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

“Two-hundred pelicans breeding, 20 whiskered terns, 100 gray 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 giant 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 aspect – whereas giving instructions to pilot James Barkell – as we fly at 185kmh and barely 30m above the water.

Counting birds from the air in the 2021 eastern Australia waterbird survey – video
Counting birds from the air within the 2021 eastern Australia waterbird survey – video

We’re on a three-day journey that is half of the annual waterbird survey, now in its thirty ninth 12 months. One of the world’s longest steady chook counts, it’s additionally among the many largest, spanning 2.7m sq. km – 11 instances the dimensions of UK or six instances California.

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

“I’m going to should 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 way in which to our subsequent vacation spot, Lake Cargelligo. Porter declares Brewster a success story for birds: “There have been completely boatloads”.

Lake Cowal, one other large 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 solely factor lacking was glossies,” Kingsford says, referring to the shiny ibis selection. “I did see some however they weren’t breeding,” Porter responds.

“That provides me a thrill, that sort of factor,” 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 12 months on the eastern Australia waterbird survey. Porter has notched up nearly 30 years.

For Barkell, it’s simply his second 12 months 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 12 months similar to this.

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

“Pull up, pull up” are warnings we hear usually 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 throughout 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 underneath timber that his airplane “needed 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 damaged 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 respectable exercise. Although rating solely “4 on the vomitometer”, in keeping with Porter, day one within the air entails many tight turns, and has your correspondent grateful for 3 “Sic-Sacs”.

Day two (and two sick luggage) entails 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 placing in eight-hour days [in the air], flying at low ranges in situations like this at instances,” Barkell says as a rainstorm sweeps throughout Dubbo airport the place we’re getting ready for the ultimate leg again to Sydney.

Piloting entails 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 determine a vary of birds, like pelicans, gray teals and different geese. “I kind of liken it to occurring a six-week geography area journey.”

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 Pink Centre to Queensland’s rainforests and the lakes on the finish of the Murray River.

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

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

Chook tallying of greater than 50 species can solely be an approximation and requires abilities that may be honed by laptop simulations similar to Wildlife Counts. The birds’ color, form and dimension are amongst figuring out cues, as are their flight patterns when they’re disturbed by the airplane.

“Small grebes dive and so that you simply see a splash usually, though not aways,” Kingsford says, itemizing some of the difficult ones to spy.

“Separating out the little black from the good cormorants, and the little pied from the big pied [cormorants] is a problem,” he says. “Then there are the Australasian shoveler, that are uncommon and may appear to be a black duck.”

The manner the birds scatter, usually at totally different heights and instructions, in a single cause why drones aren’t but a appropriate substitute. “The human is eye is so a lot better at altering its focal size,” Kingsford says.

Usually, 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 Damaged Hill.

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

The each day outcomes are fed again to the College of NSW, the place they’re processed by a group and supplied to the state and federal businesses such because the Murray Darling Basin Authority that finance the analysis.

Covid-forced delays moving into Queensland and South Australia imply this 12 months’s flights gained’t be accomplished till mid-December, with the lingering risk 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 thus far the surveyors haven’t seen one.

“It’s trying actually encouraging,” Kingsford says after we land again at Bankstown, in Sydney’s west. “There’s water within the Paroo, there’s water in a bit of the Darling and the Macquarie and a little bit within the Gwydir [rivers], however there’s not a large flood” that may spark mass breeding.

Long term, although the pattern is clear, with about a 70% decline in numbers for the reason that survey started as human-made dams and diversions have proliferated.

“We’ve bought locations the place at one level there have been hardly any of these personal storages, and they’re kind of mushrooming alongside the river techniques,” he says.

Pied stilts.
Pied stilts. {Photograph}: Angus Emmott

“Whenever you begin taking that water out of the system, you’ve bought the inevitable penalties of much less habitat for these water birds to breed and construct up in numbers.”

Local weather change, with its possible larger flux between extremes of dry and moist,“is like an additional veneer of affect on the highest,” 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 one thing my spouse has requested me yearly for the previous 36 years,” he laughs, including “actually [there’s] a minimum of three or 4, or perhaps a few greater than that.”

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