Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Yandina Creek Wetlands: The Case for Conservation

YANDINA CREEK WETLANDS - A CONSERVATION CASE 
Australian Painted-Snipe: Endangered Species
INTRODUCTION

UPDATED JULY 2015
The Yandina Creek Wetlands, a short distance inland from Coolum Beach on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, has emerged as an environmental site of statewide and national importance. The presence of an unusually diverse array of rare, threatened and difficult-to-find birds in the wetlands and associated grasslands provides a compelling case for their protection as a reserve.

A proposal is before the Sunshine Coast Regional Council (Nomination Number R100) to acquire two properties (Lots 3 and 4 RP148079) that cover the wetlands - totalling almost 200 hectares - under the council's Environmental Levy Plan. Works have begun to drain the wetlands, although they are reversible. The council has ruled out acquisition in 2015-16 but left the door open to purchases in the future, possibly with financial assistance from the federal and/or Queensland governments.

The purpose of this report is to indicate the potential implications of any move to destroy the wetlands move under federal and state environmental legislation, and under local government planning regulations, and to advance the case for conserving the area. The report will be updated regularly so readers are aware of the current situation.

Yandina Creek Wetlands: Looking West to Mt Ninderry
The Yandina Creek Wetlands are on former sugarcane land that has not been farmed for 10 years since the properties were sold. The wetlands exist because they are replenished by tidal flooding from the Maroochy River through a maze of canals that criss-cross the properties; this happened because flood gates and sluices were not maintained after sugar farming ceased. Although in a sense created artificially, the wetlands and grasslands have replaced habitat which occurred naturally in the area before the development of cane farms: similar freshwater and brackish wetlands, and short wallum heathland. The canals and flood gates provide an excellent opportunity to now manage the wetlands as a viable habitat in the future. However, work is in progress to repair the floodgates and block the water flow to the wetlands.

BIRDLIFE

The bird list for the wetlands is impressive (see a full list of species at the end of this report). Species that are considered to be rare or uncommon in Australia that occur there include Australian Painted-Snipe, Australian Little Bittern, Eastern Grass Owl and King Quail. The area contains what may well be the highest density of Eastern Grass Owl in southern Queensland, with several pairs resident.

Grey Goshawk: Near Threatened
Birds that are rare, uncommon or localised in south-east Queensland that frequent or visit the wetlands include Brolga, Black-necked Stork, Spotless Crake, Baillon's Crake, Red-necked Avocet, Red-kneed Dotterel, Bush Stone-Curlew, Large-tailed Nightjar, Red-backed Buttonquail and Black-tailed Native-hen. Several of these species have been seen in the Sunshine Coast region only at this site. The record of Large-tailed Nightjar constitutes a southern extension of range for this species.

Birds considered to be more generally scarce in Queensland seen at the Yandina Creek Wetlands include Australian Spotted Crake, Grey Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon and Spotted Harrier. The wetlands and grasslands in the area at times host a large number of birds of prey when populations of native rodents (Rattus lutreolus and Rattus tunneyi) are present.

Variety of Waterbirds at Yandina Creek Wetlands
Twelve species of migratory shore birds frequent the wetlands, with a population often totalling several hundred: Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Latham's Snipe, Curlew-Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Black-tailed Godwit. Unusually large numbers of Marsh Sandpiper and Latham's Snipe occur there. Pectoral Sandpiper and Broad-billed Sandpiper are regarded as two of the rarer migratory shorebirds that visit Australian shores. Flocks of 100 or more Pacific Golden Plover are recorded. 

An estimated 120-150 Latham's Snipe gather in the wetlands prior to their northward migration - one of the largest concentration of this species recorded in Australia. About 20-30 snipe are present in the wetlands throughout the migratory season (September-April).

AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Australian Government is required to prevent actions that have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance. Two such matters pertain to the Yandina Creek Wetlands: the occurrence of Australian Painted-Snipe; and the occurrence of 12 species of migratory shorebird, including the Critically Endangered Curlew-Sandpiper.

The Australian Painted-Snipe has been recorded several times at the Yandina Creek Wetlands, with as many as seven birds present at one time. Areas of flooded stubble and exposed mud interspersed with extensive reed-beds provide excellent habitat for this cryptic bird. The species is listed as Endangered under the federal legislation, rendering it a matter of national environmental significance.  A plan for onshore developments at Pt Abbott, near Bowen, for coal-mining industry expansion will adversely affect significant habitat for the Australian Painted Snipe in the Cayley Wetlands. Offset funds could be provided by the Pt Abbott developers to purchase the Yandina Creek Wetlands to protect Australian Painted Snipe habitat.

To ensure the conservation of migratory shorebirds, the Australian Government has fostered international co-operation through three Migratory Bird Agreements - with Japan, China and South Korea. Australia is also a signatory to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention); the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. These international agreements commit Australia to take appropriate measures to preserve, restore and enhance the environment of migratory birds. The Commonwealth has international obligations to seek means to prevent damage to populations of migratory shorebirds.

Pacific Golden Plover: Migrtory Shorebird
The Yandina Creek Wetlands provide refuge to 12 of the 33 migratory shorebird species covered by these agreements that are regarded as a matter of national environmental significance. The wetlands are the most significant brackish water and freshwater site for migratory shorebirds (and other waterbirds) in the Sunshine Coast region and one of the most important in south-east Queensland. The numbers of just one of these 12 shorebird species - Latham's Snipe - found in the wetlands indicate that under the Commonwealth legislation and guidelines, it is a site of national and perhaps international importance. 

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, an action that will or is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance requires the approval of the federal Environment Minister. Any such action must undergo an environmental assessment and approval process. Penalties for taking such action without approval are substantial: a fine of up to $5.5 million and up to 7 years jail. Significant impact criteria under the act for endangered species includes any action that would modify, destroy or decrease the availability of habitat to the extent that the species is likely to decline.


Map of Yandina Creek Wetlands
The federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, wrote to the landholders, advising them of their responsibility to comply with the provisions of Commonwealth legislation. The legislation appears to require the undertaking of an environmental assessment and approval process before any proposal for development proceeds. This assessment would attempt to determine the potential impacts on the two matters of national environmental significance pertaining to the area. The department has undertaken an inspection of the properties and appears to have concluded that the drainage works presently underway do not breach Commonwealth law. This is because in the short term, the landholders plan to re-establish sugarcane plantations, thereby continuing an existing use. 

The longer term plans of the landholders are unclear. The minister can be written to and asked to ensure that the legislation is complied with, and to provide funds to the Sunshine Coast Council (see below) to acquire at least one of the three properties that comprise the wetlands:

Hon Greg Hunt,
Minister for the Environment,
PO Box 274,
Hastings, VIC, 3915.
Greg.Hunt.MP@aph.gov.au

QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT

The Queensland Government appears to have a responsibility to examine plans to drain and develop the Yandina Creek Wetlands under the Nature Conservation Act. The wetlands provide habitat for the above-mentioned Australian Painted Snipe, a species listed as Vulnerable under the state act, and for three species that were until recently listed as Near Threatened: Lewin's Rail, Grey Goshawk and Black-necked Stork. The population of Lewin's Rail in the wetlands is relatively large, with an estimated 12-15 breeding pairs. Shortly before it lost power in the January 2015 election, the Liberal National Party Government of Premier Campbell Newman removed Lewin's Rail, Grey Goshawk and Black-necked Stork from the list of Near Threatened species. However, the new Labor Government of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is reviewing the LNP's actions in substantially watering down environmental protections see here for more on the Queensland LNP's woeful environmental record.

Broken Canal Flood Gate: Yandina Creek Wetlands
Under state legislation, the proposed management intent for Vulnerable wildlife includes action to ensure viable populations are preserved or re-established, and for effective measures to mitigate any adverse impact of activities on the wildlife. The management intent for Near Threatened wildlife includes putting into effect strategies to address any threats to the conservation of the wildlife. The management intent for both Vulnerable and Near Threatened wildlife includes action to protect the critical habitat, or the areas of major interest, for the wildlife.

Moreover, Queensland has acted to ensure the protection of environmentally significant wetlands designated by the state under its Aquatic Conservation Assessment program operated by the state Environment Department's Conservation and Sustainability Services Division. The state has not undertaken any assessment to determine the worth of the Yandina Creek Wetlands.

A recent inspection from property boundaries has revealed the existence of several hectares of mangroves in the eastern sector of Lot 3. According to the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, all marine plants growing on or adjacent to tidal lands are protected under Queensland law through provisions of the Fisheries Act 1994. The destruction, damage or disturbance of marine plants without prior approval from Fisheries Queensland is prohibited. Heavy penalties apply to any unauthorised disturbances that impact on marine plants on all private and public lands. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has been alerted to the presence of mangroves on the property and of plans to drain the area. The department has investigated the matter but declines to reveal the outcome of its investigation.

The Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection has been asked to examine plans to drain and develop the Yandina Creek Wetlands to ensure that they would have no impacts on  Vulnerable and Near Threatened wildlife species. The minister has also been asked to assess whether the Yandina Creek Wetlands can be classified as a wetland protection area. Those who have written to the minister asking him to act in the interests of protecting the wetlands include Peter Wellington, the local state MP and parliamentary Speaker. The minister has agreed to visit the wetlands, although his department has dismissed the area as unimportant because the wetlands are "modified". This view ignores the fact that wetlands around the world are being created artificially because so few remain in their natural state. And the wetlands at Yandina Creek have re-established the habitat that was there naturally in any event. The minister can be contacted and asked to ensure that state laws are complied with, and for the Queensland Government to assist the Sunshine Coast Council with funding (see below) to acquire the properties.

Hon Steven Miles,
Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection,
GPO Box 2454,
BRISBANE QLD 4001.

PLANNING AND SUNSHINE COAST COUNCIL

The properties covering the wetlands are zoned Regional Landscape and Rural Production under the South-East Queensland Regional Plan, so they can not be subdivided. They are zoned Rural by the Sunshine Coast Council.

The council plans for the properties include a series of overlays which potentially restrict development plans. These include three Land Subject to Biodiversity, Waterways and Wetlands overlays. Designated overlays of Native Vegetation and Wetland cover about 30 per cent of Lot 3RP148079 - the largest of the three properties. As well, about 40 per cent of 3RP is covered by a Riparian Protection Area overlay, as is approximately 10 per cent of Lot 4RP148079, and 50 per cent of Lot 2RP107173.

Coastal wetlands in south-east Queensland are underlain by estuarine sediments potentially containing acid sulfate soils. Drainage of the wetlands could lead to drainage of the groundwater and oxidation of acid sulfate soils, leading to acid discharge into Yandina Creek and the Maroochy River, potentially affecting water quality and fish habitat. Draining can also result in the development of acid scalds on the soil surface. Much of the land in question is subject to an Acid Sulfate Soils overlay on council maps. The overlay maps can be accessed here..

Yandina Creek: Northern Boundary of Wetlands

The designated area covered by the overlays, especially on 3RP, includes some of the richest habitat of wetland and grassland - along with some of the densest concentrations of waterbirds - on the properties.  Council guidelines say the purpose of the Biodiversity, Waterways and Wetlands overlays is to ensure that any development protects and enhances ecologically important areas. Any development should protect known populations and supporting habitat of rare and threatened species listed under the above-mentioned state and Commonwealth laws. Any development should be located and managed to avoid or minimise adverse impacts on ecological systems.

The council's Criteria for Assessable Development says that rural use on property should not be located on land identified as being a wetland or waterway on a Biodiversity, Waterways and Wetlands overlay. The proposed draining and development of the Yandina Creek Wetlands may have impacts for the land identified by the council as wetland.

According to the council's Development Services Department, the council is not concerned about whether the wetlands are natural or human-modified. Any development that threatened designated wetlands or native vegetation areas would be in the breach of the Town Plan. A complaint can be lodged against any such development and that complaint would trigger a council investigation. However, landholders may be able to prove an Existing Use on farmland, which could exempt them from some provisions, even if the land has been fallow for several years.

The Sunshine Coast Mayor was asked to approve the proposal to acquire the three properties at issue under the council's Environment Levy Plan (Nomination Number R100) so they may be protected as a reserve. The properties abut the council's existing Coolum Creek Reserve and would complement its environmental value. This arrangement would also facilitate easier and more efficient management of the wetlands.

The council has decided the properties will not be acquired in the 2015-16 financial year. The cost of even one of the major properties comprising the wetlands (Lot 3 or Lot 4) would appear to be beyond the council's financial resources. It is therefore essential that the federal and Queensland governments assist with funding. Meanwhile, the mayor has been asked to ensure that drainage works have no impacts on areas designated as wetlands, native vegetation and riparian protection. The council has not undertaken any scientific assessment to determine the value of the wetlands. The mayor can be written to and asked to do all in the council's power to protect the area.

Councillor Mark Jamieson,
Mayor,
Sunshine Coast Council,
Locked Bag 72,
Sunshine Coast Mail Centre QLD 4560.

LANDHOLDERS

The largest area of land embracing the wetlands – two of the three properties proposed for acquisition; Lots 3 and 4RP148079 – is owned by members of a Sunshine Coast family which owns other properties in the region.

A number of individuals and environmental and birding organising have expressed support for moves to protect the wetlands. The landholders had been asked to consider allowing a survey of the site to be undertaken by a team of visiting experts; such a survey would attempt to paint a wider picture of the fauna and flora occurring on the properties. Unfortunately, the landholders declined permission for a survey to proceed. 

The landholders of Lot 3 had indicated their intention to develop the wetlands as farmland for cattle grazing. However, the landholders have since leased the property back to the original cane farm owners; works to drain the wetlands on the property so that cane plantations can be re-established are underway. The move appears to be designed to circumvent Commonwealth and state environmental protection laws, because it continues an existing land use (although no cane has been grown for more than 10 years). However, the landowners have not ruled out accepting a financial offer to acquire the properties for conservation purposes, and the drainage works are reversible.

The landholders of Lot 4 have declined to participate in discussions to date. Their address is the same as the Vantage Building Group - a major Sunshine Coast property developer. Their long-term plans for the property are unknown.


River Road - Flooding February 2015
The area generally floods extensively during heavy rains, raising doubts about the long-term viability of cattle grazing or residential development such as canal estate on the land. Flood mitigation alone is a powerful reason for protecting the wetlands in this flood-prone region.

SUGAR CANE FARMS AND WETLANDS

In 2003, the Moreton sugar mill in Nambour closed, removing a market for the district’s 120 cane
growers who had been harvesting cane from almost 10,000 hectares of farmland in the Sunshine Coast area. According to Future Use of Sunshine Coast Cane Landscapes, a 2006 report commissioned by SEQ Catchments from the CSIRO, most of the land – about 7,000 hectares – is flood-prone and poorly drained, limiting farming opportunities for landholders. The report says the future of the cane lands rests in part with the conversion of former cane land to wetlands for the purpose of addressing draining and flooding issues, while at the same time achieving biodiversity outcomes.
Waterfowl Flying Over Yandina Creek Wetlands
The report says: “Maintaining or restoring wetlands is an important opportunity associated with any future land use change. Improved wetland management provides significant opportunities for increased ecosystem services from the cane landscapes. Apart from retaining or enhancing the essential regulatory services for water within the floodplains, provisioning through fish habitats, nature-based educational opportunities could be expanded. There is a promising potential for re-instating wetlands or creating artificial wetlands (compatible with local conservation and land use values) for waste water polishing.” The report can be found here.

The conversion of sugar cane land to wetlands – or the reversion of farmland to its original state as wetlands - has occurred widely in Queensland and north-east NSW. For instance, Vine and Rita Papale, cane farmers in the Burdekin region of north Queensland, successfully converted part of their farm to wetlands with financial assistance from the Commonwealth after finding they were losing areas of cane to flooding.

THE FUTURE

If the Yandina Creek Wetlands are acquired as a reserve, some management issues could be addressed. A population of feral dogs is using the wetlands as a refuge; a dead Black-necked Stork was found recently in a feral dog lair. One of the major advantages of the acquisition plan is that flows through open canal gates allow the wetlands to be essentially self-managing. The frequent inundation of tidal water keeps the growth of weeds and overgrowth of Melaleuca and Allocasurina trees under control.

Black-necked Stork Remains in Feral Dog Lair: Yandina Creek Wetlands
A network of old farming roads and cane farm tramways could be upgraded to walking tracks to allow public access to an area that is aesthetically pleasing - with the dramatic backdrops to the wetlands of Mt Coolum to the east and Mt Ninderry to the west – as well as biologically significant. The potential is there for a first-class ecotourism attraction.

If the wetlands are acquired by the Sunshine Coast Council, they could be added to the adjoining Coolum Creek Conservation Park, which borders Yandina Creek in the south and Coolum Creek in the north. This conservation park, although extensive, is dominated by densely vegetated Melaleuca and Allocasuarina woodland with few open wetland or grassland areas, and little habitat that is suitable for waterbirds.

Wetlands and grasslands on another property adjoining the site were destroyed in 2012: see here for images of what can be expected if proposals for pasture development on the area proposed now for conservation proceed.

More on the recent drainage works can be found here. Those who are concerned about the wetlands can sign and send a letter online to the Sunshine Coast Mayor, urging him to act to stop and reverse any drainage works, and to undertake a comprehensive scientific assessment of the area. The letter from BirdLife Australia can be found here.

A petition can be signed calling on the federal Environment Minister to provide funds to the Sunshine Coast Council to allow it to acquire at least one of the properties concerned, and to intervene to block drainage works. The petition can be accessed here


Azure Kingfisher at Yandina Creek Wetlands


BIRD SPECIES LIST – YANDINA CREEK WETLANDS

Australasian Grebe
Little Pied Cormorant
Pied Cormorant
Little Black Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Australian Darter
Australian Pelican
White-faced Heron
Little Egret
White-necked Heron
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Cattle Egret
Striated Heron
Nankeen Night-heron
Australian Little Bittern
Black Bittern
Black-necked Stork
Glossy Ibis
Australian White Ibis
Straw-necked Ibis
Royal Spoonbill
Yellow-billed Spoonbill
Magpie Goose
Plumed Whistling-duck
Wandering Whistling-duck
Black Swan
Australian Wood Duck
Grey Teal
Chestnut Teal
Pacific Black Duck
Pink-eared Duck
Australasian Shoveler
Hardhead
Australian Black-shouldered Kite
Black Kite
Whistling Kite
Brahminy Kite
White-bellied Sea-eagle
Swamp Harrier
Spotted Harrier
Grey Goshawk
Brown Goshawk
Collared Sparrowhawk
Osprey
Brown Falcon
Nankeen Kestrel
Australian Hobby
Peregrine Falcon
Brown Quail
King Quail
Red-backed Buttonquail
Buff-banded Rail
Lewin's Rail
Baillon's Crake
Australian Spotted Crake
Spotless Crake
Purple Swamphen
Dusky Moorhen
Eurasian Coot
Black-tailed Native-hen
Brolga
Australian Painted-snipe
Black-winged Stilt
Red-necked Avocet
Bush Stone-curlew
Pacific Golden Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Red-capped Plover
Red-kneed Dotterel
Black-fronted Dotterel
Masked Lapwing
Latham's Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Marsh Sandpiper
Common Greenshank
Red-necked Stint
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Curlew Sandpiper
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Caspian Tern
Whiskered Tern
White-winged Tern
Crested Pigeon
Bar-shouldered Dove
Pale-headed Rosella
Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo
Galah
Rainbow Lorikeet
Brush Cuckoo
Fan-tailed Cuckoo
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo
Eastern Koel
Channel-billed Cuckoo
Pheasant Coucal
Eastern Grass-owl
Southern Boobook
Tawny Frogmouth
Large-tailed Nightjar
White-throated Needletail
Azure Kingfisher
Laughing Kookaburra
Forest Kingfisher
Sacred Kingfisher
Rainbow Bee-eater
Dollarbird
Red-backed Fairywren
Striated Pardalote
White-browed Scrubwren
Brown Thornbill
Mangrove Gerygone
White-throated Gerygone
Scarlet Honeyeater
Brown Honeyeater
Lewin's Honeyeater
Little Friarbird
Noisy Friarbird
Noisy Miner
Eastern Yellow Robin
Golden Whistler
Rufous Whistler
Grey Shrike-thrush
Eastern Whipbird
Welcome Swallow
Tree Martin
Fairy Martin
Australasian Pipit
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike
White-winged Triller
Cicadabird
Golden-headed Cisticola
Tawny Grassbird
Little Grassbird
Australian Reed-warbler
Willie-wagtail
Grey Fantail
Rufous Fantail
Leaden Flycatcher
Mistletoebird
Silver-eye
Olive-backed Oriole
Australalsian Figbird
Spangled Drongo
Torresian Crow
White-breasted Woodswallow
Grey Butcherbird
Pied Butcherbird
Australasian Magpie
Magpie-lark
Red-browed Finch
Chestnut-breasted Mannikin


8 comments:

  1. Greg, first thank you for this blog, I grew up at Maroochydore during the 70s and 80s and still take an interest in the environment of the area. I hope that your aim to preserve these valuable wetlands succeeds and I take a keen interest in the results
    Jason Allen

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    1. Thanks Jason. I will keep people informed of developments.

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  2. Greg - the proposal for onshore developments at Abbott Point (near Bowen) will adversely affect significant habitat for Australian Painted Snipe in the Cayley Wetlands. It may be that offset funds could be used to purchase Yandina Wetlands to provide protection for APS habitat. Worth raising with the Federal Dept.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion Peter, which has been passed on to the federal Minister.

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  3. Hi Greg. What you are doing for the environment in your local area is inspiring. I was also planning a trip to D'Aguilar NP soon to try again for Marbled Frogmouths and was wondering if you had any advice for finding this species. Thank you.

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    1. Benjamin, They are quite common about Maiala National Park , including along Browns Road.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Greg,

    It appears that the delisting or downgrading to Least Concern of many species previously protected at the state level might dilute the strength of the case made for protecting this area. The full list can be found here:

    http://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/threatened-species/changes-additions-december-2014.html

    Most pertinently, it affects Grey Goshawk, Lewin's Rail and Black-necked Stork, as well as several species that could conceivably be found in the area, e.g. Square-tailed Kite, Freckled Duck & Cotton Pygmy-goose. Word is there is a further round of amendments expected soon, potentially impacting more relevant species. Obviously there are other criteria to weigh, but it concerns me that a strong case for protecting key habitats and ecosystems like this is becoming harder and harder to build.

    I do hope that these wetlands will eventually be protected; the idea for turning it over to a dedicated conservation area is, to my mind, too good to not consider.

    RY

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