Many thanks to the Shire of Denmark for letting us use their facilities to host the latest incarnation in our ongoing series of Bird Talks.
We were very grateful to Dr Catherine Spaggiari for stepping into the breech when one of our speakers was unable to attend. The title of her talk was “Prescribed Burning- Where do the Birds Go?”, to which she didn’t have an answer, but encouraged all to speculate on. The speculation was not encouraging for the birds, as Catherine revealed the devastation that is being wrought on our native forests by “Prescribed Burning”, undertaken on a 6-year cycle over all of the State-owned forests in the Southwest. With little evidence that burning remote forest has any benefit to the towns of the southwest, the devastation this policy is causing to the wildlife and the forests themselves is palpable. Whilst the intention may be to have limited impact on wildlife, the reality is that forests are turned into charred, deserted landscapes, granite outcrops are being scorched and peat bogs are being destroyed either from the primary burn or because the fire escapes the prescribed area or from the subsequent back-burning to control the wildfire. Many species of birds and mammals rely on hollows and crevices in trees which take hundreds of years to form, but can be destroyed in a single fire or if not, then in a subsequent fire. The fires are often initiated in spring when birds are breeding and often the areas surrounding the burn have been burnt in a previous cycle so may not be suitable habitat. The outlook for wildlife can only be described as “grim”. A recent Parliamentary review into prescribed burning did not see any need for an inquiry into the practice. We can only hope that an appeal against this decision is successful and lend our support to those who are trying to get this policy overturned.
If we were hoping for better news on the fight to limit the use of rodenticides to those which are less harmful to our native wildlife, we were disappointed. The energetic and passionate Dr Mike Lohr presented the findings of his research and of those he has been able to co-opt into studying the effect of Anticoagulant Rodenticides on our native wildlife and on our pets and potentially ourselves! Death from an anticoagulant is slow and painful, yet in Australia the so-called Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides (SGARs) can be bought by children over the counter and used anywhere. In Europe and North America they can only be bought by a Licensed Applicator, only used indoors and must be contained within a lockable bait box. The main danger to wildlife is that the SGARs can be ingested, especially by raptors – owls being most prone, through consumption of infected prey. About 50% of Boobooks tested in WA contained rodenticides at levels that could be lethal. In Perth’s reptiles, 91% of Dugites, 60% of Bobtails and 45% of Tiger snakes had been exposed, which could also lead to potential exposure to raptors. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is charged with determining the guidelines for the use of these type of chemicals, but of the ten reviews, eight have been going on for fifteen years or more, despite the findings in North America and Europe. Meanwhile the chemical companies are able to still sell SGARs.
We were fortunate to have Robyn Pickering to talk to us on the plight of the Australasian Bittern. Only about 150 of these iconic birds remain in WA out of a total Australian – New Zealand population of perhaps 1,500. Robyn took a straw poll of those who have seen an AB and got 4 responses from an audience of almost 50. Listening is generally much more effective in detecting the birds (at least the male) as it can be heard up to 6km away, Robyn’s analogy of the sound the male makes was of blowing across a bottle, repeated 3-5 times. The species is declining due to drainage and urbanisation of swamps, changes to water levels, current prescribed burning practices (eg Lake Muir), salinity increases, acidification, weeds and feral predators. Preservation of habitat such as that at Eungedup and on private land is one of the key factors that will ensure the future of this species.
Finally Kirsty gave a review of the long road to getting a sanctuary for the birds at Prawn Rock Channel. Brad Kneebone and Geoff Taylor were the key figures early, forming the Denmark Bird Group and instigating the bird surveys to provide an evidence-based case for a sanctuary. Regular surveys especially of protected migratory shorebirds, resident nesting shorebirds and waterbirds were undertaken before submission of the proposal in 2018 and an update in 2020 were key, before the Shire finally approved the proposal in July 2022. Since then the Shire has funded the installation of a fence across the island, delineating the sanctuary and signage to inform the public of the birdlife and restricted access.
Photography by J. Fleming and B. Schur.