by John Sinclair

A land rapidly losing its wildlife — Birds

As a concerned grandparent, I am conscious of the world we are bequeathing to future generations and try to compare my own childhood and youth with that of my grandchildren.  In this essay I discuss how they will miss the sound and sight of many of birds once so familiar.  

The decline of birds I am describing is anecdotal but they epitomise observations made by long term bird observers throughout Australia that bird populations are plunging in almost every habitat.  Some such as the beautiful Gouldian finches have gained their endangered status due to the trapping and trafficking.  Others such as bustards, emus, some ducks and pigeons have been heavily hunted for the pot.  Some like the Gull-billed terns and the Black swans are obviously responding to habitat disturbance.  Some like the seed eating birds are vanishing before our eyes because grazing pressure lets little grass grow to seed.  Some insectivorous bird populations are being impacted by pesticides. Some ground dwelling birds are falling prey to feral predators. Some species are declining through eating cane toads. Many species are suffering habitat loss through land clearing.  However there is no explanation for why bird populations in our National Parks are also declining.  Some birds are obviously being significantly impacted by climate change. Many reasons for the rapid decline can’t be explained.  

What is more worrying is that this is occurring in our lifetime almost passing almost unnoticed and unreported.   The first thing we need to do is to acknowledge that there is a significant and on-going impoverishment of our landscape because Australia’s bird populations are plummeting

Kimberley Emus: My alarm bells first began ringing when I realized that there were no emus left in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.  This was after about four trips in the early 1990s covering a total 20,000 kilometres and 70 days.  My groups were focussed on the bush and landscape. We should have seen some because we were on the look out for any wildlife that wriggled or flew, crawled or swam of any shape or dimension. Emus are large and quite visible They were once relatively common in the Kimberley.  Since they are diurnal (seen only in the day light) should have been an easy sighting.  However after four trips I realized that they were rare, so rare that I promised to shout the whole bus-load an iced coffee each if anyone saw them.  Although iced coffees are greatly prized so everyone was keenly looking out.  After more than 20 Kimberley trips nobody could authentically claim the iced coffees. After serious consultations with local Aborigines, I have reluctantly concluded that they are regionally extinct.

In the Kimberly Antilopine kangaroos are now almost as rare as the emu. Other once common species have become at least rare or  whose numbers have shrunk alarmingly. Bustards are also mow increasingly uncommon sightings.  So are brolgas and jabirus.  These are all large fauna and can be easily identified by almost layman. However experienced zoologists tell us that it is a similar story smaller birds and.  It has made me mindful of the other birds and animals that are vanishing during my lifetime leaving Australia with a much more impoverished landscape as a result.

Gull-billed terns: In 1977 the Bjelke-Petersen Government stripped away my position as an organizer of adult education in my home-town of Maryborough, effectively exiling me and deliberately moving me away from Fraser Island.  Relocated to the fifth floor of a high-rise building sitting atop the Kangaroo Point cliffs, I consoled myself by watching the traffic moving along the Brisbane River.  One of my more memorable observations was the regular flights of the Gull-billed terns that patrolled up and down the river.  Recently I have walked up and down the river and seen not one tern.  The disappearance of the terns from the urban scene went unnoticed and unremarked.  It epitomises what has been happening in the Australian environment over the last half-century.  Slowly but inexorably the wildlife we once knew is disappearing.  The decline of so many species goes largely unnoticed and not even commented on but our whole society becomes poorer with the loss of our natural inheritance. The disappearance of the elegant Gull-billed terns from the heart of Brisbane is only one symptom I have noted whilst travelling through the great landscapes of this increasingly ailing continent. Our children may never have the pleasures to experience what we have enjoyed.

Black Swans of Great Sandy Strait: My first encounter with plunging populations occurred more than 40 years ago.  I vividly remember the January day in 1958.  As our launch neared one of the many freshwater creeks hidden amongst the mangrove fringed shores of Fraser Island a prodigious flock of swans taking off simultaneously in a rhythmical and stunning spectacle as our launch approached.  The white undersides of the wings beat in tune contrasting with the black outstretched necks as the big birds became airborne as a mass of hundreds if not thousands.  It is such a vivid image I can never forget it.  Yet such events occur no more.  It is uncommon to ever see a swan along the leeward shores of Fraser Island.

I asked many observant veterans of Fraser Island whether my recollections of this vast flock of swans was a youthful fantasy and if it might have been a fluke of nature that I saw an infrequent mass assemblage of such elegant creatures.  I am always reassured that recollection and description is both real and accurate.  What more remarkable though is that it was only after I inquired that these veterans realized that the once vast flocks have disappeared.  Thus the loss of the swans went unreported and without comment.  People notice and report on new invasions but don’t seem to appreciate the decimations of wildlife which has occurred during their lifetimes.  That has prompted me ever since to become more alert to any bird or animal species that might be missing from the landscape.

Girraween’s Yellow-tufted honeyeaters: I remember taking my very young family to Girraween National Park near Stanthorpe for summer holidays in 1967.  I was just getting into birdwatching in a more serious way then and was enthralled by any new species sighted.  Thus I was blown away by the number of new birds that were unfamiliar to me then.  The most common bird I observed along Bald Rock Creek near our camp was the strikingly handsome Yellow-tufted honeyeater.  I have returned there many times since and noted many changes and a decline in bird numbers. I spent a week in December 2008 camping there with grandchildren when I was keen to point out to them the Yellow-tufted honeyeaters.  Here were none to be found in the time we were there.  Neither were there as many other species or the same numbers I recalled from forty years earlier.  Yet this is ain a National Park where there shouldn’t be a decline of bird populations of this proportion.

The story of Birdsville’s corellas:  I first went to Birdsville in 1990. I was overwhelmed by the number of corellas after which this village was so aptly named.  I remember the ground at the racecourse seeming to be covered with a large white carpet of corellas.  That night we camped outside of town on the steep banks of the Diamantina River.  It was a disturbing and comical place to camp because there was a constant cacophony of corellas calling all night long disturbing our sleep.  The vast flocks of corellas moved to occupy every branch of every River Red Gum lining the stream and there were lots.  However there wasn’t enough space on the branches to fit them all on despite their best attempts.  On each branch they would keep shuffling along to make room for another until at last the one on the outside would be pushed off and cause thewho platoon from that branch to fly off in fright before they attempted to resettle.  This pandemonium went on for countless branches all night.  It was an experience never to be forgotten and one I often recounted as I camped in many places throughout the continent.  Nowhere else were birds ever noisier at night.

In September 2009 I made a long awaited return to Birdsville keen to show my entourage in the safari the great flocks of birds for which the town was named. Unfortunately I was preoccupied with mechanical problems with the bus but as we left I realized that I missed seeing the anticipated flocks of corellas.  However, I hadn’t been specifically looking out for them.  So I kept on the lookout for the next 4000 kms through the Queensland Outback and estimate that I saw only about a hundred or so.  That was surprising because I have seen more than that on every previous visit to Longreach alone sitting around that town’s water tower.  In May 2010 I took another entourage on another Outback Odyssey following the same route I had travelled 8 months earlier but again after another season of well above average rains and this time I was really looking but again with the same disappointing results.  There aren’t too many long-term residents of Birdsville who would have memories going back 20 years.  Thus we decided to ask an elderly Aboriginal woman in Birdsville who had lived there all her life what had happened to the corellas.  The fact that they had disappeared from the landscape hadn’t really registered until we asked the question and then she agreed that they had certainly faded away.  What has inexplicably happened to the corellas is a story replicated for so many Australian wildlife species.  They are disappearing before we know it and nobody is ringing the alarm bells.

Woodswallows:  In July I drove back through Outback Queensland yet again determined to keep a more vigilant count of corellas.  Then an even more dismal scenario presented itself.  In 1984 I had been struck by the numbers of Woodswallows  on the open Mitchell grass downs. In July 2010 while driving from Brisbane to Darwin and back I had to acknowledge that those woodswallows were no longer there.  They had been there in 1986 when I went through to look for the elusive freshwater sharks in the Gulf of Carpentaria Rivers.  They had been there in the early 1990s when I took safaris through on my way to Lawn Hill Gorge (now Boodjamulla National Park).  But they were not there. I scanned over a thousand kilometres of fences hoping to see woodswallows — but there were none.  They haven’t quite disappeared because in the 6000 kilometre Queensland Outback Odyssey I had seen a few flocks near Cunnamulla and in the Channel Country but none along the Landsborough Highway

Budgerigars:  It was a similar story with budgerigars.  It always gives one a thrill to see a large flock of budgies wheeling in over the grassy plains like a vast squadron of precision aerobatic fliers doing loops and wheeling to dramatically catching the light.  They just registered but I didn’t keep count of the flocks.  In 2010 there were relatively few flocks of any size.  This is such a contrast to 1993 when we camped beside the famous billabong of Combo Waterhole made famous by “Waltzing Matilda”.  Then almost every hollow in a coolibah had a budgie peeping from it.  In 2010 we were lucky to catch a glimpse of just single budgie nesting. They still exist but after two wonderful seasons we failed to see any really big flocks.  There were relatively few flocks of any size.  I counted only five flocks between Boroloola and Blackall.

As I reflect I am reminded of the dramatic loss of Nankeen Kestrels.  These were once the most common raptor in Australia.  When I took up serious birdwatching in 1967 they were very frequent sightings.  Now they are uncommon.  So is the Black-shoulered kite.   Even the kookaburras laugh is heard much less frequently.

I first went to Lord Howe Island in 1988 and then for the next 21 years returned at the same time each year — the first week in May.  Over this period I have watched a declining population of seabirds and a noticeable change in the arrival and departure times  most of which means a shorter period on the island to raise their chicks. However more expert people than I surmise that it is the warmer sea temperatures that is causing Lord Howe Island to slowly but progressively become depopulated of its once signature seabirds.:

The Winners:  While the majority of birds species are in decline some species are winning.  Magpies, peewees, crows seem to be still in good number.  Wedge-tailed eagles, Black kites and Whistling kites seem to be doing very well out of the carnage along our highways that leaves many inland roads strewn with carcasses of kangaroos and other native fauna.  Most carrion eaters seem to be doing well (except for the Tassy Devil). I often ponder if human diseases may be affecting our wildlife with similar impacts to that of early European early colonists on indigenous human populations.  We do know that several species introduced by colonists such as Indian Mynas are thriving and spreading while many native bird species are continuing to decline.

Birds are amongst our most conspicuous wildlife.  Their flight, plumage and songs attract our attention.  They are unlike most of our Australian mammals that are small reclusive and/or nocturnal. The decline of birds is making for a very impoverished landscape for my grandchildren.