Migratory Waterbirds: Bidding Au Revoir To The International Frequent Fliers

A flock of migratory waterbirds feeding and flying over wetlands

The wetlands around us are flush with islands of congregating waterbirds, many of which are visitors only passing through. We see 36 species of birds each year including plovers, sandpipers, stints, curlews and snipes. An additional 16 species visit us occasionally.

In April we find them engaged in a feeding frenzy as they prepare for their onward journeys. And this time of year is ideal for the feeding waterbirds that form large flocks and feed around the clock. Shallow waters of seasonally drying wetlands offer up delicacies – a variety of invertebrates and fish – that the birds relish.

These incredible migratory birds take on a 26,000-kilometre round trip that spans 22 countries, flying between their summer breeding areas in the northern hemisphere and the winter feeding grounds in the south. They complete this trip in a matter of weeks, with only a few pit stops along the way to rest and refuel before they fly off again.

In this article, we take a peek at the life of migratory waterbirds as they touch and transform our wetlands while traversing the East Asian – Australasian Flyway, which has come to be recognized as a migratory corridor of global significance.

 

The start of a journey

Together, the coastal and freshwater wetlands host over 2 million waterbirds that come here from the Arctic Circle.

The waterbirds arrive here in September, reaching the “staging areas” where they rest and recuperate. Sites such as Roebuck Bay and Eighty Mile Beach are both Ramsar wetlands and important staging areas for the birds.

From here the birds disperse across Australia, taking fascinating and distinct journeys and reaching the southeastern states by October.  The migration takes them through ephemeral wetlands all along the way that act as places of comfort, rest and support.

An eastern curlew at a wetland

By March or April, they have come full circle, returning back to the staging areas from where they had first dispersed into Australia. Here they form larger and larger flocks as birds continue to return. And soon the feeding frenzy begins.

 

Protecting the waterbirds

Throughout their hard and treacherous journey, the birds remain exposed and vulnerable. They face ever-increasing threats by human activity, including development, industrialisation, and urbanisation, destruction and degradation of wetland habitats and staging areas, an influx of weeds and invasive species, pollution, water mismanagement and innumerable other pressures. 

Disturbances at one site often affect an entire network of interlinked sites used by the birds. All of this has meant that several species of waterbirds, such as the Eastern Curlew and Great Knot, are critically endangered and many populations are continually declining. Protecting these birds, their habitats and their migration routes is essential for their survival.

Great Knot

Implementing measures for protection and conservation has been a priority for governments, environmental groups and intergovernmental agencies. The Ramsar Convention was the first-ever initiative between nations aimed at conserving natural resources. The initiative has become a pivotal mechanism for wetland monitoring, research and development, policy building, education, and more.

 

Australia and waterbird conservation

In 1974 Australia named the world’s first Wetland of International Importance: Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. Since then the number of Australian Ramsar sites has increased to 65 sites that cover an area of about 8.3 million hectares. And more than 1200 sites have been listed as Ramsar sites in the world.

For over 30 years Australia has worked tirelessly playing a central role in this preservation effort by entering into bilateral talks and signing on to pioneering agreements. Those agreements include: the Bonn Convention for the conservation of migratory species of wild animals, Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement, China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement, and Republic of Korea-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

The East Asian – Australasian Flyway (EAAF) partnership was launched on the 6th of November 2006. As a Ramsar initiative, this partnership focuses on international collaboration in the protection of waterbirds, their habitats and the livelihoods of people who depend on them throughout the EAAF.

Ecologist conducting shorebird counts

 

Within Australia, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides for the protection of migratory species as a matter of urgent national importance.

Migratory waterbirds at The Wetlands Centre

A cacophony of sounds and bird calls fill the air creating a magical effect at Bibra Lake and North Lake. The birds are here. We are especially privileged to be located within the wetland precinct and within viewing distance, observing each seasonal transition.

But this also means that we experience things more deeply when the going is not so great. In the course of our work, we have come across some devastating evidence of climate change, urbanisation and pollution.

It has been our learning that developing and implementing robust wetland management and landcare strategies are critical to our efforts of protecting wildlife habitats. We see the need for adaptive management techniques that adjust and apply to the ever-changing circumstances. Together with collaborating with participating community groups and raising awareness of the deep-seated issues.

Our work is hands-on and requires the support of our dedicated volunteers and staff. As we continue to make strides, we call out to community members to support us and join us in caring for our feathered friends.

References

Migratory waterbirds – Parks and Wildlife Service. (2019). Dpaw.wa.gov.au. Retrieved 13 April 2019, from https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/wetlands/migratory-waterbirds

Department of the Environment and Energy. (2019). Department of the Environment and Energy. Retrieved 13 April 2019, from https://www.environment.gov.au/water/wetlands/publications/factsheet-wetlands-migratory-shorebirds

Department of the Environment and Energy. (2019). Department of the Environment and Energy. Retrieved 13 April 2019, from https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/migratory-species/migratory-birds

International, B. (2016). Wetlands and Ramsar. BirdLife. Retrieved 13 April 2019, from https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/policy/wetlands-and-ramsar

Home – Parks and Wildlife Service. (2019). Dpaw.wa.gov.au. Retrieved 13 April 2019, from https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/124-management/wetlands/migratory-waterbirds

A Protective Circle: Why Safeguarding Wetland Health Begins With Ensuring A Healthy Buffer Zone

A wetland landscape in black & white with only the fringin vegetation coloured in it's original green.

Located only a hop, skip and jump away from our very doorsteps, wetlands are closer and more accessible than ever before! We are fortunate to have them in our direct vicinity like this. But for the wetlands themselves, that are often surrounded by busy roads, cycle tracks and pedestrian pathways, disturbed by invasive activities of humans and domestic/feral animals alike and degraded by pollution, nutrient explosion and urban runoff, this proximity can prove costly!

A healthy buffer zone can help in these situations, as a simple yet effective solution. A buffer zone with ample vegetation and thick foliage distributed around the wetland periphery acts like a protective circle safeguarding our delicate wetlands. Wetland buffers can significantly reduce exposure, bolster wetland function and minimize damage and degradation. So much so that their establishment has been encouraged and enforced by wetland management authorities around the world.

In this article, we take a closer look at some key questions: What does a healthy buffer zone look like? What does it mean for our wetland health? And, how can we help our landcarers establish and maintain adequate buffer zones around the wetlands?

 

What is a buffer zone?

The wetland buffer zone is an area of fringing vegetation, which usually begins from the periphery of the wetlands and extends outwards. Pretty much like a border around the wetland.

The buffer zone can vary in size and nature – it can be several meters wide or narrow, and it can contain a variety of wetland plants, shrubs and bushes. Its nature may also vary depending on recommendations for a particular wetland:

  • The noise and visual screening requirements – a thicker and more effective screening may facilitate the nesting and breeding of certain wetland species,
  • The conservation significance of the wetlands – more significant wetlands may require a thicker belt for the buffer,
  • And, the safe-distancing from the nuisance of insects – For example, mosquito producing wetlands are required to be at least 2km away from residential areas depending on the severity of the nuisance.

 

Why are buffers important?

Buffers are important, not just for the preservation of our environmental assets, our wetlands, but also for protecting the plant and animal wildlife that inhabit them. They aid in wetland function, ensuring wetland ecosystems thrive and flourish.

Here are a few more reasons why wetland buffers are essential:

  1. They absorb surplus water from surface runoffs, floods and storm drains.
  2. They reduce the nutrient, pollutant and sediment loads in runoffs.
  3. They help maintain the water quality in the wetland catchments by filtering out pollutants and sediments to a considerable extent.
  4. They provide habitat, shelter, and feeding/breeding/nesting grounds for wetland wildlife.
  5. They reduce disturbance to native flora and fauna from surrounds, creating safe corridors for wildlife.
  6. They reduce the invasion of weed species by keeping the vegetation dense and impenetrable.
  7. They provide for areas of recreation and engagement within the wetlands – trails for bushwalking, wildlife photography or amateur birdwatching.

 

What does a healthy buffer look like?

A buffer may differ considerably from wetland to wetland, depending on the features and requirements. However, there are a few common features that are shared by all healthy buffer zones. For example, a buffer should be at least 50 metres wide. They can be wider, not narrower. The buffer should be effective in keeping invasive species such as weeds and feral animals out. And, you can often tell of its effectiveness by its density, biodiversity and the health of the vegetation in the buffer. Similarly, a healthy buffer will keep its wildlife well protected and nurtured within its confines, with little need for them to venture out!

 

What can we do to help?

Our constant activities with little regard to our fragile wetlands, as well as the more permanent changes in the environment, have drastically impacted our wetlands. Our wetlands are threatened and need our help! The wetland buffers are perhaps the best way to begin.

Here are a few ways we can help our wetlands:

  1. Think of ways to minimize disturbance to the wetlands. Be sensitive to the movements of wetland creatures. Beware of plants that are growing or sprouting.
  2. When walking/cycling stick to the pathways. The pathways, trails and tracks are designed to lead away from environmentally sensitive areas within wetlands.
  3. Do not discard your garden waste – cuttings and prunings, or waste from aquariums or terrariums directly into the wetlands.
  4. Do not let your pet animals – cats, dogs and/or rabbits, stray in wetland areas. Animals are known to prey upon the vulnerable wetland wildlife. Collect and discard your pet’s faeces appropriately and do not discard in the wetlands. Pet faeces are a detriment known to contribute nutrients and, in some cases, carry weeds.
  5. If the buffer zone around your wetlands is at risk due to human activity, building, construction or development work, or being along roadside, highways or curbs with heavy traffic, a light fence can be erected in order to shield it.
  6. If the fringing vegetation and buffer around your wetlands appear to be disturbed or degraded, contact your local landcarers or wetlands facility. Note: Only specific native vegetation may be grown as buffer vegetation. Do not plant without advice!
  7. Participate in community planting, weeding and landcare events. Take an active interest in the health of your wetlands.

Why not get involved with us?

At ‘The Wetlands Centre Cockburn’, here in the heart of the breathtaking Beeliar Regional Park, we are working towards building healthier wetlands for everyone.

We are involved in landcare, conservation and rehabilitation work. We run some exciting educational programs. We are community driven, we have a fantastic community outreach. And, we are pioneers in wetland management.

With a dedicated team of volunteers and staff and our love for wetlands, we are doing just what it takes. Come join the team and get involved with us today. Together we can make a difference!

Wetlands & Water. Rehabilitation & Conservation.

A bird's eye view of a wetland and its evirons

Watching our wetlands transform is an awe-inspiring experience. We may see change with seasons. Or, through circulation of life-giving water and rainfall. The transformation is evident in the way their vegetation thrives, blooms and blossoms. Within the catchments where delicate ecosystems flourish as diverse organisms interact with each other and with the environment. And, in the cacophony of bird and animal sounds that fills the air with every favourable shift.

Water brings out the unique character of our wetlands.

Not all wetlands are waterlogged all the time, some depend on groundwater and others on surface water flows and still others are coastal wetlands that are revived by the seas. They may be seasonally, intermittently or permanently drenched. They may be saline or freshwater. They may be still or flowing. No matter what the nature of the wetland, water plays a central role.

 

Wetlands – A Living System

Wetlands support complex and diverse bionetworks. They shelter and sustain wildlife. Here landforms and soils are created, nutrients are naturally recycled and waterways are filtered and cleaned.

The specialized wetlands vegetation helps in stabilizing the soil, cleaning the water and providing resources and habitat. From upland vegetation – shrubs and trees, to fringing vegetation – sedges, rushes and paperbark trees, and floating and submerged aquatic plant-life – adequate vegetation is fundamental to wetland health.

Leaves or branches that fall from overhanging trees and shrubs are broken down by microbes, bacteria and fungi. These, in turn, become food for larger animals within the food web. And wetlands ecosystems are sustained by the functions of these tiny organisms.

 

Wetlands and Water

Wetlands that see water once every few years, or those that are permanently waterlogged, every wetland ecology is unique. Species of plants and animals have evolved to suit these very specific conditions of dampness, salinity and nutritional availability.

Urban and rural encroachment have posed some serious threats to the wetland ecology.

Paved roads and concrete structures mean that a greater volume of water now finds its way into the wetlands. Road run-off often contains oil, heavy metals and various other substances that leach into the wetlands. Fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals from nearby home gardens or agricultural fields too seep into the groundwater, from where they travel to the wetlands.

Environmental degradation has caused drastic changes in the water cycle. Wetlands now face prolonged inundation or drying and a constant change in the physical, chemical and biological composition of water entering the wetlands. This imbalance adversely impacts native species that are unable to survive or cope. Further, loss of native vegetation has the potential to disrupt and collapse the delicate wetlands food web.

 

Wetlands Rehabilitation

Our wetlands are an important and essential resource. They provide us with a natural filtration system, cleaning our waterways of harmful pollutants, absorbing and trapping carbon in the marshy soil, and replenishing our groundwater and underground aquifers. Wetland plants and animals function to strengthen this delicate link between water and wetlands.

They help regulate the climate. They supply food, fibre, fuel and medicinal plants.

Above and beyond the functions they fulfil, wetlands are a source of great beauty. They are gateways to adventure and for “experiencing nature” away from the hustle and bustle of our cities and suburbs. The abundant life they support – from native species to migratory long-distance travellers. The deep interlinkages and connections, and the balance they restore.

Wetlands rehabilitation is, therefore, the single most crucial calling of our time – revegetation, habitat restoration, conservation and protection. An involved community and teamwork. And spreading awareness about their importance.

 

A water level guage mirrored on a still wetland surface.

Water Conservation

Inland freshwater wetlands provide water to over three billion people around the world.

Without our wetlands, the water in our households, industries and farms would have been unusable.

Water conservation is a vital aspect of wetlands rehabilitation work. It involves using and uncovering innovative wetlands management techniques that help control the quality of water within catchments.

Water Sensitive Urban Design Principles, in the context of urban wetlands, protect the wetlands from urban run-off and degradation. Applying these principles ensures that the infrastructure we create does not impact them unfavourably.

Water conservation is also largely dependent on the native plant and animal species, their distribution and propagation. And on our sustained rehabilitation efforts.

 

Come, Get Involved!

At ‘The Wetlands Centre Cockburn’, here in the heart of the breathtaking Beeliar Regional Park, we are working towards building healthier wetlands for everyone.

We are involved in landcare, conservation and rehabilitation work. We run some exciting educational programs. We are community driven, we have fantastic community outreach. And, we are pioneers in wetlands management.

With a dedicated team of volunteers and staff, and our love for wetlands, we are doing just what it takes. Come join the team and get involved with us today. You can make a difference!