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Birdwatchers see rare birds escaping the drought in search of food and water in southern Australia

By Karen Hunt and Selina Green, Tuesday November 5, 2019 - 09:54 EDT
ABC image
A long way from home: A crimson chat in a golden canola field at Padthaway, south-east SA. - ABC

The long drought in the centre of the country is providing some unexpected opportunities for birdwatchers across the southern part of Australia.

Birdlife Australia editor Sean Dooley said there had been widespread reports of desert bird species making their way south.

"We're getting reports right through the south-east of South Australia, through Victoria into southern Victoria and coastal New South Wales," Mr Dooley said.

"All of these desert birds, essentially, that have just been driven out from the inland because there's no water, no food."

Birdwatcher David Sando from Keith, SA, said there was an influx of birds not normally seen in the south-east.

"The most exciting one is the crimson chats, they are bright red little birds, and they are normally found up north in the Broken Hill area and the northern pastoral districts, so its quite exciting to see them down here," Mr Sando said.

Rare sighting of orange chats

But Mr Sando said that was not the most exciting sighting he had made in recent days.

"In with the crimson chats, I came across a pair of orange chats which are very seldom seen in the southern agricultural area," he said.

"I was really, really excited to see it, and I desperately wanted to get a photo because I didn't think anybody would believe me if I didn't have a photo."

Mr Dooley said it was not just water birds being affected by drought, but also insect feeders that suffer when plants do not grow.

"So these birds have just had to keep moving out of their home ranges and keep foraging — they're real drought refugees looking for a feed," he said.

"Quite a few of the sightings we've had from South Australia and Victoria has been in things like canola fields."

Based on his long years watching birds around Keith, David Sando expects more of the arid land birds to arrive as the season progresses.

"I know that about 20 years ago, when it was really dry up north, I saw birds like black honey eaters, which are very rarely seen down here, and also cockatiel and budgerigars."

"People might notice them around in the next month or so."

Will they return inland?

Whether the birds will return home when conditions improve is not clear, according to Sean Dooley.

"We're not even sure in previous big droughts, like this one when we get birds influxing [sic] towards the coast and they eventually disappear, we don't know whether they've returned once the good conditions have happened or whether they've just not managed to survive," he said.

Keith local David Sando said he did not expect the chats and other birds visiting the south east will stay forever.

"When there's a bit of rain up north, these birds will all head back — they are adapted to the arid lands so it won't take much rain to see them back up there,' he said.

"It's a bit cold here in winter and there's probably not enough insects, so I'm pretty sure they'll be heading back before the end of summer."

The benefits of citizen science

For avid birdwatchers like David Sando, seeing the arid land birds so close to home has been a very enjoyable experience.

"I know its not much good if you're on the land up north, and I can sympathise with those people, but down here, there is a bit of a spin-off for us," he said.

Birdlife Australia has just completed its sixth annual Backyard Bird Count in late October, one of the largest citizen science events in Australia.

Sean Dooley said the data will soon show where birds have migrated to new habitats.

"The top 10 birds in each state have been fairly stable but this year is going to be a really fascinating year to see whether we'll see the reflection of what's happening to our birds in our drought," he said.

"As birds move into towns where there's more regular watering and the gardens are green compared to the rest of the landscape.

"We're expecting that if you get out in the parks and gardens in your town, you might start seeing birds you wouldn't normally see in close proximity to humans."


© ABC 2019

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