What a whirlwind of a year it has been for Lee Point, finches and bird lovers alike!
As the woodlands of northern Darwin were bulldozed, hundreds of finches also rocked up and twitchers from across the globe descended onto the disputed land. This year has seen thousands of people visit the area and hundreds of people campaigning to Save Lee Point.
So what is all the fuss about?
Situated in the northern suburbs of Darwin, Lee Point is only 15 minutes from the city centre and its natural values are cherished by locals and visitors alike. The variety of habitats are home to an abundance of wildlife including threatened species such as the Black-footed Tree Rat and Gouldian Finch and is an important area for thousands of migratory shorebirds, including the endangered Eastern Curlew. In fact, the area has recorded over a whopping 210 species of birds!
In 2014 the Lee Point Area Plan was developed by the NT Government and approved by the NT planning minister in 2015. This plan proposed the clearing of a significant portion of one of Darwin's last remaining woodlands to make way for a new Defence Housing development of up to 800 new houses. This process was barely in public view and not known to most locals until bulldozing began in late 2021.
However, in 2022 with all eyes on it, Lee Point became one of the most highlighted natural areas in Australia due to an increase in birdlife. In what became one of the most incredible birding spots in the world, at one point you could find a mind-blowing nine species of finch at Lee Point Dam. Although the area was mainly dominated by the invasive Gamba Grass, the Gouldian, Star, Double-barred, Long-tailed, Masked, Zebra, Crimson Finches and Chestnut-breasted and Yellow-rumped Munias all called it home.
The Gouldian Finch was the main crowd pleaser though and perhaps the miracle that locals were searching for. Due to their highly nomadic life-style they are a difficult species to estimate population sizes of but there has anecdotally been a decline from tens of thousands of birds historically to now as low as 2500 individuals.
This decline is linked to a changing fire regime and introduced grazers reducing the availability of important grass seeds and this has seen the colourful bird listed as endangered under the EPBC Act. This endangered listing was ignored in the initial 2014 approval because it was deemed unsuitable or not essential habitat for the Gouldian Finch.
Appearing sporadically and in low numbers at Lee Point over the last decade, in April 2022 a small flock of 17 Gouldian Finches soon exploded in up to 250 individuals during the peak of the dry season. The large amounts of juvenile birds indicate they were even breeding out of season in the area! Note the white colours on the juveniles in the above image.
The eruption of finches could be from the dry conditions being suffered further south, or the finches may be returning back to old habitat as their numbers are recovering.
Nevertheless, the flock of rainbow finches attracted bird-watchers worldwide to Lee Point Dam and we met people from America, England and Singapore. It has been estimated that the site was visited over 10,000 times during the dry season!
The Gouldian's themselves became so confident around people that they were landing next to their feet! People were treated with flocks of finches flying right past them as they would land in the grass to feed and all shoot back up to a nearby tree as a Goshawk flew over.
What is being done?
During the year we have seen many amazing and dedicated people attend events, workshops and petitions started by the Friends of Lee Point to raise awareness on the area and help over-turn the development. Lee Point is not only a haven for wildlife but an escape for many locals from suburban life.
At current Defence Housing Australia has stated it will continue the bull-dozing and is going ahead with the development. Tanya Plibersek, Australia's current Environmental Minister has the power under Australian environmental laws to re-assess and change an approval if nationally listed species become under threat after the initial approval.
With Australia being the only developed country on WWF's list of deforestation hotspots and new bold climate and extinction targets under the new government, all eyes are on Tanya to help Save Lee Point!
What about the shorebirds?
The shoreline of Lee Point is an also an extremely important roosting site for migratory shorebirds at high tide, allowing them to rest in groups of thousands. These shorebirds are easily disturbed by people and dogs and the increase of residents next to the beach will put enormous pressure on the shorebirds.
These birds make a 20,000km round trip on their breeding journeys and it is essential that disturbances are at a minimum so they are only expending energy on feeding and not constantly flying from being spooked.
Buffalo Creek and the surrounding mangroves harbour an incredible amount of diversity as well, with sightings of Snubfin Dolphins, Saltwater Crocodiles and Chestnut Rails not uncommonly seen!
How can I help?
The 'Take Action' Page on Save Lee Point details ways to help and be involved and you can always email Environmental Minister Tanya Plibersek's office to voice your concerns for the Gouldian Finches and Lee Point.
Follow the Friends of Lee Point facebook page for more updates on this issue.
With the wet season now beginning, the Gouldian's and co. have become more sporadic as they breed and alas, the immense abundance of finches is no more. You may still get lucky and spot them in low numbers, but we will be waiting now for next dry season to see if they return in force.
The next time you visit Darwin I urge you to visit and enjoy the natural wonders of Lee Point!
Hopefully this can stay the case for future generations.
Thank you to avid local birdwatcher Gavan Keane for fact-checking this post!