Waterbirds: 2019 Research Report

Theme Coordinator: Heather McGinness


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Key outcomes:

For additional notes on each key outcome, please refer to the respective section numbers within the full report (provided further below).

  • While the maintenance of waterbird populations and diversity are critical targets for environmental flows in Australia, there is little data on their survival, demographics, movements, and interactions, making modelling and prediction of the effects of management actions and climate change difficult (Section 2.1).
  • Satellite tracking of waterbird movements has emphasised the need for Basin scale thinking and coordination in planning environmental water allocations and in managing expectations regarding waterbird responses. There is clearly population connectivity between the northern Basin and the southern Basin – and birds can move very quickly from north to south and vice versa (Section 2.2, 2.3).
  • The discovery of a common movement route between the northern and southern Basin suggests that for maximum impact, water and site management for foraging and stopover (refuelling) could be embedded within this route. Additional tracking of species dependent on surface water to feed, will provide further information about key sites and movement routes that can be managed with environmental water (Section 2.2).
  • Satellite-tracking of bird movements has revealed distinct variation in movement behaviour between and within species, with varying degrees of resident, nomadic and migratory behaviour. Planning and response predictions may need to account for varying population movement strategies and for differences between species (Section 2.2, 2.3).
  • Relatively few of the satellite-tracked birds moved to the east coast or to central Australia after nesting. The majority stayed within the Murray-Darling Basin, emphasising the importance of the Basin for these populations (Section 2.2, 2.3).
  • Foraging habitat availability needs management both during and between breeding events. For example, satellite tracking suggests that ibis and spoonbills target watered foraging sites within 1-3 km of appropriate roosting or nesting habitat. Environmental water could be used to increase the number or area of foraging sites available after breeding, potentially extending watering for foraging into autumn and winter and possibly staggering inundation of foraging sites to maximise food productivity over a period of months to support juvenile survival (Section 2.2, 2.3).
  • Satellite tracking has revealed the importance of extended duration of water availability for foraging by juvenile royal spoonbills. Use of environmental water to extend nest and adjacent site flood duration during and after nesting beyond just the ‘fledging’ time threshold may facilitate increased juvenile survival (Section 2.2).
  • Management of over-wintering sites and foraging habitats may also be important for juvenile survival. Overwintering occurs in both the north and south of MDB, yielding a range of opportunities for using environmental water to create or sustain foraging habitats and food sources. This may be particularly important in areas where irrigated agriculture and other water sources effectively ‘dry up’ over winter (Section 2.2).
  • With ongoing declines in waterbird populations, it is important that we understand how many birds are being produced by breeding events, together with what is affecting those numbers (Section 2.4, 2.5).
  • Nest abandonment is more likely during the egg stage than the chick stage, however it is still important to maintain water levels late in the breeding season, for two reasons: 1) Maintaining food and foraging habitat availability; and 2) Preventing feral predator access. In addition to provision of environmental water for breeding sites, provision of water to support nearby foraging sites and food before, during and after a breeding event is likely to affect the size and success of the event (Section 2.4, 2.5).
  • It is important to recognise that species such as spoonbills feeding in surface waters require different foraging-habitat provision and management to species with mixed terrestrial and aquatic diets such as ibis (Section 2.2, 2.8, 2.9, 2.10).
  • There is a lack of data available describing the growth and energy requirements of ibis and spoonbill species (Threskiornithidae). This study has begun filling some of these knowledge gaps, through the extraction and synthesis of the best available data globally on Threskiornithid energetics, growth, and biometrics, and by creating the first growth model for Royal Spoonbill chicks and developing the first predictive energetic models of Australian waterbird chick energy requirements (Section 2.10)
  • Overall, increased knowledge of the interaction of waterbirds with their environment, their movements and their life histories is important for both basic understanding of their responses but also for informing policy and management decisions and predictions aimed at increasing waterbird abundance and maintaining waterbird diversity across the Basin (Section 3).

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