The research centre in Wyndham was opened in 2006 in order to provide accommodation for scientists involved in saving the beautiful endangered Gouldian Finch.
Thousands of hours of work both in the field and in the centre itself, in wet seasons and dry seasons, all working to help this finch which is so reluctant to adapt to any change in its environment.
Thousands of nest boxes have been made there by volunteers.
Thousands of hours back at the universities assembling information and calculating results.
Mike and I are here visiting ten years on in April 2016.
These are some pictures of the research area this year.
If we are lucky enough to visit again in 2026 who knows what picture’s we will be able to show you then.
by Elisabeth Fidler
“From deep water pools -along the road to nowhere- to parched cracked earth.
This is The Kimberley at the end of the wet season.
41 C every day.
Best of all the Gouldian Finch are breeding and are in wonderful condition.”
The Endangered Gouldian Finch, Erythrura gouldiae
- Gouldian Finches are Australia’s most spectacularly coloured grass finches, and are perhaps the most spectacularly coloured of all Australian birds.
- They are small birds, with a bright green back, yellow belly and a purple breast. Head colour is usually black (about 75% of the wild population), but 24% have red heads and 1% have yellow heads. Young Gouldian Finches are dull ashy grey on the head and hind neck, becoming olive on the back and tail.
- Gouldian’s are one of Australia’s 18 grass finches. Several species occur across the northern grasslands, but some are found throughout temperate Australia as far south as Tasmania.
- Gouldian Finches are distributed across the savanna grasslands of Australia’s tropical north from Derby, WA, to the Gulf of Carpentaria and across to central Cape York and the Atherton Tablelands.
While Gouldian finches are popular and abundant aviary birds worldwide, their wild population has declined dramatically over the last 30 years and they are now classified as Endangered.
Only a few thousand remain in the wild, mainly in the Top End of the NT and Kimberley region of WA in small groups of 10-200 birds. They have almost disappeared from Queensland.
Map shows records of Gouldian finches for the last 10 years of records in the e-Bird database.
Why have they declined?
Key Threatening Processes
- Inappropriate fire regimes
- Grazing impacts
- Competition for nesting sites
Fire and grazing have dramatically changed across northern Australia.
Intense and extensive late dry season fires have replaced the previous mosaic of small patch fires at different times of year.
This has reduced the availability of nesting sites and the diversity of seed resources for Gouldians at critical times of year, particularly in the late dry/early wet season (Oct-Dec).
Gouldians are more specialized feeders than other finches and rely almost exclusively on annual sorghum during the breeding season (March to July) and a variety of other grasses at other times.
While many thousands of Gouldians were once trapped for the pet trade this has not occurred since 1982 and is not a cause of their continued decline.
Gouldians are unique among finches in that they nest only in tree hollows – only of a certain quality and in certain trees. Fire reduces the availability of hollows by killing old trees which have the hollows and by killing seedling trees so that fewer trees survive. There is also evidence that the more aggressive Long tailed finch often disrupts nesting attempts by Gouldians as they also compete for hollows.
Research is helping
Over the last 10 years Save the Gouldian Fund research supported by various institutions has:
- Identified annual cycle of food preferences
- Identified nesting requirements
- Shown the –ve impacts of late season hot fires
- Designed an artificial nest box program
- Better managed fire over huge areas and demonstrated the benefits for Gouldians
- Gouldian finches are slowly recovering …. BUT THE JOB IS NOT DONE
An Idea of Life as a Gouldian Finch Worker….
Description of what amenities there were at the Research Centre
Most fieldwork is undertaken in the eastern Kimberley of Western Australia, and our main base is the small town of Wyndham – the Kimberley’s oldest town, Western Australia’s northern-most town, and its also Australia’s hottest town (with the highest year round average temperature – great!). Although few venture this far north (perhaps because the road literally ends at Wyndham), this is one of the best places to see a large number and diversity of tropical finches (and saltwater crocodiles up close and personal).
Our base is the Wyndham Conservation Research Centre, which was formerly the old Wyndham Town Hall. We first located to the old Town Hall in 2007. At this time the Hall was still just four walls surrounding a gym floor.
The kitchen was (barely) basic and only one shower (working sporadically) and two toilets (inhabited by green tree frogs) that was not working so we were kindly invited by our neighbour to use facilities and pool! At this time there was also no garage for field vehicle and equipment, just a small snake infested shed for storage. The Hall was in dire need of repair and tree frogs had taken over. Never the less, we took it at face value and tried it out for a season, separating boys and girl’s rooms with sheets and second hand book cases.
No air-conditioning at this time, a few snakes under the house, in the house, and in shed, proved to make it that extra special Australian feeling of adventure! However, with the unprecedented aid of Save the Gouldian Fund, the old Town Hall was newly renovated into a ‘water-front’ facility that contains great accommodation and facilities for all fieldwork.
All the work that went on…
A normal day starts at 4am, have to get ready and transport both field assistants and equipment to field site. Usually going over the cause-way and the mudflats (if dry enough). There have been a few incidents with bogged cars, requiring rescue by either other field assistants or the kind help of Wyndham local residents.
The season starts with an inventory roster of the nest boxes and the first season clean out of old nests. At this time, we also repair any damaged boxes or erect new ones if needed. Using maps, GPS units and ladders, we traverse the ridges around Wyndham to be able to check boxes high in the trees. Once we have located a nest box with a Gouldian pair starting to build a nest, we regularly visit the nest to check on pair formation, egg laying, clutch size, number of hatchlings, brood size and fledgling day. Once the hatchlings are old enough we climb up the tree, open the nest box and take out the chicks for banding and measurements.
At this time, to minimize the amount of time for nest visits, we also try and catch the breeding pair. We then record head colour, body measurements, weight and band them with an individual colour band combination (to be easy to spot and identify with a pair of binoculars).
The Gouldian finch is an obligate cavity nester, but cannot build their own nests. Hence, they are dependent on naturally occurring breeding cavities. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction (either through fire, monsoon or man made), natural cavities are hard to come by. This is where the nest box projects come in as a mean to sustain the sensitive population sizes and growth.
Setting up new nest box areas usually requires finding/locating the waterholes, feeding habitats and following the birds to different nesting ground/breeding areas. The Gouldian finches have a very restricted diet, feeding predominantly on a limited ranged of seeding grasses. To identify feeding areas, we look at the different grass species that the GFs prefer, for instance, Sorghum, Kangaroo grass, native Millet and Spinifex grasses.
Once located, we erect new nest boxes to increase breeding cavities and enhance breeding opportunities.
Every year some boxes needs replacing on account of trees falling (monsoon winds) and fire damages. Volunteers, field assistants and researchers, build the nest-boxes at the field station and most of the material is sourced locally. The boxes are built to resemble a natural cavity and put strategically in a tree so to attract the Gouldian finches.
Gouldian finches and Fire Ecology – a PhD at Charles Darwin University, co-supervised by Sarah is looking at the effects of wildfire on the availability, phenology and nutritional content of seeding grasses, and their consequent effect on the behaviour, habitat use and distribution.
Crimson finches – PhD student investigating the function and significance of colour displays. One project is on the crimson finch (locally known as the ‘red devil’), which is a highly aggressive yet highly colonial breeding finch. This work looked at the function of bright red colouration in males, as well as the underlying mechanisms and function of overt aggression in this group-living species.
Frill neck Lizard – Postdoc that investigates the processes that generate colour variation within populations, and also what generates the often spectacular colour differences between populations. The frill neck lizard has a large coloured frill, which varies from grey to yellow, orange and red across their range, and is often displayed prominently when threatened by predators and conspecifics. We are looking at the function of the frill, and the role of genetics, environment and behaviour in explaining the geographic variation in frill colour across northern tropical Australia.
Aviary in Martinsville and at ANU Canberra – As the Gouldian finch is/was an endangered species (now threatened), we were not allowed to perform any experiments on wild populations, and this is where the amazing facilities in Martinsville and at ANU comes in. Thanks to an extensive long-term breeding program, the research could evolve in different directions. Each of these facilities contains well over a hundred custom-built cages and flights, which are climate controlled (for the very fussy Gouldian finches and other finches) for tropical conditions (a great place to work in winter). There are also many large, outdoor aviaries connected to each of the flights for population-type work.
Some of the studies in these aviaries was research on colour preferences, food preferences, mate choice, hormones and dominance.
Anecdotal tales of the vehicles and what they went through
The Gouldian finch fieldwork would not have been possible had it not been for the number of vehicles that supported researchers and assistants between 2006 and 2016. I will not venture into trying to calculate how many kilometres in total have been traversed during the years. But know that a one-way trip from Canberra to Wyndham is roughly 4,200 km (which all cars did at one or more times and return, sometimes twice a year). Not to mention the actual amount travelled during the field season between Gouldian areas (field season between January – June, driving every day!).
These vehicles are vital to be able to reach remote areas with a lot of equipment that needed to be carried out to be used during this time. Although there were a few bogging incidents, flooding incidents, flat tires, dead batteries, missing brake oil, no air-conditioning and very near kangaroo accidents, on the whole, the use and travel in these vehicles was pivotal, fun and adventurous! And as everyone does with loved ones, we gave them nicknames:
The first ever field vehicle was Tilly (Mathilda) named after the Mathilda highway. She was part of the fieldwork from 2007 and retired in 2014. She was a trusty girl with thousands of kilometres under her belt (and a few dents, cosmetic mishaps and love bites all around).
Dopey – got his name from the association with his rego-number. He was a fantastic vehicle that could transport not only equipment but also 8 people at once. He was also good when having to pass 18meter long road trains (turbo yay!).
Bruce – was given his very Aussie name by his owner and lead researcher Sarah. Bruce was the envy of everybody, he was fast, had air-conditioning, cd player and a height that would prove necessary to traverse some of the field sites.
In addition to the above, and account of some seasons having quite a lot of field assistants, there was also need to hire vehicles which every year was provided by Budget rentals in Kununurra (could not have managed without them).
Conditions, achievements and set backs
To start off with, let me just say that working with Save the Gouldian Fund and associated researchers is a unique and fantastic opportunity to experience the outback in northern Western Australia, the Kimberly. This opportunity is for some a once in a lifetime chance to see the beautiful (rare and evasive) Gouldian finch in its natural habitat. From the field station, we find most of the preferred habitats in neighbouring magnificent ridges, dry forests, natural springs, mudflats and also Wyndham gardens and all year round waterholes!
Now, in occurrence with all this beauty, comes the reality of fieldwork in the tropics: early start (4am), hot (often above 42 degrees Celcius), humid (well over 90%, well, it is the monsoon season for some of the time), traversing high ridges (while carrying a ladder, nest boxes, batteries, butterfly nest, mist nets, hand tools in addition to the equipment needed for experimental setup, surveying and inventory), not to forget a good amount of water to keep hydrated. Well, of course we don’t carry it all at once, but nearly!! Some areas where we find GFs are surrounded by waterways, so let’s not forget to STAY OUT OF THE WATER (unless you want a friendly nip by the resident saltwater crocodile George and his mates). Other realities of fieldwork in the Kimberly ranges from the monsoonal rains, floodways to fire hazards. And as for other creatures big and small that we may encounter, especially during nest box inventory and surveying are: dingos (idly strolling by when mist netting), kangaroos (sometimes treating the mist nets as hammocks), snakes (always a favourite to find in a nest box, nicely curled up inside), termites and ants setting up residence in nest boxes and natural cavities (that goes for bees as well), nightjars (always gives you a fright), huntsman spiders and red backed spiders (the most calm of our uninvited guests), tree frogs (the most stubborn house guests), lizards (always welcome a ant/termite/spider eating friend) and last but not least bats (too cute!).
We have received a heart-warming welcome from the people and Shires of Wyndham and Kunurra, who not only volunteer building nest boxes, erecting said nest boxes, help scout for new areas, help source equipment, and gladly let us visit the private properties to find Gouldian finches. They have also helped us when we locked ourselves out of the car (or house), helped replace Station doors and general car maintenance, helped drag out one or two unfortunate students who got bogged in the mudflats, not to mention their ongoing support/volunteering for the annual count.
Different scientists and nationalities that worked there
Save The Gouldian Fund Research Station and benefactors have provided invaluable resources for several researchers, students and assistants over the years and from all over the world. Some of the nationalities that have been invited to/worked at the STGF Station are from the US, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Sweden and the UK (and Aussies of course).
The STGF Station has supported Professors, Postdocs, PhDs, Honor students and also facilitate cooperation with CSIRO and in addition to the Australian National University, also supported cooperative work with Macquarie University, University of New South Wales, Deakin University, University of Melbourne and Charles Darwin University.
State of the Gouldian and habitat in 2006
When Sarah first started her research on Gouldians she was on her own in the field (apart from her trusty shadow, Jade), travelling around searching for populations and good habitat. During this time her only means of accommodation was a tent and her car. Never the less, her first season has resulted in an amazing long-term study of the Gouldian finch population and mechanisms explaining the behaviour and maintenance of this species. For the first year, surveys were only done on natural nests as no nest boxes has been erected at this time. As access to these natural nests can be very difficult at times, and the requirement of GFs (obligate cavity breeders, picky eaters and see comments above) the decision was made to try out nest boxes.
In this year 13 breeding attempts were recorded, whereof two were in nest boxes and the rest was natural nests. The areas were the breeding attempts took place was: Caravan Park, Wacky, Tweeny, Hilly, Freaky and Slappy. The rather unconventional names of all field sites are due to the experiences had when first considering the area as a breeding site.
State of the Gouldian and Habitat 2016
An impressive number of nest boxes has been erected over the last ten years at several nest sites of varying sizes. In total, in 2014, the number of areas containing nest boxes was 17 in which all nest boxes were checked once a week on a rolling schedule, looking for breeding attempts. As an estimate, approximately 700 boxes were available in these areas (some boxes has also been used in NT). During the 10 years, probably around 2000 boxes have been erected (replacements, repairs and new additions), and when we left there were still another 500 boxes sitting in the garage, ready to go up.
Due to extremely tough weather conditions, nest boxes needs constant maintenance, cleaning, repairs, replacement and also additions to new areas. In the beginning of every field season an extensive effort is made to clean out old nest, to repair, replace or erect new boxes depending on damage and tree availability. Apart from normal wear and tear, monsoon winds, rainfall and forest fires are the most damaging factors influencing availability of nest-boxes.
From memory, there were 15 nests in 2014 (boxes), which was almost twice as many as the previous two years. Does not mean the birds are not there. Population fluctuations are very common. Also, we never checked any natural nests. The re-occurring population sizes in the dry season may provide a more accurate measure. I do not have that exact data, but from memory we always saw clouds of 200-300 birds around Wyndham at the dry count.
Over 1400 individuals have been individually banded during the 10 years.
On average (guesstimating from total nest over the years and the average no of boxes available at any time) roughly 30% of the boxes have been used by GFs. The vast majority is taken up by the competitive LTFs!!
Save The Gouldian Fund Annual Count – a Volunteer’s Angle
by Ian Campton
After attending an open day for the Save The Gouldian Fund at Mike Fidlers Central Coast property I became aware of a need for volunteers to attend an annual Gouldian count in the East Kimberley. So some months later I made the trip to Wyndham for my first count.
What was I in for? Perhaps the lure to see our wonderful Gouldians in the “wild”, a chance to see a true wilderness area in this great land Australia and a chance to meet some very experienced aviculturists and to find out why this popular aviary bird was struggling to exist. All of the above appealed to my outdoor spirit and my interest in animals and birds in particular.
No matter how well prepared I thought I was, it was an interesting and eye-opening briefing, nominating the week long procedure and the protocols required. This was all under the strict guidance of Dr Sarah Pryke, (it was after all in the name of science) and the selfless Michael and Elisabeth Fidler who had started the whole darn thing off. Of course there was a big team of other scientists and assistants as well.
My first few days of the count proved to be a disaster, first day I was placed with a local (from Kununurra) character nicknamed “Strop”, we sat at an old quarry close to Wyndham for some two hours and I didn’t see a bird let alone a Gouldian finch, it was real hard to return to the group and listen to all the accounts of other groups of flocks of Gouldians and then hand in a count sheet with nothing on it. Talk about disillusioned and being disappointed. Second day I was with that great Newcastle finch guru David Myers and we were allocated a spot outside an Aboriginal camp on the outskirts of Wyndham, at least this time we saw some birds, still no Gouldians. Our time was cut short due to the early morning activity with kids off to catch the school bus with dogs in tow and then the local power contractors erecting new power pole right where we had the car located. Two days had passed up at 4.30am heading from Parry Creek Farm to be at the big Crocodile in Wyndham by 5.30am to head out for the count, two days in and not a Gouldian to be sighted from my end. I returned to my wife after this second day and said I think this is all ”bulldust” there are no Gouldians in the wild.
My next day was a solo visit to a property, where I sat in the lovely shade in someone’s backyard again near Wyndham. There were birds galore and finches, Double Bars, Long-tails and Masked finches, Star finches & finally my first “wild” Gouldian, a lovely Black-headed male in full bloom, and then some juveniles, the drought was broken & I was now hooked, even though I hadn’t actually been into the wilderness of the Kimberley.
The other upside of this first trip was the chance to explore the great Kimberley area, staying at Parry Creek Farm, so close to Marlgu Billabong and just being among a massive number of bird species and absolute iconic Aussie wilderness and scenery.
I could go on forever, but I can say I ended up not missing attending the “count” for the following years until the final count in 2013. From these meagre beginnings I then mixed with scientists, students, zoologists, bird breeders, birders, and photographers. Not only locals, but people from all walks of life, from around Australia and from many countries around the world. Each year brought a new mix of people to the Kimberley and of course those that kept coming back like year after year. Each year brought new experiences and often noticeable changes from year to year at waterholes or count locations, dependent on the type of wet season experienced between counts.
During this time after my initial interest only in Gouldians, I began to appreciate the birdlife of the Kimberley, developed an interest in photography, started to learn the sounds of different species and even started to be able to name species as we sat at waterholes, or dams, at sports grounds, local lawns and gardens, just about any spot that during the dry season has some sort of water source that is essential for the bird’s survival.
I am but one of so many volunteers that have made that trip, not without some cost and small sacrifice, but do not regret a minute of the time spent. Whether sitting at a waterhole with a Whip snake under my seat, or a dingo chasing a wallaby almost on top of me, just waiting to record those brilliant coloured Gouldians as they come down for an all too quick drink.I even learned my way around Wyndham, places such as Chamouli Dam, the Golf Course, various sites along the King River Road, such as Singh’s Garden, Freaky Creek and even some we have found ourselves over the years.
Sitting in 40 degree heat waiting and hoping to see and record something different or sweltering in that same heat building nest boxes or painting these same boxes to allow this little bird some chance of surviving and maintaining their numbers to let them go into the future. What a great ride it has been, and how lucky am I to have been able to be part of it.
The camaraderie and friendships gained will stay with me I hope forever, I have a new hobby, this whole birding thing has developed some where I try to get out every chance I can with the bins and the camera.
Yes, we all as volunteers have spent some funds and time to be part of the Save The Gouldian Fund, but I for one wouldn’t swap the experience for the world. Many, many thanks to Mike and Elisabeth Fidler and to Dr Sarah Pryke and her team for those wonderful years and I guess most importantly for establishing a turnaround in the endangered status of the Gouldian. Let’s hope all that work is not in vain and that future generations do benefit from this effort and are able to enjoy seeing the Gouldian in the wild.
Protecting Gouldians in the Face of Development
The Ord River Irrigation Area (Weaber Plain Development Project) began development in late 2011 in the eastern Kimberley, Western Australia (area between Kununurra and the Northern Territory border). Pre-development surveys in 2010 and 2011 (by STGF) located a number of Gouldian finch populations in the proposed area.
In response to the presence of Gouldian finches in the area, the Gouldian Finch Management Plan was developed by the Ord. The purpose of this plan is to ensure the protection of the endangered Gouldian finch by preserving and maintaining habitat and ensuring the retention of vegetation corridors linking feeding areas across the Project. Furthermore, as a requirement for State approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), Gouldian finch habitats (breeding and feeding areas) have to be regularly surveyed during the construction and operation of this project. This is to ensure appropriate management of the Gouldian finch and its habitat before, during and after completion of the development.
Save The Gouldian Fund has been involved prior to and is now still involved during the development phase. In consultation with STGF, the Gouldian Finch Management Plan was devised, and included important aspects such as:
- not clearing any breeding habitats that have been utilized by Gouldian finches;
- developing and implementing a Fire Management Programme to protect and enhance Gouldian Finch feeding and breeding habitat;
- widening all vegetation corridors to a minimum width of 400m (to allow birds to move and feed in the corridors); and
- salvaging breeding hollows (from cleared trees during development) and erecting artificial nest boxes in all breeding sites. All of these requirements were met prior to and during the initial setup and land clearing.
Now, as per EPBC State requirement, there needs to be annual monitoring of the phenology and productivity of the wet and dry season feeding habitat.
STGF continues to be involved here, and the good news is that the Gouldian finch habitat in the surrounding and buffer/corridor areas is in really good condition (equal or often superior to the condition prior to development), with plenty of seeding grasses, and Gouldian’s are often sighted in these areas.
So What Is Next?
The next ten years should prove as active and successful for Save the Gouldian Fund as the last ten years.
Highly relevant research continues with a major study just concluded by Anna Weier and her colleagues from Charles Darwin University (Northern Territory). This study conducted around Wyndham in the Kimberley region looked at the choice of breeding sites by Gouldians in response to different fire regimes. The study utilised information from many of the artificial nesting boxes installed by STGF over the last 6 years and showed that Gouldians preferred to use nest sites in landscapes which had been recently, but infrequently burnt.
This means that with the current fire regimes across much of northern Australia of extensive and regular fires Gouldians are having to move every year to find suitable breeding habitat.
So we need to better understand Gouldian movement….
Previous work has shown that some of the Gouldians rung as nestlings around our sites near Wyndham have ended up being re-trapped in the Northern Territory about 100 km away. To better manage Gouldian populations we really need to know when the birds disperse, how far they go and whether they return to areas when they bred previously.
A new project will use a combination of innovative transmitters on Gouldians and drones to detect where the birds are across vast parts if the East Kimberley. This work will give a much more detailed picture of the extent of movements by juvenile and adult Gouldians and help plug one more knowledge gap as we seek to improve the management of Gouldian populations.
How can you help?
- If you’re bird breeder checkout products from Naturally for Birds – most profits go to STGF
All the work documented in this article would have been impossible without our wonderful donors and volunteers.
Donors come in many shapes and sizes!
They are all interested in helping those who are caring for the environment and saving endangered species.
Corporate companies, small businesses, aviculture clubs, schools, individuals.
In Australia and overseas.
We thank you all in enabling the work so far and hope you will feel encouraged by the results.
So encouraged, in fact, that you will continue to support the fantastic work planned for the next 10 years.