We’re very pleased to be producing a new short film with Murrumbidgee Landcare, thanks to funding from the NSW Environmental Trust. It’s all about paddock trees; their values and the issues they’re facing. It showcases some of the great work landholders are doing to stem the tide of paddock tree loss in rural landscapes. We’re working with Nathan James Productions who helped us produce Farm Dam Blitz.
Recently, we were out near Goolgowi, north of Hay, and were thrilled to get footage of nesting Major Mitchell Cockatoos. They were in a big, old Belah. The footage will be a great addition to the film, which includes a ‘behind-the-scenes’ / ‘the-making-of’ component; a comedy of errors perhaps. The film will be launched in 2016. Stay tuned …
This month, the Bitterns in Rice Project is pleased to be launching its website. It’s a one-stop shop for the latest updates and information about the project, as well as the place to follow the journeys of satellite-tracked bitterns, the first being ‘Robbie’. His journey from the rice crops of Coleambally in the NSW Riverina to South Australian coast has already been captivating …
Special thanks to everyone who contributed to the crowdfunding last year, and thanks also go to Murray and Riverina Local Land Services for additional funds. It’s great to have this dedicated website now.
*This article was first published by the Cumberland Bird Observers Club in February 2015.
The marriage of farming and wildlife conservation is as captivating as it is necessary. It’s what drives the Bitterns in Rice Project, now in its third season, and it was a key motivation behind the humbling support we received during the Tracking Bunyip Birds campaign in spring last year.
The Australasian Bittern is one of our country’s most threatened birds. They are considered nationally and globally Endangered, perhaps with just two or three thousand remaining. They are also among our most poorly known bird species. The association between the legendary Bunyip and the booming call of breeding males is no coincidence. The sneakiness and near-mythical nature of the species was perhaps best illustrated in 2012 when John Weigel broke the national birding record, held for a decade by Sean Dooley. He travelled extensively and found a whopping 745 species, but he did not find a Bunyip Bird.
A trip to the rice crops of the NSW Riverina would have produced the goods. For decades we’ve known that bitterns use these rice crops, yet only now as a result of extensive surveying are we beginning to appreciate the significance of the population. We continue to crunch the numbers and expand our surveys of randomly selected rice farms, but it’s evident that in most rice growing seasons a population of somewhere between 500 and 1000 descend on the rice in late spring, approximately two months after sowing. We’ve also learned that there is widespread breeding. Encouragingly, from the nests found so far, it appears that there is sufficient time for the chicks to fledge before harvest, which normally peaks around April.
I’ve been chasing bitterns in wetlands across the Riverina since the late 1990s and I’m still coming to grips with the fact that my best results by far have come from agricultural wetlands; completely constructed habitats that produce food and support an impressive biodiversity. I wouldn’t be nearly as excited about the prospect of farming and wildlife conservation working together here if it involved just this one species. However, it doesn’t take much surveying of Riverina rice fields to realise their value for others. Notably, Glossy Ibis and Whiskered Tern occur in their tens of thousands. More familiar waterbirds, such as White-necked Herons and Pacific Black Ducks, are there in big numbers too. Less obvious are the populations of Baillon’s Crakes and Golden-headed Cisticolas, again extending well into the thousands. There are migratory shorebirds like the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Latham’s Snipe that also make widespread use of rice fields.
Probably of most interest to birders are the Eastern Grass Owls that we documented roosting in rice crops last season. There were at least five of them. Previously only expected in the north-east of the state, subsequent anecdotes from rice growers suggest these owls may have also been overlooked in rice crops until now. I’m certainly hoping to turn up some more this season. Funnily enough, one was found roosting within metres of a bittern nest and I feared the worst: bittern chicks on the menu. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried, with two ~18 day old chicks relocated on a bank, already 50 metres from the nest. Beyond waterbirds, and speaking of threatened species eating each other, rice crops in parts of the Riverina, such as Coleambally and Wakool, support significant populations of the nationally Vulnerable Southern Bell Frog (also known as the Growling Grass Frog). Peter Menkhorst watched an Australasian Bittern eat 17 of them at Werribee so it’s a reasonable assumption that they’re an important food source for bitterns in some rice crops.
Perhaps just as surprising as the owls has been the use of rice fields by the Australian Painted Snipe (APS), our only other waterbird species considered Endangered at the national and global level. For wader enthusiasts and others interested in more detail, see the forthcoming issue of The Stilt. In a nutshell though, during the 2012-2013 rice season, a total of 87 APS were recorded at eight widely distributed Riverina rice fields. It’s highly likely that they were indicative of many more, probably at least several hundred, because of the limited survey effort and coverage.
So on top of the largest known population of the endangered Australasian Bittern, it’s easy to see the potential for agriculture and conservation – two traditionally separate schools of thought – to work together here. Protected areas like national parks, and the most intact parts of the landscape are vital to conservation, but it’s clearer than ever that alone they’ll be vastly inadequate in waving off the forecast extinctions. The challenges ahead are enormous, and with about 200 000 extra mouths to feed each day on our pale blue dot, population growth and food security are good places to start. Concerted efforts in family planning, the retention of girls in school, reduced meat consumption and food waste, and more food production in urban areas, will all help reduce demand. However, we’ll still need much more food as this century rolls on. Modern history has shown that increased food production almost invariably equals less biodiversity, but this needn’t be the case.
One of the major outcomes of the Bitterns in Rice Project to date has been the development of our first edition of Bittern Friendly Rice Growing Tips. They are based on our key findings so far, such as the preference for early, aerially-sown crops, as opposed to combine/drill-sown crops that have dry phases and delayed permanent water. The tips have been widely distributed and a heartening, growing number of rice farmers are incorporating them into their management. Thanks to the generosity and goodwill of one particular grower this season, we’ve begun a pilot study to test the effectiveness of some of the tips across five 3-hectare bays. One is pesticide free; two with only minor early treatment for bloodworm and barnyard grass; and two with management as normal. We’re looking forward to expanding these trials to include the necessary replication of treatments. Plans are also underway to trial dedicated habitat bays incorporated into a rice field that can be managed independently and beyond the rice growing season. The bitterns are our priority, although we’re mindful of the potentially conflicting habitat preferences of different species. For example, sympathetic management of barnyard grass on the banks between bays may provide roaming bittern chicks with cover and improve breeding success, but be bad news for shorebirds including the APS.
Now let’s get back to the burning question: when these approximately 750 bitterns descend on the rice crops for a summer of breeding, where do they come from, and after harvest, where do they go? Thankfully, following the success of the Tracking Bunyip Birds campaign, all will soon be revealed. Surveys during the off-season last year suggested some stay locally and are quite mobile during these colder months, however it appears the majority of the population leave the Riverina. Soon we’ll have a dedicated Bitterns in Rice Project website, and from here people across the world will be able to follow the movements of “Vin”, “Julia”, “Bully”, “Robbie” and the rest of the gang. We’re hoping to be able to begin tracking our first bitterns before this present rice season finishes, pending permits, approvals and transmitter availability, but we may have to wait until next season. In any case, it’s going to be very interesting and downright exciting. Among other things, we’ll learn which wetlands are important for this significant population during the non-breeding season, and whether or not bitterns recorded in areas like south-western Victoria are the same birds that use the rice.
Crucially, the Bitterns in Rice Project has the support of hundreds of rice growers across the Riverina. They feel the habitat values of rice fields are finally being recognised, and many are delighted with the idea of producing food and conserving threatened wildlife at the same time. Again, the marriage of farming and wildlife conservation is as captivating as it is necessary. The false dichotomies of farming and the environment, the economy and nature, us and them, greenies and farmers, urbanites and country folk, humans and biodiversity, all stymie the path to sustainability and deny the existence of a single superorganism: life on Earth. We’re all in this together.
Matt Herring is a wildlife ecologist at Murray Wildlife, and through the Bitterns in Rice Project (BIRP) he works closely with Neil Bull, Andrew Silcocks, Mark Robb, Anna Wilson, Max O’Sullivan, Keith Hutton and others on the BIRP committee.
For social media users, you can ‘like’ the Bitterns in Rice Project on Facebook for regular updates, or follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_HerringOz
The Bitterns in Rice Project is a collaboration between the Rice Growers’ Association of Australia and Birdlife Australia, with key support from the Riverina Local Land Services (LLS), the Australian Government’s Rural Industries and Research Development Corporation, the Norman Wettenhall Foundation, Coleambally Irrigation, the Murray LLS, Murrumbidgee Irrigation, Murray Irrigation, Murrumbidgee and Coleambally Landcare, the Murrumbidgee Field Naturalists Club, and the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment.
We’re barely half way through and it’s already been a superb summer for the Bitterns in Rice Project. There is much to report. We’re well on our way to achieving great things. The growing interest and support for our work is particularly encouraging. We extend our thanks to all of you, especially the hundreds of rice farmers that are central to the success of the project.
Thanks to funding from the Riverina Local Land Services, we’ve established almost all of our 80 core study sites (23-30 hectares each) for this season. We’ve randomly selected rice farms in the Murrumbidgee and Coleambally Irrigation Areas, giving us a powerful base on which to extrapolate our results. Once again, we’re targeting the aerial/spreader/dry-sown rice, which bitterns show a strong preference for, rather than direct-drill/sod/combine-sown rice. We still have many surveys and much number crunching ahead but it’s safe to say there are currently somewhere in the vicinity of 750 Australasian Bitterns in the rice crops of the NSW Riverina. That’s 19-50% of the world total. Amazing. It’s a compelling case to unite agriculture and conservation, and we’re onto it. But like the Amazon and the deep ocean, the secrets of the Bunyip Bird are well kept. Uncovering them will help provide us with the information we need to ensure a healthy marriage between farming and conservation.
Two weeks ago we discovered our first nests for the season; one in rice and one in a Cumbungi swamp. Surprisingly, they were at similar stages, suggesting the rice season doesn’t necessarily delay breeding. It was to be a tantalising comparison of diet, chick survival and so on, albeit with a sample size of only one each. Unfortunately though, the Cumbungi nest failed, with predation the likely cause. The rice nest is still going strong and chicks could be hatching as you’re reading this. We’ve begun using sensor cameras with the aim, among other things, to determine the prey fed to chicks. The videos we’ve retrieved so far are astounding, a goldmine of new information and an incredible insight into the secret lives of Bunyip Birds. Below is a single-frame taste (stay tuned).
Last week saw the discovery of our first chicks for the season. In what was easily one of my most memorable days of bird surveying, three nests in three adjacent rice bays were found. Polygyny (a mating system where males have multiple female partners) is more apparent than ever, with this site appearing to support only one booming male and three females. But we have much to learn. There are nine chicks altogether, and as I’m sure many of you will no doubt agree, they are among the cutest, most precious non-human critters on Earth! And you’ve got to love their green skin.
There are signs that the key survey window (when we have the best chances of hearing or seeing them) is already closing, with males beginning to quieten and much of the rice above 80 cm in height. If you get the chance to put in some time over the coming weeks, just remember that dawn and dusk will give you the best chance, and there’s always the reward of a nice sunset or sunrise, like this one that featured a thin layer of mist to complement the booming male.
Our first four satellite transmitters were ordered last week. We’re still hoping to deploy them before harvest this season, pending various permits and approvals. Special thanks to Inka Veltheim for her expertise in helping decide which units we’ll trial first. It shouldn’t be long before we begin to unravel the mystery of where the approximately 750 bitterns that descended on the rice in late spring and early summer came from.
Our Bitterns in Rice Project website is set for its launch soon. This is where future updates like this will be posted. It will provide an information hub for our work and offer people around the world with the opportunity to follow the movements of bitterns once we begin tracking.
There are a few collective nouns in use like a ‘freeze of bitterns’ or ‘siege of bitterns’. One siege which brought nothing but delight was a siege of four, some pictured below. An excited and persistent male chased an eventually submissive female while two others of unknown sex watched on. It was very interesting.
Our paper on the use of rice fields by the globally endangered Australian Painted Snipe was recently published. You can read it here but in a nutshell, and much to our surprise, rice fields can also support hundreds of Australia’s equally most threatened waterbird, further highlighting the potential for wildlife-friendly food production on rice farms.
So far this season we’ve recorded the usual significant numbers of species like Glossy Ibis, Whiskered Tern and Baillon’s Crake (pictured). Around Coleambally it was nice to see the Southern Bell Frogs breeding. We’ve had migratory shorebirds from the northern hemisphere at a few sites, usually Sharp-tailed Sandpipers (pictured) and Latham’s Snipe (pictured), but occasionally something different like a Common Greenshank.
All the best for a big booming year ahead.
Below is the abstract to our recently published paper. Click here for the full article.
Stilt 66 (2014): 20–29
THE USE OF RICE FIELDS BY THE ENDANGERED AUSTRALIAN PAINTED SNIPE (ROSTRATULA AUSTRALIS): A RARE OPPORTUNITY TO COMBINE FOOD PRODUCTION AND CONSERVATION?
MATTHEW HERRING1, ANDREW SILCOCKS2
1 Murray Wildlife, PO Box 48 Katoomba 2780, Australia.
2 Birdlife Australia, National Office, Suite 2-05, 60 Leicester Street Carlton VIC 3053, Australia. E-mail: email@example.com
We document widespread use of rice fields by the globally endangered Australian Painted Snipe (Rostratula australis), highlighting the potential for ‘wildlife-friendly’ food production in Australia. A total of 44 Australian Painted Snipe from five of 93 surveyed rice field study sites, and an additional 43 Australian Painted Snipe from three other rice fields, were recorded during the 2012-2013 rice-growing season in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The overall total of 87 birds at these eight widely distributed sites was likely to be indicative of at least several hundred Australian Painted Snipe using the 113 500 ha of rice fields during that period, particularly given the limited survey effort. This is remarkable given the most recent estimate of total population size for the species ranges only from 1 000 to 2 500 birds. The birds were primarily recorded using the shallow edges of rice fields, along banks and channels. Future research should focus on (1) determining if significant numbers of Australian Painted Snipe use rice fields regularly, (2) whether or not rice fields provide suboptimal habitat, (3) the extent to which Australian Painted Snipe breed in these habitats, and (4) optimal rice-growing practices that benefit Australian Painted Snipe without hindering conservation management of the Endangered Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), which also occurs in these habitats. There are clear environmental costs of extracting water from rivers for irrigation and rice fields are no substitute for natural wetlands. However, given the recognised need for food production and the large area where rice is still grown, targeted management of rice fields to benefit Australian Painted Snipe and other species may be important in complementing traditional conservation measures like protected areas and ecological restoration.
This is a very exciting. On the back of our successful crowdfunding campaign, it’s a splendid start to the season for the Bitterns in Rice Project. Thanks to the goodwill and generosity of Coleambally rice growers Bernard & Samantha Star, the first ever bittern friendly rice growing trials are underway!
They have donated a total of 15 ha in 5 bays. One will be pesticide free, while two will only receive minor treatment for bloodworm and barnyard grass in the early part of the season. These three aerially sown bays are adjacent to two other bays that will be managed as normal.
We’ll be monitoring the frog and waterbird populations, as well as any bittern activity, throughout the season. It will be very interesting to see what differences there are. After harvest, we’ll be able to compare the all important yield data too. This is a taste of things to come. In the future, with the necessary replication of different treatments, we’ll be able to fully test the effectiveness of our bittern friendly rice growing tips.
Special thanks are due to SunRice Grower Services for donating the seed and to Coleambally Irrigation for their general assistance in making the trial happen.
It’s been great to see some more early bitterns this week too. The rice is looking better by the day, especially at these more advanced crops. Perhaps these early birds are the ones that stay locally over winter, rather than those that move away after harvest. The first booms are imminent. Thanks to Peter Sheppard for this great shot from earlier this week.
And for anyone that uses Facebook, you can ‘like’ our Bitterns in Rice Project page to receive regular updates.
Where do the bitterns go after rice harvest? Part 2
The plot thickens. Just when we thought we might be getting a handle on things, our latest survey results only raise more questions and these sneaky Australasian Bitterns seem as perplexing as ever. In six weeks or so, they’ll descend on the rice crops, from somewhere.
Yesterday we completed the second round of targeted surveys at wetlands in the Riverina that we think are the best candidates to support them outside of the rice season. They range from irrigation channels and dams, to waterways and large, internationally recognised Ramsar sites. You may recall that in June, shortly after harvest, we found 11 bitterns, highlighted by four at a well vegetated wetland near Griffith and four in a cumbungi-filled irrigation channel near Coleambally. Well, they’re not there now. They’ve moved, somewhere.
With only one bittern found after five days of walking through wetlands, and our tails firmly between our legs, we suddenly hit the jackpot yesterday morning – a minimum of 8 Australasian Bitterns, probably ten or more, spread throughout a small dam (approx. 4 ha) that supports patchy stands of cumbungi and rushes (see below). Intriguingly, there were none here in June when the water level was lower. A large wetland nearby has recently received environmental water so they may well be responding to that and feeding out there at night.
These latest results remind us why we are so keen to get a satellite tracking project up and going. In June, and just now, we may have found a handful of the missing birds but even these are clearly moving around the landscape during the non-breeding season. We’ve had three records in the past couple of weeks of bitterns using recently watered wheat and oat crops, further suggesting that some stick around, but all things considered, it does appear that a large proportion of the bitterns that use Riverina rice crops have left the region. We’ll be welcoming them back shortly, from somewhere. Our Tracking Bunyip Birds crowdfunding campaign now has over 200 supporters and $44 000 raised, but we only have six days to go and $6000 remaining to reach our required target. It’s nail-biting stuff.
Lastly, speaking of responses to environmental water, it was wonderful to see hundreds of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers (above left) using freshly flooded shallows. During the week we saw three other sandpiper species that breed in the northern hemisphere, and there were also Latham’s (Japanese) Snipe but the big highlight was stumbling upon a Little Curlew (above right), a real rarity in the Riverina. There were also the shorebirds that breed here in Australia, like Red-necked Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, in their hundreds, along with good numbers of Glossy Ibis, Whiskered Tern, Baillon’s Crake, Spotted Crake and various other waterbird delights. Lots of frogs and snakes too!
Special thanks to the Riverina Local Land Services for funding these wetland surveys, and to Nathan Smith, trusty assistant bittern botherer.