Nestled in a coastal corner of Darwin’s northern suburbs lies a patch of bushland that has become the new home of a tiny endangered bird.
Local twitchers believe the Gouldian finch migrated north to Lee Point in search of better habitat and breeding grounds.
In doing so, it became the mascot of a grassroots movement to stop a multimillion-dollar defense housing project.
At a recent rally against the project in Darwin city center, the colorful creature was pasted over T-shirts and hand-painted signs.
Biodiversity Watch’s Graeme Sawyer said the unique creature has “really wormed its way into people’s hearts because of its colourfulness.”
“It’s a bird that has a tremendous public profile and is super cute.”
Once found across northern Australia, the most recent census of the endangered finch estimated there were fewer than 2,500 left in the wild.
The finch is no stranger to the limelight, not only has it been featured in a documentary by David Attenborough, but it has also become the main attraction for twitchers in Darwin during this dry season.
Mr Sawyer said he believes thousands of people have visited the area to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird.
“We estimate that there were over 10,000 visits to this space during this period from about May to the end of August, and about 48 percent of those would have been tourists,” he said.
Defense project approved in 2019
Defense Housing Australia describes the proposed 800-home development as a “thriving community of Defense families, the local community and visitors” spread across 131 hectares of zoned residential land.
The first stage of the evacuation has already taken place.
“It is envisaged that a high street district will provide a tourist activity hub with restaurants, cafes, hotels, independent housing and retail outlets,” Defense Housing Australia’s website said.
The Defense Housing Authority argues that the development will provide “much needed” housing for members of the Australian Defense Force and their families.
A spokesman for the agency said the environmental permit was “obtained following a detailed assessment of the project’s impact on biodiversity”.
However, the agency noted that it was continuing to work with “experts, the Commonwealth Environment Secretary and the Department for Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water on the project”.
Mr Sawyer, who is leading the campaign to end the second phase of deforestation, believes the land would bring more benefits to the public and economy if it were turned into a tourist attraction.
“There are about 240 bird species that have been seen in this Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Lee Point area and that’s about a quarter of Australia’s bird species,” he said.
“Estimates in the United States suggest that bird watching is worth about $40 billion a year. It’s a big industry and could be a great thing for Darwin.
“You could offer someone a world-class birding trip for a day in Darwin and we don’t take advantage of those things.”
Mr Sawyer calls the relocation of the recovering species to Lee Point a “fantastic phenomenon” and argues that the quality of the habitat has helped the bird revitalize its dwindling population.
“If you get an area like this where you have food and water, the birds will come there for a period of time, but the fact that these birds seem to live there, and their numbers have been increasing, suggests that they breed nearby.”
“We were really worried back in the ’90s that we were going to lose her as a species, so she’s made a pretty remarkable recovery in some areas.”
Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Northern Territory Environment Centre, said the bird’s endangered status could thwart development.
“The importance of Gouldian finches in this area is quite significant because they are listed as vulnerable under our federal law, the Environmental Protection and Wildlife Act, and that’s what Federal stipulates [Environment] Minister Tanya Plibersek is firmly in the decision-making process for this area,” she said.
“Additional surveys” to identify the habitat of the Gouldian finch
Community efforts to advocate for Environment Secretary Tanya Plibersek’s office, which includes citizen science projects, have not gone unnoticed in Canberra.
“We have heard that, in response to the major community outcry on this issue, Minister Plibersek is indeed reviewing the situation at Lee Point, which is big news,” Ms Howey said.
A spokesman for the Environment Department told the ABC that officials from the Department inspected the site earlier this month and met with the Defense Housing Authority.
As a result, the department is working with the agency to conduct additional research to identify habitat for the Gouldian finch.
Ms Howey said recent moves by the federal government had given those involved in the campaign a sense of hope.
“The people of Darwin now truly believe that this place can be saved. They are motivated people. They’re motivated people,” she said.
“This campaign has been hugely successful as it has roused thousands of people in Darwin. It shouldn’t be that hard to save this habitat and listen to the community on this issue.”
The Gouldian finch caught the attention of local resident Maude Mussared, who joined the Save Lee Point campaign after learning of its endangered status.
“I’ve never been a bird watcher and just this bird that looks like it’s made up and then seeing it in real life was really special,” she said.
She argues the development is “short-sighted” and worries about climate change.
“I love Darwin. I want to live here for a long time, but it’s getting to a point where it’s going to be uninhabitable unless we plan for a warmer climate,” she said.
“Nobody thinks about the future of the people who have to live there. It’s going to be hot, it’s being exposed and it’s going to be really sad without all that biodiversity and nature.”
Any future decision on development rests with the federal government.