Rare Birds back home in Gippsland after Bushfire Rescue

02 April 2020

Endangered birds rescued from the East Gippsland bushfires earlier this year have been released back to the wild.

Seven Eastern Bristlebirds have been returned to Howe Flat near Mallacoota after being brought to Melbourne Zoo for their own safety when their territory was threatened by a huge blaze in early February. Two more remain in the care of Zoos Victoria.

There are thought to be fewer than 180 of the birds living in the area and it is the only Victorian population of the endangered species, which is ground-dwelling and semi-flightless.

Dr Katherine Selwood, Zoos Victoria’s Senior Threatened Species Biologist, is overjoyed about the successful release. She said: “It is such a relief. It’s been a huge couple of months.”

The rescue mission was launched in the first week of February, and is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia. Its aim was to bring a small group of the birds back to Melbourne Zoo in order to ensure the survival of the population if the rest were killed in the bushfires.

It was a joint operation by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Parks Victoria, Zoos Victoria, Monash and Wollongong universities, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and the Orbost Incident Management Team.

Experts were flown in by the Australian Defence Force in a Chinook helicopter, and the birds were netted. They were brought to live temporarily in specially-prepared enclosures at Melbourne Zoo until the fire danger had passed.

Dr Selwood said that the pockets of heathland where the birds live ended up being spared despite huge swathes of Cape Howe being burned out. She said: “The fires came super close to the habitat, and they kept popping up again and again. It’s only really recently that the fire has been declared under control.”

With their home declared safe, seven birds were collected at Melbourne Zoo at first light on Wednesday morning, checked by a vet and taken to Essendon Airport for a chartered light aircraft flight to Mallacoota followed by a short boat ride to Howe Flat. There the birds were released into their heathland home.

Coloured bands were put on the birds’ legs so they can be identified during regular monitoring by DELWP.

Meanwhile Dr Selwood said of the birds’ time in Melbourne: “It’s been really valuable in terms of learning about the species. We’ve dealt with challenges not previously encountered in the species, which has significantly progressed knowledge on their captive care and conservation. This included transporting them from the furthest point in Victoria that you can get from Melbourne Zoo, a long journey for a semi-flightless bird!”

She added: “What this whole experience has shown me is that a mission like this takes an incredible number of people all working together, and everyone has a role to play.”