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The challenge

Water for the right places at the right times

Australian waterbird populations depend on suitable feeding and nesting habitats coupled with suitable rain and flood events. Wetlands within the Murray-Darling Basin provide critical waterbird habitats, however the quality and availability of these sites are influenced by our water and vegetation management decisions. Protecting and maintaining suitable feeding and nesting habitats both between and during flood events is essential to maximise waterbird recruitment, maintain populations, and conserve biodiversity.  This requires careful management of both vegetation and water regimes at a range of scales.

A flock of straw-necked ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) and Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) take to the sky above their breeding site at Barmah-Millewa Forest, a wetland of the Murray River. ©  Heather McGinness

The use of valuable ‘environmental water’ within the Murray-Darling Basin has historically often been focused on supporting successful completion of waterbird breeding events.  However managers and policy-makers are also becoming increasingly conscious of the need to manage feeding areas for both adult and juvenile waterbirds. Appropriately managing environmental water placement and timing is critical to facilitating the recruitment of juveniles into our waterbird populations and ultimately species survival. While some knowledge exists on the water flows needed to trigger waterbird nesting, we lack basic knowledge of how water flows interact with other factors such as predation and food abundance to influence waterbird breeding success and recruitment. We also lack knowledge of the foraging and dispersal movements of important species during and between breeding events – where do they go, and why? Filling these knowledge gaps is key to improving the efficiency of environmental water management – applying water to the right places at the right times – and ensuring the success of future breeding events and waterbird recruitment within the Basin.

Our response

Filling knowledge gaps in waterbird ecology

CSIRO’s Dr Heather McGinness is co-ordinating the Waterbird Theme of the Murray-Darling Basin Environmental Water Knowledge and Research (MDB EWKR) Project, which aims to fill knowledge gaps on waterbird ecology in the Basin to assist environmental water and wetland managers.

"By quantifying waterbird survival rates, movements, and their drivers, particularly the relative influence of flow variables, habitat variables, pressures and threats, we will assist environmental water managers to better identify, maintain or restore key waterbird habitats. We’ll also gain a better understanding of the scales at which key habitats and environmental flows are required to support waterbird recruitment."

The MDB EWKR Waterbird Theme is a collaboration between the CSIRO, University of NSW and University of Canberra. The MDB EWKR Project is funded by the Australian Government Commonwealth Environmental Water Office and managed by the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre.

Our capability

CSIRO L&W is leading this work because it has the people, the facilities, the equipment and the experience to deal with multi-scalar, complex, interdisciplinary problems in environmental water science and ecology. The scientific and technical staff involved have deep experience in riverine, floodplain, woodland and agricultural landscape ecology. They conduct interdisciplinary work that integrates aquatic and terrestrial ecology in a range of agricultural, mixed and natural ecosystems. They have strong interests in improving the understanding and management of water as a key integrating element crucial to the resilience of our inland systems.

Staff expertise is applicable to a range of domains, including development of conceptual models of whole systems and integration of diverse sources of information. This allows staff to develop novel solutions to problems, communicate complexity effectively and lead forward-thinking collaborative projects. Staff also have: Extensive specialist field equipment; ABBBS banding licences; 20 years' experience in surveying, capturing and handling animals including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds; experience leading animal research projects approved by CSIRO and external Animal Ethics Committees; more than 20 years' experience working in wet and dry floodplain and riverine environments, including intensive vegetation and bird surveys and experience working in colonial waterbird nesting sites, including waterbird capture, banding and satellite tracking.

Science and Innovation

This project is conducting completely novel research using the latest technology available in the field. For example, it is running the largest GPS satellite tracking study of Australian waterbird movements ever conducted. It uses the latest satellite tracking transmitters which are solar-powered and yield high-resolution GPS fixes (10m) every hour of every day. The transmitters function for a minimum of two years, collecting data on bird movements, habitat selection and behaviour that have never been seen before. The resulting very large and complex data feeds are being analysed in conjunction with extensive spatial and temporal datasets, both answering direct management-related questions and filling ecological knowledge gaps for the future.

In addition, the project is using the latest technology in remote motion-sensing and time-lapse wildlife cameras to capture novel data from waterbird nests in breeding colonies managed with environmental water, including survival of chicks through to fledging and the influence of threats such as predation, disturbance and water level changes.

The results

Maximising waterbird recruitment

By quantifying waterbird survival rates, movements, and their drivers, particularly the relative influence of flow variables, habitat variables, pressures and threats, we are assisting environmental water managers to better identify, maintain or restore key waterbird habitats. We are also providing a better understanding of the scales at which key habitats and environmental flows are required to support waterbird recruitment.

The results are informing recommendations for the planning, prioritisation and management of environmental water flows within the Murray-Darling Basin, with the objective of maximising waterbird recruitment. Specifically the research tells water and natural resource managers:

  • The locations and characteristics of important foraging habitats
  • The required location, extent and duration of water inundation in foraging and nesting habitats needed to maximise breeding success and recruitment
  • How the characteristics of nesting habitats influence the number of chicks fledging, for example, how much nest position influences accessibility to predators
  • Waterbird nesting habitat preferences and their implications for site management
  • How water and vegetation management, and threats like predation, interact to affect waterbird recruitment

The research outcomes listed above will assist water and natural resource managers to:

  • Better understand the scales at which key habitats and environmental flows are required to support waterbird recruitment.
  • Better target environmental flows, vegetation and fauna management action
  • Ensure ‘event readiness’ at nesting sites between flooding events
  • Maximise recruitment during and after flooding events
  • Identify, maintain or restore key nesting habitat characteristics
  • Identify, maintain or restore key foraging habitats
  • Link tracked movements of waterbirds and breeding success with foraging habitat characteristics at multiple scales

Commonwealth, State, and regional land and water policy-makers and managers from the Department of Environment, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWO), Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage have been praising CSIRO research and communications efforts informing waterbird and environmental water management. In particular, GPS satellite-tracking of the movements of waterbirds across the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond is causing quite a stir, for example:

  • ‘I think this is a really important area of research – with environmental watering the assumption is that if we add water – everything will respond.  I think what you are showing is the system is much more complex than that and that here are other cues that the ecosystem – water birds in your case – are responding to.  Many of these other cues we don’t know –let alone measure.’
  • This is so exciting. I showed a few colleagues (just internal) and it is causing such a buzz of excitement, with one person commenting that this is the best thing they have seen in four and half years of working in the [organisation]! Well done, there is going to be so much interest in this.’
  • ‘I reckon this is some of the most exciting work going! It really feeds into/informs our thinking about beyond catchment scale event management
  • ‘Just a quick note to let you know how much I really enjoy and am learning a lot from the updates you are sending through (I work on both the Lachlan and Mid Murray regions…) Your work is also informing the very early stages of our internal discussions/thinking re the need for e-water planning to be done/linked at the scale at which these flyways are operating. It is awesome work & greatly appreciated at this end.’
  • Thank you so much Heather. What a privilege to see this data.’

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