Home > T&I Project - Component 4. Waterbirds

Component Summary

This research project is one of five components of the Institute’s Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin Scientific Trials and Investigations Program.

The diversity and abundance of waterbird populations in the Coorong are a critical component of its ecological character and is a key reason the Coorong is a wetland of international, national and regional importance. Waterbird populations remain extremely vulnerable and while there is much information on changes of waterbird distribution and abundance, there has been little capacity to predict how key waterbird species will respond to various management interventions.

The project will inform future management decisions related to the operations of existing infrastructure and decisions regarding new management interventions through research to:

Component Detail

The Coorong, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert Ramsar Wetland is ranked as South Australia’s most important wetland and one of Australia’s most important wetland in terms of the numbers of waterbirds that it supports (Kingsford et al., 2012). Numerous studies show that Coorong waterbird numbers have declined over the past 20 years (Kingsford and Porter, 2009; Paton et al. 2019), with current abundances well below historic levels (Paton et al., 2018). Remaining waterbird populations are now particularly vulnerable to current threats and future perturbations at the site. Habitat degradation internationally has resulted in a global decline in migratory bird numbers, and in the Coorong, the main driver of decline is thought to be a reduction in the availability of food resources (Paton et al., 2018), driven by fundamental modifications to hydrology and water quality.

Investigations to date have been instrumental in our understanding of how waterbirds use the Coorong, how this varies in space and time, and what local drivers (food availability, hydrology) influence these patterns (e.g., Paton et al. 2009, Rogers and Paton 2009, Paton et al. 2015). The viability of waterbird populations in the Coorong depends on the availability of high-quality foraging habitat at appropriate times of year. Migratory shorebirds move to the Coorong seasonally between October to November, using the wetland as a feeding ground through summer and into autumn (Paton, 2010).

In addition, the Coorong provides a critical drought refuge for waterbirds across southern Australia (Paton, 2010). However, there is limited capacity to predict how waterbirds may respond to different management scenarios in the Coorong. These scenarios will use integrated knowledge from an ecosystem-based approach to improve habitat quality while considering multiple spatial and temporal variability, and trade-offs among diverse habitat requirements of different key waterbird species. The project approach will follow existing frameworks for wetland management practice for conserving key waterbird habitats (e.g. Ma et al., 2010).

Waterbirds use the Coorong in the context of the broader landscape, and there are likely to be opportunities to restore the waterbird populations that use the Coorong by increasing the available habitat across the broader landscape. This will be particularly important during the current period where ecological restoration within the Coorong is needed. Knowledge of where and when waterbirds move within the Coorong and across the broader landscape and the habitat quality across this landscape is a critical knowledge gap that is limiting the ability to manage the matrix of wetlands across the region to support viable waterbird populations.

Key Knowledge Gaps and Management Questions

The Waterbirds Component is addressing the following questions:

Approach to addressing key knowledge gaps and management questions

Detailed investigations are focusing on a subset of species that are dependent on the Coorong South Lagoon. The subset was selected on the following criteria:

  1. Species that have been identified in the 2015 Ecological Character Description for the Coorong South Lagoon.
  2. Species that have undergone demonstrable declines in the Coorong South Lagoon since 2000.
  3. Species that represent, ecologically, a broader group of species, such that the overall list of key water bird species adequately represents the ecology of the entire waterbird community of the Coorong South Lagoon.
  4. Where evidence is available for individual species, species for which there is demonstrable evidence that the Coorong population is declining at rates above global population declines (thereby demonstrating that Coorong habitat is having a significant influence on declines).

Based on these criteria, the following list of species were selected for tagging and tracking studies,

To achieve the above, this Component has four interconnected tasks:

Literature Cited

Kingsford, R. T., Bino, G., Porter, J. L. & Brandis, K. 2012. Waterbird communities in the Murray-Darling Basin (1983-2012). Australian Wetlands, Rivers and Landscapes Centre, University of New South Wales.

Kingsford, R. T., and J. L. Porter. 2009. Annual survey of waterbird communities of the Living Murray icon sites - November 2008. School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales. Report to Murray-Darling Basin.

Paton DC, Rogers DJ, Hill BM, Bailey CP & Ziembicki M (2009). Temporal changes to spatially stratified waterbird communities of the Coorong, South Australia: implications for the management of heterogenous wetlands. Animal Conservation 12, 408–417.

Paton DC, Paton FL and Bailey CP (2018). Condition monitoring of the Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth and Coorong Icon Site: Waterbirds in the Coorong and Lower Lakes 2018. The University of Adelaide and The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

Paton, DC, Paton, FL and Bailey, CP (2019) Condition monitoring of the Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth and Coorong Icon Site: Waterbirds in the Coorong and Lower Lakes 2019. The University of Adelaide and The Department for Environment and Water, Adelaide.