Buff-banded rails thrive on Horsburgh

A buff-banded rail and five chicks caught on camera on Horsburgh

An attempt to repopulate Horsburgh Island with the endangered Cocos buff-banded rails has proved successful, with the birds breeding well and stretching their wings.

For many years, these small ground-dwelling birds only survived in Pulu Keeling National Park, on North Keeling atoll in the Cocos Islands. In 2005 a recovery plan recommended an attempt should be made to reintroduce the rail to at least one island in the in the Cocos group. Horsburgh Island, a 1km square island in the southern atoll, was selected. It is relatively isolated, uninhabited and not visited much. It also has some remaining area of natural vegetation, a small lagoon, no feral cats and no black rats. In the past, rails persisted longer on Horsburgh than on any other island in the southern atoll.

In April 2013, 39 buff-banded rails were translocated from Pulu Keeling to Horsburgh, and by August of that year we had spotted the first rail chicks. Surveys in October 2014 showed us the rails now occur throughout the island, and from monitoring we estimate a population of about 54 birds. We will soon install additional remote sensing equipment, thanks to $15,000 in Australian Government funding recommended by the Threatened Species Commissioner. The new gear will help our rangers keep a close eye on the population, to make sure predators such as feral cats and rats have not reached Horsburgh Island.

The return of rails to Horsburgh Island has delighted many Cocos residents, and may in the longer term inspire restoration of the original vegetation and birdlife that once characterised these extraordinary islands. However, Horsburgh is small. At least two birds have literally spread their wings, moving off to other islands. Time will tell if the birds will re-colonise other islands – but in the meantime, Horsburgh Island and Pulu Keeling National Park are providing great safe havens for this endangered bird.

Ismail, Pulu Keeling National Park