Bringing Back the Bunyip Bird

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Australasian Bittern_Phillip WilliamsAustralasian Bittern_Phillip WilliamsAustralasian Bittern Summit 2023 held in Leeton on 31 January to 3 February was a resounding success.

It was well organised by a team from Local Land Services in collaboration with landholders on the Bittern Friendly rice program and supported by SunRice, Australian and NSW Government and the National Landcare program.

It was well attended by many other organisations including Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group, MDBA, CMA, NPWS, Commonwealth Environmental Water managers as well as environmental water managers from DPE. Environmental consultants and researchers also thought this a worthwhile cause by attending this conference.  Birdlife, Landcare groups, Murrumbidgee Field Naturalists and people who monitor wetlands were well represented.

Various rural and environmental consultants and water delivery corporations were also represented. Delegates from as far away as New Zealand, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland were present. Well, everyone who was anyone was there.

Speakers included Matt Herring (a well- known researcher from Murray Wildlife and Charles Darwin University, Chris Purnell from Birdlife Australia, Damian  Cook about conservation actions in North Central Victoria, Bob Green (Birdlife South East South Australia)  Emma Williams from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, Ali Borrell from the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group and Jen Spencer from DPIE. Sarah Corner from Western Australia Department of Biodiversity and Liz Znidersic about Bittern acoustic monitoring in Tasmania.

Former Birdlife magazine editor and self-named bird nerd entertained us at the Whitton Malt House with   a hilarious bird quiz.

I think congratulations are due to the LLS team for a well balanced, well organized program. 

Nella Smith

The Australasian Bittern Summit 

The Bittern Summit held in Leeton from the 31st of January to the 3rd of February 2023 attracted delegates that work in the field of wetlands and birds, from community groups such as the Murrumbidgee Field Naturalists and Country Women’s Association of NSW (CWA) and others who described themselves as bird photographers. The CWA of NSW had chosen to study Australasian Bitterns last year and Matt Herring spoke to CWA members. Australasian Bitterns are found in a number of different locations around Australia such as the southeast of South Australia on the border with Victoria, southwest Western Australia and New Zealand.  Presenters and delegates were from all these areas.

Whilst Wednesday of the Summit was dedicated to researchers presenting their research, delegates to the Bittern Summit had opportunities to go out into the wetlands. We were lucky as the weather was cooler and there were few mosquitoes. The wetlands were all full of water and birdlife after the floods and wet seasons.  On Tuesday evening the Welcome BBQ was held at Fivebough Wetlands and people took the opportunity to walk around and check out what bird species were there.  Then on Thursday buses took people to Nericon and Campbell’s Wetland and to a “Bittern Friendly Rice Crop”. Australasian Bitterns were seen at the rice crop. Access to some of Fivebough’s tracks were limited as some were still under water. Campbell’s Wetland’s boardwalk was under water. Nericon was full of water and birdlife. Keith Hutton spoke about Fivebough to delegates and Nella and other MFN members talked to delegates about the local

wetlands.  The MFN’s scopes were used.

On Friday, some of the delegates headed to the Reeds Beds Bird Hide near Mathoura and others headed to Balranald and the Lower Bidgee.  I was part of the group that headed to Balranald.  Here Matt Herring led us to two wetlands on private property.  He had promised that these places would be amazing, and they were!  Our first stop was near Paika Lake on private property.  The wetlands were divided by the road into two lakes, one of which had been manmade.  Large Carp had been prevented from entering the lakes so that the water was cleaner and suitable for native fish.  While we were there a fisheries officer was reintroducing Southern Pygmy Perch to the lake.  He was bringing the fish up from Ballarat hatchery.  The second wetland was on another private property which backed onto the Murrumbidgee River and Yanga National Park.  Here we walked along a track and the wetland on either side was rich with birdlife and very picturesque.  I had a long list of bird species I had recorded by the end of the evening.  The owners of both these private properties invested in conserving the wetlands.  It was very heartening to see such efforts put into preserving such great places for our birdlife to thrive.

The highlight of my visits to the wetlands was seeing the Great Crested Grebe, many of them with their young.  They were at all the wetlands we visited, but in greatest numbers at the wetland near Yanga National Park.  Some birds carried their young on their backs.

My thanks go to the organisers.  The Summit went smoothly, and I found the organisers, presenters and other delegates were friendly and ready to share their knowledge.  There is even talk of having another Australasian Bittern   Summit in the future.

Penny Williams


Smitten on Bittern

What a wonderful Australasian Bittern Summit to Bring back the Bunyip Bird. It definitely had a National and International feel about it with most states of Australia as well as New Zealand speakers and delegates. People from all walks of life seem to have an interest in this cryptic and secretive bird. The bird even has a town named after it. Bittern in Victoria is on the Mornington Peninsular. Who would have thought!

The conference centre at the Hydro was filled with gorgeous huge photos of the Bittern. It felt like this now famous bird filled the building. It would have been in good company with other famous faces who have frequented the Historic Hydro like Agatha Christie, the Harlem Globe Trotters and Princess Alexandra as pointed out by Leeton’s Mayor Tony Reneker.

The Bittern has attracted people who are next level passionate about this bird. A hand full of participants at the conference dinner could mimic a great rendition of a Bittern calling with actions to match.

We were all so grateful to hear the cultural significance of the Bittern by William Ingram. The story of the Bittern does differ around Australia but here in Wiradjuri Country the Bittern is a messenger and when ever you see one you should think about the message it is delivering to you. Many believed they had already had this feeling and felt the honour. William says, we don’t often see them but we feel them and can hear them. He believes we all need to listen more and speak less. Great advice.

According to Matt Herring there has never been so much love for this bird. It has been a huge decade. He has certainly had a lot to do with the increase in understanding of its cover dependent behaviour. He believes it is all about partnerships and there are wonderful partners in this program. There has also been a lot of fun with people dressing up as bittern fashioned from an old air conditioner duct. A creative sole lurks beneath.

According to Matt at the end of the day the truth is that the Riverina rice fields support a global stronghold of this bird largely due to the wonderful work of this team and their ability to crack the code of how best to understand Bittern behavior and needs. Knowing how many days are needed for ponding, when the water needs to go on and off, how to safely monitor them and how the banks need to be managed to deter feral pest such as foxes and cats. There is still a lot of work to go on to continue saving this species.

In many other parts of the world there are products on the market such as Elephant friendly tea and Stork friendly rice just to name a few. It seems there are people who are happy to pay a premium for these products and social research has been done by the group to indicate this is the case. All groundbreaking ideas that will help support the growers and assist in the enormous in-kind work that is being done. Rice fields are crucial for Bittern Conservation and now part of the ethos says Matt. There is a need to incentivise and address sustainable tradeoffs. Bittern Friendly products are feasible.

Ricegrowers providing habitat for these birds are providing homes and food for many other species of waterbirds, frogs and turtles. It was interesting to find that rice does not benefit the Australian Little Bittern (Ixobrychus dubius) as they rely more on the natural wetlands of the region.

It was also interesting to find Bittern living in more Urban Wetland areas which they have probably lived in happily many years ago. Places like Port Philip Bay and Geelong. Most of the wetlands now require management of some sort as their hydrology has been changed. There is now a need to be much more aware of their connectivity, nutrient load and water level heights. The height of the water is particularly important for the Bittern as during flooding events the numbers can drop off as high water levels impact nesting. Open areas are also important for them to graze. Slashing and managing Cumbungi and Phragmites are needed to allow for feeding and movement. Tall marshes can choke the wetlands and reduce biodiversity providing a monoculture which is less attractive to the bird. Burning and grooming the wetland are all options that need further investigation.

Managing wetland differs according to the location of the habitat. Some require watering in strategic ways to encourage species like Swamp Wallaby Grass and native sedges and reeds. Direct seeding has also been used in restoration of wetlands. Fishways have been installed in others for fish and eels to return to the wetland. This is why wetlands require a band of learned people to assist in their management. Locally we have the Fivebough, Tuckerbil Wetland Advisory Group. Across Australia there are many other groups that have researchers and universities involved in their restoration and management. Volunteers and Citizen Scientists can play a role in assisting in the restoration of these wetlands.

Some of the most important work in understanding these birds was to tag and track them. This has been very problematic and to this day the females have remained quite elusive. Tracking and tagging the birds allows researcher’s to understand their movements as they travel large distances e.g. from the Riverina to the coast.

A big congratulations to all involved in this project. It has been a huge success and to the bystanders we have loved watching the journey. 

Please see below some links for other websites of interest.

Kathy Tenison