Bobbin' robins

Wednesday 21 December, 2011
Red-capped robinThe red-capped robin, a sign of a healthy ecosystem, repaired by Bush heritage supporters. Photo: Rob Drummond.

Good news from Boolcoomatta

He may turn his back on you if you're trying to watch him, but as Lucy Ashley discovered, the red-capped robin has plenty to tell about how well you're looking after his home.

If you're lucky enough to spot one perched on a stump or a branch near the ground, you'll see why the red-capped robin is known as one of the busiest birds in the Australian bush.

Stand a moment and watch this tiny creature flicking its wings and tail feathers while it combs the ground for food, but don't look away for long or it will be off. Catching unwary insects for dinner is important stuff - and these diminutive robins are masters of the chase.

While it sometimes catches prey airborne, the red-capped robin mostly forages for food on the ground. It cocks its head to one side, quickly lifting one wing and then the other, shuffling its feet about in the leaf litter. This is the red-capped robin's inventive way of flushing out prey – or perhaps it's just doing its zumba.

Red-throatRed-throat saw a 655% Increase in abundance from 2006 to 2010 Photo: Graeme Chapman.

The red-capped robin gets its name from the spectacular plumage adorning the male – a distinctive scarlet cap and chest. However, the female was short-changed in the plumage department. Unlike its showy partner, it's a nondescript grey-brown, with just a slight reddish tint to the crown.

Being highly visible in the Australian bush can have its drawbacks. Male robins have been known to turn their backs on observers in a somewhat comic attempt to disappear.

Birds at Boolcoomatta are thriving

While the red-capped robin is not identified as a threatened species in Australia, it's declining in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It's one of many insect-feeding bird species that have suffered greatly due to land clearing and habitat destruction.

White-winged fairy-wren235% increase in adundance for the White-winged fairy wren (2006-2010). Photo: Lochman Transparencies.

In the 250 years since Europeans arrived in Australia, 26 of our 850 native bird species or sub-species have been driven to extinction. By 2000, one in five native birds was listed as threatened.

But thanks to Bush Heritage supporters, it's a different story for many of the other bird species at Boolcoomatta Reserve in South Australia.

Between 2006 and 2010 we recorded population increases of 235% for the white-winged fairy wren, 395% for the rufous fieldwren, 655% for the redthroat, 165% for the chestnut‑crowned babbler and 109% for the chirruping wedgebill.

The results are a welcome reward for Bush Heritage ecologist Sandy Gilmore and his team of volunteers, who have together carried out five bird surveys since Bush Heritage supporters began protecting Boolcoomatta.

"With shrubland and ground-foraging birds in decline right across Australia, these results on Boolcoomatta clearly buck the trend," says Sandy.

Rufous field-wrenRufous fieldwren saw a 395% increase from 2006 to 2010. Photo: Graeme Chapman.

"As well as population increases, we have also found that many bird species have colonised Boolcoomatta or been recorded for the first time such as the brown songlark, grey fantail and red-capped robin."

What we can learn from birds

The results are also good news for Bush Heritage supporters – since birds are present in just about every ecosystem and almost every level of the food chain, they can tell us a lot about how an ecosystem and its various elements are performing.

The increasing number and size of bird populations at Boolcoomatta is a good indicator that our management practices are working – and it's all made possible by the ongoing support of the Bush Heritage community.

Back at Boolcoomatta, the red-capped robin has one more fascinating trick up its sleeve.

Ecologist Sandy GilmoreEcologist Sandy Gilmore at Boolcoomatta Reserve, SA. Photo: Bron Willis.

The male bird's red plumage is the result of the presence of two pigments, which the bird can't manufacture himself and can only get from his food. Several recent studies suggest that the redness of the male's plumage is therefore a good indicator of the health of its habitat.

Yet another way that the very red, red‑capped robin is able to show you how well you're looking after his home.

Bush Heritage Australia gratefully acknowledges The Native Vegetation Council for their support of conservation activities on Boolcoomatta.

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