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July 21, 2013

Yellingbo is the last stronghold of two state emblems, the Leadbeater’s possum and the helmeted honeyeater, yet the reserve itself is dying. Tom Arup and Bridie Smith report.

It is feeding time for the helmeted honeyeaters at Yellingbo. Neil Wentworth pours a small amount of a milky nectar substitute into a dish and places it in a feeding station amid the woolly tea-trees and eucalypts.

His co-volunteer Robin Anker watches through binoculars as the birds, adorned with their distinctive yellow ear-tufts, appear in the trees around the platform. And then, courage building, they land and dip their beaks into the dish to feed.

”That’s Metallic Salmon,” Anker says, pointing to one of the birds, a name drawn from the coloured bands on its legs. They watch for a few minutes, observing the birds and noting their groupings, numbers and behaviour, then collect their things and head to the next feeding station further along Cockatoo Creek and deeper into the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve.

Yellingbo, 50 kilometres east of Melbourne, is the last stronghold of the critically endangered helmeted honeyeater. There are only 60 birds left in the wild, down from 90 a decade ago. Forty of the remaining birds are fed daily by volunteers like Anker and Wentworth, making their existence precariously reliant on humans.

The honeyeater is not the only important Yellingbo resident. The reserve, largely unknown to Victorians and closed to the public, also hosts the last remaining population of lowland Leadbeater’s possums, which are genetically distinct from their highland cousins.

Both species are emblems of Victoria. Both are endemic to the state. And both are edging towards extinction. The fate of two iconic species is a heavy burden for Yellingbo to carry. At just 661 hectares, it is an oasis of isolated habitat amid a desert of cleared farmland. And its forests are dying. The eucalypts are waterlogged and the woolly tea-trees ageing, making possum and honeyeater habitat increasingly hard to find.