Eye in the sky: satellite-tracking helping water managers keep an eye on waterbirds

Since 2017, ibis and spoonbill species in the Murray-Darling Basin have been sporting lightweight GPS mini-backpacks to help us understand more about these special birds.

So, what have they taught us?

The CSIRO waterbird research team, led by Dr Heather McGinness, have been working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to satellite-track the movements of Straw-necked ibis, Australian white ibis and Royal spoonbills since 2017.

By keeping an eye on waterbird movements, we are learning more about how waterbirds behave and the habitats they need during their lifecycle: where they fly, stop, feed, breed and roost.

In the past 30 years, there have been significant declines in populations of all waterbirds in south-eastern Australia, including the ibis species. Historically, waterbirds in the Murray-Darling Basin breed in large numbers during sizeable inland flood events.

Over the last few decades, because of river regulation and a drying climate, large breeding events have occurred a lot less often.

When they have happened, floods are often shorter and there's not enough time or food for the birds to raise their chicks, so breeding can fail.

Most breeding these days happens sporadically in relatively small numbers, and scientists are concerned this might not be sufficient to keep waterbird populations going in the long term.

Over the coming weeks, Dr McGinness's team hope to be out and about in breeding sites fitting transmitters to birds.

Dr McGinness said satellite-tracking waterbirds is providing key information that is helping us better manage wetlands and water.

"Tracking the movements of waterbirds is revealing an amazing level of detail about their lives and choices," she said.

"They can fly very long distances, but we are still learning how fast, by what routes, at what times of year, which wetlands are important as stopovers for them, whether they truly 'migrate' or are just being nomadic all the time and whether they are loyal to particular sites or not.

"We are also finding out more about how far waterbirds are willing to fly from their roosts or nests to feed, or how long they hang around nesting sites.

"This is all important information for water managers wanting to support breeding and feeding habitats for waterbird species survival. Satellite tracking gives us all of this, and more."

Local Engagement Officer for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, Michele Groat said this information is invaluable for supporting Basin waterbirds with water for the environment.

"Science underpins our understanding of how plants, fish and waterbirds respond to water for the environment," she said.

"This work ensures we are using our water in the best way possible to support river habitat, wetlands and animals in the Basin."

The satellite transmitters used are solar powered and extremely lightweight, generally weighing only about 1-2 per cent of the bird's bodyweight.

They are specially designed to be as unobtrusive to the bird as possible and are extremely accurate in providing location fixes.

To find out more about waterbirds in the Basin, keep an eye out for updates on the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder's Facebook and Twitter pages, and find out more about satellite-tracking via CSIRO's Waterbird Facebook page (Waterbirds Australia), Twitter (@AusWaterbirds) and Instagram (@Waterbirds_Australia).