The (bleak) future of mallee emu-wren

To: "Simon Mustoe" <>,
Subject: The (bleak) future of mallee emu-wren
From: Michael Todd <>
Date: Tue, 14 Dec 2004 15:48:45 +1100
Hello Simon,

I'd like to congratulate you (and Rohan) for having the initiative to take this up. I don't know much about the threat posed by the toxic waste dump but I'm very concerned about the threats posed by inappropriate burning regimes to mallee birds, whether it is carried out by rural fire services, private landholders or more commonly by government departments. The problem is determining what is appropriate. There is a distinct lack of solid information on how to manage mallee for ALL the species that live in it. You seem to get 2 management extremes- either too much burning or too little.

Note, I'm going to have a bit of a rant about mallee, fire and management below so be forewarned!!:

While I was working for NSW NPWS in Griffith during the early noughties I spent a fair amount of my spare time exploring the mallee in central NSW looking especially for Red-lored Whistlers and Striated Grasswrens. Compared to other vegetation communities in central NSW the mallee is well conserved with some large reserves including Round Hill, Nombinnie and Yathong as well as a number of smaller ones. Because of this, mallee and conservation issues related to it are low on the agenda for priorities for conservation in NSW (personal observation). However, from talking to various people and through my own observations, I soon realised that the conservation status of NSW mallee isn't well represented by its area in hectares. Most of the mallee that was on the best soils has been long cleared. Not good for birds like the malleefowl which have survived in very low densities (compared to SA) in mallee on poorer soils. Obviously the best soil areas have been used for agriculture.

As for the Red-lored Whistler (RLW) and the grasswren, well, there are some large areas of mallee still left (for example, in the reserves mentioned above) but not much of it has either of these 2 species! The RLW is very patchily distributed and doesn't seem to occur north of Nombinnie NR, despite seemingly suitable mallee occurring well to the north. Why is it patchy?  Well, I believe it needs mallee of a certain age post fire. It seems to be absent from old growth mallee and also from recently burned mallee and only reaches reasonable densities in mallee about 5-20 years of age with a good Melaleuca uncinata (Broombush) understorey. It has disappeared from reserves like Pulletop NR that have become old growth that have had no fire for years (until very recently) and had most of the adjoining mallee areas cleared for agriculture.

On the positive side, most of the RLW numbers left in NSW are in reserves. While I was in Griffith (NPWS conservation planning but over the Riverina bioregion, not just mallee) I often talked about the management of the relevant mallee with those that were responsible for its management in NPWS. I was confident that the individuals involved were trying to manage the mallee with the RLW in mind, while not neglecting everything else. Since I've been in Griffith there has been a re-distribution of NPWS districts and now the Cobar office is responsible for the relevant areas of mallee. Am I still confident that the mallee will be managed appropriately? To be frank, I'm not.

The problem with government departments and bureacracy in general is that there is usually a lot of re-organization and movement of staff meaning that its difficult to maintain continuity of management. Combine this with the paucity of information available on actual species distribution and ecological requirements and you've got inadequate management. Note that I'm talking about NSW here, I can't say for certain that this follows for other states. So in the case of the RLW. Do we need to burn to maintain the RLW in NSW? Yes, I think so. Do we know how much and on what scale we need to burn? No, we don't. Is there any research being carried out on the RLW (probably NSW's rarest bird) in NSW?  No there isn't. What management there is is by necessity going to be based on ad hoc ideas.

With the Striated Grasswren, most of its distribution in central NSW occurs on private property OUTSIDE the extensive mallee reserves!  I strongly suspect that a large part of its range is being used for goat farming. It seems to like mallee that is significantly older than that of the RLW with large dense spinifex clumps. However, the oldest growth mallee that I found (largest trees), tended to have spinifex that was well into senescence and lacked grasswrens. So fire is probably necessary for this species as well, just a different regime to that of the RLW. But where is the hard data?

So I think that fire management in mallee is crucial to its conservation. Its not enough to simply declare areas as national parks or reserves and leave it at that. On the other hand, burning large swathes of it without knowing for certain what the repercussions will be is inadvisable also. So, I guess what I'm saying is that this issue is VERY IMPORTANT and the Mallee Emu-wren is probably a key species with is small range and obvious vulnerability due to lack of mobility.

Someone needs to look at the big picture. Where are the populations, how and where do they interact and how can their habitat be maintained into the future. This needs to be looked at for each species and then some sort of overall combined plan put into place. It would then need to be monitored because the you beaut plan may well prove to be still inappropriate for certain species and need to be adjusted. This sort of management would cost serious dollars but I can't see how else conservation of mallee can work. Without it you're just locking up (emotive term I know) areas from development that will gradually lose many of the species that made them special in the first place. The loss of the Mallee Whipbird in Victoria is evidence that things have already gone wrong, not to mention many mammal species.

I saw my first Mallee Emu-wrens on the Nowingi Track in November 2001. A thrill I'll never forget. I'd be shattered if years from now all I have is photographs, recordings and memories and am not able to go and see the little mice with wings again in the future. Since those first birds I've seen them in the following places:
te Common Name Location Name State Number Observation Age / Sex Record Details
Mallee Emuwren 30-Nov-2001 Hattah-Kulkyne NP (Nowingi Track- MEW1) 34 41 18.6 142 16 7 Ad 1
Mallee Emuwren 30-Nov-2001 Murray Sunset NP (Pheeny Track-6.6 km from start)MEW2 34 42 33.7 141 57 20.3 Ad 5
Mallee Emuwren 30-Nov-2001 Murray Sunset NP (Pheeny Tank Rd- 7.6 km from southern end)mew3 34 44 1.1 141 53 10.9 Ad 10
Mallee Emuwren 01-Dec-2001 Murray Sunset NP (Last Hope Track- 3.4 km from start) 34 44 55.2 141 58 56.6 Ad 1
Mallee Emuwren 01-Dec-2001 Murray Sunset NP (Last Hope Track- 3.0 km from start) 34 44 35.3 141 59 1.3 Ad 5
Mallee Emuwren 29-Mar-2003 Murray Sunset NP (Rocket Lake Track, 4.0 km S. Pheeny Track) 34 44 38.8 141 48 4.5 Ad 2
Mallee Emuwren 31-Mar-2003 Murray Sunset NP (Rocket Lake Track 2) Ad 1

Anyway, thats my 2 bob's worth. Anything that could impact on the Mallee Emu-wren is bad news and I hope that something can be done.

Cheers and best of luck,

Mick Todd

Michael Todd
Images & Sounds of Nature (in workshop)
Toronto, NSW, Australia
(02) 49591837


. At 05:28 PM 12/12/2004, Simon Mustoe wrote:

I thought it about time to publish some information on birding-aus regarding mallee emu-wren. Below is text is from an article that has just been written by myself and Rohan Clarke. It discusses the possible implication of proposals for a toxic waste facility at Nowingi/Hattah as well as management burning in NW Victoria over 500 square kilometres. Neither proposals seem yet to have considered this species in detail enough to satisfy requirements for Cth EIA and combined, have the potential to pose very serious threats to a species that may already be 'critically' endangered. The text as follows can be cited as

Mustoe, S. and Clarke, R. (2004) Mallee Emu-wren; Management Burning and Toxic Waste Dump Spark Concerns for a Listed Threatened Species. National Environmental Law Review Number 3, September 2004 pp54-58.

Could I also encourage anyone who has ever visited, regularly visits, or knows anyone who has visited (including overseas) the Nowingi mallee emu-wren site, to request they submit an email to this effect. Context for considering the ecological significance of a site includes 'social and cultural'. Given that the Nowingi site, apart from being the last stronghold, is also the only accessible place where birders worldwide travel to see mallee emuwren, it would be useful to gather information. Please forward emails to me. As part of a non-professional commitment, I am gathering information on behalf of an alliance of conservation charities in Melbourne.


Simon Mustoe.

Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee is an enigmatic cousin of the fairy wrens found almost exclusively in National Parks of northwest Victoria and eastern South Australia (see Map, below). Its listing as vulnerable under Part 3 of the Environment Protection and

Mick Todd
Toronto, NSW, Australia

-------------------------------------------- Birding-Aus is now on the Web at -------------------------------------------- To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send the message 'unsubscribe birding-aus' (no quotes, no Subject line) to

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>

The University of NSW School of Computer and Engineering takes no responsibility for the contents of this archive. It is purely a compilation of material sent by many people to the birding-aus mailing list. It has not been checked for accuracy nor its content verified in any way. If you wish to get material removed from the archive or have other queries about the archive e-mail Andrew Taylor at this address: andrewt@cse.unsw.EDU.AU