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Contested spaces: saving nature when our beaches have gone to the dogs

 

Contested spaces: saving nature when our beaches have gone to the dogs

Image 20170308 24179 dflmw8
Early in the morning and late in the evening is when shorebirds escape disturbance on the beaches on which their survival depends.
Arnuchulo

Madeleine Stigner, The University of Queensland; Kiran Dhanjal-Adams, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

This is the ninth article in our Contested Spaces series. These pieces look at the conflicting uses, expectations and norms that people bring to public spaces, the clashes that result and how we can resolve these. The Conversation


There’s no doubt about it, Australians love the beach. And why not? Being outdoors makes us happy, and all beaches are public places in Australia.

Head to a beach like Bondi on Christmas Day and you’ll share that space with more than 40,000 people. But we aren’t just jostling with each other for coveted beach space. Scuttling, waddling, hopping or flying away from beachgoers all around Australia are crabs, shorebirds, baby turtles, crocodiles, fairy penguins and even dingoes.

Beaches are home to an incredible array of animals, and sharing this busy space with people is critical to their survival. But, if we find it hard to share our beaches with each other, how can we possibly find space for nature on our beaches?

Beach birds

Here’s a classic example of how hard it is to share our beaches with nature. Head to a busy beach at dawn, before the crowds arrive, and you will most likely see a number of small birds darting about.

You may recognise them from the short movie Piper – they are shorebirds. As the day progresses, swimmers, kite surfers, dog walkers, horse riders, 4x4s and children descend upon the beach en masse, unwittingly disturbing the shorebirds.

We share beaches with an extraordinary array of life, including many shorebirds.

Unlike seabirds, shorebirds do not spend their life at sea. Instead, they specialise on the beach: foraging for their invertebrate prey, avoiding waves, or resting.

However, shorebird numbers in Australia are declining very rapidly. Several species are officially listed as nationally threatened, such as the critically endangered Eastern Curlew.

There are few places you can let your dog run for as long and as far as it pleases, which is one of the reasons beaches appeal to dog owners. But this disturbance results in heavy costs to the birds as they expend energy taking flight and cannot return to favourable feeding areas. Repeated disturbance can cause temporary or permanent abandonment of suitable habitat.

The world’s largest shorebirds, Eastern Curlews are critically endangered – and Australia is home to about 75% of them over summer.
Donald Hobern/flickr, CC BY

The fascinating thing about many of these shorebirds is that they are migratory. Beachgoers in Korea, China, Indonesia or New Zealand could observe the same individual bird that we have seen in Australia.

Yet these journeys come at a cost. Shorebirds must undertake gruelling flights of up to 16,000 kilometres twice a year to get from their breeding grounds in Siberia and Alaska to their feeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand. In their pursuit of an endless summer, they arrive in Australia severely weakened by their travels. They must almost double their body weight before they can migrate again.

And these birds must contend with significant daily disruption on their feeding grounds. A recent study in Queensland found an average of 174 people and 72 dogs were present at any one time on the foreshore of Moreton Bay, along Brisbane’s coastline. And 84% of dogs were off the leash – an off-leash dog was sighted every 700 metres – in potential contravention of regulations on dog control.

Managing the menagerie

One conservation approach is to set up nature reserves. This involves trying to keep people out of large areas of the coastal zone to provide a home for nature. Yet this rarely works in practice on beaches, where there are so many overlapping jurisdictions (for example, councils often don’t control the lower areas of the intertidal zone) that protection is rarely joined up.

The beach-nesting Hooded Plover is unique to Australia where it is listed as vulnerable (and critically endangered in NSW).
Francesco Veronesi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Benjamint444/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

However, our work at the University of Queensland shows we don’t need conservation reserves in which people are kept out. Quite the reverse. We should be much bolder in opening up areas that are specifically designated as dog off-leash zones, in places where demand for recreation is high.

In the case of Moreton Bay, 97% of foraging migratory shorebirds could be protected from disturbance simply by designating five areas as off-leash recreation zones. Currently, dogs must be kept under close control throughout the intertidal areas of Moreton Bay.

By zoning our beaches carefully, the science tells us that the most intense recreational activities can be located away from critical areas for nature. And there’s no reason why this logic couldn’t be extended to creating peaceful zones for beach users who prefer a quiet day out.

By approaching the problem scientifically, we can meet recreational demand as well as protect nature. Proper enforcement of the boundaries between zones is needed. Such enforcement is effective when carried out in the right places at the right time.

We believe that keeping people and their dogs off beaches to protect nature is neither desirable nor effective. It sends totally the wrong message – successful conservation is about living alongside nature, not separating ourselves from it.

Conservationists and recreationists should be natural allies, both working to safeguard our beautiful coasts. The key is to find ways that people and nature can co-exist on beaches.


You can find other pieces published in the series here.

Madeleine Stigner, Research assistant, The University of Queensland; Kiran Dhanjal-Adams, Research Associate Ecological Modeller, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and Richard Fuller, Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
Saving Asia’s migratory birds

 

Our amazing Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, Micha Jackson and Stephanie Avery-Gomm visited Singapore in January 2017 to attend two major international meetings targeted at designing actions to save our flyway’s incredible migratory waterbirds.

Fuller Lab PhD candidates Ed Gallo-Cajiao, Micha Jackson, and Stephanie Avery-Gomm in Singapore.

Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative (AMBI)

The first was a 2-day meeting to discuss the AMBI, which is an initiative of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council – to which Singapore is an observer. This meeting was attended by PhD candidate Ed Gallo-Cajiao on January 8th and 9th and held at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, a site recognised internationally for its importance to migratory waterbirds. The inspiring meeting location offered delegates the opportunity of enjoying some fine birding during coffee breaks. One of AMBI’s key aims is to improve the sustainability of biodiversity use in the Arctic, but doing so requires strong cooperation from flyway range countries outside the Arctic, as many waterbirds breed in the Arctic but migrate south. A series of presentations from Alaska to Indonesia showcased how many thousands of migratory waterbirds are hunted along this flyway by multiple human groups, and how overuse is likely in the absence of overarching coordination. After intense deliberation by representatives from multiple sectors, a recommendation was made to establish a working group on this issue with support from the Convention on Migratory Species.

The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve has been designated a Flyway Site Network under the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership.

East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) pre-meetings

The EAAFP is multi-actor voluntary agreement for conserving migratory waterbirds along the 22 countries of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. It has a primary focus on habitat conservation for shorebirds, cranes, anatidae, and seabirds – as habitat loss remains a key threat to many species across these taxa. The EAAFP Meeting of Partners (MOP) is convened every two years and is the main decision-making forum of this agreement.

On January 10th, several targeted pre-meetings were held prior to the commencement of the 9th Meeting of Partners of the EAAFP.

Attendees at the Seabird Working Group pre-meeting, attended by UQ PhD candidate Stephanie Avery-Gomm (back row second from left) and others. Photo © Eugene Cheah

Seabird Working Group

PhD candidate Stephanie Avery-Gomm was invited to join the EAAFP Seabird Working Group. The paucity of standardised monitoring data on the flyway’s 118 breeding seabirds was raised, and this became a recurring concern identified throughout the MOP for all species groups. Among other commitments, the Seabird Working Group pledged to carry out a flyway-wide analysis of population trends and knowledge gaps. This work will be carried out by Stephanie, as it dovetails with her current PhD analysis of global seabird population trends. The group also shared and discussed the remarkable story of the Chinese Crested Tern, thought to be extinct for over 60 years before its rediscovery in 2000. This positive story, amidst a backdrop of continuing declines in many other species, served as a beacon of hope showcasing the importance of coordinated, targeted actions.

Attendees at the joint Shorebird Working Group and Far Eastern Curlew Task Force pre-meeting, attended by UQ PhD candidate Micha Jackson (front row far left). Photo © Eugene Cheah

Shorebird Working Group and Far Eastern Curlew Task Force

PhD candidate Micha Jackson attended a joint pre-meeting of the Shorebird Working Group and Far Eastern Curlew Task Force. She delivered a background presentation summarising the Far Eastern Curlew’s status, trends and threats, prepared in consultation with researchers during the months leading up to the meeting. Discussions were held around a proposed Single Species Action Plan for the species, later approved by the EAAFP Partners at the Meeting of Partners, which the Task Force’s workplan for the next 2 years is aimed at implementing. One action item proposed for the Shorebird Working Group was the collation of information on best practices for managing Working Coastal Wetlands; these manmade habitats, heavily utilised by waterbirds throughout the flyway, are the focus of Micha’s PhD research.

Delegates of EAAFP Partners at a plenary session of the Meeting of Partners. Photo © Eugene Cheah

East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) 9th Meeting of the Partners

The Meeting of Partners proper was held for the subsequent 5 days from January 11-15 January. Membership to the EAAFP has grown since the last MOP with the addition of the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The EAAFP’s Flyway Site Network also expanded with the addition of 13 new sites in 6 countries in the last two years. Partners were encouraged to continue nominating sites, but it was stressed that mechanisms for regularly monitoring and reporting on their status and responding to threats is still lacking, with basic information lacking even to the Secretariat of the EAAFP on many of these sites.

A clear focus of the meeting was the strengthening of the governance arrangements that support it. A new Technical Committee was established to provide scientific and technical advice to the Secretariat, Partners, Working Groups, and Task Forces, which should increase the Partnership’s formal engagement with researchers. New Rules of Procedure were approved for the proceedings of the MOPs, which will increase formality of future meetings. A 10 year Strategic Plan is scheduled to be developed, bringing the partnership in line with the workings of other Multilateral Environmental Agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. Diversifying fundraising efforts was also a key focus; building on the previous MOP, a fee-based voluntary contribution system by partners was adopted to diversify the funding base. However, implementation may be challenging, as several government Partners do not yet have mechanisms in place to make optional payments to non-legally binding agreements (legally binding agreements often have compulsory contributions based on a UN system).

Ongoing habitat loss, hunting, and lack of coordinated monitoring effort were some of the key conservation and management topics addressed by Partners at the meeting. The profile and awareness of habitat loss seem to be increasing with several media campaigns and programs having occurred in flyway countries since the last Meeting of Partners. On this front, the intention of the Republic of Korea to submit a significant amount of its remaining tidal flats for UN World Heritage Listing is a promising sign, as is the development of the Southeast Asian network for wetland conservation under ASEAN. A Single Species Action Plan for Scaly-sided Merganser was approved alongside the one for Far Eastern Curlew, with both listing hunting as one key threat to the species. Building on the AMBI meeting recommendation, an interim Task Force on Illegal Hunting and Unsustainable Harvest was established under the EAAFP. Echoing discussions at the Seabird and other Working Groups, a Task Force focused on species monitoring reiterated a goal of previous meetings to develop a cooperative framework to better coordinate monitoring throughout the flyway.

On the third day of the meeting, participants were able to get outside the rooms and into some of the beautiful habitats in Singapore, many of which are used by the very birds they had been discussing. Trips to Sungei Buloh wetlands and Pulau Ubin Island included coastal habitats and diverse species lists, while an afternoon at the Gardens by the Bay showcased some of Singapore’s unique attractions and architecture. Key birds of the day included Whimbrel, Oriental Pied Hornbill, and Mangrove Pitta.

The outing re-energised discussions that rounded out the meeting when delegates reconvened for the final two days. On the whole, both meetings were well attended by Partners and external observers, and the good engagement of delegates in formal and interactive sessions seemed to signal a growing regional commitment to positive change while underscoring the ongoing state of crisis facing many of the region’s waterbirds.

The 9th Meeting of the Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, held in Singapore from 11-15 January, 2017. Photo © Eugene Cheah

Diana Solovyeva (left), coordinator of the Scaly-sided Merganser Task Force, participating with Stephanie Avery-Gomm (right), UQ PhD candidate, in one of the MOP’s interactive sessions.

 

Migrating waterbirds cause a spectacle in places throughout the flyway when they gather for their annual migrations. Photo © Micha V Jackson

 
On Museums of Natural History, Extinctions, and the Wonderful Life

 

By Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao

I grew up in a small city in the Andes of Colombia, where during my teenage years the local Museum of Natural History fueled my passion for the natural world. That museum, far from being on the list of the world’s most famous, is humble, but filled with specimens that extremely well represent the current diversity of vertebrates in my country of birth. I have ever since been fascinated by museums of natural history, where a new experience has made me even fonder.

Eryops is the genus of a primitive amphibian that lived during the Early Permian 295 million years ago

Eryops is the genus of a primitive amphibian that lived during the Early Permian 295 million years ago

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the first time, whilst undertaking a fellowship at Princeton University. After this experience, museums of natural history will never be the same to me. When I arrived at the museum and found myself a map, I didn’t know exactly where to start or what to expect. All I knew was that I was in one of the world’s most famous museums of natural history. Quickly, after unfolding the museum’s map by the foyer, I realised that the top floor was dedicated entirely to fossils. So I made my way upstairs, bypassing all the artistic, and perhaps now historic, dioramas. When I arrived at the fossil collection, I realised that before my eyes was the very story of vertebrate evolution, as close as I could possibly get. It was like once again reading all of my undergrad text books on vertebrate zoology. Most of the quintessential fossils that have been fundamental for shedding light on vertebrate evolution were there. Key breakthroughs in the evolution of vertebrates include: the development of jaws, the colonization of the terrestrial environment, and the conquering of the skies through active flight.

Hesperornis is a genus of flightless aquatic bird that lived during the Late Cretaceous 80 million years ago

Hesperornis is a genus of flightless aquatic bird that lived during the Late Cretaceous 80 million years ago

The fossil collection gave me the opportunity to see iconic specimens representing the evolution of different lineages at various stages. For instance, I found a specimen of Dimetrodon, a synapsid reptile forming the basal lineage of mammals. I also found Hesperornis, a toothed bird that has enabled us to understand the evolution of modern birds. In the hall of mammals, there were specimens of Glyptodon (a giant armadillo), Megatherium (a giant ground sloth), and Dyprotodon (a giant wombat), all of them part of the Pleistocene megafauna.

Hence, I came to realise that big museums of natural history are always worth a visit wherever you are, not precisely because of the opportunity to see extant animals, but rather extinct ones! After all, zebras and polar bears are still roaming the earth as we speak, but fossils represent a sample of the earth’s life history that is no longer with us. Museums of natural history with good fossil collections are a lens through which we can explore the exciting history of life on earth.

Glyptodon is a relative of armadillos that lived during the Pleistocene until as recently as 10,000 years ago

Glyptodon is a relative of armadillos that lived during the Pleistocene until as recently as 10,000 years ago

As a part of my PhD at the University of Queensland, I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit Beijing, where I could explore the city on the weekends. After settling in, I quickly found out about the existence of the Paleozoology Museum of China in Beijing, which is affiliated to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Thanks to the media I had good reason to believe this museum was worth a visit. National Geographic magazine had published on its front cover of July 1998 news about feathered dinosaurs discovered in China, all of which have become crucially important in supporting the dinosaur origin of modern birds. Consequently, I didn’t hesitate to go for a visit.

Paleozoological Museum of China in Beijing

Paleozoological Museum of China in Beijing

As its name suggests, the museum is fully dedicated to extinct animals. With that in mind, I entered the building with high expectations of finding feathered dinosaurs. Not far from the main entrance, I was inside the so-called dinosaur hall, where I found a fine collection of fossils from the early Cretaceous (130 mya), resulting from obliteration by an erupting volcano. This sample has been dubbed as the “Jehol Biota”, and represents the assemblage of fossilized animals and plants that once lived in Liaoning Province in northeast China. The collection includes fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, as well as basal flowering plants. Amongst the reptiles there are a few specimens of feathered dinosaurs, exquisitely preserved in slabs where feather prints have been captured. Specimens of now well-known dinosaurs include Microraptor and Confuciusornis. Whilst the former is special because it has feathers present not just in its forelimbs but also in its hindlimbs, the latter is the earliest toothless beaked feathered dinosaur found to date.

Microraptor is a genus of small four winged dinosaurs that lived during the Early Cretaceous 130 million years ago

Microraptor is a genus of small four winged dinosaurs that lived during the Early Cretaceous 130 million years ago

Microraptor is a genus of small four winged dinosaurs that lived during the Early Cretaceous 130 million years ago

Microraptor is a genus of small four winged dinosaurs that lived during the Early Cretaceous 130 million years ago

After spending a couple of hours wandering through the museum, I asked myself, wouldn’t it be nice to have the opportunity to see all these great animals alive? Well, some people have dreamed about it, such as in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. But beyond that, I may just settle for the dream and let my imagination travel back in time to the various times in the history of earth represented by the various fossils in front of me. I then realised how wonderful life is, it is just not possible to fully describe its value, or why it is so important to us. Yes, animals and plants have provided food, medicine, shelter, clothes, and many other goods and services to our species now and well into our earliest origins. But standing in those halls, where the history of vertebrate evolution is right before my eyes, as I imagine Pterosaurs soaring the skies, I reflect on the fact that maybe I don’t wish any animal from the past to be back. After all, they are now extinct and that has been the unchangeable course of events on earth.

Instead, what I did consider is that as a society and individuals, we are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to be amazed by a time slice of the wonderful life’s history as it happens. After all, standing in those halls full of fossils, which once were real animals, is like watching humpback whales breaching, or shorebirds departing in their arduous migrations. There is simply no explanation as to why we are amazed by life, I just feel so excited about it. Maybe it is because the diversity of life, now and well into the past, is a story of fantasy, one where magic is even greater than in the most elaborate sci-fi novels. Partly perhaps because all that is left from animals in the past is primarily their skeletons, eggs, and footprints. I don’t really need Avatar and other sci-fi movies to let my imagination fly. To me it’s enough to read books about vertebrate paleontology, or visit museums of natural history teeming with fossils.

 
Postdoctoral opportunity – migratory species conservation

 

Come work with us! We are advertising for a postdoc to work on migratory species conservation. Primary responsibility is working on an ARC-funded project on migratory shorebirds, but with plenty of freedom to go wherever the ideas take us! The University of Queensland is a world leading university in Ecological and Conservation Research, with more than 100 staff and students working in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science.

Closing date: 28th July 2016

The role

Migratory species are in rapid decline around the world, and we are seeking a postdoc to work on a newly funded project aimed at recovering populations of threatened migratory shorebirds in Australia. Seven shorebird taxa have recently been listed as nationally threatened in Australia, and we are seeking a postdoc to work on a newly funded project aimed at recovering these species through designing optimal management strategies. This project is a unique opportunity to build applied conservation analyses to help solve an urgent conservation crisis. We expect this work to lead to high impact publications, and to continue to shape conservation policy in Australia and throughout the flyway. The successful appointee will join a productive and dynamic environment of 100+ conservation ecologists at UQ.

The person

The successful applicant will possess a PhD in a relevant discipline, and expert knowledge of applied conservation science relevant to this project. You will need a proven ability to work with large, spatially explicit datasets, and to publish the results of your work in high impact journals. Good written and verbal communication skills are essential, to publicise the results of your work, and to liaise with the NGOs and state government organisations who are co-funding the project.

Find out more and apply online

 
Conservation in action: Rat eradication on Big Green Island

 

Jasmine Lee, May 2016

Big Green Island is a part of the Furneaux Group of islands, which are located off the North-east coast of Tasmania in the Bass Strait and are dominated by frequent and fierce winds. There are over 50 islands in the group, ranging in size from a couple of km2 to over 2000km2 for the largest of the group – Flinders Island, well known for its friendly locals and rugged beauty. Big Green is 3km off the west coast of Flinders Island and is only about 125 hectares (~1.25km2).

The southern tip of Big Green looking out at Chappell Island

The southern tip of Big Green looking out at Chappell Island

Though the Furneaux group was originally inhabited by Tasmanian Aborigines, by the time Tobias Furneaux (accompanying Captain Cook on his second voyage of discovery; 1773) arrived, it was thought to have been uninhabited for 6000 years. Soon after, word escaped about the hordes of seals in the Bass Strait Islands, and the sealers arrived in the late 1700’s. In 1831 it was decided to use Flinders Island as an Aboriginal settlement for remnants of displaced tribes from the Tasmanian mainland. The Aboriginal people used Big Green as a goose, mutton bird and sheep farm, where they would pinion (cut the birds pinion to prevent flying) the goose to keep them on the island. In the late 1840’s many of the islands were leased (being Crown land) to farmers for running sheep. Big Green was not initially leased but was regularly visited for muttonbirding and rabbit harvesting. Black rats (Ratus rattus) became established on the island sometime in the 1800’s. Mutton birds, or short-tailed shearwaters as they are formally known, have been an important food source in Tasmania since colonial times. In 1861 a Mr John Thomas described the island as “more or less a rookery of mutton birds… It is also most valuable as a rabbit warren. I have it on good authority that since last April, upwards of 1,200 rabbits have been taken off by different parties, and they are still so numerous that any person can go ashore and kill with sticks or stones 40-50 in a couple of hours”.

In 1865 a widowed Mrs Elizabeth Matilda Davis purchased the island and she began running sheep with her daughter Jane (formally Marie Antoinette Brown, it is not know why she was always called Jane). Elizabeth and Jane built themselves a life on the island, including building a modest dwelling and building stone walls by hand (which can still be seen today). The part of the building that still remains is heritage listed and belongs to the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS). Sheep farming has continued on the island since the times of Mrs Davis (sometimes an excess of 1000 animals were run), which combined with the rabbits – drastically changed the native vegetation.

Fred the sheep

Fred the sheep

The little heritage homestead

The little heritage homestead

Today the native Poa tussocks have been confined to belts around the west coast and the thistles, nettles and saltbush have been predominantly replaced by exotic grasses (maintained by the sheep grazing). In 1980 the island was sold to PWS and was declared a Nature Reserve, with the goal of establishing a safe place for Cape Barren Geese (the second rarest goose species in the world) to breed, as conflict with farmers prevented this on Flinders Island. Despite being a Nature Reserve, sheep grazing was continued to maintain the short grass, which the geese require. The current grazing lease belongs to Dennis Cooper, who maintains around 400 sheep on the island. Today, the island is a significant breeding site for the geese, and around 22,000 pairs of short-tailed shearwaters and 400 pairs of little penguins breed on the island. Though the rabbits have long since died out (due to harvesting and drought; 1914), until six weeks ago up to 20,000 black rats continued to compromise the ecological and agricultural values of the island, where they opportunistically predate upon seabird chicks/eggs and consume a large proportion of seed. The current leasee (Dennis) has made sporadic attempts to control the rats since 1984 using bait stations and rodenticides.

Cape Barren Goose

Cape Barren Goose

On the 7th of March 2016 PWS began an ambitious eradication program to permanently remove rats from the island. The plan was devised by PWS staff (notably Sue Robinson, who has vast experience in controlling invasive species) and eradication experts from New Zealand (the world leader in island eradications). The project has been largely supported by the Pennicott Foundation (Pennicott Wilderness Journeys are world famous for their ecotourism journeys from Bruny Island and the Tasman Peninsula). Under the excellent leadership of Sue, over 2,100 bait stations were installed by volunteers in a 25m x 25m grid over the entire island, including the two islets on the north of the island and also on the offshore rocky outcrops, commonly referred to as ‘The Reef’. Baits are deployed in stations to minimise impact on non-target species (such as pacific gulls). After allowing enough time for the rats to habituate to the stations, a second group of volunteers arrived to bait the stations with blue wax ‘Talon’ baits (the active ingredient is broadifaccoum, which is an anticoagulant). Though it can take them 3-4 days to die afterwards, Talon will kill rats with a single meal. Rebaiting of stations continued for 3 weeks until I arrived at the small airstrip in Bridport (north-east Tasmania).

Dereck having a nap

Dereck having a nap

Friday 13th May 2016

Along with nine other volunteers, I flew from Bridport to Flinders Island on a chartered light-aircraft with pilot Frank. We arrived on Flinders and explored the tiny town of Whitemark (named because of a white mark), where I was fortunate enough to meet the local celebrity – Derek the wombat. Soon enough we faced the windy weather and rough seas and were off on an ‘exciting’ boat ride to Big Green. We were met by an extensive welcoming party including the General Manager of PWS Peter Mooney, Rob Pennicott and his staff from Penicott Wilderness Journeys, and the ragged, albeit smiley volunteers, undoubtedly ready to get off the island and find a warm and dry bed.

Of course it began raining as soon as I started to pitch my tent, sheltered behind large non-native African boxthorn (the only trees on the island), and though they provide good shelter from the elements, they are not particularly friendly. Despite the weather we enjoyed a cheerful and memorable night with a potentially record-breaking party of 21 people on the island for the night. The highlight was watching the BBQ catch on fire (cheers to David for the excitement).

Tent safely tucked behind a boxthorn

Tent safely tucked behind a boxthorn

The following morning we were down to business and were soon off for training with Sue and Ranger Mark. After the departure of the VIPs that afternoon we quickly settled into routine and got to know one-another. Asides from myself, there was fellow PhD candidate Laura (also from the Antarctic Division), Diane who is an artist and a member of Tasmania’s Wildcare, Tony – a world-traveller and an engineer from Melbourne, Chris and Irene (Chris worked for Parks for 30yrs, following his participation in the Franklin campaign to prevent the damming of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers in south-west Tas), Cathie and David (Cathie also contributed to the Franklin Campaign and numerous other conservation projects in Tasmania), Leonie and Adrian (Adrian is a water race enthusiast and Leonie finds that water races conveniently turn up whenever Adrian plans an adventure), Sarah and Ranger Mark (currently enjoying the fishing on Flinders Island), Kerrie and Ranger Luke (Luke has worked on the eradication programs on Tasman Island and Macquarie Island), and of course – Sue (chief of this operation).

Boxthorns on the east coast

Boxthorns on the east coast

Dont want the stations to blow away...

Dont want the stations to blow away…

Over the next couple of days we deployed more talon and monitored for ‘nibbles’. Everything is recorded via an excellent app (Fulcrum), which we used on the ‘field’ iPads. The island is divided into 19 sections from north to south, each of which I became quite acquainted with over the ten days. In the first couple of days we found that uptake was extremely low (excluding one or two ‘hotspots’), indicating significant progress had already been made since the initial deployment of the baits three weeks prior, where the uptake was through the roof (4 baits were deployed in each station and had to be regularly replaced). In contrast, we cut down the number of baits in each station from 4 to 2 in coastal regions and 1 inland. However, we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new chocolate-flavoured bait (which we aptly nicknamed ‘death by chocolate’), so that we could deploy it and hopefully catch any of the rats that were ‘blue-phobic’ (aka not attracted to the Talon).

Laura baiting a station with Talon

Laura baiting a station with Talon

In the meantime the island maintained its reputation as being rainy and windy, and we ‘unfortunately’ were at times constrained to the tiny two-room heritage building to play cards and plan elaborate meals. I must say, due to the exceptional number of experienced cooks, we ate extremely well on the island (too well you might even say, if you counted the amount of chocolate we consumed). We were also entertained by the old newspapers on the walls, where Mrs Davis and her daughter had plastered the walls to keep the draughts out. There were such gems as ‘How to get a husband’, which consists of watching men eat soft-boiled eggs (I won’t ruin the ending – you have to look at the photo).

How to get a husband 101

How to get a husband 101

Severe weather warnings meant that the shearing shed became a dry utopia for some of our crew, where they would rather face the sheep smell than the wind and rain. Fortunately, my little tent proved to cope with the gale-force winds and hectic rains extremely well (thanks for the birthday present mum), and I was able to ‘enjoy’ being woken up by the little penguins at midnight and 4am multiple times (no really, I actually did quite enjoy it). Just so you can better picture the conditions, at one point Laura even checked the weather and informed me that it was windier on Big Green than it was on Macquarie Island… Of course Irene informed us that the previous group of volunteers had worse weather than us. Our nights normally consisted of a good feast, arguing over who got to do the dishes (seriously you had to be fast if you wanted to do dishes), gulping down some chocolate (or custard and apples) and waiting for Ranger Luke to entertain us. He did an exceptional job, where I am now well informed about the Tasman Island cat eradication, and enriched by hearing about some extraordinary wildlife encounters and interesting hobbies. These included rescuing stranded sperm-whales (Chris) and collecting old bicycles (and dusting them when required: Luke). Not to mention water races, whale sharks and cave spiders.

iPad app showing bait stations on The Reef

iPad app showing bait stations on The Reef

Off to bait The Reef with Ranger Luke

Off to bait The Reef with Ranger Luke

On Wednesday morning our dreams came true when the Flinders Island Police boat brought us the new bait, which we immediately began deploying on the north end of the island (in addition to the Talon). Despite some downpours, our enthusiasm meant the new bait had been deployed to every station by Friday afternoon, including to The Reef… In order to access The Reef we had waited to low tide (~4pm Thurs afternoon), before Luke and I attempted wading across the channel. I say attempted to wade, because by the end the water was over my chest. However, we made it safely and scrambled over the rocky crag and seabird haven to the ‘Last Outpost’, to deploy death by chocolate in the stations. We decided we had best sync the iPads before attempting the return crossing just in case we didn’t make it (joking). Thanks for the adventure Luke. This did mean a hot-shower upon return to the homestead, where Ranger Mark has ingeniously devised a hot-water camp shower in the shearing shed (thanks Diane for turning on the gas for me as my fingers were too cold to click the lighter!). As a side note, the afore mentioned hotspot in Sector 2 was still going strong, though we did find that the rats continued to eat the Talon (codename: ‘blue heaven’) and didn’t touch death by chocolate…

Nibbled baits next to new Talon, note the skull and crossbones

Nibbled baits next to new Talon, note the skull and crossbones

Our eagerness in getting all the new baits out meant that by the time Saturday rolled round we had little to do except for some casual monitoring. The day was spectacularly beautiful – not a cloud in site and for once no wind. We therefore hosted a cleaning party (ready for our departure the next day), ate as many pikelets as possible, snuck in some sneaky reading and games of crib, and explored the island at our leisure. For me this meant navigating the perimeter of the island stopping whenever I felt inclined to take a photo or watch birds, and checking bait stations whenever I practically walked on top of them. Pleasantly there was not a single rat nibble that I found, though sometimes the Talon was crawling with invertebrates. Turns out invertebrates like wax baits (they are able to metabolise the toxins). Our hotspot was also quiet – no new uptake. By the way the current record for bait consumed from a single station is 22.7 baits (thanks for the data updates John and Phil).

Beautiful weather

Beautiful weather

Though covered in sheep, the island is still extremely beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed my time romping about the tussocks and among the mutton bird burrows (unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for them the mutton birds had already left on their migration north). For the bird enthusiasts, I recorded twenty-two bird species on the island over the ten days, including some which were new for me (Cape Barren Geese, white-fronted chat, double-banded plover). The remoteness is peaceful and there were glorious sunrise/sunsets every day, not to mention a spectacular moon-rise over Mt Strzelecki (across the channel on Flinders Island) for our final night together.

Moon-rise over Mt Strezlecki

Moon-rise over Mt Strezlecki

Sunday morning meant our time together was coming to an end and it was time to depart. Of course our tents were wetter than they had been any morning on the island (the most dew I’ve ever seen). We all stood together watching the boats approaching to take us back to Flinders and I knew it was unfortunately time to go back to the real world (aka PhD life).

Hard at work

Hard at work

In early June another group of dedicated volunteers will arrive on the island to begin the monitoring phase of the project. Though we hadn’t seen hide-nor-hair of any rats in the last few days of our trip, monitoring the island for activity is an extremely important aspect to ensure the long-term success of the project. They will do this via a variety of measures, including monitoring the stations and deploying peanut-butter cards, which are plastic cards dipped in peanut butter (rats love peanut butter and will chew through the plastic to get the peanut butter). I’m hoping they don’t get any nibbles at all, which will be a very good sign for the wildlife of Big Green Island. Hopefully the eradication of rats will help the vegetation to recover and increase the breeding success of seabirds. Two years post baiting Sue will take the rodent detector dogs and deploy camera traps to verify that rats have been successfully eradicated.

Now back at my desk at the Antarctic Division I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in such a project, where I was able to gauge conservation success with my own eyes (something that is often hard to do with desktop conservation projects). I loved the island and immensely enjoyed spending time with such wonderful and inspiring people. I have no doubt the success of such projects is underpinned by the dedicated teams of volunteers and staff. Since the beginning of this project, volunteers deployed 2,215 stations, made 21,104 observations, deployed 24,018 baits (480kg) and had 10,544 baits eaten (211kg). And I have no doubt the next group of volunteers will do an equally stellar job.

Big Green at dusk

Big Green at dusk

The crew

The crew

 
Long-distance Aussie travellers under threat

 
Eastern Curlew

Eastern Curlew – nominated this week as Endangered in Australia, a catastrophic decline for an elegant long distance migratory bird. Image (c) Dean Ingwersen.

Two once-common migratory birds have been listed this week as Critically Endangered in Australia.

Catastrophic recent declines in populations of the curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew have resulted in their nomination for threatened status, based on work led by researchers at the Fuller Lab and the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub.

“Australia is the end-point of one of the world’s great bird migration routes, that connects us with a dozen Asian countries,” project leader Dr Richard Fuller says.

“The curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew both migrate from Australia each year to Arctic Russia where they breed, stopping off in China, Korea and other East Asian countries to refuel along the way.

“These amazing migrations are among the most awe-inspiring journeys of the natural world, with birds covering tens of thousands of kilometres each year,” he says. One bird, banded in Victoria, was next reported from Yakutyia in Siberia, 11,812 kms distant.

“However populations of these great travellers have crashed, with drops in numbers over the past 20 years of more than 75% for the curlew sandpiper, and 68% for the eastern curlew”, says Dr Fuller.

“This is a devastating loss for species that were once quite common.”

The migration route of the Eastern Curlew takes it through several countries. The whole population passes through the Yellow Sea region of East Asia. The route of a female tagged on 10 Feb 1997 is shown redrawn from data in Driscoll & Ueta (Ibis, 144, E119-E130)

The migration route of the Eastern Curlew takes it through several countries. The whole population passes through the Yellow Sea region of East Asia. The route of a female tagged on 10 Feb 1997 is shown redrawn from data in Driscoll & Ueta (Ibis, 144, E119-E130)

According to Nick Murray, who studied coastal habitat loss in Asia for his PhD, there is a worrying possible explanation for the declines. “During their long migrations, the birds stop to feed at ‘refuelling’ sites in estuaries around the Yellow Sea. About two-thirds of this habitat has been lost in the past 50 years due to coastal development as the region undergoes an economic boom,” he says.

Other threats here in Australia are also impacting these shorebirds. “Along our increasingly crowded coastlines, there is intense demand for recreational and commercial use, and coastal biodiversity can suffer as a result”, explains Dr Fuller.

The Director of the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub Professor Hugh Possingham said “Conserving migratory animals is extremely hard because they fly across international borders. European countries, Canada and the US, have all worked closely with countries in Africa and Central or South America respectively, to conserve migrant birds”.

“The Australian Government has been instrumental in setting up international agreements to protect migratory species across the Flyway, and the challenge now is to implement action to stop further decline, and restore lost habitat.”

“Robust international action is needed to ensure protection of the whole migration route, because the whole system is only as strong as its weakest point” concluded Dr Fuller.

Listing documents for curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew.

 

 
We need to get smarter to save shorebirds from rising seas

 

Sam Nicol, CSIRO; Iadine Chadès, CSIRO; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland, and Takuya Iwamura, Stanford University

The world record for the longest non-stop unpowered flight is held by a bar-tailed godwit that travelled 11,600 km from Alaska to New Zealand in just over eight days.

This bird’s remarkable journey was part of one of nature’s marvels, the annual migration of five million shorebirds between the Arctic and Australia along a bird superhighway known as the East Asian-Australasian flyway.

Five million birds use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (blue)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Alaska/Wikimedia

Now, in the southern autumn, many birds have left for their breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere. They will return in spring to escape the harsh northern winter.

But these birds are also highly threatened. For seven declining species on the flyway, populations have reduced by an average of 62% over the past 15 years, driven by habitat destruction, pollution and hunting. Now sea-level rise poses an even more uncertain future.

One way to protect these birds is to set aside protected areas where birds can move as seas rise. But there is a wide range of uncertainty in sea level projections, so how do we know which areas are most important to protect?

In research published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, we used artificial intelligence that we developed to answer this question. We found that we could save at least 25,000 more birds than current conservation strategies.

Hungry birds

Like any long-distance travellers, most migratory birds need fuel to complete their journey. For shorebirds this means eating animals that live in coastal tidal flats (such as crabs, worms and bivalves) en route from birds’ breeding grounds to Australia.

However, coastal development is chewing up tidal flats at an alarming rate— already up to two thirds of tidal flat ecosystems in the Yellow Sea have been destroyed, with a further 2% disappearing annually. Exhausted birds arrive to find their feeding areas gone and must find an alternative or die trying.

Two shorebirds, the eastern curlew and curlew sandpiper, are likely to become the first migratory shorebirds to be added to the Australian threatened species list as a result of plummeting numbers caused by the rapid loss of their habitat.

The Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of the largest shorebirds in the flyway. Numbers have declined by over 80% in 30 years across Australia. Eastern Curlews have been nominated as Critically Endangered on the Australian threatened species list.
Dean Ingwersen

Rising seas

On top of existing pressures — which also include pollution, disturbance and hunting — there is the threat of sea-level rise and extreme coastal weather events.

The low-lying coastal mudflats used by the birds are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, which is projected to increase by between 26 cm and 98 cm by 2100, with some studies suggesting seas could rise by more than a metre (and recent research suggests this process is speeding up).

This threat can be reduced by creating protected areas that give coastal habitats room to move as the sea level rises. However, although we know that bird populations are declining and have predictions for sea-level increases (even at local scales), uncertainty remains about the extent of sea level rise, future mitigation actions and what the impacts of that will be for bird populations.

Protecting species in a changing climate

Imagine a wetland visited by shorebirds in China’s Yellow Sea. Will it be there in the future or will it be flooded by rising seas? What will this mean for shorebird populations across the whole flyway?

This depends on a lot of factors, including the international response to rising carbon dioxide levels. We have to choose whether to protect the wetland even though we’re unsure about the future. Scientists have modelled scenarios that estimate which wetlands will flood under different scenarios, and can predict the most likely future scenario.

If we commit to a single sea level rise scenario and conditions change, the effort may be wasted because we protected the wrong place. It would be better if we could consider all scenarios when we choose a place to protect based on how likely they are to occur.

We are unlikely to be able to protect everywhere that we’d like to right now and it will take time to set up protected areas. We use a learning technique from artificial intelligence to decide when and where to put protected areas.

Our method works gradually, protecting the most important regions one at a time. We add new areas based on the best current information, accounting for the uncertainty in the future sea level rise. While we’re adding new areas, we compare how the sea level rise and bird populations are changing compared to scenario predictions and use that information to help us make better decisions in the future.

Because we learn as we go, we can adapt our protected area network to changing conditions. In this way we make the best decisions that we can right now, but also make sure that we keep our options open by considering all scenarios and learn as we go.

It’s not just sea level rise and birds that the algorithm can consider — it’s a general tool for making good conservation decisions in a changing environment.

We found that properly accounting for uncertainty in sea level rise can protect more birds than committing to a single scenario. Our simulations with 10 species found that accounting for model uncertainty protects 25,000 more birds than the current best method in the literature.

Where are the key areas?

Like previous studies, our work showed that protecting habitat in the Yellow Sea is critical to the future of our shorebirds, as a huge proportion of migrants stop in China or Korea as part of their migration.

However, although Australia accommodates fewer birds than the Yellow Sea, as the sea level rises, then Australia’s shorebird sites may have a more important role than previously thought.

Sea level rise is not uniform around the globe — different amounts of habitat are lost depending on the shape of the coast in each region. In Australia, a high sea level rise scenario will flood many of Australia’s coastal wetlands, with a big impact on migratory birds.

Sea levels are rising and will make life hard for our shorebirds. Artificial intelligence may provide the tools to help us overcome uncertainty and protect the habitat they need to keep on flying.

The Conversation

Sam Nicol is Postdoctoral Researcher, Ecosystem Sciences at CSIRO.
Iadine Chadès is Senior research scientist at CSIRO.
Richard Fuller is Associate professor at The University of Queensland.
Takuya Iwamura is In transition to Tel Aviv University as senior lecturer from postdoc at Stanford University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

 
Adventures on Macquarie Island

 

I am one of the luckiest people imaginable. Someone told me a couple of weeks ago that fewer people have been to Macquarie Island than have climbed Mt Everest; interesting statistic, though what it fails to convey is that Macquarie Island is also surely one of the purest and most strikingly beautiful places on the planet. Due to the islands world heritage protection and ‘edge of the world’ remoteness, not many people do get the opportunity to visit such a unique place. Hence I was extremely privileged to have the opportunity to see the island in all its glory.

The icebreaker Aurora Australis in Buckles Bay

The icebreaker Aurora Australis in Buckles Bay

We set off from Hobart on the 6th of April in the Aurora Australis, as a part of the annual Macquarie Island resupply, termed V4 (voyage four). The Aurora is Australia’s Antarctic icebreaker and it was nearly at capacity, carrying 114 crew and expeditioners, not to mention IRB’s, LARC’s and 4x squirrel helicopters for the resupply. Acronyms run rife here, but once you get a handle on them, it’s not so hard: IRB is inflatable rescue boat and LARC’s are an amphibious truck/boat. The resupply is hugely important from a number of perspectives, and this year was set to be particularly critical after complications in the 2014 resupply. The station needed to be refuelled (which was critical), the plateau huts used in the pest eradication program (read more about this here) were set to be removed, the permanent field huts needed resupplying with food and fuel, all rubbish needed to be removed, and of course there was the round trip science programs to be undertaken. The 2014 wintering team also needed to do a hand over to the incoming winterers. Winterers stay on the island for a year, carrying out scientific duties and maintaining the station. A round tripper is an expeditioner on board just for the resupply.

The 4 squirrel helicopters to be used for the ressuply

The 4 squirrel helicopters to be used for the ressuply

My round trip assignment was to assist one of my PhD supervisors to collect live collembola samples, or springtails as they are commonly known. Dr Aleks Terauds works for the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart, where he has a number of research interests, including understanding biodiversity patterns on multiple scales, conservation of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic and springtails, of course.

Ship life ended up being incredibly enjoyable for me, as I was fortunate to not be sea sick. Life on a ship practically revolves around feeding periods, where breakfast is 0730 – 0830, lunch 1130 – 1230 and dinner 1730 – 1830. After several days on the Aurora – spent productively working on my PhD (of course), playing trains (a board game based on building train routes across the US) with other expeditioners, doing a large amount of birding for pelagic seabirds and don’t forget eating, we arrived into Buckles Bay at Macquarie Island on Thursday afternoon of the 9th of April.

The banner on display in the Macquarie Island Station messhall

The banner on display in the Macquarie Island Station messhall


Macquarie Island station as viewed from  North Head

Macquarie Island station as viewed from North Head

Though it appeared sketchy for awhile, Aleks and I were off on one of the choppers that afternoon, and were welcomed into the Macquarie Island ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) station to spend our first night on the island. 2015 will mark the 68th ANARE season for Macquarie Island, where the years have marked a number of changes, most notably the successful eradication of cats, rabbits and rats from the island.

After a field briefing with Ranger Chris and a good feed from Benny the chef we were off to bed to get in a good nights sleep before our little ‘walk’ the next day. Little could I imagine it would also mark the night of my first aurora viewing. Needless to say, this was a pretty special experience – as I have longed to see the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) for a good number of years, and though starting out slowly, it did not disappoint – with a number of arcs and bands dancing across the sky in various shades of green and white. Surely there could be no better start to a field trip than this remarkable welcome.

King penguins at Sandy Bay

King penguins at Sandy Bay

Finch Creek, looking out over Brothers Point

Finch Creek, looking out over Brothers Point

Our first days hike consisted of walking along the east coast of the island, where I saw my first gentoo, royal, and king penguins, elephant and fur seals, and a variety of seabirds including northern and southern giant petrels. The scenery was indescribably beautiful, the wildlife ever pleasing and Aleks was constantly delighted with the good recovery of the islands vegetation after the rabbit removal. We cut inland at Finch Creek (just before Brothers Point), where we stopped to see the royal colony, before continuing on the OLT (overland track) the rest of the way to Green Gorge hut (halfway down the east coast of the island). Of course, we stayed dry the entire day, until being hit with a little sleet storm within sight of the hut, but anyway I wouldn’t have got the full Macquarie Island experience if our trip was to be only sunshine.

King penguin at Green Gorge

King penguin at Green Gorge

The Green Gorge hut could not be better situated (over a beach of king penguins), and I was only too pleased to spend some time enjoying their company and taking photos. Upon arrival at the hut we were also informed that there was lone rockhopper penguin blending in with the kings, thus allowing me to see all four Macquarie Island penguin species on my first day. Brilliant! After a refreshing night spent with Rob, Madeleine and wildlife ranger Anna at Green Gorge, we set off on the OLT for Hurd Point.

The royal penguin colony at Hurd Point

The royal penguin colony at Hurd Point

The plateau is stunningly beautiful and it was a pleasure to trek the ~20km to Hurd, passing by a number of crystal blue lakes – which always looked deceptively inviting to swim in. Though the day began in sunshine, it soon turned to snow, which was surprisingly pleasant (as it meant little wind). The variation in weather on the island was a constant source of amazement and amusement for me, where the landscape would change drastically from day to day. It is hard not to have a begrudging respect for the vegetation that survives in sub-Antarctic climates, coping with extreme temperatures, variable rainfall, sleet, hail and snow. In fact I deeply enjoyed learning the names and natures of the Macquarie Island flora, including the edible Macquarie Island cabbage, the beautiful Macquarie Island Orchid, the very unique azorella, the comely, though invasive poa annua and the every-annoying acaena (which stuck to all manner of clothing).

We arrived into Hurd Pt hut late that afternoon, after climbing down the creek to descend from the plateau – which afforded unbeatable views of the Hurd royal penguin colony. Hurd Point forms the southernmost point of the island. The two albatross girls Rachel and Kate, who we were to spend the next three nights with, arrived soon after we did, and after we had sat in front of the heater for a suitable period of time we cooked up and consumed considerable amounts of risotto and chocolate, before a second magnificent aurora viewing. This one was picturesque – just like you see in all the photographs (better even). It’s hard to describe something more magical than colourful lights dancing across the sky, in fact I was enjoying it so much I forgot to even try and take a photo.

Enjoying the king colony at Lusi Bay

Enjoying the king colony at Lusi Bay

King penguins around the penguin boiling vats at Lusitania Bay

King penguins around the penguin boiling vats at Lusitania Bay

Day 3 consisted of a hectic climb back up to the plateau (cheers to the intrepid alby teams that climb the jump up every day) and a hike to Luisitania Bay to collect springtail samples. Lusi Bay is location of the largest king penguin colony on the Island and consequently, also served as one of Joseph Hatch’s penguin harvesting (for oil and fur) sites until 1919, when the Tasmanian government would no longer extend his lease of the land. In one of the earliest demonstrations of an international conservation campaign, Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson successfully convinced the global public that Hatch forced the penguins to walk up ramps into vats of boiling oil – causing such an outcry that the government was forced to bend. This set a pretty grand scene as I ate my lunch and gazed at the kings gambolling around the giant boiling vats.

Climbing up from Lusitania Bay in the snow

Climbing up from Lusitania Bay in the snow

The trek back to Hurd was made challenging by the onset of a blizzard and I was grateful that I got to follow all of Aleks’ footsteps through the deeper snow drifts. Of course, this meant a well-deserved seat in front of the heater, hot BCJ (black current juice) and gobbling down plenty of chocolate and dried mango (Aleks!). In fact props to Aleks for making a delicious lentil pie while us three girls sat around the heater. Cooking in the field huts requires an innate ability to be creative, as all food must be long life. Hence there is plenty of tins, jars and dehydrated or dried everything. Macquarie Island field cooking inspired the inhabitants to put together their own cookbook, aptly titled ‘How to cook an albatross’, though of course there is no recipes for cooking albatross – plenty for using up the stacks and stacks of polenta though.

The heater at Hurd Pt put to good use drying all manner of gloves and thermals

The heater at Hurd Pt put to good use drying all manner of gloves and thermals

The following day was a stroll in the park compared to the last few days, where we stuck pretty close to the hut collecting all manner of springtails. Known for their furca, or springer the springtails are a ubiquitous group of hardy survivors, that can, in a single bound spring the equivalent of a human leaping over a 30-storey building. This kind of athleticism, combined with an unbelievable ability to adapt to extreme environments and plenty of striking patterns, means these little guys (up to 20mm) command respect from all who lay eyes on them. Not to be outdone, the other wildlife on the island is likewise spectacular, not to mention innately curious. King penguins are happy to encroach on one’s personal space, Elephant seals glare as you pass and the light-mantled sooty albatross glide a couple metres over your head as they check you out.

Rowdy elephant seals at Hurd Point

Rowdy elephant seals at Hurd Point

Collecting springtails consists of shaking them out of their tussock homes onto a tray and vacuuming them up using a pooter (a tube with mesh inside to prevent you sucking them all the way up). Collecting springtails turned out to be an activity I immensely enjoyed, and it was a pleasure to have an insight into their ‘micro’ world. Aleks had plenty of excellent springtail knowledge to impart to me and my favourites turned out to be the metallic blue Lepidocyrtus, the large, stripy and ‘hoppy’ Lepidobrya and the ironically named Megalothorax (which comparatively, is the size of a pin-head).

Collecting springtails from tussocks at Hurd Point

Collecting springtails from tussocks at Hurd Point

The fifth day consisted of the hike back to Green Gorge hut, where the weather was very obliging – providing us with beautiful sunny walking weather. Spending time in the field is simply unbeatable, and I was already dreading going back to ‘the desk’. Hiking with Aleks can only be described as ‘being in a documentary’, where his innumerable periods spent in the field and his immeasurable passion has given him incomparable knowledge of the island and its inhabitants (check out his book: Subantarctic Wilderness Macquarie Island). I was blessed to have such a guide, and I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could, enjoying every second on this spectacular island.

The overland track coming into Green Gorge

The overland track coming into Green Gorge

Unexpectedly, this ended up being our last day in the field, as a bad turn in the weather meant the ship had to try and leave ASAP (beating the bad weather back to Aus). The following morning we were choppered from Green Gorge back to the station, where we undertook some last springtail collections on North Head before being picked up in an IRB to go back to the Aurora. Unfortunately, the crew were unable to get the four choppers onto the ship that afternoon due to the very ‘reflective-of-Macquarie-Island’ winds, and we missed the window to beat the storm back to Aus. This resulted in us spending an additional four days sailing up and down the island, unable to leave due to expected 16m swells en route back to Australia.

View of Macquarie Island from the Aurora

View of Macquarie Island from the Aurora

However, I soon settled back into ship life, enjoying being out in the immense Southern Ocean. I found it hard to imagine having to prepare my own food once again, enjoying the excellent cuisine of the ships chef. Particularly the desserts – where every night he would surprise us with something new and delightful, including golden syrup dumplings, eaton mess, brandy snaps, birthday cake and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The journey home also meant some superb seabirds, including 7 species of albatross (wandering, black-browed, sooty, light-mantled sooty, bullers, shy and grey-headed), shearwaters and numerous petrels (including the elusive, or ‘not-so-elusive-on-this-voyage’ grey petrel).

In conclusion I will be forever grateful for my experience in this special part of the world (hopefully not my last), which was literally a dream come true (thanks Aleks). I wouldn’t change an instant of our trip. We covered over 95km, took over 144,000 steps, crossed windy ridge in snow, blizzard and sun, saw numerous awesome fauna species and many equally as awesome flora species, collected a wide assortment of springtails, met and befriended heaps of awesome and interesting people, and even managed to get a tan. The whole journey was an awesome opportunity to see some of the landscapes and ecosystems I have been reading so much about. I have also come back with a far-greater appreciation of invertebrates than I have ever had before, and though not a substitute for being in the field, I will now have to look for some springtails in my own backyard. We can all do it – all you need is a tray and a good set of eyes!

A curious audience watching springtail collections at Green

A curious audience watching springtail collections at Green

If you want to read more about the Australian Antarctic Division, follow this link. Or if you want to read more about life on Macca – click here.

Laura, Mel and Jasmine on the way home

Laura, Mel and Jasmine on the way home


My new friends Fred, George and Tubby at Green

My new friends Fred, George and Tubby at Green

 
PhD awarded: Dr Nick Murray!!

 
Nick Murray at Bowra, western Queensland, June 2011

Nick Murray at Bowra, western Queensland, June 2011

Massive congratulations to Dr Nick Murray, whose PhD has been awarded! Well done Nick, we are super proud of you, the first primary-supervised PhD graduate from our lab.

Nick’s PhD on migratory shorebirds and their habitats took him right across the East Asian -Australasian Flyway from Australia to Alaska and many places in between including Cambodia, Indonesia, China and South Korea. He took on a project that was initially branded “crazily ambitious” by experts in the field, and totally nailed it. In a series of four papers, Nick developed a new method to map intertidal habitats from satellite data, and used it to reveal massive losses of staging habitat for Australia’s migratory shorebirds in East Asia. This led to Nick show that the entire intertidal ecosystem of the Yellow Sea is at imminent risk of extinction, and that intertidal habitat is chronically underprotected in the Yellow Sea.

Nick is now a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of New South Wales, where he works on monitoring ecosystem dynamics, enabling assessments of the status, risk of collapse and drivers of ecosystem endangerment.

 
Amazing shorebird migrations

 

Tim Cox interviews Rich on ABC Radio 612, but mainly makes fun of shorebirds’ names! Bar-tailed godwit, red-necked stint, terek sandpiper – oh alright, we see what he means. Anyway, we’re saying farewell to shorebirds with BirdLife Australia until 19th April.

 
The international policy landscape for protecting Asia’s migratory shorebirds

 

Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao recently finished an internship at the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership to characterise and analyse the international policy framework for the conservation of migratory shorebirds within the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. His work had a specific focus on three countries, Australia, China and the Republic of Korea. This work was supported from a grant to EAAFP from the Government of Australia’s Department of the Environment and involved literature research, key stakeholder interviews and visits to each of the three focus countries. The final report can be found here.

 
A visit to the park could save your life!

 

City dwellers should visit parks more often and take advantage of this free and easy way to boost their physical and mental health, environmental scientists have urged.

Shanahan

Dr Danielle Shanahan

New research from our lab shows that despite the abundance of parks in Australian cities, only 60 per cent of the urban population are using these facilities in any week. This means that 40 per cent of us are missing out on the vast array of health benefits that parks offer, including a lower risk of developing heart disease, stress, anxiety and depression, says Dr Danielle Shanahan.

Dr Richard Fuller says that research worldwide continues to discover the health benefits of being in nature. “For example, spending ten minutes in a park every day – even when we’re not exercising in it – has been shown to lower our blood pressure.”

“In spite of increasing urbanisation, Australian cities are filled with parks,” says Dr Shanahan. “Governments spend hundreds of millions each year creating and maintaining them, and houses built near them have a higher selling price. Australia clearly values its green spaces.”

Urbanscape

Urban parks can offset city ills

People who visit local parks also feel more connected to their community, Dr Shanahan says.

“With all these health benefits, parks have enormous potential to reduce Australia’s healthcare costs,” she says. “Depression alone costs Australia more than $12.6 billion each year as well as the massive human cost – if visiting parks can help reduce depression even by one percent, that’s a huge gain for Australians.

“This is why we’re urging more people to spend more time outdoors – having 40 per cent of the urban population missing out is significant, especially when parks are widely available in our cities.”

The Brisbane-based study reveals that frequent park visitors make longer visits, spend much more time in their yards, and often travel further to green spaces than less frequent park users. They are also slightly younger and have a higher level of formal education.

“Research in other countries has shown that people who live in disadvantaged areas often have less access to parks, and this could be one of the reasons some people visit them less. But that’s not the case in Australia,” says Dr Shanahan. “We actually found that the affinity of Australians towards nature, instead of just the availability of parks, determines how much time we spend with nature.”

The next challenge is to understand how and why people have higher or lower levels of nature orientation, as this is clearly linked to the health benefits that we can gain from it, she says.

Dr Fuller says this shows that simply creating more parks in cities won’t necessarily encourage people to visit them: “Cities and local councils need to raise people’s awareness of the great benefits of getting outdoors.

“We need more support and encouragement of community activities in disadvantaged areas. For example, the Nature Play programs in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia provide heaps of ideas for helping kids enjoy the great outdoors.”

“Our children especially benefit from spending more time outdoors. Kids who grow up experiencing natural environments may benefit developmentally and have a heightened environmental awareness as adults than those who don’t.”

The study “Opportunity or orientation? Who uses urban parks and why” by Brenda B. Lin, Richard A. Fuller, Robert Bush, Kevin J. Gaston and Danielle F. Shanahan is published in PLoS ONE. See: http://bit.ly/1nQHh5O

The study “Socio-economic inequalities in access to nature on public and private lands: a case study from Brisbane, Australia” by D.F. Shanahan, B.B. Lin, K.J. Gaston, R. Bush and R.A. Fuller is published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. See: http://bit.ly/1yJGaXZ

The study “What is the role of trees and remnant vegetation in attracting people to urban parks?” by D.F. Shanahan, B.B. Lin, K.J. Gaston, R. Bush and R.A. Fuller is published in the journal Landscape Ecology. See: http://bit.ly/16pXpa6

Nature Play websites are at http://www.natureplaysa.org.au, http://www.natureplaywa.org.au, http://www.natureplayqld.org.au

 
Muddy business in the Yellow Sea

 

Coastal development in the Yellow Sea has been occurring at the expense of important habitats; however recent decisions by the South Korean government may provide some hope. The question now is: are we prepared and determined to sei1ze the opportunity?

Coastal reclamation has been practiced for decades by different countries around the world with specific purposes. Shallow waters with gentle slopes along coastal areas have provided an opportunity for land creation. Traditionally, these newly created lands were used for agriculture, but more recently there has been a shift towards their use as precincts for industrial complexes, housing, and infrastructure, such as ports and airports.

In this context, the Yellow Sea has experienced loss of intertidal habitats at an alarming rate. This sea, located in northeast Asia between China and the Korean peninsula, historically had vast tracts of intertidal mudflats. This feature has resulted from some traits of this sea, including its shallow water depth, gentle slopes, wide tidal range, and large river systems discharging sediments. The latest assessment of intertidal mudflats in the Yellow Sea has revealed the loss of 65% of their original extent in the 1950s, when they were estimated to cover 1.12 million hectares of the coastline.

The drivers of coastal reclamation in the Yellow Sea have been complex and involve the interaction of political and socio-economic factors. Contemporarily, the case has been fuelled in China by GDP growth targets set to local governments by the central government. By contrast, the reclamation of intertidal mudflats has been intertwined with political discourses of economic development to legitimise power in South Korea. These factors have been coupled by a population of 60 million people living in the basin and one of the fastest growing economies of the world.

2

Whilst much attention has been devoted to the loss of other ecosystems, such as rainforests and coral reefs, the consequences of reclaiming intertidal mudflats are no different. In all cases the loss and degradation of ecosystems result in declines of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Intertidal mudflats provide habitat to a myriad of invertebrates and vertebrates, including charismatic species, such as shorebirds. These habitats additionally provide fishery resources to local people and protect coastal areas from storm surges.

To monitor the environmental consequences of intertidal mudflat loss in the Yellow Sea has not been easy, but shorebirds have started to shed some light. Shorebirds are a group of small to medium-sized birds typically living in wetlands, either in coastal or inland areas. Many of these species are migratory, completing epic journeys across the globe to complete their life cycle. In the Asia-Pacific region, they mostly breed in the Tundra and Taiga from where they migrate to Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand throughout the northern hemisphere winter. During their migration many of these birds rely heavily on mudflats of the Yellow Sea, where they stop to rest and refuel. As birds get funnelled through this region during their migration, habitat loss in this sea has a disproportionate effect on the whole population of those species. Recent studies indicate that the more migratory shorebirds rely on the Yellow Sea, the more they have declined.

The process of coastal reclamation in the Yellow Sea has comprised multiple projects; nevertheless there is little doubt that Saemangeum has been by far the best known of all. This specific project has become a milestone in the history of the country involved, as it is now recognised as the largest environmental battle to have ever taken place in South Korea. Saemangeum is the estuary of the Mangyeong and Dongjin Rivers close to Gunsan City, 180 km south of Seoul. This area was selected for reclamation as a commitment made by President Roh Tae-woo during his presidential campaign in 1987. The project officially commenced in 1991 and saw the final completion of a 33 km seawall in 2006, enclosing an area of 40 100 ha, of which 28 300 ha would be new land. The consequences of Saemangeum for migratory shorebirds were considerable. This estuary was one of the most important sites for migratory shorebirds in South Korea, as it used to provide habitat for threatened species such as Great Knot and Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Conservation advocates did not win the fierce battle against the reclamation of Saemangeum, but in their effort they built important momentum that influenced subsequent decisions. Just north of Saemangeum is the Geum estuary, the mouth of one of the most important rivers in South Korea and a tremendously significant site for migratory shorebirds. This estuary had also been selected by the central government to be reclaimed, nevertheless, the impetus created by environmentalists, who included activists and scientists, had the desired effect with an unexpected flip. As the central government withdrew its plans to reclaim this estuary, a negotiation had to be conducted with Seocheon, the local government area in question. After all, Saemangeum was promising to deliver economic benefits to Gunsan City and the Seocheon local government was asking the central government for an alternative.

The barter seems to be a promising outcome for the conservation of intertidal mudflats not just locally, but across the Yellow Sea. The central government swapped reclamation for research and education. Part of the alternative provided to Seocheon City included two government-affiliated research centres, the National Institute of Ecology and the National Institute of Marine Biological Resources. The former opened at the end of last year, whereas the latter is yet to open later this year. These two institutions have research and education mandates. For instance, the National Institute of Ecology includes state of the art research facilities and an exhibition building containing an impressive collection of plants and live animals. One of the goals of these institutes is to draw tourism to the region boosting the local economy. So far, the target of number of visitors to the National Institute of Ecology has surpassed the expectations. This process has also created a propitious setting for rolling out additional conservation initiatives, such as a memorandum of understanding for conservation recently signed between BirdLife International and the Seocheon local government. We seem to be witnessing a unique opportunity to change the paradigm of economic development of coastal regions in the Yellow Sea. It is now up to us, as conservation advocates, to make this case successful and demonstrate that a more environmentally sustainable model exists.

Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao

 
Appraisal of the international policy framework for the conservation of migratory shorebirds in the East Asia-Australasian Flyway (EAAF)

 


EAAFP_logo

Trip report by: Ed Gallo-Cajiao

After some months in Australia’s southeast from January through April, six weeks in the Republic of Korea from May on, and two weeks in China in late June, here is a bit of a story about what I have been up to as part of my internship project on policy analysis.

Through my internship at the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) in the lead up to my PhD at the University of Queensland, I have been taking a very first step towards appraising policy effectiveness for migratory shorebirds. International policies for conservation of this group of birds have been emerging in our flyway since the 1970s, however, little is actually known about their performance. This internship project is primarily focused, as a first stage of policy evaluation, on a comprehensive survey of the international policy framework for shorebird conservation in the EAAF and its domestic implementation in four countries (i. e., Australia, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea).

Ed delivering a presentation on international policy at the National Shorebird Network meeting in Seocheon, Republic of Korea.

Ed delivering a presentation on international policy at the National Shorebird Network meeting in Seocheon, Republic of Korea.

Working on policy analysis has taken me a bit around the flyway. My “field work” has involved talking to people and reviewing policy documents. This has been a very exciting and rewarding task as I have been visiting people in Canberra, Sydney, Seoul, Jeju Island, Nami Island, Seocheon, Incheon, Beijing, and Tianjin. Part of my methods include key stakeholder interviews, which are an approach to have quick access to important and complex information, gain knowledge of policy processes and development, identify variables shaping policy, establish roles of different actors, and obtain expert opinion on policy performance.

My target stakeholders have comprised senior officials from research institutions, NGOs, and national government agencies from Australia, the Republic of Korea, and China. So far I have completed over 30 interviews; most of them in person, but a few others have been held via Skype and over the phone. Most interviews have been conducted in English with a few having been conducted in other languages with the help of interpreters. These interviews have taken me to some of the top research institutions in the flyway, key government agencies, important NGOs, as well as to meet very interesting and influential people at national and local levels. As I must abide by best standards of ethics when conducting this type of research, no individual names or institutions can be disclosed, though I am enormously grateful to everyone involved.

Visit to the Geum estuary as part of the National Shorebird Network meeting in Seocheon, Repulic of Korea.

Visit to the Geum estuary as part of the National Shorebird Network meeting in Seocheon, Repulic of Korea.

In addition to all interviews, I have been fortunate enough to attend several events related to shorebird conservation. Upon my arrival in Songdo (Incheon, Republic of Korea), I took part in the International Migratory Bird Day celebration, where the EAAFP secretariat did a fantastic job to raise awareness about the conservation of migratory waterbirds, bringing together politicians, school children, and the community at large. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to attend in an observer capacity the advisory group meeting of WWF’s Yellow Sea Ecoregion Action Programme. With little time in between, I then headed to the meeting of the Republic of Korea’s National Shorebird Network. As part of this event, I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation about international policy and to briefly visit the Geum estuary. Just before leaving the Republic of Korea, I attended as an observer the US embassy’s NGO offsite. This event, held every year, aims to strengthen ties of international collaboration between the US and the Republic of Korea on environmental matters through the civil society. Last but not least, upon arriving in Beijing I headed to Tianjin to attend the launch of the Tianjin Wetland Volunteer Association with WWF and the Paulson Institute, where I had the chance to know about this great initiative.

Now it is finally time to be back in Brisbane, where I will be based at the University of Queensland as part of the Fuller Lab. The technical document from my internship project is expected to be available by August/September, stay tuned.

Acknowledgements

This project has been possible through funding provided by the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment, the University of Queensland, and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. Logistical support has been provided by WWF’s regional offices in Australia, China, and Japan. I am very thankful to staff in all those offices. Additionally, I would like to extend a huge thank you to the EAAFP secretariat crew based in Songdo, who were of great support during my time in the Republic of Korea.

Shorebird flock during northern migration at Songdo (South Korea), where the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership secretariat is based.

Shorebird flock during northern migration at Songdo (South Korea), where the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership secretariat is based.


 

 
Birding Adventures in the Australian Outback

 

By Rebecca Wheatley

The Adventures of an Integrative Ecologist

For 16 days this July, I had an adventure in the Australian outback. It had a road trip. It had camp cooking. It had sand dunes and scrubland and bush walks and hot springs and country towns and dragons and a marathon, and it had birds – lots and lots of birds.

An everlasting daisy.
Cloud formations over Big Red
(Nappanerica), the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert.

 

To be specific, I was lucky enough to be included on a remote field trip to survey birds in inland Australia for Dr Richard Fuller’s Spatial Ecology research group. I accompanied Master Birders Claire Runge and Nick Leseberg for two weeks of surveying along the Birdsville track, starting in Adelaide, South Australia and ending up in Birdsville, Queensland. I was primarily the expedition’s chef and scribe, but by the end of our trip I believe I had earned the rank of Novice Birder, seeing a total of 67 “lifers” (birds I’d never seen before) and starting a bird list of my own.
Brown
Falcon (Falco berigora) taking flight.

 

A
group of Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia
guttata
) chilling and preening at a highway petrol station.



By combining the results from their long-term surveys with remotely sensed data on weather and climatic conditions, the Fuller lab aims to determine how the distribution of birds in Australia’s remote regions is altered by climatic change. The surveys conducted along the Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks will also help us figure out exactly what birds are out there and where they go as the seasons change.

A Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) at dusk, preparing for
a night of raptorish activity. Letter-winged Kites are uncommon and nomadic,
and sighting numbers are further decreased by their nocturnal life history.

 

The Gibberbird (Ashbyia lovensis),
a type of Australian chat only found on the gibber plains.

 

As we made our way across the country, we saw some amazing things. Some nights were spent camped out on gibber plains, without a single shrub in sight – a situation that was far more comfortable than you might imagine. In the mornings we found Gibberbirds, smooth-snouted earless dragons, and lots of old hand tools made by indigenous people long ago. We also found a nesting Inland Dotterel, faithfully sitting on her eggs until we unwittingly almost walked over her, when she leapt up and played the bird with the broken wing until we’d moved away.

 

Smooth-snouted Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis intima) making itself
look big. Most of the insects and reptiles out on the gibber plains are well
camouflaged.

Nesting Inland Dotterel (Charadrius australis), sitting
steadfastly on her four, well-camouflaged eggs.
Other nights we camped at Artesian hot springs, lush with vegetation and bird life. Here we got to hang out with Pied Stilts, White-breasted Woodswallows, Black-fronted Dotterels, Whistling Kites, along with hundreds of Galahs who shacked up for the night above our tents.

 

Morning at an artesian hot spring.

 

A Pied Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus) fishing in an artesian hot spring.



It wasn’t just the fauna that amazed me – the adaptations of the plant life to such a harsh environment blew my mind. We surveyed at salt plains that looked like a scene from the bottom of the sea, or a kind of terrestrial coral reef. We trekked amongst the saltbush, including the chenopods with their spectacularly aggressive seed pods (seriously. Those things hurt!), Acacia and Eucalypt woodlands and Spinifex grasslands. We also found some furry trees along a riverbed, which turned out to be Acacias with minni ritchi, a type of reddish-brown bark that continuously peels back from the stem.

Samphire (Tecticornia sp.), a salty succulent that comes in all different
colours and shades and looks kinda like a sea anemone.

 

With its leaves and flowers in
different shades of green, with its huge succulent seed pods – I have no idea
what this plant was, but it was beautiful.

 

An Acacia with minni ritchi (a type of
bark that continuously peels back from the trunk and branches, giving the tree
a furry appearance).

 

Despite the beauty of the places we were travelling through, there were some chilling reminders of some of the problems the ecosystem out there faces. The number of rabbits we saw was absolutely astounding – sometimes it was all I could do not to roll an ankle in the massive tunnel networks they’d created throughout some areas of the landscape. We also saw a disturbingly high number of prints from feral dogs, cats and foxes, all of which pose a massive predation threat to the small birds, reptiles and mammals that live there (especially ground-nesting birds like Lapwings and Dotterels). In addition, the degradation of the land by cattle and sheep was extremely obvious at many of the sites we surveyed.

 

Fox prints in the sand. Foxes are an
invasive animal in Australia, and along with feral cats and dogs they pose a
major threat to small mammals, reptiles and birds.

 

The skull of a small mammal, half
buried in the ferrous oxide-rich dirt.

 

All of these things made me appreciate how fragile the balance of the ecosystem is. The research the Fuller lab is carrying out is not only important in determining how climate change will affect species distributions, but it also will help us determine where rare species like the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface and the Letter-winged Kite occur, and therefore which areas we should focus on conserving. We live in a beautiful world, with an amazing amount of biodiversity even within our harshest environments. It would be a shame to lose that biodiversity due to lack of knowledge and understanding.

 

Dusk and tracks (from Nick!) on Big
Red.
This trip was a fantastic experience for me, and one that I know many people will never get to have. I am extremely grateful to the Fuller
lab for including me on this research trip, and to Nick and Claire for making it so much fun. Thank you for the adventure!
Nick, Claire and I in front of our
trusty 4WD at Wild Dog Hill in Whyalla Conservation Park. Image credit: Claire
Runge.

 

A Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aguila audax) circling in the sunset at
Stoke’s Hill.

Reproduced with kind permission from Rebecca Wheatley’s The Adventures of an Integrative Ecologist.

All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.
 
Donate to conservation science @ UQ

 

Support of the UQ Biodiversity Conservation Fund is a commitment to arresting the decline of biodiversity and supporting the preservation and recovery of remaining flora and fauna in Australia, which will have significant impact on a global scale.

Professor Hugh Possingham, Director of the UQ Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science says:

“The fund allows for research that provides private companies, landowners, farmers and governments with the tools they need to initiate programs that conserve and sustainably use biodiversity and develop strong leaders who will light the way towards a biodiverse future.”

Help support a biodiverse future.

http://uq.edu.au/giving/science

 
Up the Birdsville and Back

 

Chris Sanderson reports from the outback bird surveys run by the lab in 2012. This was the second of our annual surveys and we are hoping to keep them running for the long term.

In June this year some friends and I took part in a bird survey on the Birdsville Track.  Our adventure spanned from Adelaide in South Australia all the way to Birdsville in Queensland, and in the process we saw many of the amazing animals the centre of Australia has to offer.

It started, as many adventures do, with an early morning departure.  As we headed to the airport before dawn, we discussed all the things the we could possibly see on the trip.  Everyone agreed Letterwing Kites would be a highlight, and beyond this we all had a list of things we hoped to see.  Having done a major and very successful trip to this area in 2010 I had only two birds in the area that would be new for me: Night Parrot, and Gibberbird.  Despite this I was determined to get some good second views of things, and maybe come across some interesting other species along the way.

The surveys started in the southern Flinders Ranges, headed north, turned north-east at Marree, and headed all the way along the Birdsville Track to about fifty kilometres past Birdsville.  Along the way we stopped every sixteen kilometres and walked about five kilometres of habitat to survey the birds.  Have you ever driven through an amazing landscape on your way to somewhere special and said “I wish I had time to do this slowly, just get out and explore the landscape”.  Well that’s what we did, and it was amazing.

The Flinders Ranges

We began and ended our trip in the Flinders Ranges area.  Our first survey site was a dried out creek bed surrounded by the rocky, scrubby habitat that is typical of the western side of the Flinders, but looks completely desolate when you first lay eyes on it.  Far from it, our first morning of surveys had Elegant Parrots, Australian Ringnecks, Cinnamon Quail-thrush and Redthroat.  As we pushed further north we began seeing more raptors, particularly Brown Falcons and Black Kites, and other inland birds became more common, such as the abundant Orange Chats.   A single White-fronted Chat and a pair of Rufous Fieldwrens were a final prize as we left the Flinders on our way north.

On returning, we had completed our surveys, and allowed for some quality time to be spent checking out the area.  Having helped the others on the trip to see many new birds, I was able to set the itinerary for our visit.  We had just enough time to do two things I’d wanted to do in the Flinders Range for a long time.  The first was to see Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies, and the second was to find the fossil stromatolites for which the park is famous.  If you are ever in the northern Flinders Ranges, I can’t recommend the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail enough.  The fossil stromatolites were well signed and easy to find.  They may not look like much, but they are among the oldest known fossils in the world.  These particular ones are about 650 million years old, but some stromatolites date back to 3.45 billion years ago! There are plenty of other things for the geologically-minded traveller to salivate over on the trail, but for those who favour more recent life forms, the Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies are another definite highlight.

On entering Brachina Gorge, and knowing that the wallabies should be around, it took us about 5 minutes to find our first group.  We thought we had pretty special views of these animals, but a little further down the trail, and we came across another area with a fence and some interpretive signs.  The fence said don’t cross so as to not disturb the rock-wallabies.  We said “what rock-wallabies” as we scanned the hilltops.  Then something moved about five metres away from us.  Wow, there were about twenty Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies right by the road, completely oblivious to our presence!

The rest of our time at the Flinders Ranges was productive, with lots of other macropods (Common Wallaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo and Red Kangaroo all together), Redthroat, Elegant Parrots and lots of woodland birds.  Sadly we missed out on the Short-tailed Grasswren at Stokes’ Hill, a surprise as most people seem to get them fairly easily.  The rainy, foggy morning probably didn’t help, but it did allow for some spectacular photography, and some great views of Wedge-tailed Eagles drifting through the mist.

The Birdsville Track

After leaving the Flinders Ranges behind (for the first time), we continued our surveys through Lyndhurst, Marree, and onto the Birdsville Track proper.  We started encountering stony gibber plains, another seemingly barren habitat that is actually teeming with life.  With recent rains, many of the gibber plains were flooded and still held water on claypans all along the track.  We came across thousands of Orange Chats, and Cinnamon Quail-thrush were at nearly every site we visited.  We found Inland Dotterels at a few sites (mostly flying away at a distance, but we did get some good views), and some small flocks of Flock Bronzewings.  My highlight was clearly seeing my first pair of Gibberbirds.  They aren’t the most exciting of Australian birds, but they are beautiful in their own right, and the pair we saw first were in crisp breeding plumage, with bright yellow faces and rumps, strutting around the gibber like they owned the place. Near some dams we also found our first Black and Pied Honeyeaters, another sought-after pair of birds from the centre of Australia.

We also began to encounter sand dunes, and to keep an eye out for Eyrean Grasswrens.  Sadly we weren’t able to get any good views of this shy but locally common species until we were all the way to Birdsville, but we did see lots of great birds and many beautiful wildflowers on the dunes during our surveys.  One sad thing about the sandy areas on the surveys was the number of rabbits we saw.  My last trip in October 2010 we saw barely any rabbits, and very little sign of rabbit activity in the region.  This time we saw hundreds, and evidence of many thousands.  It is clear the effects of the calicivirus have ended, and the centre of Australia is in for another plague of rabbits, with a commensurate increase in the number of foxes and cats.

Mungerannie Bore

One of the most welcome sights after three days without a shower or bathroom on the Birdsville Track is the Mungerannie Roadhouse.  We stayed there twice on our trip, and were glad for the accommodation both times.  The roadhouse is one of the most iconically “Aussie” pubs you will ever see.  There are weatherbeaten akubras attached to the walls and ceilings, photographs of floods and fires on the walls, and cold beer on tap (as long as the truck has made it through this week).  There’s even some of the famous vehicles driven by Tom Kruse, the legendary mailman of the Birdsville Track http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Kruse_(mailman) “parked” out in the front yard of the roadhouse.  Behind the camping area there is a hot spring which is pumped out into a bore drain.  This permanent wetland acts as a refuge all year round for waterbirds in the area.  My first visit had many more species, but was in a much drier year (and hotter time of year), however this time we still had a few species of waterbirds we didn’t see elsewhere on the trip.

The highlight of the Mungerannie Bore, and indeed the whole trip, was finding a colony of Letterwing Kites.  Not at the bore, but nearby on the Birdsville Track, we were lucky enough to come across a huge flock of Black Kites, which we stopped to count.  Looking at where they had flown from a dense clump of trees beside water, I thought “that looks like the last place I saw Letterwing Kites”, and sure enough, a quick binocular scan brought up a white bird of prey with a huge black smudge around the eye.  In all there were eleven Letterwings that we were able to count, sitting on at least five nests.  We stayed near the colony one evening to see what would happen, Letterwing Kites being nocturnal and all.  Just before sunset the adults all took to the air and spent the whole of twilight circling around above us.  As it finally got too dark to see, we started hearing screeching coming from the nests.  What was actually happening was some of the adults had slipped off and caught themselves some prey, and had brought it back to the nests to share with their chicks.  We finally tore ourselves away from what was a wondrous experience, and headed back to the roadhouse.  On the way we were in for one final treat.  A Long-haired Rat bolted across the road in our headlights, and not one but TWO Letterwing Kites came screaming down beside the car trying to catch the poor rodent.  We never saw the end of the battle but I presume it didn’t go well for the rat.

Birdsville and surrounds

After over a week camping Birdsville was a welcome interlude.  On top of the surveys we had left to conduct we managed a few side-trips that let us see some very interesting things.  A drive out to Big Red, the dune at the edge of the Simpson Desert was a fantastic choice.  We had a wonderful morning one the huge red sand dune with birds of prey circling overhead and Eyrean Grasswrens (finally!) hopping at our feet.  The wetland at the base of the dunes was full, with thousands of waterbirds flying around the area. On the drive back to town we had our largest flock of Flock Bronzewings on the whole trip, maybe a couple of thousand birds that zipped back and forwards across the road and came quite close to where we were standing.  To the east of town we were stopped by floodwaters, an odd storm that cut off the Strezlecki survey team at Innaminka for several days.  Where the creek had flooded the road we had big flocks of Budgerigars, up to two thousand birds in a single flock and probably as many as ten thousand all up.  South of Birdsville we got lucky and found Grey Grasswrens beside the track, though they didn’t show well.  Still, to find such a challenging bird within five minutes of stepping out of the car felt pretty good!

The highlight of Birdsville though, and of the whole trip for me, was our sighting of a pair of Grey Falcons hunting to the east of Birdsville.  We had to cancel our surveys for the morning because of a thick blanket of fog over the whole area, an extremely unusual event for Birdsville.  We had stopped at a small lignum swamp and decided to try our luck looking for Grasswrens on the way back to town.  Sadly we didn’t find any, however as I walked to the edge of a small wetland I flushed about thirty Black-tailed Native-hens.  As they scrambled for cover a pair of birds of prey hurtled out of the fog towards me.  It took me a couple of seconds to recover from the shock, but I realised pretty quickly that I was watching a pair of Grey Falcons execute a perfectly timed ambush, dropping out of the fog onto the panicked Native-hens.  At one stage one of the falcons flew straight towards me, only pulling out of its dive mere metres in front of me.  Watching the synchronised chaos of a pair of Grey Falcons zipping around in front of me is one of the highlights of my life, and one I don’t think will be surpassed ever again!

So there you have it.  Our trip up the Birdsville and back was a highly successful, interesting and thrillling trip.  If you get the chance to go there, don’t hesitate. And remember, if you can take the time to get off the beaten track, explore a little bit, you never know what you might find.

 
Nick Murray wins prestigious Qld-Smithsonian Fellowship

 

Congratulations to Nick Murray, who recently won a highly prestigious Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship. Nick will draw on the expertise of research scientists at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Centre to identify the international threats impacting Queensland’s migratory shorebirds.

The birds are threatened by a range of human activities in 23 countries during their yearly migration and they are now the most rapidly declining group of Australian birds. “The causes of the declines are largely unknown and several recent analyses suggest that threats overseas may be the principal reason for the declines,” he said.

Through collaboration with Dr Peter Marra, a world-leading expert on migration biology, the project aims to develop wide-ranging conservation strategies to reduce declines of Queensland’s 36 species of migratory shorebird.

Rob Clemens (left) collecting Nick's award

Rob Clemens (left) collecting Nick’s award

At the presentation evening, UQ Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj thanked the Queensland Government and the Smithsonian Institution for backing the scheme, and congratulated all the UQ fellows. “Opportunities to gain global experience and connect with international peers will lay the groundwork for the success of research projects,” Professor Høj said.

  “I urge all Queensland-Smithsonian Fellows to make the most of this prestigious award and advance the potential of their work to bring practical benefits to global society.”

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex with 19 museums in Washington DC and New York City, the National Zoo, research centres in the United States, Panama and elsewhere, a network of 20 libraries and various education centres.

 The Fellowships, valued at up to $30,000 each, were announced at the 2012 Science and Innovation reception, part of the bipartisan Science in Parliament program.

Fellowship support covers a return economy airfare for the Fellow and contributes towards the cost of living.

 

  

 
The ‘My Life, My City’ survey has been launched!

 

Many of us spend most of our time in cities. But how do city spaces influence our lifestyles and our wellbeing? To take a deeper look at this question we have just launched the My Life, My City survey as part of a joint project between UQ and CSIRO.

To help with this research we are asking the people of Brisbane to fill in the 15 minute survey. Anyone who completes the survey will have the chance to go in the prize draw for several great vouchers!

You can enter the survey from these links:

For a full screen version of the survey click here.

For a version adapted for mobile devices click here

Progress on the research will be updated on this page, and you can also find us on Facebook.

 
Kiran Dhanjal-Adams reports from a shorebird conference in Adelaide

 

Rob Clemens, Kiran Dhanjal-Adams and Colin Studds attended the 8th Australasian Shorebird Conference in Adelaide on the 29-30 September. Attendants from across the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, from countries as wide ranging as Indonesia, China, Cambodia, New Zealand and Australia, met to present and discuss “The Role of Science in the Conservation of Shorebirds”.

The meeting kicked off with David Paton’s keynote talk on the “Ecological consequences for the Coorong from over-extraction of water in the Murray Darling Basin” and went on to cover a broad range of aspects of shorebird ecology, including that of both resident and migrant species. A variety of themes were discussed including migration, the ecology of migratory birds, resident shorebird ecology, Shorebirds in Saltworks, Flyway population monitoring and finally conservation and adaptive management.

Exciting results are coming from the geolocation work in Western Australia presented by Clive Minton and Ken Gosbell, as the migratory paths of Ruddy Turnstone, Eastern Curlew, Sanderling and Greater Sand Plover are unravelled. The team were also surprised to discover that the incubation behaviour of the birds could be detected when they sat on the nest, shielding the geolocators from the light. Danny Rogers went on to talk about the mystery of the Grey Plovers found in Australia, which are (almost) all female. The talks then focussed on the ecology and behaviour of shorebirds in response to factors as varied as departure times, lemming cycles, disease, algal blooms, ecological conditions and industrialisation.

After lunch was the turn of resident shorebirds to share the limelight. Reece Pedler and Stuart Collard shared some interesting insights on the boom-bust behaviour of Banded stilts while Grainne Maguire and Meghan Cullen discussed some of the amazing work they has been carrying out to protect beach-nesting Hooded Plovers. Indeed,  their work has not only helped maintain populations but has also shown that people are more likely to respond positively to shorebird protection in crowded areas due to peer pressure. Disturbance is therefore more of an issue in less-used sites as people are less likely to follow protective guidelines where no one is there to take note of or judge them for their misconduct.

The second day opened with much discussion on shorebirds in saltworks. The value of these sites as crucial roosting and feeding areas was underlined by many speakers; and is one of the few habitats in Thailand where it is still possible to religiously see the very rare spoonbill sandpiper. Rio Tinto, who own saltworks across the globe, highlighted their commitment to funding research, to protecting shorebirds wherever possible and to bringing this important issue to the attention of the industrial companies with whom they collaborate.

The final session focussed on monitoring and adaptive management. Here Rob presented some of the work carried out in the Fuller Lab by Nick Murray and Takuya Iwamura on declines in intertidal habitat and its effects on shorebird migration within the migratory network and has since been invited to talk in Korea next week. Kiran then presented her upcoming work on prioritising disturbance management in Moreton Bay. Other talks included population trends in the Hunter Estuary (Chris Herbert) and how to monitor the ecological character of RAMSAR sites.

Of this meeting came a renewed sense of how strongly connected all the sites are within the East Asian Australasian flyway; and that to achieve effective conservation outcomes for declining migratory shorebirds, all countries need to act together and decisively.

Related article: See Nick Murray’s recent news item in Oryx describing the 6th East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership meeting in Palembang, Sumatra

 
Research Excellence Award for Richard Fuller

 

Rich was recently awarded a UQ Foundation Research Excellence award worth $80K for the lab’s work on conservation planning. A group of researchers and supervisors was recognised recently at a special ceremony for 2012 Research Week at The University of Queensland.

UQ welcomed guest speakers Professor Aidan Byrne, CEO of the Australian Research Council, and The Hon Mr Dale Shuttleworth MP, State Member for Ferny Grove and Minister’s Parliamentary Special Adviser on Science and Innovation.

Now in their 14th year, the UQ Foundation Research Excellence Awards encourage excellent early career researchers and support their career advancement.

2012 saw $626,000 bestowed on eight researchers from a range of faculties, centres, schools and institutes across the University.

Watch the video outlining the project here.

 
ARC Future Fellowship awarded to Richard Fuller

 

One of the most environmentally destructive impacts that people have is also one of the greatest triumphs of modern civilization—the city. Richard Fuller was recently awarded an ARC Future Fellowship to conduct a global comparative analysis of the ecological impact of cities and examine how they can be designed to lessen their environmental impact. Commencing in December 2012, the award, totalling $670,000, will run for four years and further intensify the research focus of the lab. Understanding the ecological impacts of urbanisation is an increasingly urgent problem.

This project will study more than 1000 cities across the world to discover how we should build our cities into the future to achieve economic and social growth in a way that causes minimal environmental harm.

 
Claire Runge reports from the 2012 outback bird surveys

 

Here’s a trip report from two weeks spent surveying along the Oodnadatta track. It’s long but has a few hidden gems. Now is the perfect time to travel to the region, things are really booming, even more so than last year, and it is green in a brown kind of way. There are lots of wildflowers and a lot of grass.

The trip was part of a long-term project run by Stephen Willis at Durham University in the UK, and Richard Fuller at the University of Queensland monitoring the shifting abundance and distribution of Australian desert birds, with mega-transects along the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strezlecki tracks, and survey points every 16km. It’s hoped to secure funding for the next decade, and will massively enhance our understanding of the ecology and conservation needs of these outback birds.

Grey Falcon

Grey Falcon scaring the life out of some Little Corellas (image © Rob Clemens)

My two companions were Rob Clemens (formerly of Birds Australia) and Luke Geelen, who has done a lot of fieldwork in the region. The trip started in Adelaide where we did all the logistical things like buying groceries and wondering how to fit all the gear into the hire car. We spent the first night at Rangeview on the Stuart Hwy, under a shelter full of roosting welcome swallows, my first introduction to camping under the stars – I’m never going back to a tent! Our desert birding started the next morning on a high with flocks of blue bonnets and mulga parrots feeding in the chenopods nearby and a few friendly pipits wandering around our campsite.

We stopped in after lunch at the chestnut-breasted whiteface site south of Coober Pedy (thanks Peter Waanders) where we found the whiteface without too much trouble, along with good looks at cinnamon quail-thrush and the ubiquitous white-winged fairy wren.

After a night spent at Cadney Homestead it was on to Marla for the start of the transects. 5km out of Marla at our first survey site we picked up banded whiteface, closely followed by a southern whiteface – all 3 whiteface in less than a day. All species of whiteface were hard to come-by with only 3 records of the banded and 2 of the southern over the 2 weeks, with similar records on the Strez and Birdsville. The southern seems to favour dry creeklines filled with acacia woodland and shrubs. None of us was able to get a handle on the preferred habitat of the other two whiteface, as they were often absent from seemingly perfect looking habitat. However, they both seem to prefer areas of chenopod shrub with scattered eremophila and senna shrubland. (Chenopods is a term to describe the family of low often ridiculously prickly bushes found everywhere, eremophila (emubush) and senna are woody shrubs up to a metre or two in height with green leaves.)

About 40km out of Marla our survey intersected with a nice bit of mulga woodland which after the gibber plain was (relatively) chock-full of birds. I picked up redthroat, white-browed babbler, singing and spiny-cheeked honeyeaters, red-capped and hooded robin, rufous whistler, mistletoebird and southern whiteface.

We surveyed our way down to Oodnadatta and across to Coober Pedy. The aptly named Moon Plain between Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy was allegedly the site of testing for the Mars Rover, and surprisingly is also home to birds. Kestrels could be seen hawking every km or so (we did wonder what they were eating) and gibberbird are not hard to find if you walk enough gibber. These guys were not uncommon north and west of Oodnadatta, though we only lucked onto one on the southern transects. There were also a lot of holes and tracks from the long-haired rat so letter-winged kite may turn up sooner or later. (More on them later). We also spotted a lost pelican and a few orange chats travelling through the gibber plain.

After walking 400 transects across the stuff I am now an expert in the many shapes and colours of gibber. There’s the “twist your ankle at every step” gibber, “sink into dust two inches thick” gibber, “just rocky enough to guarantee a rough night’s sleep” gibber and the rarest but much sought after “cobbled lane” gibber. It is truly surprising how interesting gibber can be.

The gibber and chenopod shrubland along the track is broken up intermittently with dry creeklines filled with acacia woodland. These are good for birds like hooded and red-capped robin, brown and rufous songlarks, honeyeaters, splendid, white-winged and variegated fairy-wren, whiteface and zebra finch. If you find some eucalypt you can add red-browed pardalote, chiming wedgebill (north and west of Oodnadatta), chirruping wedgebill (south of Ood), pied honeyeater, western gerygone, weebill, slender-billed thornbill, yellow-rumped thornbill, and around water you’ll pick up mulga parrot, ringneck, corella, galah, black kite, white-plumed honeyeater, black-fronted dotterel, crested pigeon, darter, cormorants, grebes, ducks, pelican, grey shrike-thrush, yellow-throated miner, barn owl and red-backed and sacred kingfisher. Hookey’s waterhole, a few km from Oodnadatta on the Coober Pedy road is a beautiful example of a permanent waterhole, and just out of Oodnadatta on the Marla road is some very birdable eucalypt woodland along the creek.

Around Coober Pedy there are two spots with water – one is a small pond near the sportsfield. We saw nothing here. On the other side of town is the outflow from the sewage plant, a small stream surrounded by samphire. Follow Hutchinson St north until it turns to a dirt road. No waterbirds, but heard lots of little grassbirds. This would be a good place to keep an eye on as the surrounding landscape dries out.

We headed back to Oodnadatta to survey on the road south to Marree. There’s a lot of water around at the moment and south of Oodnadatta are a few water-filled creek crossings. Definitely worth checking out, we got some nice views of red-browed pardalote and chirriping wedgebill and a bunch of waterbirds.

Cinnamon quail thrush are common right now and easy to spot in chenopod shrubland, preferring sites with some grass. Listen for their high pitched contact call. They are also present in denser samphire, but impossible to see. We found them most common from Oodnadatta and further south.

Thick-billed grasswren can be found all up and down the track, I found a good place to be opposite “Patsies Car”, an old rusted out blue car on the right-hand side of the road from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta. We found these grasswrens anywhere the saltbush was taller than 0.75m. The best way to find them is to wander around listening for the faint contact call. If you hear it you know they are within 150m. Don’t go rushing over to where you think they are, they will hide and go silent. The best way is to scan around surrounding bushes waiting for one to perch, if you see one perched you will soon see more hopping around on the ground nearby. Playback and pshing does not work, though very softly imitating their contact call does seem to intrigue them enough for you to approach. Rufous fieldwren like similar habitat, though were more common between William Ck and Marree.

Budgies and zebra finch are both impossible to avoid seeing at the moment.

There were two sites along this track that just blew us away with supreme bird awesomeness and I’ll tell you about the one we first came across. Somewhere about halfway between Oodnadatta and William Ck is the start of the dune on the left hand side of the road and a creekline on the right. E28.10928 S135.77128. We came across a huge mixed flock of woodswallows and lots of perching budgies. Black-faced, masked, white-browed and white-breasted. Then I saw it – a pied honeyeater! I had begun to doubt these birds actually existed, having spent plenty of time in suitable habitat but never seen one. There were a lot of other birds here too, including songlarks, honeyeaters, robins and whistlers. We went to bed on a high that night, little knowing that even more excitement was in store for us the next day.

Somewhere between 32 and 40km south of William Creek is a gate on the right-hand side of the road heading south, a couple of hundred metres before a big sand-dune perpendicular to the road. E29.06679 S136.52073. Through these gates is a birding mecca, a small waterhole overlooked by the dune. Drawn to it by the massive flock of corella, we had only just got out of the car when a flock of flock bronzewing flew by, and there must have been fifteen pied honeyeater flitting around. As it was getting late in the day and this was our next survey site, we stopped to camp the night in a state of awe. Dawn brought a succession of birds in to drink, starting with Bourke’s parrots. About halfway through the transects I saw it – a crimson chat, our first for the trip. I radioed it through and turned around. “Make that crimson chat and Bourkes parrot”. The reply came a minute later “Rob can top that. He’s got a pair of grey falcon”. There was no way I was finishing that transect so I bolted back to the waterhole where the grey falcon were perched in a face-off with a flock of ravens. We set up the scope and while we were watching when the view of grey falcon was obscured by flock bronzewing. Honestly! On our transects we also came across chirruping wedgebill, diamond dove, budgie, splendid and white-winged fairywren, banded whiteface, brown falcon, nankeen kestrel, wedgetailed eagles, more pied honeyeaters, dotterel, grebe, rufous whistlers, orange chats and robins.

If we had been anywhere near a town I would have bought a lotto ticket because on our very next transect 16km south I came across 15 inland dotterel. Of course the guys were at the opposite end of the transect and had left their radios in the car. I must really like them because I ran that 800m across gibber to tell them. We lucked onto another group of dotterel a few days later.

A night or so later we stayed at Coward Springs where we fell asleep to a horror-movie soundtrack of howling dingoes and shrieking barn-owl. The “hot springs” are better described as “slightly warm springs” but where else can you sit in the bath and watch spotted nightjars hawking? Plus the chance to wash was much appreciated by all three of us (and probably those around us). An early morning bird of the wetland behind the campground turned up spotless crake, black-winged stilt, black-fronted dotterel, rufous fieldwren and loads of little grassbirds in addition to the usual suspects.

A little way down the road are some mound springs, now a national park. These are definitely worth a look from a geological and cultural perspective, though not the bird-haven that you might expect from a permanent source of water. We saw red-necked avocet and red-capped plover on an ephemeral lake on the drive in, plus a few dotterel and brown songlark around “The Bubbler”. There are more unsigned mound springs along the Oodnadatta track, keep your eyes peeled.

We picked up black-tailed native hen, pink-eared duck, Horsefields bronze-cuckoo, pallid cuckoo and a few other things at Bereford waterhole.

Other birds seen along the track include wedgetailed eagle (including a nesting pair with two downy chicks), brown falcon, spotted harrier, black falcon, pipits, black-faced woodswallow, white-backed swallow, little-button quail, stubble quail, Aus raven, little crow and probably a few others I have forgotten. Unfortunately no letter-winged kites and my travelling companions were too sensible to drive the extra 4hrs up the Birdsville track to see the nesting lwks despite my protestations that they were lame and would lose all birding cred if they didn’t. *sigh* we all regretted it when we saw the amazing photos of what we missed.

Most numerous bird probably goes to budgie, though it is a close contest between budgie, zebra finch, white-winged fairy wren (look at these closely though, splendids often hang out with them), nankeen kestrel and orange chat.

Budgerigar

Budgerigar – the ultimate nomad! (image © Rob Clemens)

Interestingly, while the robins were quite common on this trip, last year none were seen. Nankeen kestrel which were everywhere this year were also far less common last time.

We stopped off at the Flinders Ranges on the way home which at any other time would have been amazing but it doesn’t compare to letter winged kite, and the level of grazing-induced degradation was just depressing. To top things off we dipped out on the short-tailed grasswren despite wandering through spinifex for hours. An unfitting end to an amazing trip! Picked up more redthroat, inland thornbill, elegant parrot and yellow-tufted honeyeaters among others which perked me up a bit. The Leigh Creek retention dam was worth stopping for, full of great crested grebes (we counted 75!), all types of cormorant and grebe and a few white-fronted chat, plus musk duck.

All in all we drove 3000km, walked 160km of gibber, did 350 point counts and 400 transects, spent 14 glorious nights camped under the stars, woke covered in frost 4 times, showered twice, drank 4L of port and a bottle of tequila, and picked up 112 species along the transects with a further 25 along the way.

As most of these are nomadic birds I offer no guarantees, but can recommend the Oodnadatta track as a great alternative to the tracks further east. The road is in good condition having been recently graded, there are towns with fuel and water every 200km, incredible scenery and amazing birds.

Claire Runge

 
Student Conference on Conservation Science in Brisbane, January 2013

 

Next year in January the Environmental Decisions Group at the University of Queensland will be hosting the Australian Student Conference on Conservation Science in Brisbane, Australia. This sister conference to the original and successful Cambridge Student Conference on Conservation Science will bring together 100 post-graduate students from the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere to develop their skills and forge lasting professional relationships.
 
Aimed entirely at students, the inaugural SCCS-Australia conference offers a tremendous opportunity to network with early career conservation science professionals. The conference will be held over 21st-31st January 2013. Registration includes a 3 day conference and 4 days of training and workshops, as well as social events throughout the conference. Applications for abstract submission close on 14th September 2012. Interested students can apply online at http://sccs-aus.org/participate/apply-online.html

 

 
Kiran Dhanjal-Adams wins 2012 Stuart Leslie Bird Research Award

 

Congratulations to Kiran Dhanjal-Adams, who has won a Stuart Leslie Bird Research Award from BirdLife Australia worth $3,750 to fund her work on identifying and managing disturbance to shorebirds in Moreton Bay. Kiran will use remote camera monitoring to measure disturbance to shorebirds and calculate the energetic consequences of different disturbance regimes. She will then use this information to work out how best to invest management dollars in disturbance mitigation.

 
Claire Runge wins 2012 Stuart Leslie Bird Research Award

 

Congratulations to Claire Runge, who has won a Stuart Leslie Bird Research Award from BirdLife Australia worth $2,000 to fund her work on understanding the distributions and movements of Australia’s nomadic birds. Claire’s work will determine how we can conserve mobile species that use Australia’s landscapes in dynamic and unpredictable ways. As part of the award, Claire also secured $500 to attend the Ecological Society of Australia conference in Melbourne in December 2012.

 
New monograph on Cuckoos of the World published!

 

Our new guide to the cuckoos of the world has just come off the press. The first authors’ copies have arrived, and the title will hit the bookshops in June 2012. Many years in the making, the primary task of this lab was to collate and produce the maps of cuckoo distributions. We assembled a database of more than half a million records of cuckoos, from museum collections, online databases, the literature, birding trip reports, and personal communication from a range of intrepid birders around the world. After a lengthy process of verification and identifying co-ordinates where these did not accompany the original data (driven in the last few months of the work by Cassandra Taylor and Stephanie Kerr), the key task was to determine how to represent the complexity of a species’ geographic distribution in a simple colour map. There are many ways to do this, ranging from complex modelling exercises to simple representations of species’ limits using polygons (see our Fuller et al. 2008 paper on this issue in Journal of Applied Ecology).

Given the uncertainty associated with many species’ distributions, we opted for a simple manual representation of species’ distributions for the mapping exercise, and we hope you enjoy the result. You can see the maps with all their original underpinning records here.

 
Climate change threatens Mexico’s cloud forests

 

Congratulations to Rocio Ponce-Reyes who has just published part of her PhD work in Nature Climate Change. Her work shows that many of the world’s rarest and richest forests – its high-altitude cloud forests – could be all-but obliterated by 2080 due to the combined impact of man-made climate change and habitat destruction.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change an international scientific team has warned of the near-total loss of one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems, the Mexican cloud forest, along with 70% of its plant and animal species, as a result of human pressures.

“Cloud forests occur only at certain high altitudes and their species are exceptionally vulnerable to the loss of the cool, moist environment that sustains them,” explains lead author Rocio Ponce-Reyes of Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and The University of Queensland.

“Habitat loss and degradation by human encroachment are the main threats to cloud forests around the world at the moment,” says Ms Ponce-Reyes.

“However, given the narrow environmental tolerance of cloud forests, the fear is that human-induced climate change could constitute an even greater peril in the near future.”

She and her colleagues decided to test whether this was so by investigating the specific impact of future global warming on Mexico’s 17,274 square kilometres of cloud forest.

They concluded that only about 5557 square kilometres would survive.

When they factored in the impact of potential human forest clearing and land use, the surviving area was whittled down to a mere 1 % of its present extent – just 151 square kilometres.

“At present only about 12 % of Mexico’s cloud forest is protected – and it is not clear how effective that protection will be by the latter part of this century,” Ms Ponce-Reyes says.

“Immediate action is required to minimize this loss—expansion of the protected-area estate in areas of low climate vulnerability is an urgent priority,” the international scientific team declared.

They identify as a particular priority for rescue the cloud forest at the Sierra de Juárez in Oaxaca.

This supports 22 of Mexico’s most endangered species and is expected to retain relatively large fragments of cloud forest despite rapid climate change, if only it can be protected.

While Australia has no cloud forest, the same fate could befall its highly diverse temperate rainforests in North Queensland, says CEED director Professor Hugh Possingham.

“On tops of mountains, the Wet Tropics rainforests are cool and temperate unlike the tropical forests below them. Like Mexico’s cloud forests, they harbour a highly specialised flora and fauna that occurs nowhere else in the world.

“Fortunately, the clearing of such forests has all but stopped leaving climate change as the only, but still significant, threat,” he says.

The world is currently losing about 1.1 % of its total estate of cloud forest every year due to timber felling and land clearing alone: global warming is likely to redouble the rate of loss.

As there are no new cool, high, moist areas to which species can readily migrate, the scientists caution that loss of most of the world’s cloud forests is all but unavoidable in the absence of radical efforts by humanity to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

However, at present global carbon emissions are continuing to rise at the highest rate allowed for in the global climate scenario of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), pointing to overall warming of +5° to +6° Celsius by 2100.

“If bold measures are not taken very soon to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases, these forests are unlikely to survive in their present form, with anything near their present diversity, very far into the twenty-first century,” the scientists warn.

Their article “Vulnerability of cloud forest reserves in Mexico to climate change” by Rocío Ponce-Reyes, Víctor-Hugo Reynoso-Rosales, James E. M. Watson, Jeremy Van Der Wal, Richard A. Fuller, Robert L. Pressey and Hugh P. Possingham appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Climate change.

 
NCCARF grant: Optimal Protection and Restoration for Climate Adaptation

 

The lab has recently been awarded a grant from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to investigate how we can help Australia’s threatened species adapt to climate change. Several decades of research has shown that many species are likely to go extinct because of climate change, but which species these will be, and what we can do to prevent these extinction remain uncertain. We believe that it is crucial to use high quality science to help us make choices about which species we should protect, and whether we should be protecting or restoring habitat for some species that will be affected by climate change.

In this project, we will build predictions about how species and habitats will move in response to climate change over the next century. Crucially, we will then work out how much it will cost to protect existing habitat for these species, and to restore new habitat where this would help the species survive. We will take into account uncertainty about the costs, benefits and feasibility of these conservation activities, to provide clear advice where, when and how to act to help our nation’s biodiversity adapt to climate change.

The postdoctoral researcher working on this project is Dr Ramona Maggini, and UQ honours student Jasmine Lee has been awarded a scholarship through WWF-Australia to work on predicting climate vulnerability for Australia’s threatened species.

 
ARC Discovery grant: Averting the extinction of experience

 

We have just been awarded a prestigious Discovery grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to explore ways of developing sustainable urban communities. Humans are an increasingly urban species, with most of us now living in towns and cities separated from direct experiences of the natural world. This project aims to understand and avert this ‘extinction of experience’ so that we can grow Australia’s cities sustainably into the future.

The successful proposal was submitted by Richard Fuller in collaboration with Prof Kevin Gaston, director of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, Prof Robert Bush, from UQ’s Healthy Communities Research Centre, and Dr Brenda Lin from the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship. A total of $430,000 over three years will be provided by the ARC to undertake the research, which will focus on how changes in urban biodiversity affect health.

 
Jo Towsey awarded Grant from the Wildlife Preservation Society

 

Jo Towsey was recently awarded a $1000 University student grant from the Wildlife Preservation Scociety of Australia for her work on the ecology and management of flying foxes in urbanised southeast Queensland.

Flying foxes are large bats that roost communally in camps during the day then spread out at night to forage in vegetation in surrounding areas. While foraging they play an essential role ecologically by dispersing and pollinating forest trees. Despite their ecological significance, populations of some Australian flying foxes are declining as a result of factors such as habitat loss, persecution by humans and poor management. Continuing declines in flying fox numbers will likely have significant ramifications for many of Australia’s native forest ecosystems.

In recent years, flying foxes have been coming into increasingly closer contact with people due to existing daytime camps becoming enveloped by urban sprawl, and as a result of flying foxes shifting into urban areas possibly in order to access more reliable food sources. Our towns and cities can support large numbers of these animals, and this close proximity to people can lead to human-wildlife conflict situations. This conflict puts managers of flying foxes in a difficult position; they need to conserve populations of flying foxes but also need to manage the negative consequences. This presents a really interesting challenge for conservation, and her PhD is focused around (i) understanding how and why the animals are distributed across urban environments in the way that they are, and (ii) how we can manage Australia’s urban flying fox populations to make sure we conserve them, but also minimise the human-wildlife conflict.

Jo’s research is being conducted in south-east Queensland, a region where many flying fox camps have split up or changed location over the past few years. She wants to find out why these changes are occurring and whether they are temporary or permanent. To answer these questions she is currently measuring the amount of foraging resources available for flying foxes in Brisbane, and working out how the bats are spreading out across the urban environment when they leave their camps in the evenings. Her ultimate goal is to find out how we can manage urban vegetation into the future in order to ensure both adequate supply for the maintenance of urban flying fox populations and thus their ecosystem services, such as pollination and seed dispersal, and to help ameliorate human-flying fox conflicts.

She would like to thank the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia for providing her with this grant money which will contribute greatly towards the field work component of my research.

 
Nick Murray wins prize at CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship conference

 

27 July 2011: Nick Murray attends the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship’s Science Symposium in Melbourne. The symposium is held approximately yearly and brings together scientists from across the Flagship to provide an overview of the flagship’s research and discuss research opportunities and user needs of climate adaptation science.

As one of the flagship’s top-up scholarship recipients, Nick was invited to attend the symposium to gain an overview of CSIRO’s flagship research, network with CSIRO flagship scientists and meet the other PhD students who are affiliated with the flagship. A broad range of speakers presented their work by either talk or poster and several round-table workshops were held. Nick had many interesting discussions with other attendees, saw plenty of great work and left the symposium with a couple key contacts and some new ideas for his research. He also walked away with a bottle of wine after winning the best student presentation prize!

Nick’s poster

 

 
Meeting with the Ambassador Designate to Japan

 

14th July 2011: Andrew Geering (Chair, Queensland Wader Study Group) presented our work on migratory shorebirds to Bruce Miller, the Australian Ambassador Designate to Japan when he visited UQ today. Migratory birds link Australia with Japan, which is a major “refuelling site” for hundreds of thousands of these birds that stop to feed in Japanese coastal wetlands before continuing their epic journeys north or south. However, this spectacular flyway appears to be collapsing on our watch. Recent analysis by UQ scientists discovered that some species spending the non-breeding season in south-east Queensland have declined by up to 70% in the past 20 years (Wilson et al. in press). A new project led by UQ’s Dr Richard Fuller will try to understand why this decline has happened and what we can do to reverse it. The work is co-funded by a Linkage grant from the Australian Research Council, State and Federal environment departments, and the Queensland Wader Study Group.

Conserving animals that move across international borders can be extremely difficult, but Japan and Australia made a major step forward in 1974 by signing a bilateral agreement pledging “special protective measures for the preservation of migratory birds”, and “the formulation of joint research programs”. However, the dramatic declines recently discovered by UQ scientists points to an urgent need for action to remedy the situation. Estuaries in many countries around the East Asian-Australasian migratory flyway are under pressure from land reclamation projects as the region undergoes an economic boom. We are keen to work out how we can achieve economic growth without compromising biodiversity.

The flyway connects 23 countries across Asia (see map below).

  

 

 

 
ABC National Radio – interview with Richard Fuller

 

9th June 2011: The Future Tense program on ABC National Radio broadcast an interview this morning with Richard Fuller about the benefits of urban green spaces to our health and well-being, and posing some questions about how we manage our urban green space networks. To listen to the broadcast, visit the Future Tense website.

For more background on the issues covered in this interview, read our papers on the psychological benefits of urban green spaces, and a Europe-wide study of the distribution of urban green spaces that covered 386 cities across an entire continent. For some current urban ecology work, read about Cassandra Taylor’s project on Brisbane’s Torresian crows, Jessica Sushinksy’s work on futures for Brisbane’s biodiversity, and Lucy Keniger’s review of the benefits of interacting with nature around where we live and work.

 
Soundscape ecology – story on Inside Science

 

14th March 2011: Inside Science carries a comment by Richard Fuller in a story on the recent soundscape ecology paper by Bryan Pijankowski at al published in the March 2011 issue of BioScience. Pijankowski & co have produced an excellent write-up outlining this exciting new field in biodiversity science.

Read our paper on nocturnal singing behaviour in European robins, and Cassandra Taylor’s project on bioacoustics in Brisbane’s Torresian crows.

 
Australian Geographic: Value of National Parks Confirmed

 

1st February 2011: Story in Australian Geographic based on our recent paper on protected areas.

 
ABC Online: Are our national parks barking up the wrong tree?

 

28th January 2011: Read a feature story on ABC online covering our work on protected areas in three recent papers:

Fuller, R.A., McDonald-Madden, E., Wilson, K.A., Carwardine, J., Grantham, H.S., Watson, J.E.M., Klein, C.J., Green, D.C. & Possingham, H.P. 2010. Replacing underperforming protected areas achieves better conservation outcomes. Nature, 466, 365-367.

Taylor, M.F.J., Sattler, P.S., Evans, M., Fuller, R.A., Watson, J.E.M. & Possingham, H.P. in press. What works for threatened species recovery? An empirical evaluation for Australia. Biodiversity and Conservation.

Watson, J.E.M., Evans, M.C., Carwardine, J., Fuller, R.A., Joseph, L.N., Segan, D.B., Taylor, M.F.J., Fensham, R.J. & Possingham, H.P. in press. The capacity of Australia’s protected-area system to represent threatened species. Conservation Biology.

Read more about our work on conservation planning.

 
Lizzie Boakes’ paper in PLoS Biology on citizen science

 

Boakes, E.H., McGowan, P.J.K., Fuller, R.A., Chang-qing, D., Clark, N.E., O’Connor, K. & Mace, G.M. 2010. Distorted views of biodiversity: spatial and temporal bias in species occurrence data. PLoS Biology, 8, e1000385.

Abstract: 

Historical as well as current data on species distributions are needed to track changes in biodiversity. Species distribution data are found in a variety of sources but it is likely that they include different biases towards certain time periods or places. By collating a large historical database of ~170,000 records of species in the avian order Galliformes, dating back over two centuries and covering Europe and Asia, we investigate patterns of spatial and temporal bias in five sources of species distribution data: museum collections, scientific literature, ringing records, ornithological atlases, and website reports from “citizen scientists.” Museum data were found to provide the most comprehensive historical coverage of species’ ranges but often proved extremely time-intensive to collect. Literature records have increased in their number and coverage through time, whereas ringing, atlas, and website data are almost exclusively restricted to the last few decades. Geographically, our data were biased towards Western Europe and Southeast Asia. Museums were the only data source to provide reasonably even spatial coverage across the entire study region. In the last three decades, literature data have become increasingly focussed towards threatened species and protected areas, and currently no source is providing reliable baseline information—a role once filled by museum collections. As well as securing historical data for the future and making it available for users, the sampling biases will need to be understood and addressed if we are to obtain a true picture of biodiversity change.

 
Delivering Better Biodiversity Protection For Free!

 

We recently published a paper in Nature showing how it is possible to dramatically improve the performance of protected area systems by replacing a small number of poorly performing sites with more cost-effective ones. This benefit to conservation is delivered without spending a single extra dollar.

Protected areas are one of the most important tools in modern nature conservation, with over 100,000 sites covering about 12 per cent of the land and territorial waters of countries worldwide. Enormous efficiency gains could be achieved by modest and careful adjustments to a protected area system. A more flexible approach to the expansion of a protected area system could ultimately protect much more biodiversity.

The contribution of Australian protected areas to conserving vegetation types relative to their rarity (B) is positively related to the estimated cost of acquisition and management of the sites (C). However, there is a great deal of scatter in cost-effectiveness among the 6,990 protected areas; here the least cost-effective 1% of sites (70 protected areas) are denoted by crosses.

The contribution of Australian protected areas to conserving vegetation types relative to their rarity (B) is positively related to the estimated cost of acquisition and management of the sites (C). However, there is a great deal of scatter in cost-effectiveness among the 6,990 protected areas; here the least cost-effective 1% of sites (70 protected areas) are denoted by crosses.

Our modelling has shown that replacing the least cost-effective 1 per cent of Australia’s 6990 strictly protected areas could triple the number of vegetation types that are adequately protected. This huge benefit occurs because of the enormous variation in cost-effectiveness among existing sites. The figure on the left shows that some sites are delivering very little biodiversity protection given the level of investment needed to purchase the land.

The paper has sparked controversy because many conservationists view protected areas as sacred sites that shoud be protected in perpetuity. However, the reality is that many protected areas are in the wrong places, regions not needed for agricultural or urban expansion. Some of our reserves simply aren’t making the best use of this expensive form of conservation to protect our key natural values.

We can do much better if we reverse the protection status of the least cost-effective sites and use the resulting capital to establish and manage new protected areas. The rate of investment in new protected areas has slowed globally in recent years. Ensuring that the best places are protected is now more important than ever.

Fuller, R.A., McDonald-Madden, E., Wilson, K.A., Carwardine, J., Grantham, H.S., Watson, J.E.M., Klein, C.J., Green, D.C. & Possingham, H.P. 2010. Replacing underperforming protected areas achieves better conservation outcomes. Nature, 466, 365-367.

Link to the paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09180

Link to a commentary on the paper by Peter Kareiva: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/466322a

 
Exposure to biodiversity increases psychological well-being

 

The world’s human population is becoming concentrated into cities, giving rise to concerns that it is becoming increasingly isolated from nature.

Urban public greenspaces form the arena of many people’s daily contact with nature, and such contact has measurable physical and psychological benefits.

In some work at Kevin Gaston’s Biodiversity and Macroecology Group in Sheffield, UK, we discovered that these psychological benefits increase with the species richness of urban green spaces (Fuller et al. 2007). Moreover, we demonstrated that greenspace users can more or less accurately perceive species richness, depending on the taxonomic group in question.

We measured plant species richness in 15 urban parks around Sheffield city, and asked park users to rate the degree of psychological restoration they experienced when using the parks.

Our work shows that experiences of biodiversity can increase human well-being.