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, 16 February 2017

Seabirds Under Threat: Death by Helium Balloon

Stomach contents of dead albatross on Midway Attoll. Pic Chris Jordan
The deaths of three albatross in south-east Queensland have been linked to their consumption of helium balloons, highlighting a growing threat to seabirds and other marine life around the world posed by the disposal of balloons and other plastic rubbish. One of the balloons was used to promote food outlets in a Brisbane shopping centre.

All three albatross were found dead in 2015. A young Black-browed Albatross (listed internationally as Endangered) was found during a pelagic seabirding trip off Southport. The curling ribbon from a helium ribbon was found floating from the bird's mouth - a clear indication that the attached balloon or balloon remnants had either choked the bird or blocked its gastro-intestinal tract, causing it to starve.

Dead albatross found off Southport. Pic Tod Burrows
On Fraser Island, a Light-mantled Albatross (listed internationally as Near Threatened and another rare visitor to Queensland waters) was found beach-washed. The bird was collected by a member of the public and subjected to a university neocropsy. The examination revealed that a knot from a helium balloon had blocked the gastro-intestinal tract, which had very likely caused its death.

Light-mantled Albatross - balloon knot blocking gastro-intestinal tract

Balloon knot after extraction from Light-mantled Albatross gastro-intestinal tract
Also on Fraser Island, a Grey-headed Albatross (listed internationally as Vulnerable and a rare visitor to Queensland waters) was found beach-washed by a member of the public and was similarly subjected to a university neocropsy. The examination unearthed pieces of plastic and material from two different helium balloons (both shades of red) but it could not be confirmed that the foreign material had killed the bird. Its general condition was poor, with no body fat and wasted muscles; the plastic may have caused it to starve, although many beach-washed seabirds are in poor condition.

Balloon remnants removed from Grey-headed Albatross gut

Balloon remnant found in Grey-headed Albatross
The branding on a balloon in the Grey-headed Albatross matches that of promotional balloons handed out during a twice-yearly food extravaganza promoted by Sunnybank shopping plaza in Brisbane. An estimated 20,000 people came to the last $2 Food Trail in November. The provision of free red helium balloons "for the kids" features prominently in Sunnybank's promotional material. 

Sunnybank Plaza balloon showing same branding as a balloon in an albatross victim, above, and below, the event being promoted. 

You don't need to be Einstein to work out that hundreds and possibly thousands of helium balloons have found their way into the atmosphere from this single source twice a year. The release of helium balloons is used extensively for commercial promotional events, weddings, funerals and all manner of things. When floating balloons reach about 10,000m, they explode and remnants fall to ground or water.

While some manufacturers claim balloons are bio-degradable, they can in fact persist for many months in the environment because of the addition of chemicals and dyes in balloon manufacture. Apart from the danger of balloon remnants blocking gastro-intestinal tracts, the string attached to a balloon can strangle or entrap animals.

Stomach contents of a Midway Attoll albatross - pic Chris Jordan

The balloon remnants are irresistible to seabirds and other marine life. A study last year in the journal Science Advances showed that microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide smell linked to algae coating the rubbish; the chemical compound is the same cue that triggers some seabirds to forage for krill. Balloon remnants and other plastic rubbish can physically resemble many of the animals preyed upon by seabirds and other marine life.

A series of photographs by Chris Jordan of plastic rubbish found in the guts of dead seabirds at Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific dramatically demonstrates the extent of the problem. A 2013 study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin of nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on Heron Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef - a relatively pristine site - showed 21% of chicks were fed plastic rubbish, with each chick consuming more than 3 pieces of plastic.

The problem is going to get worse, much worse. A 2015 study in the journal Science reported that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic rubbish enters the sea every year from a mind-boggling 275 million metric tons of plastic waste  produced annually. By 2025, the amount of plastic rubbish could reach 155 metric tons annually unless waste management techniques improve.

According to a 2015 report by the National Academy of Science in the U.S., concentrations of plastic pollution in the ocean have reached 580,000 pieces per square kilometre.  Analysis of studies reported in the literature between 1962 and 2012 revealed that 29% of individual seabirds had plastic in their gut.

Back to the local helium balloons. NSW is the only Australian state or territory to impose controls on their use, prohibiting the release of 20 or more balloons at a time. The Sunshine Coast Council in Queensland is the only local authority in the country to ban the release of balloons into the atmosphere, with the city of Ipswich considering a similar move. 

The albatross deaths highlight the deficiencies of these controls. Seabirds don't recognise local authority boundaries. Balloons released in Brisbane killed albatross found on Fraser Island. Limits on numbers of balloons released simultaneously won't account for thousands being given away individually at commercial events, as in the case of Sunnybank Plaza.

Wandering Albatross, this one alive, for the moment
In Queensland at least, there is no light on the horizon. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has declared there will be no ban on helium balloons in her state. "We are not going to be doing that," the Premier said. "So let's just put that to rest, that's it, end of story."

A small glimmer of hope. When I contacted Sunnybank Plaza, their marketing manager, Liza Smith, who oversees the food festival event, was horrified at news of the seabird deaths. Ms Smith says that coincidentally, Sunnybank Plaza had decided in the past week not so supply helium balloons at future events. "There is an awareness that this is not a great thing to be doing," Liza said.

Amen to that. A petition for a nation-wide ban on helium balloons can be found here.

Advances 2016
 Together, these results suggest that plastic debris emits the scent of a marine infochemical, creating an olfactory trap for susceptible marine wildlife. We demonstrate experimentally that marine-seasoned microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide (DMS) signature that is also a keystone odorant for natural trophic interactions. We further demonstrate a positive relationship between DMS responsiveness and plastic ingestion frequency using procellariiform seabirds 
To investigate what attracts birds to debris, the scientists put beads made from the three most common types of plastic - high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and polypropylene - into the ocean at Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay, off the California coast. Three weeks later, the beads were collected and the smell they gave off was analysed  -The plastic was found to give off a sulfur compound, dimethyl sulfide (DMS), linked to the algae which coated the floating plastic. The same team had previously shown that DMS is the chemical cue that triggers certain seabirds to forage for krill - or as the scientists put it “the birds’ version of a dinner bell”

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Yandina Creek Wetland to be Restored and Protected

Scott, Anna & Sam Dwan at the wetland this week
It's wonderful to report that finally, following a 3-year battle, the 200ha Yandina Creek Wetland is to be restored. What follows is the full text of an article of mine prepared for publication in today's edition of The Weekend Australian. Thanks to various organisations, especially BirdLife Australia, that lent their support to the campaign, along with the efforts of many individuals, notably the indomitable Judith Hoyle.

An internationally significant wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast that was destroyed when government authorities dismissed it as unimportant is to be restored in a move which paves the way nationally for a fresh approach to environmental management.

The 200ha Yandina Creek wetland will be recreated by Unitywater in what the Queensland corporation described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” in the heart of one of Australia's fastest growing tourist destinations.

The Dwan Family at the wetland when it was drained in 2015: Pic Glenn Hunt
The wetland was home to critically endangered wildlife protected under Commonwealth and state laws as well as large numbers of migratory shorebirds protected under several international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

However, the wetland was drained after the federal and Queensland governments, backed by local councils, determined it was not worth protecting because it had been created artificially.

The failure of three levels of government to protect the wetland sparked debate about a key principle at the heart of environmental decision-making in Australia: whether an environmentally significant area deserves protection if it is shaped by human activity.

The area had been natural wetland before it was developed for sugar cane farms in the 1920s. Two Yandina Creek farm properties were sold to developers in the mid-2000s after the closure of the Nambour sugar mill.

The new owners failed to maintain floodgates that prevented inundation by tidal flows from the Maroochy River. After the floodgates collapsed in 2012, the land was swamped twice daily at high tide, recreating a wetland.

The developers leased the properties back to their original farmer owners in 2015 to repair the floodgates and drain the wetland so cane crops could be re-established. Large numbers of black swans and other protected waterbirds were nesting at the time.

The federal and Queensland governments rejected calls to intervene to block the drainage plan; Queensland Environment Minister Steve Miles dismissed the wetland as “highly modified”.

Government indifference was echoed by mainstream environmentalists. The Australian Conservation Foundation and Queensland Conservation Council ignored the issue; there is no mention of it in the archives of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council.

Drainage canals at the wetland this week
However, a campaign by bird-watching and community groups to rehabilitate the wetland was stepped up, with thousands signing petitions demanding government action.

Government sources said coverage of the issue by The Weekend Australian prompted a rethink by Dr Miles, who inspected the site.

Unitywater chairman Jim Soorley, the former Brisbane Lord Mayor, was approached to examine the rehabilitation proposal.

Unitywater acquired the properties late last year for $4.1 million and is implementing a management plan to restore the wetland, with flood-gates being reopened in stages. Water levels at the site this week were boosted by increased flows through drainage canals.

Dr Miles said he recognised the significance of the acquisition and the Queensland Government was co-operating with Unitywater during the project's early stages.

Unitywater is a statutory authority, owned by local councils, that discharges effluent from sewage treatment plants into the Maroochy River, boosting potentially harmful nutrient levels in the river. The restoration plan allows Unitywater to offset that pollution by extracting nutrients and sediments from the river in water that returns to the wetland through reopened floodgates.

The project will be overseen by Unitywater infrastructure planning chief Simon Taylor, who has wide experience with rehabilitating wetlands overseas.

Mr Taylor said extensive investigations were undertaken into the benefits of restoring the wetland.

As the owners of this land we intend to bring these wetlands back to life,” Mr Taylor said.

Nature will be allowed to take its course in a way that is managed to achieve win-win outcomes. This will translate into benefits for our nutrient offsetting as well as for the environment - a great outcome for everyone.”

BirdLife Australia Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle said the restored wetland will be one of the most important sites for wildlife on the east Australian coast.

BirdLife Australia's Judith Hoyle
There was a belief by government that an artificial wetland was not worth saving but the presence of such a wide diversity of species demonstrated that this was not the case,” Ms Hoyle said.

We need to look at innovative solutions such as creating new habitat or in this case, protecting artificial wetlands, so birds and other wildlife have somewhere to go as natural wetlands around the country continue to dry up or be destroyed.”

Unitywater plans to collaborate with BirdLife Australia and local residents in management plans for the site and to allow public access to the wetland, with authorities believing it has considerable potential as an ecotourism destination.

Scott and Anna Dwan, whose property adjoins the wetland, welcomed Unitywater's restoration plan.

This is exactly the sort of thing we need to do if we want to ensure a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren,” Mr Dwan said.

We want our kids to grow up learning to appreciate birds and the natural environment. It's better than fiddling with Playstation.”

Looking towards Mt Coolum at the wetland this week
The Yandina Creek wetland will abut 440ha of woodland reserves near the tourist heartland of Coolum Beach. The Sunshine Coast Council is examining the prospects of protecting a further 100ha of seasonally inundated land it owns in the area. A council spokesman said the area was presently zoned for sport and recreation, but its future would be determined by the outcome of environmental assessments. 

Wildlife occurring in the wetland before it was drained included the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe and the critically endangered Curlew-Sandpiper.

End of newspaper story; the last few paragraphs were omitted from the published version.

Flooded track in wetland's western sector this week
Please note there is not yet public access to the site. Water has only just begun returning and it will be some time before the wetland is re-established. The main floodgates remain closed at the time of writing but will be opened over time as Unitywater carefully monitors water flows. It appeared this week that a floodgate upstream of the main gates was open as the wetland's western sector was replenished.

Cane on the wetland properties
A small area of sugar cane had been planted in a corner of the properties before they were acquired by Unitywater. This area will revert to wetland or grassland.

Dead Australian Water-Rat
Of concern were a couple of dead Australian Water-Rats that I found on the edge of the properties. I am not sure if this is a water quality issue - acid sulfate levels rose when the wetland was drained and it will take some time for these elements to be washed away - or due to 1080 baiting for wild dogs. I have found a few dead water-rats around the wetland over the years; in all cases, there is no evidence of them having been caught in fish traps or attacked by predators.

1080 baiting