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!

A Wetland Habitat For Our Amazing Turtles

A close-up shot of an oblong turtle with an inset of one swimming in the wetlands

Turtles are remarkable and resilient creatures that inhabit our wonderous wetland worlds. They are widely celebrated in both popular culture and folklore as totems of balance, beauty and prosperity. In Aboriginal culture too, turtles are seen as symbols of longevity, endurance, and the continuation of life (especially in the face of great hardship and struggle).

We have much to learn from our endearing turtles. However, the avenues are limited as turtles are also inherently shy creatures. They seldom venture out, staying confined to the comfort of their wetland habitat and sanctuary for long stretches of time. And their rituals of mating, nesting, feeding and living, remain largely undocumented and mysterious.

Hidden in the grassy underbrush and marshy swamps, they thrive. Feeding on bugs, snails, worms, fish, crustaceans, plants and animals, scavenging and flourishing, they play a crucial role in the wetland ecosystem. They are vital indicators of wetland health. This is why their ever-dwindling numbers, impacted habitats and disrupted food-webs demand our most serious consideration.

 

Come, Meet Our Oblong Turtle

The oblong turtle or, the long-necked turtle, is a native species that is only found in this part of the world – in a small pocket at the southwestern tip of the state of Western Australia. And we are fortunate for their presence here!

The oblong turtles owe their name to the oblong shape of their carapace (upper shell) and snake-like long neck. Dark brown or muddy black in colour, these turtles are found in waterways across Perth and throughout the south-west. They occur in permanent and seasonal freshwater habitats, including rivers, swamps, lakes, damp lands, and natural as well as artificial wetlands.

Adult turtles can grow large and measure about 30-50cms from the tip of their tails to the end of their beaks. The young hatchlings are tiny as they begin their journey though, with a carapace merely the size of a 20-cent coin!

A long neck turtle walking through the wetlands
Image by Sharon Mcarthur

The Turtle Nesting Period is On!

September to January is a special season indeed. At this time of year, you can witness turtles leaving their watery homes in search of suitable nesting sites. They are known to travel up to a kilometre in search of the perfect site with soft sandy soils where they can lay their leathery eggs.

Unfortunately, a turtle out of water is a turtle at risk! Turtles get run-over by cars as they cross busy roads and pavements, oftentimes distracted by loud sounds and noise from moving traffic. Turtles are also exposed to birds and other predators that prey on them as they find their way. Dehydration and tiredness from the long journey and the added confusion of a changed or disturbed site can cause the turtle to feel lost and ultimately perish from fatigue.

If you are lucky to site a turtle that is on its way, help it cross the road by halting incoming traffic till it crosses. If this is too risky, you could lift it across the road (make sure that you take it in the direction it is headed and not back!) and ensure that there are no other threats around. If you have the time, you could also follow the turtle (at a safe distance) to and from the nesting site. Protecting our exposed and vulnerable turtles can go a long way in ensuring the survival of the species.

 

Threats to The Oblong Turtle

We lose a number of turtles to road accidents each year. In fact, in the period leading from September to January when turtles nest, and from June to July when hatchlings make their way back home to the wetlands, our turtles are at their most vulnerable.

A baby oblong turtle peeks above the water surface to breathe.Feral animals including birds of prey, cats, dogs and foxes are a significant threat to our oblong turtles. Feral animals are known to attack the turtles as well as their nests, feeding on eggs. Poaching and removing turtles from their wild habitat to keep as domestic pets is also a major threat. Although catching and keeping turtles as pets is illegal and punishable by law, it still happens.

And finally, it is the increasing urban sprawl, especially in the vicinity of the wetlands, that is leading to fewer and more disjointed habitats for our turtles. The compromised water quality and enhanced pollution levels are impacting their numbers, even as safe and suitable habitats become threateningly scarce.

 

Turtles on Your Property?

If your home happens to be popular with the turtles and you see a great number on your property, chances are that you are on a nesting site! Turtles are known to follow the same pattern year-on-year and are likely to end up in the same favourite spot for nesting. If you are a turtle buff, this can be an incredible opportunity for you to witness something magical!

Allow the turtle to nest and observe at a safe distance. Ensure that your pets are on a leash and away from the turtle. Make sure that there are no other threats that could harm the turtle. The female turtle will take anywhere between 15-30 mins to lay her leathery eggs, using her plastron (lower shell) and legs to dig and later cover-up the hole.

The turtle will be tired from her strenuous journey and vigorous nesting activity. If you find her at risk, you could help her get back to the wetlands safely, but not unless you are sure that’s the direction she is headed in. Keep the nest undisturbed while the mum is away. Turtle hatchlings will emerge after a period of incubation, and you can help them get back to the water too.

Here are some handy instructions if you are required to move a nesting site or handle a turtle anytime. Please remember that our turtles are wild creatures, and it is not encouraged to interfere with their movement unless they are at risk. That is please do not pick up hatchlings or adults unless absolutely necessary!

An illustration showing the right way to hold a long neck turtle.

Handling a Turtle: When handling a turtle prepare for them to resist and squirm strongly. They do not bite; however, they are known to scratch and struggle. Take care to keep a strong hold and not to drop them when this happens. Wrapping a small damp towel around the turtle can help you get a good grip. Always use both your hands and keep the turtle away from your own body.

Moving a Nest: If you are required to move a nest for any reason, or if you come across a compromised nest and want to help relocate it, here is what you do: Make sure you dig around with gentle hands and get all the eggs in the nest. Mark the position the eggs were in exactly and ensure you put them into the relocated site as they were found. The fresh hole you dig should be at the same depth and with similar conditions of dampness or dryness. Remember turtle eggs that are rotated will not hatch! If the temperatures are too cold too, the eggs won’t hatch!

 

Facts You May Not Know About Our Turtles

Here are some quick oblong turtle facts that may surprise and wow you!

  1. Freshwater turtles, such as our oblong turtles, can drop their body temperature, slow their pulse rate and use their stored body fat in place of fresh food to survive severe hot and dry conditions. This ability, known as aestivation, is the reason our hardy turtles can cope with the roughest Western Australian weather.
  2. Turtles are the only creatures with an exterior shell that is all bone and attached to their spine. The turtle shell is living material, much like our own fingernails. And they can sense pain, touch and temperature through it!
  3. It is a common misconception that our oblong turtles can protect themselves by retracting into their shells. Oblong turtles cannot retract into their shell!
  4. Our oblong turtles can live a long life of over 60 years when the conditions are right. They need to live long because they have very low recruitment rates (few surviving offsprings). In fact, on average only 1% of turtle eggs go on to hatch and survive until adulthood.
  5. Turtles are known to feed on the dead and decaying organic matter and debris. Turtles help keep the waterways clean and aid in wetland function.

 

Help Us Turtle Watch!

Sighting a turtle is a beautiful and moving experience! Be sure to share your lucky sighting at climatewatch.org.au. You can log your sighting using their app. Or call us at The Wetlands Centre Cockburn at our Turtle Watch Helpline.

Keeping a lookout on the migration patterns and movements of our native turtles helps us identify important habitats and nesting grounds. It also helps us create safer homes for these amazing wetland creatures!

10 Things You Could Do To Help Our Wetlands

A conceptual image of caring palms cupping wetlands

Taking a walk through the lush wetlands is a delight this time of the year. The winding tracks and sturdy boardwalks that open up hidden new worlds. The thick bush, fringing vegetation and the canopy of swaying trees. Startled animals we catch off-guard that quickly scamper away. And, the thin blanket of mist that lies settled over the water.

We discover a different pace and rhythm as we let go. Unwind. And absorb a hundred splendid experiences that the wetlands offer unbiddenly. There is such peace and tranquillity here.

We are fortunate that our wetlands are so close to our urban dwellings. We are able to enjoy their unique splendour and partake in their beauty. But being so close to urban habitation poses a serious threat to our wetlands. Urban run-off, littering, leaching and degradation – there are several impacts that continue to take a toll.

As much as the wetlands are places of recreation and pleasure, they are also grounds that support delicate ecosystems, intricate bionetworks, diverse wildlife and their habitats. They require our care and attention. Here are 10 simple things we can do to help our wetlands:

 

1. Household Plants and Gardens

By practising a little care in our gardens, we can help the wetlands immensely. For example, limit your use of chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides or fungicides – and use organic remedies instead. These potent chemicals can leach into groundwater, and subsequently into the wetlands. Use animal manure that is great for the garden and has no unpleasant side-effects.

Be careful while discarding plants or seeds. Our non-native household plants can be invasive and dominate over native flora. The same goes for aquatic plants from our aquariums. They must not be dispensed into the wetland catchments.

 

2. Pets and Pests

Our cuddly pet animals can be quite destructive. Cats are known to prey upon native species – turtles, frogs and even lizards. Rabbits can wreak havoc on plants by binging on them, any fresh regrowth and seedlings. Rabbit faeces are known to carry and spread weeds.

It is best to keep pets indoors or under supervision. They are likely to cause less harm if they are not allowed to stray.   On a similar note, pests that are introduced into the wetlands can have a detrimental effect on the wetland ecology.

 

3. Waste and Recycling

Using safe, sustainable and eco-aware methods of waste disposal will go a long way in protecting the wetlands. Reduce the use of plastic, whether it is plastic water bottles or disposable plastic containers, straws and cutlery. Reuse and recycle to the maximum possible extent.

Maintain a worm farm or compost pit at home. Compost can be great for your garden, and you will be amazed at how much of your waste – like cardboard, paper, egg shells and tea bags – can be put to good use. Get your children involved.

 

4. Reduce Pollution

Reducing pollution can begin at home with some relatively small but consistent steps. Be conscious of your choices. Buy organic, eco-friendly and sustainable products. Your local farmers markets can be great places to shop.

Be energy-conscious and use energy wise appliances. Avoid throwing away stuff carelessly. If you find litter in public parks or wetlands, be considerate, pick it and throw it in the bin. Every step counts.

 

5. Conserve Water

Lifegiving water is central to wetland health. Observe the wetland vegetation. Their leaves, limbs, roots and other remarkable features help them conserve water.  Even wetland wildlife is adept at using water, a vital resource, judiciously.

Turn off the tap when not in use and use only as much as you need. Check your pipes and fittings regularly for any leakages. Harvest rainwater. During the summer months, water your plants early in the mornings.

 

6. Healthy Wetland Vegetation

Healthy vegetation is crucial for sustaining life in the wetlands. This includes upland vegetation, fringing vegetation and aquatic plant-life. Wetland vegetation is highly specialized, in that it has evolved to thrive in varying conditions of dampness and salinity.

Within the wetland catchments, ecosystems flourish based on an energy exchange between living organisms and the non-living environment. Leaves or branches from overhanging trees and shrubs, fall and are broken down by microbes, bacteria and fungi. These, in turn, become food for larger animals within the food web.

You can help in the conservation and rehabilitation efforts – by planting native flora, creating habitats for wildlife and participating in citizen science projects and initiatives.

 

7. Help Wetland Wildlife

Much like the wetland vegetation, wetland wildlife too is exposed, fragile and susceptible. Turtles that live in the swampy wetlands are known to venture out, cross busy roads or polluted areas in search of suitable nesting sites. Similarly, snakes and bobtails too are known to sneak-out to bask in the sun during winter months. Accidents are common and animals get run over. It is also common for animals to get entangled and hurt in the plastic debris.

Animals sometimes venture into homes and gardens, looking for nesting sites or grounds to lay eggs. There are many ways in which we can help these animals, by looking out for them, helping them get to their destination and protecting their eggs or hatchlings.

Apart from the permanent wetland residents, some migratory birds use the wetlands for resources. The dwindling bush and fringing vegetation and the changing environmental conditions are posing a serious threat to all their lives.

 

8. Important Contact Information

It can be useful to locate and carry information on local bodies responsible for wildlife rescue, wetland rehabilitation and conservation work, and research organizations. This can be especially significant if you reside in an area close to wetlands. We encourage you to keep such information handy.

At the Wetlands Centre, we are involved in wetland conservation, rehabilitation, research and education work. We can be contacted through phone, our website or through our social channels. We welcome your messages.

 

9. Learn and Educate

Wetlands are fascinating worlds that open doorways to some interesting natural activity. Take the initiative to deep dive and learn about the wetlands – their mysteries and intricacies. While there are several avenues for learning, there are also avenues for teaching, educating and spreading awareness.

 

10. Participate and Volunteer

At “The Wetlands Centre Cockburn”, we are a warm, friendly, community-based organization. We are located in the heart of Beeliar Regional Park, in the vicinity of the beautiful Bibra Lake. Visit our centre nestled in nature. Take a look at what we do.

We run a range of educational programs all-year-round. We have a fantastic community outreach. And, our in-house nursery and Seed Propagation Areas (SPAs) are our pride and joy.

There is so much you can do! Come begin this journey with us and help us restore our wetlands for everyone to enjoy!