The wilderness of Cape York is one of the last refuges for Australia’s rarest bird of prey, the Red Goshawk, according to findings emerging from the most comprehensive study of the bird to date.
The study, a collaboration between the Queensland Department of Environment & Science (DES) Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and Rio Tinto, commenced following a sighting of a Red Goshawk nest on a mining lease near Mapoon in 2015.
University of Queensland PhD student Chris MacColl, one of the researchers undertaking the study, said the Red Goshawk once ranged as far south as Sydney and across northern Australia all the way to the Kimberley.
Now, due in large part to the loss of its habitat from human development further south, Mr MacColl says the Cape York region is the focus of the study and one of the best places to collect data about the reclusive birds.
“The majority of the work we do has been on the cape, because its very good Red Goshawk habitat. They’re a woodland raptor, so the loss of woodlands has contributed to their decline,” said Mr MacColl.
Together with Richard Seaton from AWC, David Stewart from the DES, and Rio Tinto Weipa environmental staff, Mr MacColl has begun tracking the movements of twelve birds, six adults and six juveniles, and preliminary findings indicate some large and unexpected movements of up to several hundred kilometres.
These findings are enabled by advancements in technology that allow miniature GPS devices to be fitted to the birds which can track them for up to three years before their batteries fail.
“We’ve got a female that lives on the Dulhunty River and every year when she’s finished nesting she migrates 1,000 kilometres south, so without a satellite tracker you would have no idea where she has gone in the non-breeding season,” he said.
The study is now entering its third year having secured funding from Rio Tinto until 2024. It is hoped its findings will inform land management practices and help to conserve nesting sites on Cape York.
“We want to get a really good understanding of their habitat use, the types of environmental requirements they need to support breeding pairs, and where that is, and then you can start to talk about how much of it is protected and whether it’s being actively managed for things like fire,” said Mr MacColl.
In early October Mr MacColl and his colleagues will be returning to Weipa to continue capturing and tagging the birds and said he is grateful to local organisations including the Batavia Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, the Aurukun Shire Council and Rio Tinto Weipa for their support of the project.