The influence of the recent La Nina climate event on nomadic terrestrial birds in Australia's interior: A pilot study

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Biological and Biomedical Sciences


Australia has experienced over the past 18 months rainfall of a scale and intensity that is unprecedented in recorded history. This rainfall event has now abruptly come to an end, and access to large parts of the Australian interior has just become possible The access to the Australian interior at a time of unprecedented ecological boom, when rare mass flowering and breeding events occur, presents us with a unique research opportunity. However, we need to act fast to initiate monitoring of this rapidly unfolding event or we will miss the first breeding season following the unusual wet period, and we will lose an opportunity to collect data at this period, against which subsequent monitoring during more normal, drier periods can be compared.

We plan to study the impacts of this rare event on the breeding distribution and abundance of nomadic terrestrial birds, i.e. those species that have no fixed breeding range but instead follow the availability of resources around the landscape, breeding whenever good conditions arise. Australia's nomadic terrestrial land-birds make up the majority of terrestrial nomadic species, in Australia and elsewhere around the world. With no previous census of the impacts of these types of extreme climatic fluctuations on the terrestrial species across climatic and habitat gradients, and with no plans in place to monitor this year's rapidly progressing events, we are in danger of missing out on an opportunity to study an unique and unfolding natural event of global importance; one that could prove invaluable in projecting the impacts of future climate change on ecosystems.

Because of the nature of Australia's climate, there is a steep gradient from wet to dry environments as you progress inland from the coast, such that you can cover large climatic gradients in relatively short distances. We propose a series of long-distance (1000km) transects to study the impacts of the recent climate events on the breeding, distribution and abundance of terrestrial bird species into the central and southern interior regions of Australia, normally the driest places in the continent. By selecting a series of transects covering climatic and environmental gradients from the interior towards the coastal margins, we will sample across a large space-for-time replacement gradient.

The first transects need to be initiated urgently to monitor species distributions during this period of abundant water. If this monitoring is delayed even by a couple more months, then it is likely that we will miss this important event, and lose an important baseline dataset against which to compare subsequent changes. It is imperative that we commence the work shortly, as some species (such as black-tailed native hen) will begin to breed soon after the rains have finished whereas honeyeaters, the most diverse passerine bird group in Australia as well as many raptors such as letter-winged kites will now be starting to set up territories for breeding in the spring (which occurs in about 6 weeks time).

Our main objectives are:
To collect point abundance data for terrestrial bird species along a series of transects spanning climatic and habitat gradients during a period of unprecedented water availability, to relate short-term species occurrence data to climatic and environmental variables.
To put in place a census strategy that can be repeated in the future to detect the impacts of climatic changes on both short- and long-term population changes in nomadic species
To analyse and publish these results quickly to (i) highlight the magnitude of the ecological impacts of this climatic events and (ii) provide the first ever distribution maps and habitat association models for nomadic species in an ecological boom time.

We anticipate that this pilot work will lead to follow-on funding to study the longer term impacts of these climatic boom-bust cycles on the distribution and abundance of nomadic and mobile species.

Planned Impact

There are many academic beneficiaries to the proposed work and resulted high-impact papers that will result from the work, as detailed in 'Academic Beneficiaries'. However, the beneficiaries of the proposed work run far beyond immediate academic peers.

The planned research will have major implications for conservation planning for mobile species, particular under scenarios of future climate change. CSIRO, the national government body for scientific research in Australia, with whom SGW currently holds a distinguished visiting fellowship, are extremely interested in the proposed project and, if this pilot study is successful, all already considering funding a longer term continuation of the work. The proposed research will be of direct relevance to the 'Climate Adaptation Centre of Excellence' at CSIRO. Similarly the wider ornithological community in Australia will be very interested in the work. These unfolding events provide the first opportunity to study what happens to the nomadic terrestrial bird species of the interior during such times, something of great general interest (the lead news item in the latest Birds Australia 'Newsletter of the Atlas of Australian Birds' is aptly titled 'Where have all the birds gone?').

The results will also be of interest more widely, to government departments working on climate change elsewhere in the world. SGW has recently presented research findings at a side event at the recent CBD-COP meeting in Nagoya, Japan. He has also recently discussed climate change impacts with government officials in West Africa, and is shortly to visit Vietnam and Laos to meet government ministers to discuss climate change adaptation to conserve biodiversity. The proposed work would likely generate similar interest both at an Australian state level, and also at an international level. Close links with state and national government in Australia will facilitate maximum exposure of the work to stakeholders (see 'Pathways to Impact).

Close research links with large conservation NGOs will also facilitate the dissemination of results to the wider conservation community. SGW has ongoing research links with BirdLife International, Royal Society for the protection of Birds, British Trust for Ornithology, Conservation International, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The results of the current work will likely have wider applicability beyond just conserving nomadic species.

In the private sector the work could have relevance regarding development of pristine bushland, which could contain vital, yet infrequently utilised, sites for nomads. In terms of wider beneficiaries, it is hoped that these long-distance transects will become established long-term monitoring sites and that data could be gathered in future using citizen science to bring wider ownership to the research. Australia is particularly noted for its population of travelling 'grey nomads' (retirees who spend long periods of the year travelling. Such untapped citizen-science resource could prove a great source of data collection. We will work closely with NGOs such as Birds Australia to ensure results are widely disseminated, and take-up is encouraged in-country.

Given how little-studied the nomadic system is, any results would be of great interest to the general public and to groups who publicise science, such as museums and popular science books and magazines. The results will likely be of great cultural interest and likely to be very topical. Both SGW and RF (project partner at CSIRO) have extensive experience of getting their research brought to the media's attention. Durham and CSIRO both have excellent media offices. Field staff working on the project will develop skills in project design, data collection and robust scientific analysis, as well as gaining invaluable field skills and experience.


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