World Migratory Bird Day 11-12 May

Guest blog by David Paton. Associate Professor Paton specialises in ecology, evolution and landscape science at the University of Adelaide.birds midflight

Migration usually refers to the regular annual movements of animals from one location (usually a breeding area) to another location (a non-breeding area).  Migrations are much more prominent in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere, primarily because the northern continents extend to higher latitudes than southern continents. Many birds take advantage of the high productivity and long summer days to breed at these high latitudes, but must move away during autumn to avoid harsh winters, returning in spring. Many of these northern birds make intercontinental movements, and some cross the equator shifting to Africa, South America and even Australia, arriving at southern destinations from August to November and departing back to the northern hemisphere from February to May.

Much of man’s initial interests in migrations centred on understanding how the birds navigated, and the morphological and physiological mechanisms that were used to migrate. To make long-distance flights birds need to generate fuel stores, a combination of fat and protein. These stores are combusted during long distance flights to provide energy and are particularly important when crossing inhospitable areas such as oceans and deserts. Although satellite tracking has shown that some birds can fly continuously for days at a time, most species migrate by stopping frequently along the migratory route. During these stops the birds recover from the exertion of an extended period of flight and refuel before making the next part of the journey. This makes migratory birds particularly vulnerable to changes to the destination locations or to key stopovers along the route.

The most conspicuous northern hemisphere birds to visit Australia are a suite of migratory shorebirds including sandpipers, plovers, godwits and curlews. These birds breed in the Palaearctic region and move along the East Asian Flyway to Australia. A series of international migratory bird agreements between Australia and other Asian countries (e.g. China, Japan, Republic of Korea) have been established to help protect key habitats. Within Australia these agreements sit under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and signatory countries are obliged to protect the important habitats used by the birds in their respective countries. These agreements, in theory, should protect the habitats used by these birds but in practice this is not the case.

Growing human populations, coastal areas utilised by birds being developed, key wetland areas being reclaimed and area and quality of remaining habitats diminishing, almost all species of migratory shorebirds that visit Australia are in decline. Australian bird populations are also declining. South Australia’s Coorong is a key destination for migratory shorebirds and was listed as a Wetland of International Importance in 1985. However, since 1985 the Coorong has changed and migratory shorebirds are now far less abundant, some experiencing more than 10-fold declines. Changes to the Coorong have been brought about by increasing extraction of water from the Murray Darling Basin, resulting in decreasing flow quantity and timing, and endemic shorebirds such as Pied Oystercatchers and Red-capped Plovers and other waterbirds such as the Fairy Tern using the Coorong have also declined.

Other migratory birds’ movements within Australia are less conspicuous. Short-tailed Shearwaters that breed on offshore islands around the southern coasts of Australia arrive in the tens of thousands at breeding grounds, often on the same day each year, and in many cases occupy the same burrow or one nearby as used in previous years. Other migratory birds are bush birds that move within the Australian continent. The more notable movements involve birds departing southern latitudes, such as Tasmania in autumn and moving northwards. Amongst the species that move are threatened species such as the Orange-bellied Parrot and Swift Parrot. Other smaller birds like the Silvereye, Tree Martin, Fairy Martin, Grey Fantail, Dusky Woodswallow, Flame Robin, Rufous Whistler, White-naped Honeyeater, and Yellow-faced Honeyeater also move during autumn, but not all individuals depart from all locations each year. Although aggregations of some of these species are detected during autumn migration, the movements are more diffuse and many may move as individuals or in small flocks consisting of a handful of individuals. These birds have the potential to forage along the routes that they take and so the need for specific stopovers is not at a premium. The return journeys in spring are even less conspicuous. For these birds with diffuse movements that feed along the way, protecting habitats to allow the movements to continue may be even more challenging than well defined routes with key stopovers. The movements of our bush birds remain poorly documented, yet understanding and documenting the movements will be critical to managing these species into the future.  Modern technologies (such as miniature satellite trackers) may eventually allow these movements to be documented.

There are two other types of movements of birds within Australia. Altitudinal movements are prominent in autumn as flycatchers such as robins, whistlers and fantails move to lower altitudes where slightly warmer conditions may provide more favourable conditions for foraging and survival during winter. Even the relatively small elevation gradient provided by the Mt Lofty Ranges is sufficient to stimulate these birds to move down slope as winter approaches, and one of the delights for bird watchers is seeing some of these species in suburban gardens of Adelaide in autumn and winter.

The other movements often attributed to Australian birds, particularly those of the interior, are described as nomadic. These often consist of large numbers of birds such as Budgerigars, Crimson Chats and Pied Honeyeaters appearing in more temperate southern latitudes after a boom period. The boom periods follow a period when significant rainfall has stimulated plant growth in the arid interior. The boom times, however, give way to periods with little rain, forcing the birds to move. These potentially nomadic movements are usually not considered migrations because they lack a regular annual cycle and are not, as yet, predictable.

Guest post by Associate Professor David Paton.
If you would like to contribute as a guest blogger on the Environment Institute blog, email

New Paper: Climate change and the cockatoo

Berton Harris

A new paper titled ‘Managing the long-term persistence of a rare cockatoo under climate change‘ investigates using combined population and bioclimatic models to estimate the future effects of climate change on the viability of a cockatoo population. Their research revealed that unmitigated climate change is likely to be a substantial threat to the cockatoo.

The paper involves Environment Institute members Berton Harris, Damien Fordham, David Paton, Michael Stead, Michael Watts and Barry Brook as well as Patricia Mooney (Department of Environment and Heritage), Lynn Pedler (Department of Environment and Heritage), Miguel Araújo (National Museum of Natural Sciences) and Reşit Akçakaya (Stony Brook University). The paper was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology

Download the paper to read about their findings

Environment Institute Members get involved with Earth Station

Attending WOMAD Earth Station this Friday, Saturday and Sunday? Make sure you get along and hear Environment Institute members presenting as part of the sustainability program for this year’s festival.

Environment Institute members involved are:

We hope to see a lot of familiar faces around, and make sure you follow us on Twitter (@environmentinst) and get involved with the discussion by using the hashtag #earthstation.

WOMAD Earth Station – New Acts Announced

WOMAD’s new festival – Earth Station – has announced further acts.

An opportunity to receive and transmit ideas, issues and solutions towards a more sustainable planet, this innovative event melds the intellectual and cultural energies of leading scientific minds with a performance program featuring some of the world’s most accomplished and diverse musicians. The festival audience will be inspired by a refreshing and rare combination of discussion and music during a weekend of forums, displays and performances.

The line-up for the performance program is –

  • The Kronos Quartet (USA)
  • Abdullah Ibrahim (SOUTH AFRICA)
  • Rickie Lee Jones (USA)
  • Zakir Hussain (INDIA)
  • Toumani Diabate (MALI)
  • The Tallest Man on Earth (SWEDEN)
  • The Audreys (AUS)
  • The catholics (AUS)
  • Emma Donovan Band (AUS)
  • Frank Yamma & David Bridie (AUS)
  • Iwantja Band (AUS)
  • Ellis Pearson – “Man Up a Tree” (SOUTH AFRICA – site artist)
  • Mark Atkins (AUS)
  • Mista Savona (AUS)
  • Pacific Curls (NZ)
  • Paris Wells (AUS)
  • Shanghai Chinese Orchestra (CHINA)
  • Stan’s Cafe “Of All the People in All the World” (UK – site piece)
  • Vika & Linda Bull (AUS)
  • Wu Man (CHINA)
  • The Yearlings (AUS)

The Planet Talks program includes –

  • Bruce Thom AM (Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Emeritus Professor University of Sydney)
  • Cate Blanchett & Andrew Upton (Sydney Theatre Company)
  • Giselle Weybrecht (USA) (Author of The Sustainable MBA)
  • Hunter Lovins (USA) (Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions)
  • Samantha Mostyn (Founder of the ‘1 Million Women’ movement)
  • Robyn Williams (ABC: The Science Show)
  • Ian Lowe OA (President of Australian Conservation Foundation)
  • John McTernan (UK) (Global expert on public service leadership, adviser to Tony Blair)
  • Matthew Wright (Director, Beyond Zero Emissions)
  • Rod Quantock (Australian Comedian)
  • Mike Young (Director, Environment Institute Adelaide University)
  • Mike Sandiford (Director, Melbourne Energy Institute & Professor of Geology Melbourne University)
  • Paul Gilding (Author of The Great Disruption, former Head of Greenpeace International)
  • Peter Cosier (Director, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists)
  • Prof Lesley Hughes (Head of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Climate Change Commissioner)
  • Roy Neel (USA) (Vice President Al Gore’s Chief of Staff)
  • Paul Willis (Director, RiAus)
  • Stephen Pekar (USA) (Assoc Professor School of Earth & Environmental Science, Queens College New York State)
  • Tim Stubbs (Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists)
  • Bernie Hobbs ( ABC: The New Inventors)
  • Associate Professor David Paton
  • Dominic Skinner (Freshwater Ecology Expert)
  • Associate Professor Keith Walker
  • Dr Graham Turner (Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems)
  • Fiona Heinrichs (Author, Sleepwalking to Catastrophe)

THE SUSTAINABILITY PROGRAM – is being developed in collaboration with the Environment Institute and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Read more

When: 21-23 October 2011
Where: Long Gully, Belair National Park

To book your tickets

Kangaroo Island Tree Planting Festival

From 8-10 July the Environment Institute offered 10 postgraduate students the opportunity to be involved in re-instating large areas of habitat for some of KI’s rarest plant life.  This year over 120,000 seedlings, many of them endemic to KI, were planted.

Students and Volunteers at KI's Planting Festival

The plantation took place at Kangaroo Island, Cygnet Park Sanctuary, 20km west of Kingscote. The plantings took place over 60 hectares of a 300 hectare property where plantings have taken place in previous Festivals.

Approximately 300 volunteers were involved, of which 20 were Adelaide postgraduate students sponsored by the Environment Institute.

The Environment Institute volunteers left the meeting point on Friday 8 July at 6.30 am in time to commence plantings at 10.30am.  On Saturday morning volunteers had the possibility of visiting Remarkable Rocks and Admiral’s Arch. On Sunday upon completion of plantings and prior to boarding the ferry there was also time to visit the plantings from previous festivals, as well as climbing Prospect Hill in Dudley Peninsula, which offers a spectacular view of Pelican Lagoon and the Southern Ocean.

21,000 seedlings were planted by Friday lunchtime and 60,000 by Saturday lunchtime.

On Saturday talks were given by Associate Professor David Paton, Dave Taylor, Peggy Rismiller (renowned Echidna scientist, working at Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre, KI) and Michelle Haby.

Following are seedlings of plant species native to KI that were planted:

–   Allocasuarina muelleriana –Kangaroo Island sheoak
–   Olearia ciliata var. squamifolia -Kangaroo Island fringed daisy-bush (uncommon)
–   Pultenaea daphnoides -Large-leaf bush-pea (uncommon)
–   Pittosporum angustifolium -Native apricot (vulnerable)
–   Olearia microdisca  – Small-flowered Olearia  (threatened)
–   Cheiranthera alternifolia – Hand flower (rare)
–   Eutaxia diffusa -Large-leaf Eutaxia (endangered)

To see more footage from the successful day, click here