Straw necked ibis at Barmah-Millewa Photo: Heather McGinness

Waterbirds Research

Releasing water in the Murray–Darling Basin for environmental purposes is often aimed at supporting the breeding activities of waterbirds in order to sustain their populations. We know broadly where waterbirds gather to breed in the Basin, and the kinds of water flows that are needed to support nesting and chick-rearing until young birds can leave the nest and survive independently (known as ‘recruitment’). Managers have identified two areas where improved knowledge would support better management of environmental flows. First, an improved understanding of the habitats that provide food for growing chicks. Second, recent losses of colonies show there is limited knowledge about species site choices, nest success and eventual recruitment, and managing nesting habitats and predators.

Research focus

The research will concentrate on understanding which flow regimes best support waterbird recruitment, and which environmental threats and pressures affect waterbird recruitment. Maximising the recruitment of young waterbirds into the adult population necessarily depends on the number of healthy chicks that fledge from each nesting colony, meaning that we need to protect and maintain nesting habitats both between and during floods.

The study will focus on colonially-breeding waterbirds such as ibis, egrets and spoonbills because they are important species for water management, are easily surveyed, and have known breeding locations. Between them, they represent a range of feeding and nesting habitats and are considered to be a reasonable model for other waterbirds in the Basin.

Our approach

To uncover the gaps in current knowledge, the Waterbirds team consulted environmental water managers and scientists, and reviewed existing published knowledge. We found two main avenues for research:

  • Where and what are the critical foraging habitats for breeding waterbirds? How might these be affected by environmental flows and threats such as habitat change?
  • What critical nesting habitat characteristics need to be supported and how do these affect recruitment? How might environmental flows, vegetation management, and pressures such as predation threaten these characteristics?

What will the research be used for?

The Waterbirds research program is aimed at helping managers to identify, maintain or restore key habitats, and better understand the scale of habitats and environmental flows that are required for successful breeding. It will produce practical information for better managing water, vegetation and feral animals to ensure ‘event readiness’ at nesting sites during and between floods to maximise recruitment. The research will also identify key nesting habitats and foraging sites, and equip managers with the information they need to maintain or restore them.

Research activities

Our field researchers will be working in known waterbird nesting sites in four sites spread across the Basin. We will use a number of techniques to collect data, including:

  • On-ground field surveys at breeding sites to identify species, track the number and size of breeding colonies over a breeding season, and monitor water levels. Surveys will also identify critical characteristics of nesting and foraging habitats, and estimate foraging success rates.
  • Satellite GPS tracking devices will track the individual movements of adult and juvenile straw-necked ibis during and after nesting. This will enable us to calculate how far birds are travelling to forage, where they forage, where juvenile birds disperse to once they are independent, and where adults go after breeding. It will also reveal whether individuals return to the same sites to breed in subsequent years. This will be one of the largest satellite GPS tracking studies of any bird species in Australia.
  • Bird identification bands will be attached to the legs of birds to permanently track their individual movements throughout Australia, contributing valuable knowledge to the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS).
  • Motion-sensing and time-lapse cameras will be focused on nests throughout the breeding season, enabling us to quantify the feeding frequency and survival of chicks through to fledging, and the affects of threats like predation and water level changes.

Nesting spoonbills Photo: Heather McGinness



PDFFact sheet. 7 Background and work program (1040 KB)