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The eastern Australian waterbird survey is a white-knuckle flight of avian accounting | Birds

“Two-hundred pelicans breeding, 20 whiskered terns, 100 grey teal, 30 black swans, one little pied cormorant …”

Richard Kingsford, a veteran ecologist, is rattling off the waterbirds he’s recognizing under. He clutches his voice recorder carefully to beat the engine noise as our Cessna banks steeply, monitoring the shoreline of Lake Brewster, a massive lake in central-west New South Wales.

John Porter, a NSW authorities scientist and fellow veteran chook counter, does the identical, dictating the numbers and chook species he glimpses on the starboard facet – whereas giving instructions to pilot James Barkell – as we fly at 185kmh and barely 30m above the water.

Counting waterbirds from the air in eastern Australia – video
Counting waterbirds from the air in eastern Australia – video

We’re on a three-day journey that is half of the annual waterbird survey, now in its thirty ninth yr. One of the world’s longest steady chook counts, it’s additionally among the many largest, spanning 2.7m sq. km – 11 occasions the dimensions of UK or six occasions California.

After the second circuit of the water physique to supply a routine counting test, Kingsford asks Barkell to fly over the principle pelican breeding colony close to the lake’s center so he can movie it.

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“I’m going to have to gun it” we hear Barkell say in our headphones. “There’s a storm cell sitting over it.”

After weathering the buffeting, we navigate between low ranges of hills and over verdant fields on the best way to our subsequent vacation spot, Lake Cargelligo. Porter declares Brewster a success story for birds: “There were absolutely boatloads”.

Lake Cowal, one other huge lake that was only beginning to fill earlier this year, reveals different sizeable breeding colonies, together with straw-necked and white ibises.

Straw-necked Ibis.
Straw-necked Ibis. Photograph: Kevin Schafer/Alamy
Lake Cowal in central-western NSW
Lake Cowal in central-western NSW. Photograph: Fairfax Media

“The only thing missing was glossies,” Kingsford says, referring to the shiny ibis selection. “I did see some but they weren’t breeding,” Porter responds.

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“That gives me a thrill, that kind of thing,” Kingsford provides, choosing up his laptop computer to make notes and talk with house base again in Sydney.

The pleasure is nonetheless there for Kingsford even on his thirty sixth consecutive yr on the eastern Australia waterbird survey. Porter has notched up nearly 30 years.

For Barkell, it’s simply his second yr out, steering the NSW parks service airplane alongside the east-west flight bands that may absorb as many as 2,000 wetlands in a moist yr reminiscent of this.

His normal job is piloting Airbus A330s to and from Asia and the US west coast which are 60 occasions heavier than our Cessna Caravan, however way more automated.

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“Pull up, pull up” are warnings we hear recurrently as we zero in on our targets.

Lake Tyrell
The extremely saline Lake Tyrell. Photograph: Richard Kingsford
Peter Hannam with James Barkell, the pilot during the 2021 water bird survey.
Peter Hannam with James Barkell, the pilot in the course of the 2021 water chook survey. Photograph: Peter Hannam

Barkell says he began out mustering cattle on the 1m-hectare Helen Springs station within the Northern Territory. He flew so low to scare bulls from beneath bushes that his airplane “had to climb the fences” and he must pull grass from the wheel struts, the 39-year-old pilot says, considerably apocryphally.

“It’s hours of boredom broken up by minutes of sheer terror,” the pilot jokes concerning the jetliners as we stroll to breakfast in Deniliquin, our Riverina base for a evening. “Whereas this is hours of terror separated by minutes of boredom.”

Our airplane – and the 4 of us on board – will get a first rate exercise. Though rating solely “four on the vomitometer”, in accordance with Porter, day one within the air includes many tight turns, and has your correspondent grateful for 3 “Sic-Sacs”.

Day two (and two sick luggage) includes spells of extreme buffeting, together with steep turns, advert nauseum, however by day three, this hanger-on is hanging on.

Lake Numalla
Surveying Lake Numalla. Photograph: Richard Kingsford
A whiskered tern
A whiskered tern. Photograph: Kevin Elsby/Alamy

“It’s exhausting. We’re putting in eight-hour days [in the air], flying at low levels in conditions like this at times,” Barkell says as a rainstorm sweeps throughout Dubbo airport the place we’re getting ready for the ultimate leg again to Sydney.

Piloting includes fixed changes of rudders, with Barkell watching out for altering wind patterns over the water that may warn him of sudden shifts.

Barkell reckons he can establish a vary of birds, like pelicans, gray teals and different geese. “I sort of liken it to going on a six-week geography field trip.”

For Kingsford and Porter, it’s a tiring however important job to maintain tabs on the well being of ecosystems stretching from the Lake Eyre basin (when there’s water) within the Red Centre to Queensland’s rainforests and the lakes on the finish of the Murray River.

As waterbird species feast on completely different meals – from aquatic vegetation to invertebrates and fish – their numbers provide a information to the well being of the rivers and lakes.

Freckled duck.
Freckled duck. Photograph: Mike Lane/Alamy

Bird tallying of greater than 50 species can solely be an approximation and requires expertise that may be honed by pc simulations reminiscent of Wildlife Counts. The birds’ color, form and measurement are amongst figuring out cues, as are their flight patterns when they’re disturbed by the airplane.

“Small grebes dive and so you just see a splash often, although not aways,” Kingsford says, itemizing some of the difficult ones to spy.

“Separating out the little black from the great cormorants, and the little pied from the large pied [cormorants] is a challenge,” he says. “Then there are the Australasian shoveler, which are rare and can look like a black duck.”

The approach the birds scatter, typically at completely different heights and instructions, in a single purpose why drones aren’t but a appropriate substitute. “The human is eye is so much better at changing its focal length,” Kingsford says.

Typically, the startled birds react too slowly to fly close to us, though our first day collected one unlucky avian on the windscreen. It was unlikely to be a waterbird, Porter says after we land in dusty Broken Hill.

Pink-eared ducks.
Pink-eared geese. Photograph: Angus Emmott

The day by day outcomes are fed again to the University of NSW, the place they’re processed by a crew and offered to the state and federal companies such because the Murray Darling Basin Authority that finance the analysis.

Covid-forced delays moving into Queensland and South Australia imply this yr’s flights received’t be accomplished till mid-December, with the lingering chance of last-minute cancellations disrupting plans.

The previous two moist years after a extreme drought imply situations are primed for a main breeding occasion, however up to now the surveyors haven’t seen one.

“It’s looking really encouraging,” Kingsford says after we land again at Bankstown, in Sydney’s west. “There’s water in the Paroo, there’s water in a bit of the Darling and the Macquarie and a little bit in the Gwydir [rivers], but there’s not a massive flood” that will spark mass breeding.

Longer time period, although the pattern is clear, with about a 70% decline in numbers because the survey started as human-made dams and diversions have proliferated.

“We’ve got places where at one point there were hardly any of these private storages, and they are sort of mushrooming along the river systems,” he says.

Pied stilts.
Pied stilts. Photograph: Angus Emmott

“When you start taking that water out of the system, you’ve got the inevitable consequences of less habitat for these water birds to breed and build up in numbers.”

Climate change, with its possible better flux between extremes of dry and moist,“is like an extra veneer of impact on the top,” Kingsford says.

Nearing 63, the professor – who runs UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science amongst many different roles – isn’t about to surrender his annual surveys simply but. It’s unclear if different succesful chook counters in a position to stand up to turbulence will take over when he does.

“It’s something my wife has asked me every year for the past 36 years,” he laughs, including “certainly [there’s] at least three or four, or maybe a few more than that.”

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