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Congratulations Mark Holdsworth: Australian of the Year Nominee

MARK Holdsworth is one of those  who pursues his passion both at work  and personally.

It’s Mark’s dedication to bird conservation that saw him nominated as one of four Tasmanians for Australian of the Year a couple of weeks ago.

Mark’s a Senior Bird Conservation Officer in Resource Management and Conservation at the DPIPWE.

So why birds?

“I can’t really say when my interest in birds first started, but definitely by the time I was 15” Mark said. “Before I started working in conservation I was interested in bird watching. Birds are everywhere, anywhere you go in the world, you’ll find a bird, and no matter what time of the day or night you’re there. They’re accessible – that makes it easy. In that regard maybe I’m a bit lazy,” he said laughing.

“Birds give character to places, colour and sound, every landscape we visit or live in has birds and you either see them or hear them. It really gives character to a place.”

 

Mark came up through the ranks in the Tasmanian public sector, and was alwayskeen to pursue his interest in birds throughout his career.

“I started as a trainee ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service back in 1979, I then graduated to a Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger, where I worked for a number of years.”

He’s worked in National Parks all around the state, including Cradle Mountain, Maria Island and Freycinet.

“Even though the parks were lovely to live and work in, I had a burning desire to work in conservation and wildlife management.”

“In the late 80s I moved from the Parks area to the Wildlife section as a Wildlife Management Officer.”  Since then Mark’s career in conservation grew and the orange bellied parrot (OBP) has become a core part of his job.

“I first worked with Peter Brown, now retired, on the orange-bellied parrot, and over the years gradually took on more  responsibility, both in the wild and captive breeding programs. Working with Peter was vital to learn the ropes and ensure the program maintained some continuity. ”

Apart from the orange bellied parrot, Mark has worked on most Tasmanian animals, particularly threatened species such as the Tasmanian devil, swift parrots and the fortyspotted pardalote. “You name it, I’ve worked with it in various ways.”

The orange bellied parrot is a critically endangered species, and Mark estimates there are less than 50 birds in the wild. “Up until about 6-7 years ago we were confident there were up to 150 individuals but there has been a dramatic decline, possibly due to drought on the mainland, which has affected their reproductive capacity.

“The last couple of years we’ve seen the wild population slowly increasing, so there’s been a gradual improvement. The quick action of the department on the advice of the National Recovery Team, combined with invaluable funding support from the  State and Commonwealth governments were critical factors to start to turn things around for the OBP ”

The parrot is an obligate migratory species, moving to the mainland during the winter where it spends time in both Victoria and South Australia, but it only breeds in south-west Tassie.

There’s now a focus on captive breeding to build up the parrot population so there are enough birds to release into the wild to bolster the small wild population.

Currently there are about 260 individuals in captivity – with 2012 being a bumper year, seeing nearly double the reproductive success of previous years.

“We bred over 100 juveniles last year, and if we do that again this year we’ll meet our target of about 350-400 birds quite quickly.”

A big part of captive breeding population is at the department’s facilities at Taroona, where nearly half the world’s captive population resides.

Captive management staff who work with these parrots also look after the captive Tasmanian devils, with Mark saying this team is made up of highly skilled people.

“It is important to have a high level of professionalism and skill in the captive-breeding programs.  There are big risks if you don’t have highly skilled, passionate people. It’s hard work; there are a lot of tedious tasks – cleaning cages and daily feeding routines – so you need people with passion and commitment to keep things going in the right direction.”.

Mark feels that permanent positions are vital for long-term conservation programs.  “There is a career opportunity in this field and I feel permanency has provided me with the corporate knowledge and confidence to stick the course for the orange-bellied parrot.

“If I was on a short-term contract back in 1989 the program may have fallen over. We wouldn’t have the same knowledge, understanding and commitment to see things through”.

“With long-term projects I can see there’s a risk to conservation if we don’t have a core group of knowledgeable and well-skilled public servants that can guide those services.”

Away from Tasmania and outside work Mark has used the skills he’s built up over the years to help other declining bird species. “The Australian of the Year nomination also recognises my work from elsewhere. I’ve done a lot of work on Christmas Island looking after the Christmas Island goshawk, an endangered bird of prey.”

Mark’s worked with the goshawk for nearly 10 years in his own time.

“I don’t take normal holidays, I go and do work holidays. Effectively what I’ve done is use all the skills and knowledge I’ve built up through my career in conservation in the public service and applied that elsewhere to help others’.

“I usually go to warm places during the winter. We do a lot of work in the Coral Sea, where we do seabird monitoring with some colleagues working for the Commonwealth. Mark also helps out on cat eradication programs on the mainland, to look at bird diversity and is involved in various capacities in non-government organisations such as BirdLife Australia, Australasian Raptor Association and Tasmania’s Wildcare.

On Christmas Island Mark is also involved in a tourism venture, Bird ‘n’ Nature Week (http://www.christmas.net.au/experiences/bird-watching/bird-n-nature-week.html), which combines a natural experience and working with birds. Visitors can assist with various research programs, including the goshawk.  “It’s like experience tourism, it’s quite small, we have about 30 people come up each year at the moment but everyone has such a great experience -including the researchers.”

It’s these pursuits and his work with the orange bellied parrots that saw him nominated for Australian of the Year. The nomination was both an honour and a surprise.

“I was shocked. I got a phone call out of the blue from the National Australia Day Council in Canberra. I thought it was a joke at first.

“The award acknowledges the work I’ve done with birds and encouraging others to find careers and study in conservation . There are four categories – I was hoping I wasn’t going to be Senior Australian and I knew it wasn’t junior! It turned out to be Australian of the Year. The response from friends and colleagues has been wonderful. I’m happy to receive the nomination but it’s on the back on the support of the department, colleagues and friends over many years.

The four finalistsin each category will go to an award function on October 29 where each winner is announced to represent Tasmania on Australia Day. The finalists (http://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/) are from diverse areas of interest including a humanitarian, a child disability advocate and a food microbiologist. Mark said, “I’m proud to be part of this inspiring group of people and I’m really humbled by just being selected as a finalist.”

In the meantime, nature calls, with orange bellied parrots recently returning to the state’s south west, meaning plenty of work for Mark.

“I’m madly trying to get things organised so we can get back down there to set up this season’s monitoring program.” This involves nest box maintenance and overseeing Wildcare volunteers. “It’s a real team effort and hopefully the OBPs have another successful breeding season.”

 

The CPSU wishes Mark all the best for his nomination and is proud of his work and his achievements for his state and further abroad.

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