Birdlife counting on our help

After bushfires, Aussie Backyard Bird Count needs volunteers more than ever

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LOOK, UP IN THE SKY: There's no time like the present to think about birds and how important they are to us.

LOOK, UP IN THE SKY: There's no time like the present to think about birds and how important they are to us.

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On October 19-25, load an app, head outside and look out for feathered friends.

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IT'S the most important Aussie Backyard Bird Count ever.

After last summer's devastating bushfires, which ravaged bird populations and habitats, Birdlife Australia says this year's annual inventory is crucial.

The event will run from October 19-25 and the public's help is needed as never before.

Bird count spokesman Sean Dooley says volunteers will likely see some changes from this time last year,

"We know from what people were reporting immediately after the fires that some very odd birds were turning up in backyard and parks, some hundreds of kilometres away from the fires," Sean said.

"So what we're really keen to see is whether those unusual birds are still hanging around."

He said that in some of the most severely hit areas, habitat regeneration was very slow and incapable of supporting populations.

"The bird count gives us a unique opportunity to see the differences the fires have made and how valuable our urban habitat is for birds for birds as a refuge."

In NSW, for example, new birds are appearing at places like the Central Coast and the Illawarra, and even Sydney.

But it has been hard to get a full picture of the bushfires' impact on bird numbers.

While some reports have come back, Covid-19 restrictions have limited fieldwork and the number of volunteers available to conduct surveys.

Nevertheless, in February, Sean and a BA researcher did a bird survey in the former Gospers Mountain fire zone in NSW, which engulfed 512,000 hectares.

"That was just so stark. But we did see birds in there that did survive. Remarkably, there were little fairy wrens in an area that was totally burnt out.

"We had a lot of records in March and April of rainforest birds that were clearly driven out, especially native pigeons, which were probably more able to fly out of the bushfire zones than the smaller, ground-dwelling birds."

Asked whether birds returned to their old habitats once conditions and food sources improved, Sean he said a few species have never left our towns and cities, the white ibis, or "bin chicken", being a famous example.

Others include the crested pigeon and little corella, which were both just outside the top 10 birds counted in backyards and parks last year.

"The birds that are used to the boom and bust and are more nomadic; they will often go back." Sean said.

"But birds that are driven out and aren't normally wanderers, they are possibly more likely to stay if they find a niche."

Are some species lost? Not yet, says Sean.

"Luckily, it hasn't been the death blow for any particular bird species yet, we wouldn't want to go through this again.

"But a hell of lot were really badly hit, particularly on Kangaroo Island where they lost, I think, 14 of its 16 unique species or subspecies lost 60-80% of their habitat, at least until it grows back..

Elsewhere he is concerned that some of the more common birds have lost 40% of their habitat, at least until it grows back. Even the beloved lyrebird could be in serious trouble, Sean said.

"We're trying to doing the assessments but it could be that dozens of species we had no concern about are suddenly going to appear on the threatened-species list."

For instance, the rufous scrub-bird, an ancient relative of the lyrebird found only on the mountaintops in the Gondwanan rainforest between Newcastle and the Queensland border, was down to just five populations.

"And fire went through four of those habitats," Sean said. "They're weak flyers and can't escape the flames very well. There are lot of birds we're very concerned about."

Sean says changes in the behaviour of native species had been observed even before the fires arrived.

Drought, in particular, has had a dramatic effect.

"As the drought hit hard, more inland birds were arriving on the seaboard, where most of our cities are located. But inland cities also saw more, because they are often the often patch of green around."

Waterbirds were especially evident, he said.

"The heart of their habitat is the Murray-Darling and that has been really hammered so we're seeing a lot of drought refugees."

Sean says what this "really rams home (is) the idea that we're not separate from the environment".

This can be seen in the way some birds adapt to the human environment, he says.

"We create a different habitat in our cities and built-up areas but that habitat can be still be useful for birds and form part of their natural range" .

This is one of things the bird count will explore as well as how many birds commonly seen in backyards are being displaced by spreading into urban area.

These include the aforementioned white ibis and the aggressivenoisy miner, a native woodland bird that has pushed out many smaller species.

Despite it all, Sean says there is some cause for hope.

Immediately after the fires, volunteers from BA and he public put out water and food, which certainly helped.

And there is optimism that once surveys have been conducted it will be found that more birds survived than initially thought.

"Like on Kangaroo Island the devastation looked extreme but it appears that the pockets of birds that have done surprisingly well."

HOW TO HELP 

The bird count is asking people from all walks of life to lend a hand using the #AussieBirdCount app.

The app, which can be downloaded via Google Play or AppStore, lets you take part anywhere - not just backyards, but in parks, botanical gardens, schoolyards or even on beaches - wherever you might see birds.

Twenty minutes is all that is required. You can count as many times as you like over the week.

Don't worry of you can't identify a bird: a field guide/bird finder is built into the app and on the website to help you.

The national total will be updated in real time, and the app allows you to see which species are being counted in your area.

To register or for more information, go to aussiebirdcount.org.au

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