Red goshawk with prey on a branch
Rain-soaked female red goshawk with a recently killed blue-winged kookaburra. Photo: © courtesy Chook Crawford

Science linked to ‘barbaric’ treatment of endangered raptor


 (WARNING. This story contains disturbing information and may dampen your Christmas celebrations. But don’t let that put you off. – Tony Neilson)

While tropical cyclone Owen battered the ‘top end’ of Queensland in the lead-up to Christmas, a storm of a different hue gathered strength on the state’s Cape York Peninsula.

A major row is building over the trapping and tracking of the solitary and nationally vulnerable red goshawk – all apparently in the interest of science and the bird’s wellbeing.

Evidence has emerged that Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) research into Australia’s rarest raptor may have caused the deaths of several mature and juvenile birds, broken up established breeding pairs and forced others to abandon their nests.

The program is funded by Rio Tinto and supported by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC).

I have also received confidential information alleging that researchers have 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.

Live lorikeets as bait

Pair of rainbow lorikeets on a branch
Rainbow lorikeets are allegedly being used as bait. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

As previously reported by Natural Images (ref ‘Wherefore Art Thou, Red Goshawk’, Feb 2017), the red goshawk trapping program on Cape York began in 2015 under the aegis of the DES forerunner, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP).

The project was trumpeted by the Queensland Government as a ‘world first’ satellite study of its type, involving the strapping of GPS transmitters to the birds via a ‘backpack’ harness. 

A known death

The department later admitted that ‘technical issues’, a known death and ‘disappearance’ of some of the target birds had reduced the effectiveness of the initial program. But they said understanding the movements of red goshawks in relation to their surroundings was “vital to developing management actions suitable to protect them”.

Yet, the DES says on its own website that the real reason red goshawks are endangered in eastern Queensland and northeast New South Wales is because of widespread clearance of native forests and woodlands for agriculture. “Other threats to the species include fragmentation and degradation of habitat, direct disturbance and/or loss of nesting sites and changes in prey availability.”

Male red goshawk ready to fly from branch
A male red goshawk like this was recently found dead near its partially-built nest. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Woody vegetation

Under the ‘progress at any price’ Campbell Newman Queensland administration, the Climate Change Council says more than 1 million ha of woody vegetation was cleared in the three years to 2015-16. 

And in the past four decades, 50 to 65% of native forest loss across all of Australia has occurred in Queensland. But there is some good news: the current state government passed a suite of new laws in May 2018 to curb soaring deforestation.

So, there you have it: massive habitat loss, direct disturbance and loss of nesting sites are at the heart of the red goshawk’s precariousness. All involving the hand of man, and only requiring a bit of time on the internet to confirm.

Therefore, the ‘vital importance of understanding the movements of red goshawks’ surely does not justify their being trapped and tracked. Just leave them alone and ensure there are plenty of tall trees for them to nest in and hunt from.

But the research continues, and so do the reports of more fatalities and other unpleasant side-effects of the satellite-tracking regime.

Ethical concerns

Birdwatchers and professional guides operating in the Cape York area are increasingly concerned about the ethics and effectiveness of the program.

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

David Crawford with spotter scope
Professional bird guide David ‘Chook’ Crawford says treatment of the red goshawks has been barbaric.

Remarkable species

“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.

“Imagine the horrific trauma for the adult birds and their chicks – yes, they are putting trackers on the chicks as well – of a tracker pack with a 200mm aerial sticking out between their shoulder blades.”

Crawford says he has been told by DES that it has proof the data on the movement of the red goshawks exists. “But it has never been released to the public. So, is the science working [to the detriment of the birds], or are the birds with the trackers now dead?”

Sightings are rare

Crawford has spent hundreds of hours observing and searching for red goshawks on Cape York and is understandably secretive about their locations. “Sightings are few except during the breeding season, May till November, when if you take the time you will see all the breeding behaviour from courtship to nest-building, incubation, food exchange and finally fledging. 

Family of red goshawks at their nest
A pair of juvenile red goshawks wait patiently at the nest for a parent to bring food. Photo: Tony Neilson

“But the current DES research seriously disturbs that sequence, upsets the birds during breeding and makes it harder for professional guides and trained observers to record these very important behaviours.”

It is not known exactly how many red goshawks have perished as a result of the DES research and at least one other recent PhD study in the area, but the fatalities (at least four) are just the tip of the iceberg. Disruption and subsequent abandonment of nests and breeding partners is more insidious.

A lot of change

“A little disturbance is followed by a lot of change,” says Crawford. “A male recently found dead [near the base of its nest tree] had all but completed the nest. The female stayed there for about a week and then picked up with another male bird.

“The males have their own territory and do all the nest building. But if one dies, the new male will take the old female to his unknown territory, which is probably tens of kilometers away.

“This is one example of the information you can get from observation, NOT disturbance.”

The AWC position

We sought comment from the AWC about aspects of the above project, but communications manager Heather Paterson said our questions related to work before the AWC’s recent involvement and suggested we try Rio Tinto or DES.

“The collaboration [with Rio Tinto] is still in its infancy and we look forward to sharing resources to secure the future of the red goshawk,” she said.

©Natural Images 2018


©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.


4 thoughts on “THE RED GOSHAWK

  • Peter Valentine December 18, 2018 at 9:32 AM Reply

    Deep concern that both DES and AWC are implicated in such intrusive and unnecessary actions. Shows significant lack of care about the species. I would like to know on what basis the Ethics Committee (which one was used?) gave approval. A full account of this from DES is required. Thanks for the heads up Tony.

    • Tony Neilson December 18, 2018 at 12:16 PM Reply

      Thanks Peter, it certainly is not a good situation. You might have to contact Chook re his comment about the ‘ethics committee’.

  • Ian Gibson December 18, 2018 at 5:30 PM Reply

    Most concerning to say the least Tony and Chook, if anyone, would know exactly what is happening. It often seems that when Government/Government Agencies get involved in any matter of issues the outcome results in a monumental cock up.
    The old adage “we’re from the Government and here to help” rings alarm bells. Cheers Ian

  • David Mead December 20, 2018 at 2:58 PM Reply

    Great story and comments Tony and Chook.
    Alas! the mighty Red Goshawk, are their days numbered? Probably, but wait! several government and private agencies are here to help. They have brought many traps, nets, GPS trackers, baits, drones, clones and clowns. Surely a few sacrificial Red Goshawks will in the long term increase their numbers?
    Not funny, just 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.

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