Uncovering the mystery of Australia’s rarest bird of prey
Dr Richard Seaton, Senior Ecologist
With its enormous taloned feet, rufous-striped body, powerful hooked bill and crested head, the Red Goshawk is nothing short of spectacular. This Australian endemic was once found throughout the tall eucalypt forests that stretch from New South Wales to Cape York, and across the Top End to the Kimberley. Although never a common species, its range has greatly retracted in recent decades and the Red Goshawk is now considered Australia’s rarest bird of prey. Widespread habitat clearance and modification have been the primary drivers of this decline.
Requiring large tracts of biodiverse habitat, the Red Goshawk naturally occurs at low densities and is highly cryptic in nature. As a result, it is regarded among birders and ecologists as a difficult bird to see and study. The specifics of the bird’s ecological requirements and, accordingly, how we might best conserve them, have been frustratingly difficult to describe.
Actions to assist Red Goshawk recovery
In 2014, a Recovery Team for the Red Goshawk was formed and a feasibility study began to find nesting pairs and establish whether their movements could be tracked using satellite GPS technology.
This adult Red Goshawk has been fitted with a transmitter and is ready to be released.
Efforts to locate Red Goshawks in south-east Queensland and northern NSW came up empty-handed, strongly suggesting the species no longer breeds in the southern part of its former range. The following year however, a nest was reported on Cape York Peninsula, near Weipa. Through a partnership between Rio Tinto and the Queensland Government, plans were quickly hatched to trial capture techniques and – all going well – fit a lightweight transmitter to track the bird’s movements. After several unsuccessful trapping attempts in which I became uncomfortably familiar with Cape York’s green ants and mosquitoes, we successfully caught our first bird and attached a transmitter. Since then several birds on Cape York have been successfully tracked.
AWC’s role in protecting the Red Goshawk
AWC is conducting crucial research to describe the ecological requirements of the Red Goshawk and increase our understanding about how to effectively conserve these rare birds. AWC’s involvement has expanded the survey area to potentially include tracking birds on AWC sanctuaries. Suitable habitat occurs on many of AWC’s north Australian sanctuaries. We are hopeful Red Goshawks are present and we can expand our tracking efforts to include all of these sites.
Adding a huge boost to the research effort is Chris MacColl, from University of Queensland, who is researching the ecological requirements of the Red Goshawk for his doctorate. To date, Chris, with the help of AWC and other project partners, has begun tracking the movements of eight birds – four adults and four fledglings. Preliminary findings indicate some huge and unexpected movements made by both adults and juveniles of up to several hundred kilometres, but there is still work to be done before the full picture is revealed. These initial results are exciting and give us confidence AWC can make a significant contribution to both our understanding and the conservation of Australia’s rarest bird of prey.