The Newsletter of Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife in Central Australia - September 2013
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G'day LFWers, GFWers, and friends everywhere.

September was a whirlwind of activity, and the early onset of the warm weather has seen plenty of land managers out on their blocks having interesting encounters. The Quandongs are fruiting, the reptiles are finally up and about, and there are butterflies everywhere.

If you've been anywhere out bush, you will have noticed plenty of Caper Whites Aerva javanica. All of the Capparis plants at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden have been festooned with pupae over the last few weeks. Also adding interest for the lepidopterists have been Small Grass Yellows Eurema brigitta australis, Satin Azures Ogyris amaryllis parsonis, and Orchard Swallowtails Papilio aegeus aegeus. We'd love to do a feature on backyard butterflies of Alice Springs so if you have some pictures from your little plot of desert we'd be interested to see them.

More springs arrivals are here in the form of migratory shorebirds from the chilly reaches of the distant north. Chris has a closer look at the life cycles of these birds below. Jesse has put together a story from some of our Queensland counterparts who've been reaping the benefits of having motion-sensing cameras on some of their local Land for Wildlife properties.

The Frequent Flyers Club

by Chris Watson

Do you recognise any of the birds above? If you do, in the words of Phillip Adams, give yourself two gold stars and a koala stamp. Clockwise from the top image; a Common Sandpiper in between two Red-necked Stints; a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper; a mixed flock of migratory waders on the mudflats at Alice Springs Sewage Ponds; and a handsome-looking Wood Sandpiper (all images Chris Watson).

Even those of us who do recognise them, might not recognise them as occurring in Alice Springs. But occur here they most certainly do, and this year is turning out to be quite a good year for them. I write "them", because although the birds we're concerned with belong to a variety of different species, they all have one characteristic in common: they are annual migrants.

Bird migration is one of the greatest of natural phenomena, uniting the entire globe in a network of flyways that span the largest oceans and crest the highest mountain ranges. The scale of bird migrations, in both the sheer numbers of individuals involved and the variety of different species which undertake migrations of different kinds, is difficult to fully appreciate: hummingbirds, storks, cranes, ducks, geese, gulls, waders, warblers, many birds-of-prey, and even some parrots, all exhibit migratory life cycles.

(above) Illustration showing some of the Asian flyways used by migratory bird species. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Public Domain.

Most birds stick to overland routes for as much of their journey as possible. This way they are able to take advantage of warm thermals; uprising air to lift them and save energy on their passage. Some tiny South American hummingbirds, among the smallest birds on the planet, fly non-stop across the Caribbean Sea to the southern US each year. When you consider that this is a bird that normally has to feed almost constantly just to feed the super-charged metabolism required by its high-energy lifestyle, this marathon exertion/fasting ordeal is all the more impressive. But that's just a migration of a few hundred kilometres.

The Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea, is famous for  its pole-to-pole peregrinations. When sunburnt surfers went searching for their Endless Summer back in 1966, the Arctic Tern had already been successfully living their dream for millennia. This bird breeds in polar tundra during the northern summer before flying a minimum of 19,000 kilometres to loaf in the austral summer along the northern edge of the Antarctic sea ice. Some studies have revealed that, depending where an individual fledges and which migratory route it uses, some Arctic Terns may fly over 70,000 kilometres annually, with the record set by one bird at almost 82,000 kilometres in a single year. Weighing only about 100 g, it literally flies around the world every year. Using this strategy it lives in constant summer, and has been recognised as experiencing more daylight than any other organism on Earth. 

But wait; we don't get Arctic Terns or hummingbirds in Alice Springs do we? Well... no, but some of us live in hope. The annual travels of those birds are impressive enough, but the real long-distance athletes; the super-crazy, ultra-marathon, extreme endurance experts, are without doubt the migratory waders. Specifically among them - the godwits.

(above) Black-tailed Godwits at Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. They may not look like much, but there are no greater endurance athletes in the animal world. Chris Watson

You may never have heard of a godwit, but it's entirely possible that you have heard one. If you're prepared to frequent various wetlands (including sewage treatment facilities) it's actually not too difficult to get a look at one. There are four species recognised, and two of them visit Alice Springs. The Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, which can be seen most years, and the Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, which is a more occasional visitor being something of a coastal specialist. The latter bird though, is our long-distance record holder.

In 2007, a satellite-tracked Bar-tailed Godwit known to researchers as "E7", took off from western Alaska. The next time that bird's feet hit terra firma was in New Zealand; a total flight distance of 11,680 kilometres... non-stop. This remains the longest non-stop flight by any bird, and the longest journey without stopping to feed by any animal. Moreover, it made this journey, not over a few months like the Arctic Tern's leisurely round-the-world jaunt, but in nine days. NINE days! That's the metabolic equivalent of a human running 70 kilometres an hour for seven days without a break. Haile Gebrselassie couldn't even come close to what this bird achieves.

In fairness, avian long-distance migrants achieve their feats through a variety of anatomical adaptations that humans simply don't have. In the build up to migration, waders or shorebirds as they are sometimes known, feed constantly, building up massive reserves of fat. Muscles that are not used in flight wither away to make room for massively bulked-up flight muscles and more fat reserves. The internal organs, even the brain, shrink to a fraction of their size to allow more space for fuel. The liver shrinks so drastically that the bird is in danger of dying from blood toxicity if its migration takes too long. These birds travel on the knife edge - one head wind or bout of unfavourable weather and that could be it for the godwit. The birds rest while they fly in a phenomenon known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. One half of their brain is able to shut down and undergo restorative sleep, with the "awake" half taking care of the daily grind.

Depending on the weather, most waders migrate at an altitude anywhere between about 500 and 3000 metres, but usually toward the lower end of that range. This means that you can often hear them as they pass overhead. On a clear night during migratory season in Alice Springs (August - November and again between March - May) it is well worth cocking an ear to the skies to see if you can hear the peep of a Wood Sandpiper or the distinctive choo! choo! choo!, of a Common Greenshank on their way to the sewage ponds.

(above) Common Greenshanks at Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. Chris Watson

But it's when finally heading down to a wetland or coastal estuary to actually see these birds that many observers are struck by how plain they are. To the untrained eye, they all look like fairly grey or brown, drab, undistinguished, and not very pretty birds. They don't have particularly distinct markings or noticeable differences between the sexes. This is because when we see them at the southern end of their migration they are in non-breeding plumage after breeding in the forests and tundra of the northern hemisphere. On the breeding grounds, they will be displaying to attract a mate and many sport hugely outrageous plumage making their identity anything but cryptic. For an example of this, do a Google search for "Ruff Philomachus pugnax breeding plumage". You'll see a bird almost unrecognisable from the dull grey bird which visits here most years. But alas, we have to work with what we get, and what we get here in The Centre, is waders in non-breeding plumage and the identification conundrums are numerous. The many species of waders are famous among ornithologists as being some of the most difficult to identify accurately in the field. 

However, wader identification needn't be so difficult, and it certainly needn't be a chore. On second glance, most waders have at least one or two diagnostic features that most people can be trained to identify in the field without resorting to expensive optical equipment. Photographs are always helpful to check over at a later date, as are sketches. Even if you don't think you can draw particularly well, the crudest of sketches can sometimes yield a salient feature that can positively separate a bird from a confusion species. Satisfactorily solving a wader identification challenge can be one of the most rewarding experiences in nature-watching, and you'll never forget the first time you correctly identify a rarity.

By knowing the birds you can share their journey. By recording your observations you can contribute to their conservation. Some of these species are among the most critically endangered on Earth (Google "Spoon-billed Sandpiper"). Even species that were fairly common until quite recently (like Curlew Sandpiper) are experiencing a steep decline in their reporting rates and vanishing from former roosting sites. Like the Passenger Pigeon before them, some species have gone from massive abundance to extinction within the space of the last century.

If you want to help them, it may be as simple as picking up a pair of binoculars and going for a walk.

A real treat; Oriental Plover at Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. Chris Watson

If you'd like to learn more about shorebird identification and the life cycles of these amazing animals, we've included links to some resources in the book reviews and the internet sections. Birdlife Australia has several good resources on its website, and also hosts the Shorebirds 2020 project which has a wealth of information on shorebirds and shorebird conservation. Regular shorebird monitoring mornings are held at the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds by the Alice Springs Field Naturalists, the local Birdlife Australia branch, and similar bodies. For more information, you can email

The remarkable story of E7.

News from Around the States...

by Jesse Carpenter, with photos courtesy Merrilee & Victor Ziolkowski

Although we all strive for similar outcomes, the different Land for Wildlife branches around Australia use a variety of methods for assessing the success of the program. In Alice for example, we use our annual biodiversity surveys to measure the success of property management plans and other projects we may be working on.

In the Brisbane area, Catherine Madden (Program Officer - Wildlife Conservation Partnerships with the Brisbane City Council) has been installing motion sensing cameras on Land for Wildlife properties within her jurisdiction. This has had some great results, confirming the presence of species that are difficult to see within the eucalypt forest and temperate rainforest of the area. The following images come courtesy of Merrilee and Victor Ziolkowski from Upper Brookfield, who write:

"Our property in Upper Brookfield has not been used for horses for many years. As a result the regrowth has been amazing. We have always spotted Wallabies moving across our driveway from our bush block (west of Brisbane) to the forest that adjoins our property.  

Late one afternoon around sunset when I was coming up the driveway, I was surprised to see a large kangaroo. He went down into the bush and was followed by a smaller one.  We saw them again several times and thought they were Eastern Greys. We set up a camera pointed at the water trough we have put in some years ago in an isolated spot on the property. We had noticed that the trough was being visited but did not know by what.

Along with other locals (a brush turkey with hundreds of “selfies”) there they were, photos for all to see.  Our LFW officer, Catherine Madden confirmed the kangaroo’s identification as Eastern Greys. The surprise to us all was that they were not supposed to be in this area.  It may be the dry weather, the ‘permanent’ water or just looking for a new area to set up home they are most welcome."
Merrilee and Victor Ziolkowski
Upper Brookfield – Queensland

As an aside, we recipricate Catherine's gesture by sending her photos of our own we've captured on motion sensing cameras; showcasing some of our central Australian wildlife. If you have any pictures you'd like us to share with our Queensland counterparts, email them to us with the deatils of where, when and what you've discovered. We'll gladly pass them on.
From the bookshelf...

The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia
by Michael Braby

We've featured this field guide in the past, and it remains the best reference for identifying Australian butterflies in the field. Small enough to fit in the glove box or in a day pack, it is also comprehensive in scope and has colour plates of all Australian species. A must have for butterfly enthusiasts.

Shorebirds of Australia

by Andrew Geering, Lindsay Agnew, and Sandra Harding

Waders: The Shorebirds of Australia
by David Hollands and Clive Minton

With shorebirds providing so many identification challenges to nature watchers of all levels of experience, it seems fitting to guide you toward a few different resources. These are two of the premier field guides on the topic for waders that visit Australian shores.

For those who are more digitally minded, the app-generation is also catered for with the Birdpedia website providing a fairly comprehensive database of Australian shorebirds, including many vagrant species, at the following link: 

For additional shorebird identification tips, there is also this useful article in Australian Birdlife written by one of the top shorebird researchers, Golo Maurer:

There is also a lot of useful material to be accessed through the Shorebirds 2020 project page at the following link:

On The Eco-net...

Spinifex mast-seeding; a very interesting theory

With our own pair of nesting eagles here in Alice, this provides something to think about: how do your activities impact upon the wildlife around you?

Solar and wind energy - "cheaper and more reliable"... and that's from a utilities company.

Green Buildings - know any examples in Alice?

Tidal Energy: unlikely to be developed in Central Australia, but it's good to see Australians bringing sustainable energy sources to other parts of the world.

..."the most significant paleontological discovery in decades." Old fish makes big splash.

Gouldian Finch surveys go well with the hot dry conditions up north:

...and that's about all we've got time for. Until next month, get busy with the camera and send us all of the best wildlife pictures from your Land for Wildlife property. We'll shortly be putting together a summary of the year in Land for Wildlife around Central Australia and we'd love to include your contributions.

See you next month!

Jesse, Chris, Matt, & Bill.
October 2013
Copyright © 2013 Low Ecological Services, All rights reserved.

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