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White-fronted Chat Epthianura albifrons (Jardine & Selby, 1828) - vulnerable species listing

NSW Scientific Committee - final determination

The Scientific Committee, established by the Threatened Species Conservation Act, has made a Final Determination to list the White-fronted Chat Epthianura albifrons (Jardine & Selby, 1828) as a VULNERABLE SPECIES in Part 1 of Schedule 2 of the Act. Listing of Vulnerable species is provided for by Part 2 of the Act.


The Scientific Committee has found that:


1. The White-fronted Chat Epthianura albifrons (Jardine & Selby, 1828) is an endemic Australian passerine bird, measuring 12 cm in length and weighing approximately 13 g. It has a short slender bill, long spindly legs, a short square-tipped tail and rounded wings (Higgins et al. 2001). Classified as a honeyeater (family Meliphagidae), it is most similar in form to its close relatives, the Orange E. aurifrons, Yellow E. crocea and Crimson E. tricolor Chats from which it is easily distinguished by its black and white colouration. The plumage of the male is more striking than that of the female with the juvenile plumage being most similar to the female. The voice is a distinctive ‘tang, tang’ used as a contact call (Higgins et al. 2001).


2. The distribution of the White-fronted Chat extends across the southern half of Australia, from the southernmost areas of Queensland to southern Tasmania and across to Western Australia as far north as Carnarvon (Barrett et al. 2003). Found mostly in temperate to arid climates and very rarely seen in sub-tropical areas, the White-fronted Chat occupies foothills and lowlands below 1000 m above sea level (North 1904; Higgins et al. 2001; Barrett et al. 2003). In New South Wales the White-fronted Chat occurs mostly in the southern half of the state, occurring in damp open habitats along the coast, and near waterways in the western part of the state (Higgins et al. 2001).


3. The White-fronted Chat is regarded as resident in many areas, but has been referred to as nomadic in some places (Higgins et al. 2001). There is no evidence of any migratory movements although flocks of White-fronted Chats have been recorded gathering temporarily in some areas in response to temporary high abundance of food. A mark-recapture study of White-fronted Chats near Melbourne reported 189 recaptures all within 5 km of the banding site (Higgins et al. 2001). Other White-fronted Chats banded in Western Australia were all recaptured within 2 km of the banding site (ABBBS 2008).


4. The White-fronted Chat is found in damp open habitats, particularly wetlands containing saltmarsh areas that are bordered by open grasslands or lightly timbered lands (Higgins et al. 2001). Along the coastline, White-fronted Chats are found in estuarine and marshy grounds with vegetation less than 1 m tall. The species is also observed in open grasslands and sometimes in low shrubs bordering wetland areas. Inland, the White-fronted Chat is often observed in open grassy plains, saltlakes and saltpans that are along the margins of rivers and waterways (North 1904; Higgins et al. 2001; Barrett et al. 2003). The species is sensitive to human disturbance and is not found in built areas (Jenner 2008).


5. White-fronted Chats are gregarious, although they do not form mixed species flocks (Higgins et al. 2001). They are usually found foraging on bare or grassy ground in wetland areas, occurring singly and in pairs, and frequently forming small flocks of up to 50 birds particularly in the non-breeding season in autumn and winter (Major 1991a). During the breeding season they form simple monogamous pairs, but will join small flocks to feed and roost. They are insectivorous, with flies and beetles being the major components of their diet, feeding from the ground or catching flying insects close to the ground (Major 1991a).


6. The breeding biology of the White-fronted Chat has not been investigated extensively in New South Wales, but is well known in Victoria (Major 1991b) and Western Australia (Williams 1979). White-fronted Chats have been observed breeding from late July through to early March. Nests are built in low vegetation, particularly Sclerostegia arbuscula, Suaeda australis, and Sarcocornia quinqueflora (Major 1991b; Straw 1999). In the Sydney region nests have also been observed in low isolated mangroves (K.Oxenham, pers. comm. 2007; R. Major pers. comm. 2008). Nests are open-cup structures with irregularly formed exteriors of coarse dried grasses or plant stalks, neatly lined with fine dried grass, thin fibrous roots and animal hair (Major 1991b; Higgins et al. 2001). Mean nest height is 23 cm above the ground (Major 1991b) with occasional nests found at up to 2.5 m above the ground (North 1904). The clutch size is usually 2 or 3 eggs, averaging 2.75 eggs. The complete nesting cycle from nest-building to independent young is approximately 50 days and a second clutch can be started immediately after the first clutch has reached independence (Major 1991b). Individually-marked White-fronted Chats have been observed to re-nest up to five times in a season after previous clutches have been unsuccessful. The life span of White-fronted Chats in the wild is unknown but estimated at approximately five years (Major pers. comm. 2008). Birds can breed at one year of age. The generation time, based on the age of maturity and life span is calculated as three years, the same as that estimated for the conspecific Yellow Chat (Garnett & Crowley 2000).


7. Comparison of reporting rates of White-fronted Chats between the New Atlas of Australian Birds (Barrett et al. 2003) and the Atlas of Australian Birds (Blakers et al. 1984) indicates a declining population trend. Nationally, there was a 36% decline in reporting rate between 1977-81 and 1998-2002 (Barrett et al. 2003). Assuming a linear decline this is equivalent to a 21% decline in reporting rate over the last 10 years, the time frame recommended by IUCN (2008) for estimating population change. Because different survey methods were used in each Atlas survey, Barrett et al. (2003) recommend a cautious approach in interpreting these results. The White-fronted Chat is not currently listed as a threatened species nationally or in any state of Australia.

8. Comparison of Atlas reporting rates in New South Wales indicate that there has been a 52% decline between 1977-81 and 1998-2002 (Barrett et al. 2007), equivalent to a 35% decline in reporting rate over 10 years. Yearly data from the New South Wales Bird Atlassers, which has a consistent survey method over time (NSWBA 2008), shows a similar decline (Jenner 2008). Over the twenty-five year period from 1981 to 2006, reporting rates declined by 38% in New South Wales, with a decline of 33% over the last 10 years. Anecdotal observations support these quantitative indications that there has been a moderate reduction in population size in New South Wales. Populations are believed to have declined substantially both in western New South Wales (N. Schrader, in. litt., 2009) and on the north coast (A. Morris, pers. comm. 2009). I. McAllan (in. litt., 2009) considers that they have declined in both inland and coastal regions.


9. The major threats to White-fronted Chats are reduction in habitat size and quality, human disturbance (Jenner 2008) and elevated nest-predation levels (Major 1991b). Mangrove encroachment (Saintilan et al. 2009) and sea-level rise associated with global warming (Hughes 2003) present an additional future threat to their preferred habitat. White-fronted Chats are strongly habitat specific and sensitive to human disturbance (Jenner 2008) such that they are unable to persist in the urbanised environments that often impinge on coastal saltmarsh, although they can exploit foraging opportunities in agricultural land. Because they inhabit open areas close to water, much of their natural habitat is prone to alteration due to modification of river flows and floodplains. In coastal areas urbanisation has fragmented populations in isolated saltmarsh remnants, leaving populations vulnerable to stochastic threats associated with small population size. Because they nest close to the ground, White-fronted Chat nests are prone to predation from snakes and mammals, particularly Feral Cats Felis catus, European Red Foxes Vulpes vulpes, and rodents (Major 1991b), as well as birds, particularly ravens Corvus spp. The abundance of many of these predators is higher in areas near human settlement. ‘Predation by the European Red Fox Vulpes vulpes (Linnaeus, 1758)’, ‘Predation by the Feral Cat Felis catus (Linnaeus, 1758)’, ‘Anthropogenic climate change’, ‘Alteration to the natural flow regimes of rivers and streams and their floodplains and wetlands’ and ‘Clearing of native vegetation’ are listed as Key Threatening Processes under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. The preferred habitat of the White-fronted Chat in coastal areas, ‘Coastal Saltmarsh in the NSW North Coast, Sydney Basin and South East Corner Bioregions’, is listed as an Endangered Ecological Community under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.


10. The White-fronted Chat Epthianura albifrons (Jardine & Selby, 1828) is not eligible to be listed as an Endangered or Critically Endangered species.


11. The White-fronted Chat Epthianura albifrons (Jardine & Selby, 1828) is eligible to be listed as a Vulnerable species as, in the opinion of the Scientific Committee, it is facing a high risk of extinction in New South Wales in the medium-term future as determined in accordance with the following criteria as prescribed by the Threatened Species Conservation Regulation 2002:


Clause 14

The species has undergone, is observed, estimated, inferred or reasonably suspected to have undergone or is likely to undergo within a time frame appropriate to the life cycle and habitat characteristics of the taxon:

(c) a moderate reduction in population size,

based on:

(d) an index of abundance appropriate to the taxon.



Dr Richard Major


Scientific Committee


Proposed Gazettal date: 23/04/10

Exhibition period: 23/04/10 - 18/06/10




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Major RE (1991a) Flocking and feeding in the white-fronted chat Ephthianura albifrons: the relationship between diet, food availability and patch selection. Australian Journal of Ecology 16, 395-407.


Major RE (1991b) Breeding biology of the white-fronted chat Epthianura albifrons in a saltmarsh near Melbourne. Emu 91, 236-249.


NSWBA (2008). http://www.nswbirdatlassers.com/dataservices.htm. ‘Data services’. New South Wales Bird Atlassers Inc.


North AJ (1904) ‘Nests and eggs of birds found in Australia and Tasmania. Vol 1.’ (Trustees of the Australian Museum: Sydney) . [Facsimile edition, 1984, Oxford University Press: Melbourne.]


Saintilan N, Rogers K, Howe A (2009) Geomorphology and habitat dynamics. In 'Australian saltmarsh ecology'. (Ed. N Saintilan) pp. 53-74. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne)


Straw PJ (1999) ‘Homebush Bay bird monitoring project report 1995 to 1999.’ Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union report to the Olympic Co-ordination Authority, Sydney.


Williams CK (1979) Ecology of Australian chats (Epthianura Gould): reproduction in aridity. Australian Journal of Zoology 27, 213-229.

Page last updated: 28 February 2011