Tucked away in a coastal corner of Darwin’s northern suburbs is a patch of bushland that has become the new home of a small, 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 has become the mascot of a grassroots movement to stop a multi-million dollar defense housing project.
At a recent demonstration against the project in Darwin city centre, the colorful creature was plastered over T-shirts and hand-painted signs.
Graeme Sawyer of Biodiversity Watch said the unique creature “has really entered people’s hearts because it is so colourful”.
“It’s a bird that has a huge public profile and is super cute.”
Once found across northern Australia, the latest count of the endangered finch estimated there were fewer than 2,500 left in the wild.
No stranger to the limelight, the finch has not only featured in a David Attenborough documentary, but has also become the main attraction for twitchers in Darwin this dry season.
Sawyer said he believed thousands of people have visited the area to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird.
“We estimate that during that period from May to the end of August there were over 10,000 visits to that site and about 48 percent of those would have been tourists,” he said.
Defense project approved in 2019
Defense Housing Australia describes the proposed 800-house development as a “thriving residential community of defense families, the local community and visitors”, across 131 hectares of zoned residential land.
The first phase of the clearance has already taken place.
“It is envisaged that a main street area will provide a tourist activity center containing restaurants, cafes, hotels, self-contained apartments and retail shops,” according to Defense Housing Australia’s website.
The Defense Housing Authority claims the development will provide “much needed” accommodation for members of the Australian Defense Force and their families.
A spokesman for the authority said environmental clearance “was obtained following a detailed assessment of the project’s impact on biodiversity”.
However, the authority noted that it continues to work with “experts, with the Commonwealth Environment Minister and the Department for Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water in relation to the project”.
Sawyer, who is leading the campaign to stop the second phase of the clearing, believes the land would provide greater public and economic benefits if it were turned into a tourist attraction.
“There’s something like 240 bird species that have been seen in the Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Lee Point area, and that’s about a quarter of the Australian bird species,” he said.
“The estimates in the US are that bird farming is worth about $40 billion a year. It’s a big industry and it could be a big thing for Darwin.
“You can offer someone a world-class birding tour for the day in Darwin and we don’t take advantage of those things.”
Sir. Sawyer calls the movement of the recovered species to Lee Point an “amazing phenomenon” and claims that the quality of the habitat is what has helped the bird revive its dwindling population.
“When you get an area like that where you have food and you have water, the birds will come there for a period of time, but the fact that these birds seem to be resident there and their numbers have been increasing indicates , that they also breed close to there.”
“We were really worried back in the nineties and so on that we were going to lose it as a species, so it’s had quite a remarkable recovery in some areas.”
Co-director of the Environment Center of the Northern Territory, Kirsty Howey, said the bird’s threatened status could throw a wrench into the development effort.
“The significance of Gouldian finches being in this area is quite stark because they are listed as endangered under our federal law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and that puts the Federal [Environment] Minister Tanya Plibersek firmly in the framework of decision-making for this area,” she said.
‘Further studies’ to identify Gouldian finch habitat
The community’s efforts to lobby Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s office, which includes citizen science projects, have not gone unnoticed in Canberra.
“We’ve heard that in response to the huge community outcry on this issue, Minister Plibersek is actually reviewing the situation at Lee Point, which is huge news,” Howey said.
An Environment Department spokesman told the ABC that department officers inspected the site earlier this month and met with the Defense Housing Authority.
As a result, the Department is working with the Authority to conduct further surveys to identify habitats for the Gouldian finch.
Ms Howey said recent steps by the Federal Government had provided a sense of hope for those involved in the campaign.
“People in Darwin now really believe that this place can be saved. They are galvanized people. They are motivated people,” she said.
“This campaign has been hugely successful, encouraging thousands of people in Darwin. It shouldn’t be that difficult to save this habitat and listen to the community on this issue.”
The Gouldian finch caught the eye 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 before and just that bird looking like it was made and then seeing it in real life was really special,” she said.
She claims the development is “short-term” and is concerned 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 unlivable unless we plan for a warmer climate,” she said.
“No one thinks about the future of the people who will live there. It will be hot, it will be exposed, and it will be really sad without all the biodiversity and nature around.”
Any future decision on the development rests with the federal government.