Music could be key in finding rare bird species

In the middle of NSW there's a cryptic bird so elusive that the NSW Government's Saving our Species program has turned to music to detect it.

Red-lored whistler (Pachycephala rufogularis) in Nombinnie Nature Reserve (Critically Endangered)

Threatened species experts have been recording birdsongs – through bioacoustic technology – to monitor and track the critically endangered red-lored whistler (Pachycephala rufogularis) in the Central West's Round Hill and Nombinnie Nature Reserves.

This novel technique holds promise for monitoring rare birds across the State, according to Sarah Bell, Senior Project Officer Saving our Species.

"With a cryptic bird like the red-lored whistler, your chance of seeing one is pretty low, but detecting their noise lets us know if there are any out there," Dr Bell said.

"These birdsong recordings will help us understand their movements and hopefully lead to better conservation outcomes.

"Hearing the red-lored whistler call really is the best music to our ears as it gives us hope that we might be able to help save this bird.

"We are starting from a point of having no firm idea what the population trend of this bird is, whether it's going up or down or staying the same, or what habitat they prefer.

"For the past 2 years our team has left small recording devices in the reserves, for a few months at a time, to capture bird songs and calls from the surrounding landscape," Dr Bell said.

"We take the song files back to the office to analyse them – we can separate the red-lored whistler from other bird calls – even from the very similar-sounding Gilbert's whistler, for which it's often mistaken."

The team will record bird songs over a 6-year period, which is the generational life-span of the red-lored whistler. During this time, recordings will be made from 155 locations.

Once many months of sound-data files are downloaded, they are run through a software program which assists in the identification of various bird calls. The data will be used to investigate the red-lored whistlers' occupancy across the reserve and changes over time to indicate the population trajectory.

The red-lored whistler is a 'shy' small, grey-brown songbird with attractive orange-red trimming on its lore, which is the area on the side of a bird's face between its eye and bill.

Red-lored whistlers blend easily into their surrounds and are rarely seen flying around the Mallee woodland in which they live. As far as the team knows, this is the only population remaining in New South Wales.