Date: Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Project: Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey

Observer: Richard Kingsford

Once again it seems, we can say the 2016 aerial survey of waterbirds across eastern Australia is going to be different to the other 33 years that have gone before. Widespread rainfall across the Lake Eyre Basin and Murray-Darling Basin have caused considerable flooding. We will be busy – where the water goes, we survey. Unusually winter – spring rainfall has caused the flooding inland, not the summer deluges. Floods bring considerable costs to communities but they also rejuvenate the rivers, getting out onto the floodplains and triggering an amazingly complexity of ecological interactions. 2016 is a full on breeding year for the waterbirds.

Today – we head north, surveying the wetlands east of the Great Divide which fall into our 30km survey bands, spaced every 200km. We surveyed bands 4-6, in that order. First on the list were the Myall Lakes. They always seem the same. Water levels appear immutable, governed by their close connection to the sea, unlike inland wetlands. And the waterbirds were the usual - swans, pelicans and cormorants. The difference this year was that there were perhaps a dozen swan broods. It was blowing hard when we surveyed which bounces our small plane about a bit.

White streams across the surface of Myall Lakes reflect the strong winds.

Our team is pretty enthusiastic again – even though we have done this for decades. It is a beautiful day and we are in the brand spanking new plane bought by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The new screens dazzle with their brightness and size. No more squinting at small numbers to work out latitudes and longitudes. A quick stop at Port Macquarie to refuel before we fly up a bit of the Bellinger River from its mouth.

The Bellinger River seldom has many waterbirds. Today there were less than 10 large migratory wading birds, an egret and a white ibis.

This is certainly a portent of things to come - lots of water, with waterbirds few and far between, an abundance of rich habitats for the waterbirds to spread out. In particular, the coastal birds head west on the merest sniff of widespread water inland. As expected, there weren’t many birds about on the coastal wetlands today.

Survey band 6 stretches from just north of Byron Bay all the way to south of Innamincka and Lake Eyre where we will be in less than a week, a long way from the coastal wetlands of Byron Bay. There were a few cormorants on the inlets but not much else. Excitingly, we drifted over the ocean after one of our inlet surveys, over a pod of humpback whales on their southern migration.

Mother and calf humpback whales on their way south

One large whale carved its way through the air as it breached below us. Over today, we must have seen more than 10 pods – a privilege to see these magnificent animals from on high, looking down through the clear water.

On on to the north, past the Gold Coast with its serpentine canal estates to follow the western shoreline of Stradbroke Island.

Gold coast canal estates

Contours of shallow sand reflect different hues, depending on the depth of the water. Apart from pockets of sand mining and the odd resort, much of it seems as wild as it has always been, when this was only the land of its Aboriginal peoples.

Shallow waters around Stradbroke Island