Category Archives: Daphne Hards

The new Birdata web portal and mobile app

Balwyn meeting report, 27 September 2016

In early October, Birdlife Australia released its new and improved Birdata web portal, plus a free mobile app. Andrew Silcocks, Birdlife’s Atlas and Birdata Project Manager, came to showcase it to members. The first Atlas of Australian Birds collated data collected from 1977 to 1981, and established species distribution. The second atlas, which ran from 1998 to 2002, gave definition to point locations. Since 1998 bird survey data has been collected continuously and stored in the old Birdata. Currently approximately 3,000 surveys are submitted per month. A new portal was needed to streamline reporting, survey management and to make data available to registered users.

The underlying objective of the first Atlas was to map species distribution. The second Atlas shed light on changes in abundance and distribution. It is hoped that a new easy-to-use portal will engage the wider community in bird science and biodiversity. Most current atlassers live in the SW, SE and Tasmania; in Central Australia surveys mostly occur on roadsides. The new Birdata seeks to involve bird enthusiasts Australia-wide.

What kind of data does Birdata accept?

Andrew stressed the point that all data entries are checked. The following surveys are explained in detail in the portal:

  1. Incidental search or one-off sighting.

2. 2 hectare/20 minute survey – rated the most useful data.                                                                                            3. Area search within 500m or 5km radius for longer than 20 minutes.                                                                               4. Fixed route search.                                                                                                                                                                                         5. Embedded search – this comprises doing a 2 ha search for 20 min, and then recording birds noted outside the 2ha plot over a longer period.

‘Make the counts count’

That is, record not only species but the numbers of birds present. Estimates for a flock are acceptable. And the most value arises from repeat surveys at the same site; so you might want to visit regularly a site not too far from home. The portal allows you to set up a survey site with GPS readings, survey method etc. Or, ‘Shared Surveys’ are available; set up by Birdata and visible on a map, to which you can contribute.

Australian Painted Snipe. Copyright Patrick Kavanagh, 2013
Who uses information from Birdata?

Overwhelmingly it is environmental scientists conducting environmental impact assessments. Data on the endangered Painted Snipe was used in the assessment of the Abbot Point Coal Port expansion in Queensland. Users of Birdata are:

Environmental Scientists                                                  49.3%                                                                                                             Universities (Staff and Students)                                    14.2%                                                                                                     Federal and State Government Agencies                      13.8%                                                                                       Private Individuals                                                               11.0%

Birdlife Australia uses Birdata to identify significant habitat for birds, especially that of endangered species, and thus protect that land from development. The status of threatened species may be monitored and inform their listing under the EPBC Act. Birdata is used in compiling the regular State of Australia’s Birds report, and the identification of Important Bird Sites.

All previous acceptable bird survey data has been entered into the new Birdata. That includes Atlas data 2006-15, original Birdata records, and data from eBird and Eremaea – although this data has not always been collected within strict survey guidelines.

Andrew then demonstrated the new portal. The Home page has a section on getting started plus articles of interest. A map of Australia shows where the most recent surveys have been conducted. To progress further one has to log in. If you already log in to Birdlife Australia, that login will get you into the new Birdata. If not, you will have to register. It is highly recommended that you pay Birdata a visit at and see for yourself the scope of the new portal. And the mobile app is available free for Apple or Android users from app stores.

Get out on surveys and join the current 7000 atlassers. Never has it been more important to record bird data.

Daphne Hards

Photo credit: Patrick Kavanagh, Australian Painted Snipe, Crusoe Reservoir, Kangaroo Flat Vic., 2013,


A trip to South-East Arizona

With Giles Daubeney

Balwyn meeting report, 24 May 2016

This evening we were taken to an unfamiliar birding hotspot, the South-East corner of Arizona, USA. Giles Daubeney has been lucky to bird widely in Australia and also make overseas trips. Before going to North America to visit family, Giles did much research to find an area which would reward him with rich birdlife; and the result was South-East Arizona. He spent two weeks there with his son in July 2015, guided solely by two recommended guidebooks: Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona from the Tucson Audubon Society, and A Birders Guide to South Eastern Arizona by Richard Taylor.

Tucson, Arizona
Tucson, Arizona. Source: Wikipedia

The main city in the south-east is Tucson. Tucson is on the valley floor, hot and dry, and all around the city is scrubland dominated by Mesquite, a shrub. But in the distance are mountains, rising to 8-9,00ft, and once you climb up the temperature cools and the vegetation becomes more lush. In this corner of Arizona are about 40 bird species that occur nowhere else in the US, plus approximately 15 species of hummingbird.

In a hire car they headed south towards the Madera Canyon within the Santa Rita Mts. They stayed a few nights in a cabin at the Santa Rita Lodge, and were delighted by watching the hummingbird feeders. From here they visited Arivaca Wildlife Refuge with creek and pond, where Giles saw nine new birds in about 60 minutes; and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge near the border with Mexico – watch out for patrol vehicles! At this scenic refuge were Antelope Jackrabbit, about the size of a hare but with bigger ears, and Pronghorn, a small antelope. In the air were birds including Anna’s Hummingbird, Horned Lark and Grey Hawk. Back in Tucson at the Arizona Desert Museum, they enjoyed the aviary and snake exhibits. The Saguaro Cacti were spectacular, attracting the Cactus Wren. And it was good lizard country.

Cactus Wren on a Saguaro Cactus
Cactus Wren on a Saguaro Cactus. Source: Wikipedia

They spent time birding in Madera Canyon, and were rewarded with Acorn Woodpecker, Western Wood Pewee, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Cooper’s Hawk, Painted Redstart and Costa’s Hummingbird. A rare spot with water in July was Rio Rico Ponds where they saw Black-bellied Whistling Duck; and at Sanoita Grassland Reserve they ticked House Finch and Grey Hawk.

A move east to the small city of Sierra Vista took them to Ash Canyon B&B, to be greeted by Broad-tailed Hummingbird. At the water-treatment plant they got Lesser Night Hawk. Nearby in Miller Canyon they found Mexican Spotted Owl. At the historic township of Tombstone they saw the site of the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Next day at Ramsey Canyon they were rewarded after a big hike with the rare (8th US record) Tufted Flycatcher, and also Cooper’s Hawk. There was good birding too, three new ticks, in neighbouring Carr Canyon.

The next stop was further east, the Chiricahua Mountains. They are a Mecca for bird watchers. On the way they saw a Roadrunner, and then a Great Horned Owl at Whitewater Draw. On this wetland were Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck and White-faced Ibis. Giles put up at the Cave Creek Ranch in the small community of Portal, and found people very helpful – 50% of the locals are birders! One such took Giles and his son to see a rare Thick-billed Kingbird. The scenery was stunning. A walk after dark turned up a Pygmy Owl, a Black-tailed Rattlesnake and a scorpion. Daylight in Portal revealed a tarantula, a Hog-nosed Skunk, a Turkey Vulture, Pyrrhuloxia (a desert cardinal), a Canyon Towhee and Javelinas or wild pig. Within 2-3km of Portal is a property, Jasper’s, where bird feeders are maintained for a small price, and this site is the hotspot to see Crissal Thrasher in USA, known far and wide.

Elegant Trogan at South Fork Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains
Elegant Trojan at the  South Fork Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by Giles Daubeney

Their next stop, still in the Chiricahua’s, was South Fork Canyon. Birders come here for Elegant Trogan, and this was the bird Giles most wanted to see. Just about to give up, he was tipped off which trail to take, and there it was, with a posse of onlookers. On their way to the mountain peak at 8,000ft they saw their second top tick, Montezuma Quail, the size of a Brown Quail but the male has striking facial markings.

Montezuma Quail
Montezuma Quail. Source: Wikipedia

On the last day they visited Chiricahua National Monument, the national park in this area. Known for its scenery as opposed to birds it did not disappoint. On the drive back to Tucson a black bear appeared on the road, and Giles was surprised to see one so far south. They stopped at Lake Cochise at Willcox and saw Marbled Godwit, American Avocet, Snowy Egret and Wilson’s Phalarope. Lastly, right beside the airport, they saw five Burrowing Owls. What a note to end on. We thanked Giles for taking us on a remarkable birding journey.

Contributor: Daphne Hards

Considering Regent Honeyeaters in a changing landscape

Balwyn Meeting report, 26 April 2016

One of the most challenging birds to see in Victoria is the Regent Honeyeater, so members were keen to hear from Dean Ingwersen about their current status. Dean has been at Birdlife Australia for 10 years; first as Threatened Bird Network Manager and now as Woodland Bird Project Manager. He is Coordinator of the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Program and also serves on the recovery team for the Swift Parrot.

Regent Honeyeater 1
Regent Honeyeater. Photo by Dean Ingwersen.

The striking Regent Honeyeater can be found from the Mitchell River near Paynesville, Victoria; north to the Capertee Valley, west of Sydney and the Barraba area in NSW. They rely heavily on nectar, the favourite sources being big, old Mugga Ironbark, E. sideroxylon, but also White box, Yellow box and stringybark species (e.g. E.macrorhyncha). When these are not blooming, flowering Box Mistletoe and Needle-leaf Mistletoe in River Oaks along the NSW rivers can sustain them. They have been seen at the flowers of exotics. Lerps also form an important part of the diet. Regents are often seen with other species such as Fuscous Honeyeaters, White-naped and Black-chinned Honeyeaters, Little Lorikeets; and they favour the largest trees.

Historically there are records from Brisbane arcing south and west as far as Adelaide; but now western Victoria is their limit. Flocks of 1000 birds were seen 100 years ago. Dean says it is difficult to get the current number but it could be as little as 500 nationally and 50 in Victoria. They are highly motile but regular movement patterns are emerging, birds moving between Chiltern-Mt Pilot NP (wintering) and Capertee Valley (breeding). The Bingara-Barraba area west of Armidale is currently in decline due to drought, but the Hunter Valley is producing good sightings.

Why are Regent Honeyeater endangered? Largely it is due to loss of habitat to farming and forestry. Competition from Noisy Miners is a major threat, also possibly bees. Climate change and its effect on habitat is emerging as a problem. The recovery plan for Regent Honeyeaters has recently been redrafted and it includes:

  1. Improve the quality and extent of habitat
  2. The Captive Breeding Program
  3. Increase the knowledge of birds’ ecology
  4. Increase community awareness and assistance

Most people would know of the tremendous habitat restoration work done by Ray Thomas in the Lurg area of Victoria. Since 1997 500,000 trees have been planted at 500 sites, with 30,000 people involved. 1,400Ha of habitat has been rehabilitated. At Capertee approximately 110,000 plants have been added to a valley which has been largely cleared for agriculture. Most importantly, Birdlife Australia has been able to secure covenants on parcels of private land which have good sighting records for Regent Honeyeaters; one such property, ‘Iomar’ in the Hunter Valley, has reserved 47Ha where birds have been sighted for 8 out of 12 years.

The captive breeding program has occupied much of Dean’s time in the last few years. There are seven breeding centres (e.g. at Brisbane and Adelaide Zoos, Taronga, Healesville). So far there have been four releases of captive bred birds, all at Chiltern-Mt Pilot NP, each time approximately 45 birds. After the first release in 2008, the initial 10 week monitoring showed a 75% survival rate. Each subsequent release also produced a better than 70% 10 week survival rate. In 2008, within five months, breeding involving released birds had occurred, but no live young were recorded. A currawong predated one fledgling. The overall result was encouraging and captive-bred birds had been seen to be integrating well with wild birds. In 2010 a wild male paired up with a captive-bred female though without nest success. In 2013 conditions were such that there was immediate breeding after release. Surveys between releases showed that released birds were travelling away from the release site and returning. 2015 saw the largest release of 77 birds followed again by successful breeding post release.

However offspring from these breeding attempts were not surviving. A PhD student started last year to study, in part, the cause of these losses. Cameras were set up to record nest activity and to the teams great surprise caught taking eggs were a Sugar Glider, a Squirrel Glider and a House Sparrow. In addition a Magpie attacked a pair of chicks and devoured one. In 2015, 26 out of 28 nest attempts failed. Fifteen nests were abandoned, predation was high and it is strongly suspected that excessive heat can cause nest failure.

Sugar Glider about to attack Regent Honeyeater in the tree fork
Sugar Glider about to attach Regent Honeyeater in the fork of tree. Photo by Dean Ingwersen.

To further the ecological knowledge of wild Regent Honeyeaters surveys have been ongoing since 1989, and show that an estimated 1500 Regent Honeyeaters in 1995 has dropped to 130 in 2015. But there are unexplainable yearly variations – even good spots in Capertee Valley vary from year to year. So the big question is where do they go? Colour banding begun in early 1990s has revealed that birds banded at each of Chiltern, Mitchell River and northern NSW all passaged to Capertee. This ability to fly 400-500km creates challenges for study and conservation of this species.

In order to check whether birds from different areas were different genetically, blood samples were taken from 1989 to 2012 from both wild and captive-bred birds caught in N-NSW down to NE Vic. No difference was detected between areas, or over time (though the time span was very short), between captive-bred and wild birds, and no dispersal of female genes from male.

The four releases have been well bolstered by community support, to the tune of $500,000 in voluntary man hours, which Dean deems as priceless. The tree plantings form an enormous contribution by the community. Workshops are held to help people recognise Regent Honeyeaters and increase reporting. Dean responds gleefully to every promising report, dashing to confirm any potential sighting. Media coverage has also been worthwhile.

Regent Honeyeater 2
Regent Honeyeater. Photo by Dean Ingwersen.

Since 2002, 65% of Regent Honeyeater sightings have come from private land. Management of these sites is critical to the survival of this species. Significant 10 year funding was obtained by partnering with Taronga Zoo, the Nature Conservation Trust of NSW and arms of NSW Government for a Regent Honeyeater recovery program. The Nature Conservation Trust has been instrumental in getting covenants on 150 parcels of prime Regent Honeyeater habitat, seven properties in the Capertee Valley. The total comprises 1300Ha of high priority habitat in NSW. Noisy Miners have been identified as aggressive competitors in the Capertee Valley. Funding has been obtained to cull some populations of Noisy Miners.

Dean summed up by saying that there has been a significant decline in Regent Honeyeaters over the last century. There is a long running recovery plan in place which includes a successful captive breeding program. Subsequent predation control must be targeted. Finally, there is a great need for more observers on the ground doing surveys. Get in touch with Dean or Caroline Wilson if you can help.

Contributor: Daphne Hards

Little Penguins: How are they doing?

Balwyn meeting report, 23 February 2016

Speaker: Andre Chiaradia

It is always a delight to hear news of our Little Penguins. Research Scientist Andre Chiaradia works at Phillip Island Nature Parks and his focus is prey-predator relationships using Little Penguins as an ecological model. He has discovered much about Little Penguins’ foraging behaviour and he came to tell us about this and their current challenges.

Little Penguin group on sand
Little Penguin group on sand

Being birds, penguins have to come on land to lay their eggs so they have to survive in two ecosystems – land and sea. And as top predators they are vulnerable to changes in those ecosystems. They are very comfortable at sea; agile swimmers, but are awkward on land. We have two close populations, the St Kilda and the Phillip Island groups. The St Kilda group spend all their time within Port Phillip Bay allowing thorough study of their biology. Currently penguins are moulting, a period of about 17 days when they stay on land, fast, lose all their feathers and are generally miserable. Over winter they regain weight and body condition. Males are 10% heavier than females except just before breeding in spring. Females lay two eggs of different quality: egg A has much higher energy nutrients than egg B and the resultant chick is much more likely to survive. Incubation to fledging is about 90 days. Parental care tends to be unequal but a highly successful breeding pair – super achievers – may exhibit more equal chick care in good years. Worldwide penguin populations are in decline but the breeding success at Phillip Island is improving. The current population is 28-32,000 and increasing.

Fish remain at their one preferred temperature so as the ocean warms up in summer they tend to move away from penguins’ foraging zone, and the penguins at Phillip Island have to forage further. Water temperature also varies with depth. Warm layers lie atop cold layers and the narrow interface where the temperature changes rapidly between the two is called a thermocline. Fish love to gather in a thermocline, and the penguins are on their tail. El Nino years cause disruption of the water column. It seems that thermoclines disappear and penguins find it much more difficult to find prey. More frequent El Nino years add more foraging inefficiency.

Little Penguin couple in nest
Little Penguin couple in nest

Marine productivity is highest in spring. Little Penguins’ breeding success depends on biological variables and environmental variables. Their biology was carefully studied to explore what initiates the breeding phase, and nothing revealed the trigger. Andre’s group began to look carefully at the environmental variables in Bass Strait. They studied the ocean currents, temperature, salinity etc. and found that egg laying coincides with the annual rise in sea temperature in spring, which in turn is tied to a spike in chlorophyll A, a marker of marine nutrients. Northern hemisphere puffins behave exactly the same.

Two of Andre’s students studied the feeding behaviour of the St Kilda Little Penguins. The team managed to obtain data from the Spirit of Tasmanian ferry, which daily samples the waters of Port Phillip for salinity, temperature, marine productivity and turbidity. They fitted data loggers with a GPS to penguins’ backs to find where they forage. This showed that they fed in two areas, near St Kilda and out in mid-bay; these zones exhibited lower salinity, higher temperature, higher marine productivity (prey items) and lower turbidity. Little Penguins are visual feeders so of course they choose clearer water away from the Yarra River mouth. Prey items comprise squid, krill, sea horse, sardines, tiny barracuda and large numbers of jellyfish, the last being highly nutritious.

Little Penguin and chicks
Little Penguins with chicks

The penguins spend 80% of their life at sea. The Little Penguins at Phillip Island spend 50% of the winter inside Port Phillip Bay. There are activities within the bay which may disturb their life cycle, such as fishing, transport and dredging. We humans must manage this area so that Little Penguins can thrive, and with the help of data loggers, GPSs and scat DNA studies, Andre’s group has a good handle on what the penguins eat, where and when. As a result, activities within important feeding areas can be restricted. Looking at the bay in total, Little Penguins are a very small player in a large ecosystem. However as part of Victoria’s economy they punch well above their weight.

Andre acknowledged a big team of colleagues, both here and internationally, who are studying the biology and ecology of our local Little Penguins; and we appreciate their successes.

Little Penguin in nest
Little Penguin in nest

All photographs courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks

Contributor: Daphne Hards



Two weeks in paradise: A photographic tour of the Galapagos Islands

Speaker and photographer: Ian Smissen
Balwyn meeting 26 January 2016

Tonight’s main speaker was Ian Smissen, a life-long bird enthusiast who started his passion with Gould League of Bird Lovers. Ian studied at Melbourne University’s Zoology Department, and subsequently taught in High School for a few years. He was an Education Officer at Melbourne and Werribee Zoos, a university lecturer in science education, a consultant in curriculum design in science education, and is currently senior consultant in e-learning strategies at learning technology company Desire to Learn. He, and wife Joanne, recently fulfilled their lifelong ambition to visit the Galapagos Islands. They selected the longest trip on offer, 15 days with Galapagos Tours, which was billed as ‘photography intensive’, and led by Tui De Roy, renowned wildlife photographer.

Great Frigatebird at Genovesa
Great Frigatebird at Genovesa

Both Ian and Joanne are keen photographers, and we were treated to more than an hour of their journey in fabulous shots, which cannot be fully captured here. Ian gives much useful information and extensive coverage about their trip on his blog at

Each time I hear about the Galapagos Islands I learn a bit more, so let’s recap. It is a volcanic archipelago about 1000km off the west coast of Ecuador, lies on the equator and is about 150 km across. A traveller has to access the islands via the capital of Ecuador, and once in Quito you need a passport to visit the islands: your passport is stamped, and everyone has their baggage searched on entry and departure. The islands are the result of a volcanic hotspot and they vary in age, the oldest in the south and east being about one million years old while those to the north-west are newer. Some volcanos are still active. Amount of vegetation varies a lot between islands. The newer islands are virtually barren while older islands are lush with trees and shrubs. This has led to the fauna occurring on the islands to being quite different – variations within a species between islands caught Darwin’s interest in 1835.

Trip map

The trip map shows week one’s itinerary with a solid line, and week two with a dotted line. A comprehensive tour we can see, but being shipboard, much of the travelling between islands was done at night. That left the days to wander about admiring the wildlife, which they were not to approach closer than two metres but heck, many animals breeched the rule and came closer because they have evolved without fear of humans.

Tip Top III at anchor off Punta Suarez with Land Iguana
Tip Top III at anchor off Punta Suarez with Land Iguana

The group boarded their comfortable boat at Baltra Island. A marine tour has to be flexible and indeed the rough weather did cause a small change. By tour end they had visited 26 locations on 14 islands. One cannot visit the Galapagos without admiring the iguanas. Two species, Marine and Land Iguanas, occur. They encountered the oceanic species on Isla Santa Cruz and in huge numbers at James Bay on Isla Santiago. The bigger Land Iguana can reach 2.5m long, was seen on South Plaza Island. The largest tortoise in the world, the Galapagos Tortoise, was seen roaming around at the Giant Tortoise Reserve, Rancho El Manzanillo on Santa Cruz Island.

Nazca Booby at Punta Suarez
Nazca Booby at Punta Suarez

Ian worked very hard to get excellent bird photographs. Blue-footed Booby appeared to raise each foot in turn, possibly to impress a partner. Red-footed Boobies have two colour morphs, white feathers or brown. A third species, the Nazca Booby, occurs mainly on these islands. Other marine birds were also spectacular. The Waved Albatross were nesting on Española, and Joanne’s favourite, the Red-billed Tropicbirds were aloft at South Plaza. Many bird species are endemic, such as the Galapagos Hawk, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Flycatcher, Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Storm Petrel, Galapagos Shearwater, Galapagos Oystercatcher and the Galapagos Mockingbird. They demonstrate the amazing speciation that has occurred here: and indeed it was the variation between islands of the mockingbird features that first aroused Darwin’s attention and led ultimately to his Theory of Evolution. What an amazing place to visit!

Waved Albatross at Punta Suarez
Waved Albatross at Punta Suarez

Contributor: Daphne Hards


The Okavango Delta, Botswana

Balwyn Meeting Report: Member’s Topic
26 June 2016
African Fish-Eagles, always on the alert 1
African Fish Eagles; always on the alert

In September 2015 Bill Ramsay and wife Shirley made an exciting trip to Southern Africa care of Rhino Africa, and they felt their experience in the Okavango Delta was the highlight of the trip. The Okavango River starts in Namibia and on reaching Botswana fans out across a vast floodplain, and the waters never reach the sea. It supports a wide variety of wildlife, and tourists are accommodated at many camps dotted around the delta. Bill and Shirley stayed at an ‘&Beyond’ tented camp called Nxabega. Game drives took up to six people, and though big game took precedence over birds they found their guide to be very knowledgeable on the birds. A leopard and her cub gave rare entertainment and they were lucky too with Wild Dog sightings. Elephant were plentiful and they also had close encounters with lions. White-headed Vultures were attracted to a lion kill but were kept at bay by the lionesses. They saw 12 species of antelope, of the 33 species resident in Southern Africa; Impala of course, Lechwe, Sitatunga and Tsessebe to name a few. Zebra never fail to delight. The species local to the delta is the Plains Zebra, which is the national animal of Botswana.

Feeding birds at a delta waterhole 1
Feeding birds at a Delta waterhole

Approximately 500 species of birds have been recorded in the delta region, and the Ramsays saw a healthy 105 species in four days. A Crested Barbet was right outside their tent. Cardinal Woodpecker, Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch and Swamp Boubou were all seen around the lodge. Guests were not allowed to wander off freely at any time, but they were free to birdwatch within the lodge boundary.

Lilac-breasted Roller, the National Bird of Botswana 1
Lilac-breasted Roller; the national bird of Botswana

Further afield was the national bird of Botswana, the impressive Lilac-breasted Roller. One mustn’t visit the Okavango Delta without being taken out in a mokoro, a native canoe, propelled by a skillful poler. Large areas of water are linked by a myriad of narrow reed-lined channels. African Jacana walked on lily pads, African Fish-eagles were common, and there were numerous species of herons and egrets. Two species of kingfisher showed their skills, the Pied and the Malachite Kingfishers.

Pied Kingfiher ready to dive 1
Pied Kingfisher ready to dive

At the end of an awesome day in Africa you just have to relax with a Sundowner!

Contributor: Daphne Hards; Photographer: Bill Ramsay

Australia shorebirds – A Sampler

Balwyn Meeting Report
24 November 2015

During the 1970s Brett Lane was employed by RAOU to study shorebirds, particularly the numbers visiting Australia. This work was published as Shorebirds in Australia in 1971. He spent several years in Kuala Lumpur working for the Asian Wetland Bureau. Since 2001 he has had his own ecological assessment and management consultancy. Brett’s presentation to us was titled Australian Shorebirds – a Sampler. He began by highlighting the value to our knowledge of shorebirds of data collected in a coordinated way by volunteers. This has resulted in the protection of key shorebird habitat – Roebuck Bay and 80 Mile Beach in WA, Moreton Bay in Qld, Westernport, the western side of Port Phillip Bay, Corner Inlet and the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria.

Banded_stilts_2_Governors_Lake_Rotto_email Wiki
Banded Stilt at Governor’s Lake, Rottnest Island, WA. Source: Wikipedia

We tend to forget that many of our shorebirds are residents within Australia, such as Pied Oystercatcher, Red-necked Avocet. Banded Stilt are unique in that they feed in hypersaline sites, they breed en masse on islands in salt lakes and their young are tended in crèches by a handful of adults. Brett says that flamingos fill a similar niche in the Camargue.

The group of international migrants includes the Eastern Curlew, the world’s largest shorebird. It has been listed as critically endangered on the EPBC Act, having suffered an estimated 66% population reductions in Australia over the last 20 years. This catastrophe is linked to the reduction in intertidal staging sites within the Yellow Sea; its endangered category means now that any habitat it uses within Australia cannot be developed or its management changed without rigorous scrutiny. Large waders familiar to Australian birders are Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot, the latter so called for the red feathers in their breeding plumage, which add to their camouflage amongst the autumnal-coloured foliage which appears after the tundra snow melt. Other familiar Australian migratory shorebirds are Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint – the smallest at 30 grams, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Greenshank, which breed in the Taiga Forests on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, and Lesser Sand Plover, which has five subspecies which breed in different locations from North India to Siberia.

Early migrants arrive in Australia in August but the majority arrives in September onward with peek numbers from November to March. They leave for the north to breed from March to May, arriving at the breeding grounds in the first week of June. Breeding occurs in the following short six weeks. Then the adults depart on their return journey southward, leaving the young to develop on their own. The juvenile follow, guided by cues believed to be genetically programmed into their brains.

World Bird Migratory Flyways. Source: BirdLife International

Each migratory shorebird has its own breeding grounds and its favoured non-breeding sites making up a global network of flyways. The world map above shows eight flyways, involving millions of shorebirds. The best place in Australia to appreciate shorebird migration is to visit Broome for the Wave the Waders Goodbye event in April each year. Birds gather on the beach, and small flocks appear to take test flights, wheeling about before dropping back to land. This may continue for a few days till finally one bird makes the decision to go. Direction fixed, others join it and they leave in groups of usually no more than a hundred or so. It is known that they climb to a height of 1.5km on their journey.

Waders_in_flight_Roebuck_Bay Wiki
Waders in flight, Roebuck Bay WA. Source: Wikipedia

The first scientific studies of the flight path of these migrants involved leg banding, and continues to this day. The early bands were metal, numbered, and since a bird had to be recaptured, or found dead in order to read the band, results were slow. Painting colourful dye on the feathers gave good recognition, but one moult and the colour was gone. Initiated in the late 1980s, leg flags with colours and numbers placed on both legs in a code allows the observer to read the number and reveal the country where tagged.

Ruddy Turnstone using its eyes to locate food. Source: Wikipedia

In the last decade tiny geolocators were developed. These can record the hour of sunrise and sunset, and thus reveal exactly where the bird is; but a drawback is that they are attached to the bird’s leg and to retrieve data from the geolocator one again has to recapture the bird. Nonetheless, a Ruddy Turnstone, caught at Flinders in 2009, was recaptured after it’s epic journey, and its geolocator showed that it had travelled north via the east coast of China to the Yellow Sea and on to the Arctic, involving a first leg seven day non-stop journey of 7,600km. After six weeks breeding it crossed the Bering Strait to the Aleutian Islands, and then flew south via the Marshall Islands and Kiribati to Flinders. Indeed, this same bird carried a geolocator the following year when it again flew north via Asia and south by the East Pacific but it stopped at different locations.

Bar-tailed Godwit at Cairns. Source: Wikipedia

Subsequently satellite tracking devices were developed, and made so compact that they comply with the regulation that they weigh no more than 3% of the bird’s body weight. They have the huge advantage of supplying continuous data, only ceasing when the battery fails or the device falls off. A Bar-tailed Godwit had one mounted on its back, and unlike the turnstone flew north to Alaska via the Yellow Sea, and returned by roughly the same route. The eastern subspecies, however, goes north and returns south via the East Pacific. Indeed one of the eastern subspecies flew non-stop from Australia to Alaska over nine days, the longest known non-stop flight, 11,500km, of any bird. Go Bar-tailed Godwits!

How do birds have enough energy for these amazing flights? Prior to leaving Australia Ruddy Turnstones increase their body weight by 50%. They store fat under the skin and in the body cavity around their internal organs. When fat stores are sufficient the bird stops eating, and any unnecessary muscle is resorbed, e.g. around the gizzard and gut. At stopovers they rest for a few days and then eat to refuel, as it were. Intertidal mudflats are the richest source of food available, hence all the refuelling sites are vital for shorebird populatons. Birds feed by touch (e.g. godwits) or by sight (e.g. plovers).

Curlew Sandpuper Wiki
Curlew Sandpiper at Pak Thale, Petchaburi, Thailand. Source: Wikipedia

Conservation measures are critical to arrest the decline in shorebirds. The Curlew Sandpiper has now been listed as Critically Endangered. Only 115,000 Curlew Sandpiper have been recorded in Australia in recent years, with a decline of 49% over the last 10 years; the main decline is in adult birds. The primary cause for this crash is thought to be China’s reclamation of the Yellow Sea, building bund walls and sand islands to accommodate their industrial development. Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 this expansion in China has steadied but the decline in shorebird numbers has continued.

What can we do?

We can look after habitat for our resident shorebirds. We must continue to look after our beach-nesting birds via programmes run by Birdlife Australia (e.g. Shorebird 2020 and Beach-nesting Birds); Brett favours a biological control of the fox. We must work towards restoring habitat for migratory shorebirds. Brett is currently working at the two former Saltworks around Port Phillip Bay, one at Lara and one at Moolap. Proposed adjacent housing development can only go ahead with approval under the EPBC Act, which will come with an offset requirement. Moolap Saltworks could meet that offset requirement. By maximizing the productivity of habitat we have left we could achieve sustainable development without further declines in shorebirds. Good management of shorebird habitat is critical. Obviously action to address problems in the northern parts of our flyway are more difficult, such as with China and South Korea, but we must keep the pressure on; and there are still opportunities to save wetlands in smaller East Asian countries by supporting programmes run, for example, by Wetland International, whereby people are trained in ways to sway public opinion towards the value of shorebirds.

Brett was warmly thanked for a thorough and stimulating presentation.

Contributor: Daphne Hards



The Flyway Print Exchange

Balwyn meeting report: Member’s Choice
24 November 2015

Kate Gorringe-Smith is a Melbourne based print maker who has worked in the past for Birdlife Australia as a scientific editor, on HANZAB and Wingspan. Having developed a fascination with shorebirds Kate created a powerful project, the Flyway Print Exchange. She invited artists living along the East- Asian Australian Flyway to contribute a print, the proceeds of the sale of which would be donated to Birdlife Australia for shorebird conservation. There are 23 countries associated with our flyway. Kate secured 20 artists from nine countries, from New Zealand through to Alaska. Each supplied 30 prints of one artwork, each being unique, and each artist received a full set of 20 prints. The remaining 10 x 20 prints Kate is selling privately and sales are going well, with $15,000 already raised. She is delighted that it has funded a $10,000 indigenous grant for research and conservation.

Flyway mosaic
Mosaic prints from 20 artists for the Flyway Print Exchange. Courtesy of Kate Gorringe-Smith

Each print celebrates the massive journey flown by shorebirds in their annual breeding cycle within our flyway. Each of the 20 artists captured their own interpretation of this event. Bound by their common wonder at the shorebird migration the artists came together in this project from New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, India, China, South Korea, Japan and USA. The Flyway Print Exchange is on display at the Melbourne Immigration Museum, 400 Flinders Street from 1st December through to 28 February 2016. Well worth a look. And prints can be purchased from Kate (email:

Contributor: Daphne Hards

Svalbard – Land of the Ice Birds

Balwyn meeting Guest speaker (and photographer): Andrew Silcocks
25 August 2015

In July/August 2014 Andrew Silcocks was lucky enough to be the bird guide on two Aurora Expeditions cruises in the Arctic Circle. Andrew grew up in Britain, and spent the early years of his career monitoring seabirds on off-shore islands such as Fair Isle and the Shetlands. He has been working for Birdlife Australia for 15 years on the Atlas project, progressing this to a long term monitoring program, with Melbourne Water on wetland birds, and monitoring the Australasian Bittern. Andrew leapt at the chance to visit Svalbard, islands which host large numbers of breeding Arctic birds.

Arctic Tern at Longyearbeyen
Arctic Tern at Longyearbeyen

The tours began at Longyearbeyen, the capital of Svalbard on the island of Spitzbergen. Svalbard is an archipelago to the east of Greenland, of which Spitzbergen is the largest island. It is governed by Norway. Being well in the Arctic Circle the pack ice report is of daily interest summer and winter. Longyearbeyen, on a westerly fjord and with a population of 2000-2500 mainly Norwegian permanent residents, stays largely ice free during the winter due to the warm gulfstream affecting the west coast. Historically the northern and eastern passages around Svalbard are completely blocked by ice in winter; global warming is having an alarming impact on extent of pack ice, with summer cruises having to sail much further north to reach polar bear territory.

Ivory Gull at Longyearbeyen
Ivory Gull at Longyearbeyen

Another township, Barentsburg, has a largely Russian population of approximately 500. Both settlements mine coal, not very profitably but probably enough for heating and electricity. There are few roads, most people getting about on snowmobiles. Dog sleds seem to be almost exclusively for tourists. Out of town polar bears are a real danger, and there are warning signs everywhere. Someone even got bailed up in a toilet block by a prowling bear.

Ten to 12 cruise ships ply the waters around Svalbard each summer, varying in size and luxury. Andrew’s ship, the Polar Pioneer, crewed by Russians, is marketed to the budget traveller. The food was basic but there was plenty of it. The tour leader was a Swiss; Andrew shared the guiding with another naturalist. In addition Andrew’s expertise had to include botany, manning the zodiacs and serving at the bar. Luckily he found that many arctic plants are similar to those in Scotland; probably the drinks too!

The Polar Pioneer departed from Longyearbeyen and headed west on a typical deep fjord towards the ocean. In July, high summer, the hills are still snow-capped and exposed tundra runs down to gravelly beaches. The ship sailed anti-clockwise around the islands of Svalbard towards Kvitoya Island about 70km off the north-east tip.

Calving glacier front
Calving glacier front

In a typical summer the polar ice cap reaches south to Kvitoya, bringing a chance to see the top prize, polar bears. 2014 was ideal to go ashore and explore; every landing party had to be accompanied by two guides carrying flares and a loaded rifle. They encountered polar bears but generally they were indifferent to humans; a few were curious. Andrew reported that in 2015 the ice cap has receded to perhaps 100km further north, and the cruise ships would have had to travel much further to see polar bears on the pack ice. The effects of global warming are a worry for the tourist economy of Svalbard.

During the ten day trip, the participants were taken on expeditions in the zodiacs generally both morning and afternoon. They cruised by cliffs at the melting edge of glaciers, and they landed on beaches, walked close to colonies of walrus and seals, or climbed up slopes to view the distant horizons. July was better than August for birds as a lot depart as soon as they have finished breeding.

Polar Bear threatening Brünnich’s Guillemotor
Polar Bear threatening Brünnich’s Guillemotor

They cruised by the 100 metre high rock cliffs of Alkefjellet where the ledges were crowded with breeding Brünnich’s Guillemot. These birds are powerful swimmers which have been seen as deep as 200 metres. They also may fly 40-50 km to their feeding grounds. Glaucous Gulls and Arctic Skuas were ever present looking for weak or unattended chicks and eggs.

Andrew showed us a marvellous gallery of ice birds. Black Guillemot with their flashy red feet and doing their display dance. Atlantic Puffin with clown-like faces, which exchange boulders for burrows in Svalbard due to the permafrost.

Black Guillemot with red feet
Black Guillemot with red feet

Little bigger than a starling, Little Auks nest in huge colonies approaching 30 million birds, skittish, with squeaky calls and lots of co-preening. The champion Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Northern Fulmar stayed with the ship. Arctic Jaeger were breeding on the tundra. The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull which only comes ashore to breed. They are very approachable. A target bird and hard to spot was the Ivory Gull – Andrew showed its snowy features. Waders were not common; Purple Sandpiper was highest in number, also Dunlin. The female Grey Phalarope was stunning with her bright plumage. Others birds seen were Barnacle Geese, King Eider, Snow Bunting and Ptarmigan, the only bird which does not leave Svalbard in winter.

Little Auk
Little Auk

If you are a keen botanist there is much to delight on these islands, many blooming in the 24hour daylight during the short summer. If you are the slightest bit interested in an Arctic cruise, Andrew revealed that these older ships are likely to be taken out of service in a year or so, and then what? Higher fees? In 2016 Birdlife Australia is planning three trips with Aurora Expeditions: two to the Arctic and one to the Antarctic. Some lucky staff member from headquarters in Carlton will be the bird guide. An attractive idea and well worth considering.

Volunteering as Assistant Ranger at Gluepot Reserve

Birdlife Melbourne Member’s Choice Report

28 July 2015

One of Birdlife Melbourne’s committee members, Susan Pepper, took a sea change in 2014. Or desert change? She took a redundancy package from her desk-based job, and hearing an earlier Member’s Choice segment on volunteering at Gluepot, Susan took the plunge and signed up for four months as an Assistant Ranger. Brave move. She had never been to Gluepot before. She loved it. And the experience inspired poetry which she read to us as well as relating what tasks she did.

A building adjacent to the visitor information centre has been earmarked as a library. The BOCA library contents were transported to Gluepot, and Susan, with some previous library experience, had the task of turning an empty shell/shed into a welcoming resource. Firstly she constructed shelving for the two long walls from flat-pack kits. Susan then shelved all the books, catalogued and relabelled every item. Tables and chairs have been added, plus computer terminals, and the finished library is a magnificent resource for visitors, students and visiting scientists. It also provides a delicious air-conditioned space to sit in summer.

The new Gluepot library. Photo by Susan Pepper
The new Gluepot library. Photo by Susan Pepper

Susan also had outdoor activities. She tended the vegetable garden and did lots of weeding around the homestead area. She learned about laying fox bait and checking electric fences. It was spring and the birdlife was enthralling; nests and nestlings in all directions. Susan found the total immersion experience at Gluepot very rewarding, and would recommend it highly.

Contributor: Daphne Hards