Burnt mallee, Billiatt CP, August 2014 Photo Philip Maher

Billiatt Conservation Park post January 2014 fires

Philip N Maher

On 14 August 2014, Steve Seymour and I visited Billiatt Conservation Park to see what bird species had survived the horrendous fires of the previous summer. We spent eight hours surveying the Park.

Some historical notes
Having visited the Conservation Park on an annual basis since 1996 on our Strzelecki Outback Tour I have a reasonable knowledge of the area's birdlife.

In the early 1990s, a good deal of the northern part of the conservation park had been burnt. This area of regrowth contained a large population of striated grasswrens with the greatest density in the northeast corner, with pairs about 200 metres apart. This represents the highest concentration of striated grasswrens I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. Over the next fifteen or so years, as the regrowth matured and the conservation park became more heathy, the population of striated grasswrens dwindled. It’s likely also that their numbers were adversely affected by the great drought (2001 – 2010). It’s now about six years since I’ve seen striated grasswrens in Billiatt; they may be there but I have not recorded them. It’s possible that the species still exists in the northeast corner, as there are some areas there that survived the January 2014 fire. This is also the area where we recorded mallee whipbird in 1996-1997 in regrowth broombush. There was also a large population of Mitchell’s hopping mouse in the area at that time. I’ve not birded the northeast corner for many years and I don’t know if the whipbird survives in the park.

Over the past eighteen years, our main target in Billiatt CP has been red-lored whistler. There was a reasonable population in the park although they became scarce during the drought and seemed to have disappeared from our reliable location on the west side of the main road. Fortunately, a pair was located on the east side of the road and we have been recording this pair, or other pairs, there for the last eight or so years.

I would be interested to know when mallee emuwren was last recorded in Billiatt Conservation Park, having never recorded the species in the park. Any population present prior to January 2014 is unlikely to have survived the fires.

Current survey
It seemed to us that about 98% of Billiatt CP was burnt in January. Up at the northeastern end of the main road, we found small unburned patches. Much of this was mallee with a lot of pine in it; which is probably why it survived as pine usually has less understorey to carry a fire. Having said that, hardly any of the thick pine survived at the south end of the park.

Burnt mallee, Billiatt CP, August 2014 Photo Philip Maher
Mallee regrowth after a SA Parks control burn about five years previously, which survived the January 2014 wildfire Photo: Philip Maher

The other patch that survived was a strip along the road that SA Parks burnt off about five years ago; so controlled burning definitely had a positive effect in that area. All the southern section of the Billiatt is largely burnt east and west of the road for as far as the eye can see.

We saw very little habitat left for red-lored whistlers as the understorey is too tall in most of the remaining unburned patches we birded. However, we did locate one sub-adult male in a smallish area that looked vaguely suitable, not far from where we’d been seeing them in recent years.

Red-lored whistler sub adult male Billiatt CP 14 August 2014 Purple-gaped honeyeater, adult Billiatt CP 14 August 2014
Splendid fairywren adult male Billiatt CP 14 August 2014
photo: Philip Maher
Golden whistler adult male Billiatt CP 14 August 2014
photo: Philip Maher
Southern scrub-robin, adult male Billiatt CP 14 August 2014
photo: Philip Maher
Shy heathwren, adult Billiatt CP 14 August 2014
photo: Philip Maher

The following species were recorded in and around the small unburned patches on the east side of the main road, towards the northern boundary of the park. The main patch we birded was about two kilometres long and varied in width from 100 — 200 metres wide.

Emu: fresh scats and tracks

Malleefowl: fresh tracks of one bird. An abandoned mound, mounded up from last summer was located in an unburned patch.

Galah: few seen

Mulga parrot: pair in burnt country

Pallid cuckoo:  two birds calling

Fantailed cuckoo: one bird calling – possibly my first record for the park.

Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo: few seen and heard

Splendid fairywren: two groups

Variegated fairywrens: one group

Shy heathwren: pair

Weebill: moderately common

Inland thornbill: several pairs

Chestnut-rumped thornbill: one pair

Red wattlebird: few

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater: few

White-eared honeyeater: few

Purple-gaped honeyeater: moderately common

Tawny-crowned honeyeater: few

Yellow-plumed honeyeater: one

Brown-headed honeyeater: few groups

Southern scrub-robin: pair north end

White-browed babbler: group

Crested bellbird: several calling

Red-lored whistler: a sub adult male

Golden whistler: several pairs

Grey-shrike-thrush: several calling

Willy Wagtail: few

Grey butcherbird: several calling

Grey Currawong: one seen

Australian raven: calling

Crested pigeon: north end near farmland

It appears that most of Billiatt’s mallee specialties are surviving in small numbers. The species not recorded on this occasion that have been regularly seen on previous visits include:

Striated grasswren: as previously noted

Spotted pardalote: probably nomadic to some degree, presumably it will move back.

Striated pardalote: as for spotted

Yellow thornbill: hanging on somewhere there?

Chestnut quailthrush: presumably still present; can be hard to locate at times

Varied sittella: very little habitat left for this species, presumably can recolonise

Gilbert’s whistler: Never common in Billiatt; maybe hanging on somewhere

The birding wasn’t too bad in the few unburned patches as there had been some rain in the area over the prior months. It’s worth noting however, that the birds were at about the same density as to be expected in any other year without catastrophic fire, that is, there were no extra birds in the unburned patches that had moved in from the thousands of hectares of surrounding burned mallee. All those birds, presumably, had either perished in the fire, staved to death afterwards, or had moved elsewhere.

Due to the rains since the fire most of the mallee has already shot so the area has started to recover; however, it will take several years of good rainfall before we see many species recolonising Billiatt*. It will be fascinating to see if striated grasswren return to anything like their former numbers in the regrowth — if they still exist in Billiatt.

* Billiatt Conservation Park received good rain in January 2015.

Burnt mallee with unburnt patch of mallee in background, Billiatt CP, 14 August 2014 Photo Philip Maher