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

5 Fun Ways You Can Help Your Wetlands With Citizen Science

People in a wetland catchment involved in a citizen science project

Nothing compares to the joy of giving! It is immense. And it is this shared joy and community spirit that are helping us rehabilitate and conserve our vulnerable wetlands.

For, rehabilitating the wetlands is a complex project with many moving parts. Its success relies on the contribution of our volunteers, tireless efforts of wetland staff and vigilance and attention of the active community. We are also fortunate to have many landcare owners and special interest groups that look out for and assist with wetland activity. These people are our heroes!

If you’ve felt like getting involved and contributing, our “Citizen Science” projects are a great place to start. You can work independently on your own initiative, with clear guidance and help from us anytime you need. The activities are interesting and you can see the final build up as collaborators from across the community come forth with their contributions. And finally, the results are made available and published for everyone to see. It is a truly enriching experience.

Here are 5 exciting projects that are currently happening. If you are keen about making a difference and getting involved, we’ve got all the information you need. So, let’s get started!

 

1.    Wildlife Sighting

What is involved: Record your lucky wildlife sightings. This activity involves keeping a lookout for wildlife and their movement through the wetlands and bush.

Our freshwater turtles are predominantly shy creatures that only venture outside their wetland sanctuary during special periods. They are on the move now (from September until January), searching for nesting sites to lay eggs. And soon in June, hatchlings will emerge to make their way back to the wetlands.  Our bobtails, quendas and myriad other endangered and/or sensitive wetland creatures too follow a similar pattern.

What you can do:

  1. Visit ClimateWatch.org.au/mobile and download the app that lets you record your wildlife sightings.
  2. Whenever you encounter a wild animal, take the time to record your wildlife sighting on the app. Ensure that you maintain a safe distance at all times.
  3. Visit or call your local wetlands centre for more information.

 

2.    Installing Frog Ponds

What is involved: Creating a natural setting pond ecosystem within your gardens and/or backyards especially catering to the native frog species. This activity involves setting up a beautiful pond at a suitable place at home that attracts the frogs.

Frog pond in a home garden

Frogs are incredible creatures with well-camouflaged dappled and textured skins, that gleam green, black or brown. And sometimes with vivid patterns to ward off predators. These fragile creatures are seriously endangered and their numbers are dwindling. By installing a frog pond, we are encouraging a growth in their numbers, and in turn, helping our wetland biodiversity.

What you can do:

  1. Download this document from South Australian EPA with information about this activity and how to install a frog pond. Also, refer to SERCUL’s Gardens for Frogs in Perth Brochure that provides information about frogs and frog ponds specific to Perth.
  2. Monitor and maintain the frog pond regularly.
  3. Visit FrogID.net.au to get the FrogID app. Install and use the app to monitor and report frog calls in your pond and around your locality.
  4. Visit or call your local wetlands centre for more information.

 

3.    Nest box Monitoring

What is involved: Install and monitor nest boxes for bats and other wildlife. This activity involves the installation and monitoring of nest boxes.

Nest boxes with easy Do-It-Yourself instructions are available to be installed at home or in parks around your home. Ensure that you take permission from your local council before proceeding. There is a high risk of feral bees invading and occupying nest boxes. So, ensure that you check for and report feral bee infestation immediately. Check for damage and weathering of boxes regularly. Also, check for animal health whenever, and to the extent possible, without disturbing the inhabiting species.

What you can do:

  1. Purchase and install the nestbox in an appropriate area. Get permission from your local council before commencing.
  2. Ensure you do it right by purchasing nest boxes that are expertly designed to inhibit infestation by feral bees, which can be very dangerous.
  3. Monitor for wildlife – bats, phascogales or possums. It is recommended that you check at least twice a year during January/February and June.
  4. For information about bat boxes, visit GoBatty.com.au and get in touch with local bat expert, Joe Tonga, who has extensive experience building and installing bat boxes.
  5. Visit or call your local wetlands centre for more information.

 

4.    Water Monitoring

What is involved: Monitoring the waterbodies – sea or freshwater. This activity involves uploading images of a water source to an app and regularly monitoring it for changes.

‘Eye on Water’, as the project is called, enables people to upload photographs of a target water source to an app. CSIRO has launched an app specifically for this purpose. The app then allows you to match the image using a colour chart and visually determine the quality of water.

The images are subsequently added to a global database that will support scientists in monitoring Australian waters for activity such as algal blooms, nutrient explosion, sediment and salinity levels and seasonal changes.

What you can do:

  1. Download and install the free CSIRO ‘Eye on Water’ app on your mobile phone.
  2. Choose a water body to monitor. While you are free to choose any type of water body, we encourage you to choose a wetland. Record your findings using the app.
  3. Visit or call your local wetlands centre for more information.

 

5.    Shorebird Monitoring

What is involved: Participating in this program involves going bird watching to collect information about shorebird movements and habitats. Help strengthen the case for shorebird protection.

Father and son bird watching around the wetlands

This shorebird program aims to raise awareness about the incredible birds, their habitats and movements. Continued monitoring of shorebird populations is essential to implement best practices.

What you can do:

  1. Go amateur birdwatching. There is no need for professional equipment or gear.
  2. Record the location of the birds. For birds around the wetlands, you can submit your sighting information using collection forms at our centre. Also, you can record any of your bird sightings using the Birdata app from this link.
  3. Visit or call your local wetlands centre for more information.

 

Come, get #WildAboutWetlands

There is a plethora of other activities, and if you are interested, we encourage you to visit your local wetlands centre and get involved today!

Kids wading into the wetlands to collect feathers for a citizen science project
Kids collecting feathers for the Australian ‘Bird Map’ Citizen Science Project at the Beeliar Wetlands

There are several ongoing projects at any given time and you may find something that piques your interest. For example, the Australia-wide Citizen Science project – “Feather Map of Australia” which completed in August 2018, involved wearing protective/waterproof gear and wading into wetland catchments to retrieve bird feathers and studying them. Another annual initiative – “Wild Pollinator Count” is about to begin and involves tracking and monitoring bees and insect pollinators and helping wildlife enthusiasts research and help in their conservation.

When you decide to participate, don’t forget to send us a picture of your project. We’ll be waiting!