Blue Mountains birds recognised in bird of the year poll

Several Blue Mountains birds were among the contenders in the recent Australian bird of the year poll organised by The Guardian and Birdlife Australia, with the iconic gang-gang cockatoo coming third overall.

The superb fairywren was ultimately named the Australian bird of the year for 2021, with the tawny frogmouth coming second. As well as the gang-gang cockatoo, birds with a Blue Mountains presence that were contenders in the poll include the critically endangered regent honeyeater, which came sixth overall, and the glossy black-cockatoo and powerful owl, both of which made the longlist of 50.

While the gang-gang cockatoo, which gives its name to Gang Gang Street in Katoomba, was not named the nation's favourite bird, the poll does draw focus to the declining numbers of the species locally. Mark Ley, president of Blue Mountains Bird Observers (BMBO), recalls often seeing gang-gang cockatoos in the 1980s.

"I would regularly encounter gang-gangs and hear their laconic, creaky door call across the Mountains," he said. "They are a reasonably trusting species so you can get quite near them and I've always enjoyed their behaviour when feeding or preening.

"They quickly became one of my favourite birds so their decline in the 1990s was very obvious to me, and very disheartening, particularly when there seemed to be no obvious reason for it."

Mr Ley notes that in the 1990s BMBO would record gang-gangs in flocks of up to 50 birds. He said: "Their numbers declined quickly and we now rarely see flocks of more than 6-8 birds. We have been collecting records from our members since 1992 and across the whole local government area, annual reporting rates of gang-gangs have dropped from 63 per cent to a low of 13 per cent a few years ago. They are seldom seen in the Lower Mountains anymore, where they were once very common."

The Australian bird of the year poll settled on a shortlist of 10, which were put to a public vote. The gang-gang cockatoo was leading during the week prior to the poll's close on October 7, only to be pipped to the post by the superb fairywren. For Mr Ley, the vote plays an important role in drawing attention to endangered and lesser-known species.

"Bird of the year has become a fantastic initiative for highlighting the plight of some of Australia's threatened bird species," he said.

"Initially it was a fun competition and people were voting for their common garden birds like kookaburras, magpies and bright parrots. The recent idea of pre-nominating some lesser-known or endangered species increases people's interest in birds generally and pushes the conservation message. There are about 800 species of birds recorded in Australia and over 200 have been recorded in the Blue Mountains alone. Most people could name just 20-30 of them."

As for the other Blue Mountains birds in the poll, they should not be forgotten as they face multiple threats.

"The glossy black-cockatoo (often mistakenly identified as a red-tailed black cockatoo) has a very specialised diet feeding almost entirely on the seeds of a few casuarina species. Their favoured pockets of habitat are thinly spread in the Mountains and much of it was totally destroyed in the recent bushfires.

"The powerful owl is another vulnerable species found in the Blue Mountains. It is Australia's largest owl and is occasionally sighted in its roost during the day. It nests in the hollows of large gums in our wetter forest but these hollows are being usurped by ever-increasing numbers of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Blue Mountains residents may not be aware that these cockatoos, along with rainbow lorikeets, are more recent arrivals to the Mountains and their numbers have exploded over the last 30 years - their presence has tipped the ecological balance somewhat."

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