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.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Camping at Amamoor and Local Bird Bits

Noisy Pitta
Amamoor State Forest seemed like a good place for a winter camp after our last campout there in 2012. Since then the area has seriously flooded a couple of times and the Cedar Grove camping ground has been reconstructed. No sign of the Powerful Owl seen during the last camp or the Masked Owl seen in the area since, but lots of nice birds about anyway. Quite a few Noisy Pittas were surprisingly vociferous for this time of year.

Amamoor Creek
Amamoor Creek was as delightful as always. No platypus this time though the Azure Kingfishers were frequent. A fruiting tree by the creek was very active, with 20+ Wompoo Fruit-Doves in attendance along with Australasian Figbird, Regent Bowerbird and Satin Bowerbird. Paradise Riflebird, Russet-tailed Thrush and White-eared Monarch were among other good birds in the rainforest, while White-throated Nightjar, Tawny Frogmouth and Southern Boobook were calling at night; again it is early for the nightjars to be vocalising.
Wompoo  Fruit-Dove

Azure Kingfisher
Spotted Pardalotes were nesting in tunnels in the creek banks, shifting nesting material seemingly late in their breeding season. While on the long ridge circuit, a pair of Glossy Black Cockatoos was a nice find. New Holland Honeyeaters, here evidently at the northern end of their range, were very common. Dusky Honeyeater was also common.

Dusky Honeyeater

New Holland Honeyeater

Spotted Pardalote
The full list of birds seen can be seen here. A sluggish Red-bellied Black Snake was making the most of the winter sun.

Red-bellied Black Snake
Closer to home, a Brown Falcon was attending a nest in the cane lands near Bli Bli.

Brown Falcon on nest
While at the Parklakes Wetlands, Spotless Crake and Wandering Whistling-Duck were seen on consecutive visits.

Spotless Crake

Wandering Whistling-Duck

Black Swans appear to be nesting early. These birds were at Lake Macdonald.

Black Swan on nest
Quite a few raptors are still in the vicinity of the recently drained Yandina Creek Wetlands, including Swamp Harrier and Grey Goshawk.

Grey Goshawk

Swamp Harrier

This Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo was cracking a pine cone close to home at Mt Ninderry.

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Wetlands Drained but in the Spotlight

Scott, Anna and Sam at the wetlands. Pic by Glenn Hunt
Here is a transcript of my feature and news story in The Weekend Australian about the drainage of the wetlands (see here for before-and-after images of that, and links at the bottom for further action options). I try to explore here the wider implications of this disastrous (though reversible) move for environmental decision-making in Australia.  Glenn's picture (above) made the front page.

Wildlife left high and dry

Inquirer  Section.

Hundreds of ducks, herons and other waterbirds jostled for space in the calm waters of the Yandina Creek Wetlands in the heart of Queensland's bustling Sunshine Coast, as stately black-necked storks and brolgas patrolled the shoreline. That was the scene until the entire 200 hectares of wetland, regarded as a site of international importance, were drained in just 48 hours last weekend.

Swans and other protected waterbirds were attending nests at the time; an unknown number of stranded chicks are likely to have starved or fallen prey to dogs and foxes. The area provided refuge to federally listed endangered and critically endangered wildlife, along with numerous migratory shorebirds protected under three treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

The wetlands had great potential, according to expert analysis, to mitigate the consequences of flooding in low-lying parts of the Sunshine Coast - one of Australia's fastest growing cities – that are highly flood-prone. Ecologists and wildlife experts who viewed the site regarded it as having outstanding biodiversity value. Community groups say that in a region which trumpets its appeal as an ecotourism destination, the wetlands could have been a big drawcard.

In the end, none of these arguments counted. In a move that highlights fundamental pitfalls in environmental decision-making in Australia, the federal and Queensland governments, along with local authorities, made no effort to prevent the wetlands from being drained. Why? Environmental regulators concluded that the Yandina Creek Wetlands were unworthy of protection because they were unnatural.

Until this week, the wetlands were a mosaic of mangroves, reed-beds, grasslands and deep-water pools. Today, what remains is a two kilometre-stretch of mud and sludge wedged between the imposing peaks of Mt Ninderry and Mt Coolum. Close by are the Sunshine Coast's sparkling beaches and the Palmer Coolum Resort, owned by local federal MP Clive Palmer, who has added his voice to a growing chorus of criticism being directed at federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and state and local authorities for failing to protect the wetlands.

Controversy over the fate of the wetlands raises wider issues about political correctness and public service mindset. The wetlands could be drained, according to government correspondence, because they had been “highly modified” by human intervention; they were therefore not regarded as being a “high priority” for conservation. Endangered wildlife and other attributes were irrelevant because the wetlands did not fit the regulatory definition of “nature”.

It is the same mindset that says the rangelands of inland Australia, or the savannah woodlands of the tropical north, can be protected not by good management practices on grazing properties, but only by locking up extensive “natural” areas in national parks. The parks are then left largely to manage themselves, notwithstanding a host of human-related problems ranging from plagues of feral animals and exotic weed invasions to out-of-control wildfires.

It is not just governments that resonate with this mindset. The country's peak conservation body, the Australian Conservation Foundation, ignored repeated pleas from residents and wildlife experts to support efforts to protect the Sunshine Coast wetlands.

The wetlands occurred on two properties that grew sugar cane before the nearby Nambour sugar mill closed in 2003. Much of the 10,000ha of Sunshine Coast cane land was acquired at the time by property developers as long-term investments. The owners await the seemingly inevitable time when authorities, under pressure from the housing needs of South-East Queensland's booming population, rezone the land from rural so that real estate projects can proceed.

The Yandina Creek landholders had over the past decade left their property to fend for itself. The cane lands are criss-crossed by drainage canals connected to the tidal Maroochy River, with water flow being formerly controlled by floodgates. The floodgates fell into disrepair, allowing low-lying land to be inundated by millions of litres of water twice daily at high tide.

The result was the fortuitous creation of a wetland which had the bonus of being self-managing; the regular flow of saline water ensured that weeds and vegetation regrowth were kept under control. The resilience of Australian wildlife was reflected in the way in which the artificially created wetlands were embraced quickly and comprehensively by large numbers of waterbirds, native rodents, frogs and other wildlife.

Importantly, old aerial photographs suggest that the new wetlands closely resembled natural habitat that occurred widely in the Maroochy River lowlands before the development of the cane industry last Century.

Commonwealth guidelines indicate that the wetlands are internationally and nationally significant - a point not disputed by government. Under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands protection, the numbers of Latham's Snipe and other migratory shorebirds that find refuge in the area were sufficiently large to warrant that status.

Greg Hunt was alerted last December to plans by landholders to drain the wetlands so the area could be converted to cattle pasture. The plans faced hurdles under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The wetlands harboured two federally listed bird species: the critically endangered Curlew-Sandpiper and the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe. They were the refuge of internationally protected shorebirds. Either issue is regarded as a matter of national significance under the EPBCA and could trigger Canberra's intervention, in much the same way that the Rudd Government blocked the Traveston Dam in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in 2009.

Hunt ordered the department's Compliance and Enforcement Branch to investigate. At the time, Hunt insisted it did not matter if the wetlands were created artificially. “The EPBCA applies on the basis of consequences,” Hunt said. “If an action is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national importance, then the Act will apply.”

Following Hunt's move, the landholders changed plans. They leased the land back to the cane farmers who had sold it to them a decade earlier. The farmers signalled their intention to proceed with drainage plans by repairing the damaged floodgates, but that instead of cattle pasture, the properties would again be planted with sugar cane. The new plan was evidently intended to circumvent Commonwealth law by continuing a legally existing land use.

As evidence mounted in recent weeks that drainage was imminent as the floodgates were repaired, hundreds of residents and several community groups wrote to Hunt, asking for federal intervention. Hunt ignored them.

Late last week, the wetlands were drained after newly installed floodgates were opened at low tide. More than 1000 people have since signed online petitions and letters calling on Hunt to order that the floodgates be opened again tp allow water to return to the wetlands. Yesterday, in response to questions from Inquirer, Hunt said through a spokesman that his department was seeking further information to determine if the drainage may have breached the EPBCA.

Governments around the world spend large sums creating artificial wetlands because so little of the habitat survives naturally. BirdLife Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle describes the
drainage of the wetlands as “tragic”. Says Hoyle: “Any notion that wetlands are of less value because they are deemed to be highly modified or whatever is nonsense. Wildlife doesn't care one iota about that.”

Environmental consultant Brett Lane says the fate of the wetlands reflects the narrow view of environmental values held by Australian regulators: “To claim that "unnatural wetlands" are irrelevant ignores that nature can adapt to human changes to the landscape. Given the loss of natural habitats, unnatural ones are increasingly important in preventing extinction and offer a way forward to sustainable development.”

Canberra's indifference was echoed by the Queensland Government. State Environment Minister Steven Miles referred in correspondence to the wetlands as a “highly modified system that had previously been used for sugar cane production”. His department publicly dismissed the wetlands as being only of “local” significance, although wildlife there included species listed as vulnerable and near-threatened under the state laws. A departmental spokesperson conceded the assessment was made on the basis of a single site inspection; no surveys were conducted or commissioned.

The wetlands include an extensive stand of mangroves, which are protected under the state Fisheries Act. Heavy penalties apply to “unauthorised disturbances” that impact on mangroves on private land. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries investigated the drainage plans but took no action to block them.

The CSIRO conducted a scientific investigation of land use options for the Maroochy River cane lands following the closure of the Nambour mill. The CSIRO warned that the area was flood-prone and poorly drained, and its future rested in part with the conversion of former cane land to wetlands. “Maintaining or restoring wetlands is an important opportunity associated with any future land use change,” the CSIRO report says.

While Canberra and Brisbane were sidestepping the issue, the Sunshine Coast Council was under pressure to acquire the properties under its environmental levy program so they could be protected as a reserve. However, the council determined that the wetlands were not a high priority. The council insists that acquisition proposals are subject to technical assessment, but no assessments were made of the Yandina Creek proposal. Council sources say wildlife surveys and other assessments are made after, not before, property acquisitions. Sunshine Coast mayor Mark Jamieson declined to meet with community groups to discuss the proposal.

Jamieson did not respond to an offer from the Protect the Bushland Alliance for a team of scientific experts to examine the wetlands, at no cost to the council, to determine their full environmental value. The council also ignored an offer from a community group to fund a $4,500 bird-watching hide on the site.

While three levels of government signalled disinterest, the landholders had gone to the council with a scheme that would have addressed competing interests. The proposal would have protected some wetlands. Farming would proceed on part of the area and a site would be developed as an ecotourism destination; levy banks in the wetlands provided excellent conditions for viewing wildlife for cashed up wildlife enthusiasts from interstate and overseas. Nothing came of the plan; the council declines to comment on its merits.

A similar site in north Queensland, Tyto Wetlands, attracts 21,000 visitors annually and employs more than 20 staff. Federal, state and local governments have collectively poured $15 million into the development of Tyto as a reserve and ecotourism destination. The contrast between government perspectives of the two areas could not be more stark.

Steve Miles, Peter Wellington, Narelle McCarthy, Judith Hoyle, Greg Roberts
The publication coincided with a visit to the site by state Environment Minister Steve Miles and local MP and parliamentary Speaker Peter Wellington. More on that later. Dr Miles and Mr Wellington are mentioned in the news story, the transcript of which follows.

‘Artificial’ wetland drained

A wetland on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, regarded as internationally significant and home to endangered wildlife, has been drained because authorities deemed it as artificially created and not natural.
Federal and state authorities, along with the Sunshine Coast Council, rejected pleas from residents, wildlife experts and community groups to protect the 200ha wetland after regulatory officers determined that it was unnatural.
The controversy has sparked debate about a fundamental principle at the heart of environmental decision-making in Australia: whether or not an area that may have outstanding conservation value should be protected if it has been shaped or enhanced by human activity.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt yesterday ordered his department to establish whether the draining of the wetland late last week breached Commonwealth law.
Farmers who drained the wetland insisted that federal officers had indicated the move could proceed without fear of Commonwealth intervention.
The draining has left a stark, bleak landscape where once there were hundreds of migratory and resident waterbirds nesting and wading through the shallow waters that flowed into the area through compromised tidal floodgates.
Local resident Anna Dwan said she was distressed many protected waterbird chicks had been left stranded by the draining. “I am mortified that governments stand back and do nothing to prevent a wonderful area such as this from being destroyed because they think it is artificial.”
“It is a desolate wasteland out there now,” Ms Dwan said.
Mr Hunt’s Queensland counterpart, state Environment Minister Steve Miles, has also intervened in the wetland controversy after being urged to do so by the parliamentary Speaker, Peter Wellington, whose support is needed by the minority Labor government of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Dr Miles had previously dismissed the wetland as unimportant on the advice of his department but yesterday he visited the site behind Coolum Beach with Mr Wellington.
It had been decided that the wetland should not be protected because it had been “highly modified” by human intervention.
The wetland provided refuge to wildlife listed as endangered and critically endangered under commonwealth law.
The wetland is on land formerly used to grow sugarcane. Farming ceased when the land was sold following the closure of the Nambour sugar mill in 2003. Floodgates that controlled flows from the Maroochy River to drainage canals on the land fell into disrepair, allowing tidal water to inundate the area and create the wetlands.
The floodgates were repaired recently by cane farmers who had leased the land. The area was drained over 48 hours last week.
Acting federal Greens leader Larissa Waters said it was “deeply alarming” that state and federal governments failed to intervene.
Mr Hunt said yesterday that he had not given approval for the wetland to be drained. “In order to determine if the action is compliant (with commonwealth law), the department is seeking further information,” his spokesman said.
The Queensland Environment Department admitted its conclusion that the wetlands were not worth protecting was based on a single site visit, and that no scientific studies had been conducted.
Mr Wellington, who is the local MP, said he asked Dr Miles to intervene because he was convinced of the case to protect the wetlands.
“Since the demise of the sugar industry, these areas now have a significant role as reserves for wildlife,” Mr Wellington said.


Friday, 17 July 2015

Yandina Creek Wetlands Have Been Drained

The nationally significant Yandina Creek Wetlands - habitat for rare and endangered wildlife and large numbers of threatened migratory shorebirds - have been drained in recent days. Many waterbirds were nesting at the time. Although alerted to the drainage plans, the federal Government, the Queensland Government and the Sunshine Coast Council have collectively done nothing to try to protect the area.

Many hundreds of waterbirds that were present on the wetlands just a few days ago are gone. The entire wetland area of 200 hectares has been drained. Yet if action is taken soon, the drainage works can be reversed. Below is a series of before and after snaps to demonstrate what has transpired.

(A1) Here is a recent image of the wetlands with the backdrop to the west of Mt Ninderry.

(A2) This is what that area of deep freshwater lakes looks like now.

(B1) This image shows how the wetlands appeared looking east, towards Mt Coolum.

(B2) This is what that area looks like now.

(C1) This area was favoured by the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe and large numbers of migratory Latham's Snipe.

(C2) This is what that habitat looks like now.

(D1) This area was frequented by hundreds of ducks and other waterfowl.

(D2) About 20 pairs of Black Swan were sitting on nests last week, including this bird. Pacific Black Ducks, Purple Swamphens and Pied Stilts were also attending nests in this part of the wetlands.

(D3) This is what that spot looks like now.

(E1) This area of sedges and rushes was the habitat of skulking birds such as Lewin's Rail and Spotless Crake.

(E2) Here is what is left of it.

(F1) A recent image of Yandina Wetlands from Mt Ninderry, looking east.

(F2) The same area after drainage.

How did it come to this? The 200-hectare Yandina Creek Wetlands ticked all the boxes. This wetland was without equal in terms of biodiversity in the Sunshine Coast region. It was one of the finest wetlands of its kind in the whole of Queensland, embracing a wide range of habitats including mangroves, sedges, grasslands, mudflats and deepwater pools. It harboured rare and threatened species including the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe, and provided habitat for hundreds of migratory shorebirds protected under international treaties. The wetlands had enormous value for flood mitigation in a highly flood-prone area. They had great potential as an ecotourism destination.

Trees destroyed during drainage works 
Yet the federal Government, the Queensland Government and the Sunshine Coast Council did nothing to stop the drainage works, ignoring representations from numerous individuals and organisations over the past six months.

Their reasoning?  Firstly, the powers-that-be concluded that drainage works are part and parcel of an existing land use. The wetlands are comprised of properties where sugarcane was grown before they were sold 10 years ago. The new landholders, who include wealthy Sunshine Coast property developers, failed to maintain floodgates that controlled tidal water flows from the Maroochy River to drainage canals on the properties. That meant the land could be inundated twice daily by tidal water through broken floodgates (see here for more), thereby creating the wetlands.

F(1) Tidal waters had flown through broken floodgates, replenishing the wetlands.

F(2) New floodgates have blocked the water flow.

The wetlands were able to be drained now because the landholders - aware of mounting public pressure on governments to do something - repaired the floodgates, thereby legally continuing - in the eyes of government - an existing land use.

Secondly, governments decided at all three levels that the wetlands are unimportant because they had been "modified" by humans. In a sense, according to public officials incapable of thinking outside the box, the wetlands are of no significance because they were created artificially. This blinkered view ignores three fundamental points.

Firstly, artificial or not, the wetlands attracted an extraordinary variety and abundance of wildlife, much of it protected under state and Commonwealth law. Secondly, the Yandina Creek Wetlands resemble habitat that was widespread in the Maroochy River flatlands before the development of sugar cane plantations many decades ago; what has occurred essentially is that natural habitat was restored. Thirdly, governments around the world are spending large sums of money creating wetlands because there is so little of the habitat remaining in its "natural" state.

None of that rings any bells  for our governments. Where to now? The Sunshine Coast Council and the federal and Queensland governments can be lobbied to reverse the drainage works by insisting that the floodgates be opened or removed. One or other governments can come up with the funds necessary to acquire the wetlands for a conservation reserve. The Queensland Environment Minister, Steven Miles, plans to visit the site soon. However, landholders have refused the minister access to the properties. News of his pending visit is believed to have triggered the move to drain the wetlands.

At the request of Peter Wellington, the local MP and parliamentary Speaker, Mr Miles has taken an interest in the wetlands, even though his department is on the record as dismissing the area as unimportant because it is "modified". Mr Miles can be asked to provide funding to the Sunshine Coast Council to help acquire the wetlands, and to ensure that state laws protecting important wetlands and threatened wildlife are complied with:

Hon Steven Miles,
Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection,
GPO Box 2454,

Black-necked Stork at Yandina Creek Wetlands

A petition has been launched calling on the federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, to provide funding to the Sunshine Coast Council to enable it to acquire the properties:  see here for the link .  Mr Hunt can be written to and asked to provide funding and to ensure that Commonwealth laws are complied with, whether or not the habitat of endangered, protected wildlife has been "modified":

Hon Greg Hunt,
Minister for the Environment,
PO Box 274,
Hastings, VIC, 3915.

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

BirdLife Australia has produced an online letter that can also be forwarded to the mayor: see here for access to the letter.

A Facebook page has been created for the wetlands -
see here.

Also, a Twitter hashtag for the wetlands: see here.

A full report on the case for saving the wetlands can be found here.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Sunshine Coast Pelagic Trip July 2015

Soft-plumaged Petrel
An unusual mix of warm water and cold water seabirds was the outstanding feature of our pelagic trip off Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast on Saturday July 11. As the subtropics met the subantarctic, the highlights were sightings of Soft-plumaged Petrel and White-chinned Petrel - two species that are very rarely recorded in Queensland.

Australasian Gannet
Our departure from the Mooloolaba Marina at 7am on a perfect winter morning was preceded by several days of strong south-easterlies off the east Australian coast. A formidable front from the Antarctic was moving north towards the south-eastern states, promising the coldest conditions for several years. As we headed out to sea, large numbers of Australasian Gannets were feeding on what appeared to be an invasion of bait fish in Sunshine Coast waters. Quite a few Humpback Whales were seen, with one or two breaching on the horizon.

Providence Petrels
We arrived at the edge of the shelf in just under 2 hours, cutting the engine 35 nautical miles offshore in 345 metres at 26'36'479'S; 153',43',165' E. A barely discernible swell was the order of the morning with a gentle northerly breeze of 4-6 knots. The wind picked up a little as the day progressed, reaching about 12 knots by lunchtime, and with the temperature hovering between 18 and 22 degrees all day, it was a comfortable outing.

Antarctic Prion
As soon as we reached the shelf we saw what was probably a second-year Black-browed Albatross, but it didn't wait around. The first of many Providence Petrels appeared and the birds were clearly hungry as we began laying a trail of shark liver berley; an exceptionally large number of this species was recorded for the day.

Antarctic Prion
Fairy Prion - Pic by Rob Morris
The petrels were soon joined by a smattering of Fairy Prions. This species also was about the vessel for the whole time we were off the shelf.  The Fairy Prions were joined soon after by the first of a few Antarctic Prions - the first record of this species for the Sunshine Coast - to be seen as the morning progressed. The occasional Hutton's Shearwater put in an appearance along with a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels.
Common Noddy
A Sooty Tern was an unexpected visitor at this time of year. A Common Noddy was another subtropical species we did not anticipate seeing in winter.

Kermadec Petrel
We were wondering what other petrels might be among the hordes of Providence Petrels when an intermediate phase Kermadec Petrel appeared late in the morning. Things were looking up.

Kermadec Petrel
Soon after, a Tahiti Petrel joined the show. While common in summer, this species is rarely seen in winter. Then a Soft-plumed Petrel turned up, performing nicely for the cameras as it hung about the boat for about 15 minutes. This species has been recorded in Queensland perhaps on just two or three occasions previously. Another unexpected winter visitor was a single Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

Soft-plumaged Petrel
Soft-plumaged Petrel
A second Common Noddy showed, as did a first-year Black-browed Albatross. (We had expected to see more albatross on this excursion after the good numbers seen off the Gold Coast a couple of weeks earlier.) With a change for the worse in the weather looming, we were thinking of turning around when a White-chinned Petrel appeared behind the boat; another species known from Queensland from just a handful of records. Then a second Kermadec Petrel flew in.

White-chinned Petrel
We had drifted almost 10 nautical miles in a south-easterly direction to a depth of 580 metres when we turned around at 1.45pm after 4.5 hours on the shelf. We arrived back at the marina a little after 3.30pm, pleased with our efforts for the day.

Species (Total Maximum at One Time)

Black-browed Albatross 2 (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 10 (4)
Antarctic Prion 8 (2)
Fairy Prion 50 (6)
White-chinned Petrel 1 (1)
Soft-plumed Petrel 1 (1)
Kermadec Petrel 2 (1)
Providence Petrel 250 (60)
Tahiti Petrel 1 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 6 (2)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 1 (1)
Australasian Gannet 200 (20)
Sooty Tern 2 (1)
Crested Tern 20 (4)
Common Noddy 2 (1)
Silver Gull 8 (2)
16 species

Humpback Whale 15 (4)
Risso's Dolphin 6 (2)


Paddy Dimond (skipper),  Greg Roberts (organiser), De-Anne Attard, Ralph Brown, Phil Cross, Robyn Duff, John Gunning, Nikolas Haass, Elliot Leach, Rob Morris, Brian Russell, Andrew Stafford, Raja Stephenson, Paul Walbridge.