Juvenile red goshawks at nest
Calls for red goshawk nest sites to be kept ‘hidden’ from researchers and their traps. Photo – ©Tony Neilson

Pressure mounts for facts on red goshawk research


There are fresh developments in the story about the alleged harmful impact of scientific research on Australia’s rare and endangered red goshawk.

Before Christmas, Natural Images reported that a major row had developed over the trapping and tracking of the solitary and nationally vulnerable red goshawk on Cape York in far north Queensland.

Evidence supplied by a professional bird guide and people on the ground indicated that Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) research into Australia’s rarest raptor may have caused the deaths of mature and juvenile birds, broken up established breeding pairs and forced others to abandon their nests.

Confidential information was also received alleging that researchers had used live rainbow lorikeets as ‘bait’ to entice the goshawks into bow net traps.

The source ‘guaranteed’ that the lorikeets were pegged to the ground in front of the net, which would be triggered when the goshawk grabbed the bait.

Tracking devices

Now funded and run by international mining giant Rio Tinto and supported by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), the research involves trapping nesting red goshawks, fitting them with tracking devices and monitoring their movements over 380,000 ha of the company’s bauxite and aluminium strip-mining leases.

In early January, journalist and photographer Greg Roberts blogged that researchers had lopped limbs off a nesting tree while a red goshawk was sitting on eggs – apparently to improve photographic opportunities.

Birding enthusiast David Milson told Roberts that when he lived in Weipa in 2015, he discovered the first red goshawk nest on Rio Tinto leases. The finding was reported to authorities and the then Department of Environment and Heritage Protection called in an arborist to lop several large limbs from the tree, where a female goshawk was sitting on eggs. Workers then installed cameras to photograph and (video) the birds.

Female red goshawk on branch
DES and Rio Tinto called to account for the true impact of their red goshawk research project on Cape York. Photo – ©Tony Neilson

Beyond comprehension

“I could not believe that here is this rare bird sitting on a nest, and here they are lopping off big branches all around the nest so they can get better pictures. Then they’ve got guys climbing up the tree to set the cameras up. It was beyond comprehension that they were doing it,” Milson told Roberts.

David (‘Chook’) Crawford, owner of Close-Up Birding Adventures and a recognised expert on Far North Queensland birds and their habitats, is ‘furious’ about the impact on the red goshawks that he has seen and had reported.

“My major concern, and that of my guests, is the welfare of this remarkable species. To research something is one thing, but to disturb such a rare bird with low populations in the middle of the breeding season is barbaric,” he told Natural Images.

“The ethics department that authorises this behaviour needs to be thoroughly looked at.”

Incredibly sad

After reading our original blog, professional bird guide David Mead of Great Northern Tours described the situation as incredibly sad. “Unfortunately, it has now reached the stage of not only trying to keep certain sites secret from the masses, but secret from bumbling PhD thesis report-seeking ‘trappers’.

“We are way past the stage with the red goshawk to be able to afford the loss of even one single bird from any technical/mechanical or electronic interference.”

With controversy surrounding this research continuing, Birdlife Northern Queensland convenor Dr Peter Valentine has called for DES to provide a full account. But so far, DES (and AWC) has diverted all questions to Rio Tinto, and Rio isn’t commenting.

Steve Debus, a member of the group overseeing the red goshawk research, said recently on the Birding-Aus chatline that a meeting in January would be discussing the data and issues raised …and (something) would be published “in due course”.

Meanwhile, he dismissed critics of the research program as “trolls… going about half-cocked without knowing the facts”.

©Natural Images 2019


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


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Email: tonywneilson@icloud.com.au