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Waterbird population has fallen as much as 90 per cent in Australia's east, shows 37-year study

By Liv Casben, Tuesday November 19, 2019 - 09:25 EDT
ABC image
Richard Kingsford says waterbirds in Australia's eastern states are in danger due to the drought conditions. - ABC

The drought has decimated the population of waterbirds across eastern Australia, with researchers saying numbers have fallen by as much as 90 per cent in the last four decades.

When Sydney scientist Richard Kingsford and his team from the University of NSW began their research in the early 1980s, they clocked up to a million waterbirds in aerial surveys.

"Now it's crashed to less than 100,000," Professor Kingsford said.

"While the birds could have gone elsewhere, it's most likely that they've died."

Professor Kingsford said spoonbills, ibis and egrets are among those species in danger from long, dry drought conditions.

The ABC joined Professor Kingsford and his team for a day of aerial surveys west of Moree, around the Gwydir Wetlands.

The research involves six weeks of aerial surveys of swathes of land to determine the population and species of birdlife in eastern states.


Professor Kingsford said in a good year the wetlands would be filled with birds.

"We're seeing much bigger [declines] than I would have expected and that's on the back of 70 per cent declines over the 37 years that we've been doing this survey," he said.

"It is grim, many of the rivers are dry … as everybody knows we've got this gripping drought across the Murray-Darling basin and up into the north and we're just not seeing any wetlands."

The picture is grimmer at another internationally-renowned breeding ground for birds, the Macquarie Marshes, in north-western NSW.

Bushfires ravaged this area in the past few weeks, and where once there were thousands of birds counted, this year the team counted only one black duck.

The region around Moree has been in drought since 2017 and has received just 15 per cent of its average rainfall this year.

Professor Kingsford said with little to no water in the river system around Moree, farm dams are one of the few areas that birds crowd into during bushfires.

"Fires have occurred in the past but are they becoming more regular as our wetlands are drying out, and that means they could be becoming more severe and burning the root system," he said.

'This is definitely a real wake-up call for Australia'

Professor Kingsford also suggested that water policy is partly to blame for declining numbers of birdlife.

He criticised the management of the Murray-Darling Basin and called on governments to better protect the remaining flows in the river system.

In 2007-08, Professor Kingsford said the team counted hundreds of thousands of birds in the Murray River mouth, and now he estimates less than 50,000 birds dwell there.

"I think this is definitely a real wake-up call for Australia, this is a big challenge for us, water is a really difficult area for us to chart good public policy," he said.

"When you've been monitoring these water birds for three decades of your life and you see these major changes over time you realise it's not just about water birds, it's about the health of the rivers."

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority's executive director of partnerships, science, knowledge and engagement, Carl Binning, said: "This significant drought is placing major stress on the environment and rural and regional communities.

"The Basin Plan seeks to ensure that the environment — including waterbirds — can recover once the drought breaks, which is achieved by using the very limited volumes of environmental water available to protect critical refuge habitats."

Patrick Johnstone is a farmer near Moree who has turned to bird watching and photography to help nurture his wellbeing during tough drought conditions.

Mr Johnstone said he has seen birdlife dwindle in already dwindling dams and creeks.

"Where there is water, it is only very small ponds or pools that can't really cater for breeding populations," Mr Johnstone said.

But Professor Kingsford said the only long term solution for the dwindling waterbird population must come from above.

"The only long term fix is more water for the rivers," he said.

"And for that, you need rain."


© ABC 2019

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