12 December 2011
The ‘challenge’ bird count grew out of a long-running series of expeditions west of Melbourne, starting just after the second world war. Australian birdwatching luminary Fred Smith (90) was there when the first count was done in 1948. Fred says, “we used to catch the train to Little River then rode bicycles to the You Yangs and camped in the shearers shed on Wooloomanata Station, or under a particularly large Red Gum that was killed by fire some years ago. It would take the team most of the day to get to Wooloomanata, birdwatching along the way”.
For the last 38 years (since 1974), the count has been more formal. This year it was on 4 December encompassing an area defined as “everything within a 25 kilometre radius from Werribee”. Fred participated again this year, a truly remarkable achievement given the need to camp overnight and bird frenetically all of the next day. John Barkla speaks fondly about playing pranks on Fred, “we once put a big shiny rock in the bottom of his sleeping bag. Fred thought it was snake and shot out like a cannon!”
In the old days Fred, Roy Wheeler, Jack Jones and David Morgan would cycle to Avalon or the Western Sewage Treatment Plant (then known then as the Metropolitan Farm), so the count was completed over two days. These days, the whole count is done in 24 hours, starting at midnight.
The count starts in the beautiful You Yangs Regional Park, fanning out to other key locationns: Serendip Sanctuary (wild birds only), the Melbourne Water Western Treatment Plant, the Werribee River Regional Park, The Spit State Nature Conservation Reserve, the Cheetham Salt Avalon Operations, Point Cook Coastal Park, various sites around Altona (including Kororoit Creek, Jawbone Reserve & Mount St Joseph’s pond) and some sites around Werribee (Werribee South, Werribee Park Mansion, & Werribee River).
This census is a monument to Australian birdwatching and a 64-year legacy, that articulates the way that our environment, particularly wetlands, has changed. It’s great to see the commitment to continuing the tradition spanning at least three generations. No doubt there will be many more to come. With another wet season forecast this summer, perhaps next year’s count will be even bigger again.
2011 – Breaking the Record
by John Barkla
This year’s total was a record-breaking 188 species. Let’s put that into perspective. There are about 750 different birds breeding and wintering in Australia (excluding vagrants). Within a 25km radius area just outside Melbourne (a population of 4 million people) live examples of one quarter of all Australia’s bird diversity. That’s an area of only 2000 square kilometres or 0.025% of Australia’s land surface.
We recorded a remarkable 105 types of bird in the You Yangs National Park by midday, easily finding many we have struggled to in recent years. Waterfowl numbers jumped dramatically, from 14,000 last year to 38,000 this year. The numbers of shorebird migrants from Siberia were up, with the count for the common three species (Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper) rising from 3,500 to 7,000.
Particularly pleasing was the return of moderate numbers of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers … last year we failed to find one! Curlew Sandpipers are also present in good numbers. However, this is a migrant that’s been declining throughout its range. Since 1974, there has been a 33% drop in numbers recorded on the challenge bird count, consistent with a 26% decline nationally in the 25 years up to 2003 (The New Atlas of Australian Birds, Birds Australia).
Some highlights were -
- We recorded virtually everything possible in the area. The only birds we knew were present and went undetected were Australian Painted Snipe and Pacific Golden Plover;
- The record total included some recently difficult to find birds including Brush Bronzewing, Australian Owlet-nightjar, Spotted Harrier, Painted Button-quail, Long-billed Corella, Little Corella, Pallid Cuckoo, Sacred Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Speckled Warbler, Southern Whiteface, Black-chinned Honeyeater, Varied Sittella, Rufous Songlark, Brown Songlark and Diamond Firetail;
- Cape Barren Goose was only recorded twice in 20 years to 1994, but since 2002 numbers have been steadily increasing. Last year the numbers dropped to only 8, but this year we had 42;
- Black Kite was only recorded once in the 20 years to 1994 and since 2002 have been increasing. This year we saw 15, slightly below our highest count of 17;
- Black Falcon was only recorded twice in the first 20 years of counts, but has been recorded in 5 of the past 7 years;
- Crested Pigeon was not recorded in the 26 years before 2000, but have increased enormously since then. This year’s count was 76 (2010 62);
- We recorded Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo for the third time in the last 5 years, when there were no records prior to 2007. These seem to be increasing around Melbourne;
- Rainbow Lorikeet continues to expand its range (a bird that wasn’t originally native to Victoria). We recorded our first in 1998 and have recorded them in 5 of the past 7 years;
- We recorded 13 birds of prey, which is exceptional for a single day anywhere in Victoria;
- We recorded Short-tailed Shearwater for only the second time;
- We found five Speckled Warbler in the You Yangs;
- We were advised in 2009 by staff at Serendip Sanctuary that the Magpie Geese that occur there and in the surrounding area are free flying and not fed by the sanctuary. They also told us that it has been more than 20 years since the Magpie Goose breeding programme ceased. Despite not counting them prior to 2009, we have again included them on this year’s list.
The number of waterbirds being recorded on the counts has steadily risen since 1974. I have speculated that the increasing numbers have been attributable, in part, to better coverage by counters (undoubtedly true with more counters) but also to birds being attracted to the globally important wetlands within the count area during the previous period of extreme dryness. This year our high count seems to reflect the fact that bird numbers have rebounded due to great breeding conditions inland, following the widespread rain and flooding and consequent improvement in conditions.
Finally, it was another year when we could not find some species. All of these species used to be regularly recorded, but have now either disappeared or become very rare in the area we cover (last record during a count is in brackets) -
1. Eastern Curlew (2003)
2. Great Knot (1986)
3. Grey-tailed Tattler (1991)
4. Lesser Sand Plover (1989)
5. Greater Sand Plover (1986)
6. Brown Treecreeper (1980)
7. Hooded Robin (1995)
8. Song Thrush (2002) [introduced]
As in previous years, I am indebted to a number of people who provide assistance by allowing access to the sites we visit. For helping me with the necessary access approvals and keys, I would particularly like to thank Brendan O’Dowd of Cheetham Salt; John Argote & Bernie McCarrick of Parks Victoria, based at Point Cook Coastal Park; Mark Urquhart, David Flag and Judy Locke of Parks Victoria, based in the You Yangs Regional Park; Ruth Woodrow of Parks Victoria, based at Serendip Sanctuary; and Brad McLean, Peter Gall, William Steele and Imogen Darby of Melbourne Water. Thank you to each of the participants for a prodigious effort, particularly Chris Lester for coordinating the count in the You Yangs Regional Park and the drivers (Paul Dodd, Peter Fowler, Chris Lester and Simon Mustoe). This year our count team was one of our largest and also comprised Lyn Abreu, Scott Baker, Valerie Fowler, Rosemary Lester, Elizabeth Lloyd, Fred Smith, Alison Street & Ruth Woodrow.
This was the last of our annual bird counts conducted in the name of BOCA (Bird Observation & Conservation Australia) because on 31 December 2011 BOCA will merge with Birds Australia and become BirdLife Australia.