringybark patches, and interstate participants many of whom travelled long distances to take part. Without their incredible effort, this event would not be possible.

Finally, a special thanks to Evan Roberts, Kerry Gilkes and Felicity Lord for their assistance with promoting the count and getting local landholders involved on the day and Tim Burnard for running the training session in Casterton and organising the campsite at Baileys Rocks.

The SERTBC Recovery Program is managed by BirdLife Australia and is supported by Natural Resources South East, Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority and Wimmera Catchment Management Authority through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.

A map of the count results will be available soon.

Bronwyn Perryman

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