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.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic May 2018

Antarctic Prion

This pelagic trip was touch and go with a strong south-easterly over the preceding days indicating a swell of 2-3m out wide. So it proved on the day, but the large size of - and facilities aboard - Crusader 1 allowed the boat to negotiate the tough conditions with a degree of relative comfort. A brisk south-easterly was blowing as we departed Mooloolaba Marina at 7am, departing a little later than usual so people would not need to find our meeting place in the dark. We battled big waves on the way out, seeing little close in other than a few Silver Gulls, Crested Terns and Australasian Gannets.

As we continued east an immature Brown Booby put in an appearance and then a Red-footed Booby showed briefly if distantly. An adult Brown Booby perched atop a trawler was spotted soon after.

Brown Booby

Red-footed Booby
We saw a Providence Petrel a bit further on so with a few people feeling crook in the unrelenting swell which slowed our progress, we tried our luck with a berley trail short of the shelf at 9.30am in 110m, 23 nautical miles offshore (26.483S; E153.324E). Winds were blowing from the south-east at 15-18 knots with gusts up to 20-22 knots. The swell refused to ease off all day.

A single Grey-faced Petrel came into the slick and approached the boat briefly. The first image below was the only one I managed but others fortunately did better. This is the first Grey-faced Petrel for the Sunshine Coast pelagics. Long expected here, the species is regular on the Southport pelagics so its absence to date is baffling. It seems that a few southern species like this one struggle to extend north beyond the Gold Coast, while tropical species like frigatebirds and boobies are more frequent in Sunshine Coast waters than offshore further south.

Grey-faced Petrel
Grey-faced Petrel - Pic by Louis Backstrom
We decided to head further out after a short while and laid a second berley trail at 10.40am 30 nautical miles offshore in 220m. Providence Petrels were soon about and stayed around the boat for most of the time we were out wide.

Providence Petrel

Providence Petrel
Wilson's Storm-Petrels soon appeared and again were regular visitors to the slick.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel
A single Antarctic Prion put in a brief appearance and an hour later, three more Antarctic Prions flew into the slick, these birds proving more co-operative. This species was unexpected, especially as early as May, and it's interesting that the generally more numerous Fairy Prion (in Queensland waters) was not seen.

Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion

We pulled up stumps at 1.20pm having scarcely drifted in the washing-machine conditions. Not much was seen on the way back but an Australasian Gannet coming into adult plumage close to the boat was nice. We arrived back at the marina at 3.45pm. Elist here.

Australasian Gannet
Greg Roberts (organiser), Toby Imhoff (skipper), Zoe Williams (deckhand), Louis Backstrom, Margie Baker, Tony Baker, Jan England, Richard Fuller, Malcolm Graham, John Gunning, Nikolas Haass, John Houssenloge, Mary Hynes, Sue Lee, Xiatong Ren, Rosemary Sheehan, Raja Stephenson, Carolyn Stewart, Ged Tranter, Jamie Walker, Shen Zhang.

SPECIES – Total (Total at any one time)

Grey-faced Petrel – 1
Providence Petrel – 30 (4)
Antarctic Prion – 4 (3)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel – 20 (3)
Brown Booby 2 (1)
Red-footed Booby 1
Australasian Gannet 15 (3)
Crested Tern 60 (20)
Silver Gull 20 (10)

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Twinnies turn the tables for thousands of doomed waterbirds

Paula & Bridgette Powers with Wedge-tailed Shearwaters
Paula and Bridgette Powers gaze affectionately at a Striated Heron perched statue-like in its aviary. “We got it when it was this big,” the identical twin sisters chorus together, word for word. They simultaneously signal with their fingers that the heron was a tiny ball of puff when brought to them at Twinnies Pelican and Seabird Rescue, a rehabilitation centre for waterbirds they have run for the past 18 years at Landsborough on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. After four months of tender care, the heron is due to be released soon, back into the wilds from which it came.

The so-called twinnies have had their share of the limelight. A YouTube clip of the pair in 2015 went viral, attracting three million views. They've featured regularly in the national media. The siblings dress identically every day and do everything together. The 44-year-olds have always shared a bedroom. The first time they were separated was when Paula had her appendix out as a 16-year-old; Bridgette had her appendix out three weeks later. They've scarcely been apart since. When their parents, Helen and John, organised a meeting with identical twin boys in the hope of sparking twin romances, the sisters weren't interested. They couldn't bear the thought of sleeping in separate bedrooms. “We give our love to the wildlife,” they say.

Twinnies & friends
The capacity of the siblings to speak and act in unison is mesmerising, until you get the hang of it. When they talk, it's impossible to know who says what. They either say the same thing at precisely the same time, even a full sentence, or their thoughts are so in tune that it doesn't matter who says what, because one finishes the other's comment. Paula and Bridgette share 100 per cent of their DNA. If you phone the twins and ask if you're speaking to Paula or Bridgette, you will be told: “Yes.” In a study of more than 420 twins at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, they were considered the most identical pair.

It's the twinnies' passion for native birds that brings me to their Landsborough rescue centre. Countless thousands of waterbirds of many species owe their lives to the tireless devotion of these women and their parents. “We've loved wild animals since we were this high,” they say together, each holding a hand at knee height. “Our doctor says it's in our genes… We would rescue snails from our grandmother when we were little.”

During my visit, hundreds of birds of many species are in residence. The reasons for them being there are many. Chicks fall out of nests, or the parents of nestlings are killed by cars, cats or dogs. Birds are afflicted by botulism when chemicals and other pollutants wash into waterways. Some are tangled in fishing line. Starving seabirds wash up on beaches; several Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a Flesh-footed Shearwater were brought in over the week before my visit.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater & Flesh-footed Shearwater at the centre
Birds are injured or orphaned by land-clearing operations which are increasingly rampant on the Sunshine Coast. A recently hatched clutch of Pacific Black Ducks is in care after their nesting tree was bulldozed for the Bruce Highway roadworks a short distance away. The twinnies work closely with the RSPCA and others including Australia Zoo, just down the road along Steve Irwin Way. The late Steve Irwin was so impressed with the twins' enthusiasm that he hired them to work at the zoo for a couple of years before they set their rehabilitation centre up in 2000.

Paula and Bridgette keep the birds for as long as necessary to ensure their recovery. “Other places treat a bird with botulism for four days or so then it gets enthanased,” they say. “We keep them for 8 or 10 weeks or however long it takes.” They claim a 99 per cent success rate in treating botulism. The twinnies turn nothing away. They readily admit to becoming emotionally attached to their charges: “We like to give everything a go... We hate it when we lose something.” They think nothing of waking at all hours if their charges need special attention.

Forest destruction is rampant around the Sunshine Coast
As the population of Australia's tenth largest city continues to explode, the number of birds being brought to the Twinnies centre is ever rising, and with them the cost of care and rehabilitation. Fish alone to feed the birds costs $500 a week. The twinnies' mum, Helen, says it costs $70,000 a year to run the centre. It gets $10,000 a year from the Sunshine Coast Council. The rest is paid from the family's pensions and public donations. “If somebody leaves us a $50 note we're thrilled because it means we have that little bit extra to get something,” Helen says.

The 1.8-hectare property includes a lagoon which attracts large numbers of wild birds. Many are so tame they wander around the grounds unperturbed by people. A pair of wild Australian Pelicans nests annually on the dam - a highly unusual event because these birds usually travel hundreds of kilometres to nest during periodic flooding events inland.

A wild Great Egret at the centre
The property costs $500 a week to rent and the lease expires later this year. Although they hope to renew it for five years, the future for the rescue centre is uncertain with the unrelenting pressure on family finances. The twinnies want one of the big Sunshine Coast real estate development companies like Stockland to purchase the property, which has a $500,000 price tag, with the family being allowed to live there while it functions as a wildlife rescue centre. The family would continue to pay rates and other costs with the company retaining title. “Maybe a big company like Stockland can lend a hand by doing something that's really useful for wildlife instead of just being interested in land development,” Helen says. The centre was given a $5,000 community grant last year from Stockland's huge Aura residential development at nearby Caloundra South. 

Stockland declined to respond to the suggestion that the company acquire the property but says the family can apply for further community grants, a spokesperson adding: “The Stockland Aura Community Grants Program is issued every two years and groups can apply for funding for amounts up to $50,000. The next grant is scheduled to be available mid-2019 and we encourage local groups to apply for funding through this program.” Readers might want to express a view to Stockland that more could be done to help the centre by emailing the company:

Feeding time for a young Australasian Darter
Helen Powers says the work being done at Twinnies can not be duplicated: “Nobody wants to look after waterbirds. If it's cute and furry, it'll get looked after. Or a Wedge-tailed Eagle might get a look in. But not seabirds.”   Twinnies Pelican and Seabird Rescue is open to the public and well worth a look. Donations and voluntary help are welcome.


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Camping at Amamoor


We camped for 3 nights at Cedar Grove, Amamoor State Forest. Amamoor has become something of a favourite, this being our fourth camp there. A Platypus showing closely at Amama picnic area on the way in was a good start.

Amamoor Creek
We had clear, cool weather with plenty of birds about. Paradise Riflebird was calling sporadically and a pair fed regularly close to our camp. Regent Bowerbird and Satin Bowerbird in small numbers occasionally came into the camping ground to feed. Russet-tailed Thrush was calling commonly but didn't show.

Paradise Riflebird

Regent Bowerbird
Red-tailed Black Cockatoos were seen twice, both times flying high overhead: a pair and a flock of 20+. Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo was common about the camping ground.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo
Other nice birds about the place that were easy to see included Fairy Gerygone, Wompoo Fruit-Dove, Crested Shrike-tit, New Holland Honeyeater (here at the northern end of its range), Azure Kingfisher and White-eared Monarch. Ebird list for Cedar Grove.

Azure Kingfisher

Crested Shrike-tit

Fairy Gerygone

New Holland Honeyeater

White-eared Monarch

Wompoo Fruit-Dove
Rose Robin was common throughout the area.

Rose Robin

Rose Robin
Heading west along Amamoor Creek Road, Jacky Winter was surprisingly common, with 15-20 seen or heard over 12km. Just west of Windy Ridge Nursery, at a spot where in April last year I had a flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos feeding, I found a pair of Black-chinned Honeyeaters - a rare species in south-east Queensland - in tall eucalypts by the road. Plenty of birds were here including Varied Sittella and White-naped Honeyeater. Ebird list for Windy Ridge.

Black-chinned Honeyeater

Black-chinned Honeyeater

Jacky Winter
A couple of kilometres further west, on a dry open forest ridge, a party of 4 Painted Buttonquail scurried off the road. Back at Cedar Grove, on the other side of the creek from the camping ground, a collection of fresh platelets in the vine scrub indicated the presence of Black-breasted Buttonquail. Dingoes were calling from above the camping ground, and one was seen briefly during a hike.

Painted Buttonquail

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Yandina Creek Wetland - Back from the Brink

Yandina Creek Wetland this week, with the backdrop of Mt Ninderry
With floodgates being reopened this week so the Yandina Creek Wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast can be restored, the future is looking bright for this important site. A campaign spanning six years has finally resulted in an excellent outcome for biodiversity in the heart of Australia's tenth largest city. Supporters of that campaign have suggested that its history be documented; this account is penned in response.

I began campaigning to protect a wetland along River Road, Yandina Creek, back in 2012. At the time I thought the wetland was restricted to a small area of privately owned land adjoining the eastern end of the road. I was struck by how this property was so rich in birdlife - birds included Black-tailed Native-hen and Australian Painted-Snipe, both very rare in south-east Queensland.

I was disturbed by the destruction of similar habitat on a neighbouring River Road property, and proposed to the Sunshine Coast Council (Sunshine Coast Regional Council at the time) that it acquire part of the area and protect it as a nature reserve. The proposal was rejected, largely on the grounds of cost.

The wetland this week from the summit of Mt Ninderry
I stumbled across the main area of wetland - two neighbouring properties totalling 200ha - by accident in 2014. The wetland is hidden by trees from Yandina-Coolum Road to the north and River Road to the south. One day I ventured beyond my usual wanderings and was flabbergasted to find a wonderland of birds. Flocks of migratory shorebirds flew about; a pair of stately Black-necked Storks strutted their stuff; scores of egrets, spoonbills, pelicans and other waterbirds graced the horizon in every direction.

The fallow farmland was owned by fourth generation sugar cane growers until it was acquired by property developers in the mid-2000s following the closure of the Nambour sugar mill. The new owners planned to convert it to cattle pasture initially. They hoped the land would eventually be rezoned from rural to allow residential or commercial development. The wetland was created artificially because farm floodgates collapsed in the late-2000s, allowing tidal water from Yandina Creek and Maroochy River to inundate the site.

A flock of Australasian Shoveler & Grey Teal fly over the wetland this week 
While I was in awe of what I dubbed Yandina Creek Wetland, the original smaller area on River Road was drained when that property's owners blocked the flow of tidal water to their land.
I prepared another submission for the Sunshine Coast Council, this time suggesting the acquisition of the two larger properties for conservation purposes. At the same time, I wrote and spoke to the federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, and to the Queensland Government, urging intervention because the cattle pasture plans threatened species protected under federal and state laws. In late-2014, I pulled together a comprehensive case for saving the wetland.

The wetland provided habitat for numerous bird species regarded as rare or difficult to find in Queensland. Good numbers of migratory shorebirds of various species frequented the site that are protected under several international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. The large population of one species, Latham's Snipe, at Yandina Creek indicated the wetland was internationally significant under Australian law.

Latham's Snipe
It was important to stress how preserving the rural landscape of the Maroochy River canelands was essential to maintaining the integrity and attraction of the Sunshine Coast both as a major tourist destination and as a desirable place to live. Protecting low-lying areas as wetland could play a crucial role in controlling floods as the region is notoriously flood-prone. A thriving wetland full of waterbirds and other wildlife could be a major ecotourism destination, boosting the Sunshine Coast economy while at the same time protecting biodiversity.

Wetland looking towards Mt Coolum this week
The battle for the wetland slowly began to gain traction, with publicity in the media and growing numbers of residents and community organisations coming on board in support of both the council acquiring the land, and federal and state intervention. The Sunshine Coast Daily and ABC Radio were especially supportive.

I gave talks to community groups; met with the landholders and the Sunshine Coast Council; organised online petitions; set up a Facebook page and mailing lists of several hundred supporters; and monitored developments at the site on my blog. I took people (among them Australian Formula One driving champion Mark Webber) into the wetland; they were invariably impressed with what they saw. Organisations that lent their support included Birds Queensland, Sunshine Coast Environment Council, Protect the Bushland Alliance and Noosa Parks Association.

Talking to Noosa Parks Association about the wetland, 2014
2015 was a torrid year. The landholders became increasingly hostile, threatening legal and police action as it became evident to them that the campaign risked derailing their development plans. Then the landholders decided to lease the land back to its original cane farmer owners, so the floodgates could be repaired and the site again planted with cane. The intention was to establish a continuing land use legally, thereby circumventing possible government intervention.

In June 2015, the Sunshine Coast Council rejected my submission to acquire the land for conservation purposes under its Environmental Levy. Although the wetland was easily the most diverse and largest of its kind in the region, the council determined it was low priority. No inspection of the site was undertaken; no studies were commissioned; and no reasons were given for the decision. The council ignored the advice of some its own environmental experts in reaching this conclusion.

The wetland was inundated when farm floodgates collapsed in the late-2000s
The following month, in July 2015, the wetland was drained after the floodgates were repaired, preventing further inflows of tidal water. Hundreds of waterbirds were on the site at the time; many were nesting. The site turned from a flourishing wetland to a bare wasteland in a couple of days. As I wrote then: “How did it come to this? The 200-hectare Yandina Creek Wetland 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 deep-water pools.”

Around the same time, Commonwealth and state officers inspected the site and concluded there was no case for intervention. They argued the wetland was “human modified” and therefore not worthy of conservation. This argument ignored the fact that wetlands around the world are increasingly artificial as natural habitat diminishes; just a tiny fraction remains of the once extensive wetlands on the Sunshine Coast. Moreover, the “artificially created” Yandina Creek Wetland closely resembled what was there naturally before the area was developed for cane farms in the 1920s. Nor does wildlife frequenting these places care whether or not they are artificially created. The failure of both governments to act is further evidence of the uselessness of Commonwealth and state environmental legislation.

Cane farm development in the 1920s
Things were looking grim. But three significant things happened more or less around the same time in mid-2015, and the tide began to turn, so to speak. The Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, Peter Wellington, who held the balance of power and whose support was crucial to the survival of the minority Labor government, became involved. Wellington convinced state Environment Minister Steven Miles to visit the site and meet with some of us engaged in the campaign. This proved to be a pivotal event: the Queensland Government began to have a change of heart.

L-R Greg Roberts, Queensland Environment Minister Steven MIles, Parliamentary Speaker Peter Wellington, SCEC's Narelle McCarthy, BLA's Judith Hoyle - July 2015 
Meanwhile, BirdLife Australia, the country's biggest birding organisation, became seriously active in the campaign, promoting it to a national level and ensuring that hundreds more people lent their support. BLA Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle was the driving force behind this key development.

At the same time, a substantial package I wrote as a journalist about the wetland for The Weekend Australian was splashed across the front and feature pages of the newspaper, further shaping a national profile for the cause. Photographs were a crucial weapon in the campaign. I had taken numerous images of the wetland before it was drained and the scenes of desolation after the floodgates were shut. The contrast sent a powerful message.

Then I filed complaints with Queensland Fisheries alleging the drainage works had destroyed protected marine vegetation. The lessees were required to reopen the floodgates in September 2015 and were served multiple infringement notices. The reprieve was short-lived. The floodgates were closed again three months later and the wetland drained for the second time in 2015. They have not been reopened until now.

Closed floodgates on the site
It emerged during a meeting between Judith Hoyle and Queensland Government officers in November 2015 that for the first time, the landholders were showing an interest in selling the properties, and there was a real prospect of the wetland being salvaged. The landholders had evidently reached the conclusion that the site was nothing but trouble for them and were prepared to negotiate; a commercial-in-confidence process was entered into between them and an unknown third party. BirdLife Australia and Judith beavered away in the background with efforts to persuade the Queensland Labor Government and government agencies to come to the table and ensure that this sensitive process was not derailed.

Wetland map
The identity of the third party soon emerged. Government sources say the office of Environment Minister Steven Miles was in touch with the former Labor Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley, the chairman of Unitywater, a statutory authority responsible for water supply and sewage treatment on the Sunshine Coast. Soorley, who as mayor did much to protect Brisbane's wetlands, tells me he became interested in the site after reading a BirdLife Australia article. He contacted the Unitywater chief executive, George Theo, and requested that Unitywater investigate whether nutrient capture and offsets were feasible on the land. Soorley says it was only after the positive outcome of scientific studies was confirmed with the Queensland Environment Department that negotiations with the land-owners commenced.

Waterbirds at the wetland before it was drained in 2015
The plan was for Unitywater to reopen the floodgates so the wetland would be replenished. Tidal water entering the wetland would carry with it nutrients from the Maroochy River which come from a range of different land uses. The wetland will remove some of the nutrients and Unitywater can use this to offset nutrients released after treating the community’s sewage at a nearby treatment plant.
The landholders sold the properties to Unitywater for $4 million in August 2016. Finally, all those efforts over so long by so many had paid off. The wetland was to be restored and protected.

At Unitywater's request, the news was not made public at the time of the acquisitiion. In January 2017 I put together a pictorial account of of the 150+ bird species recorded from Yandina Creek Wetland. Then in February 2017, I revealed the excellent news of the in an article which featured prominently in The Weekend Australian, and on my blog.

Yandina Creek
Unitywater entered into agreements with BirdLife Australia and the University of the Sunshine Coast to undertake studies of birds and fisheries habitat before and after the floodgates were reopened and the wetland replenished. The Yandina Creek Wetland was offically opened at a ceremony in November 2017 but is not yet open to the public.

It is a matter of regret that this otherwise edifying saga culminated in something of a sour note. The opening ceremony was clearly a significant milestone. Yet I was not invited or told of it until after the event. BirdLife Southern Queensland was there, but BLA Sunshine Coast and the volunteers surveying the wetland were not invited. Neither were the owners of properties adjoining the wetland who backed the conservation campaign. With the exception of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council, community groups that played important roles in the effort were absent. In his address to the function, Jim Soorley effectively claimed full ownership of the outcome, making no reference to the long-running campaign or the efforts of others.

On the plus side, Soorley gave a public assurance that the wetland will be opened eventually to the public. In making this pledge, Soorley debunked claims made publicly by one resident, a vocal opponent of the wetland campaign, that she had been repeatedly assured by Unitywater there would be no public access to the site. Unitywater deserves plaudits also for engaging BirdLife Australia and others to survey the wetland; BLA has successfully completed a series of pre-flooding bird surveys.

BirdLife Australia survey underway at the wetland
Four floodgates along the wetland's northern edge on Yandina Creek were reopened this week. Three floodgates in the south-east corner of the site remain closed. The result is that the northern half of the wetland has been replenished while the southern half remains dry. A Unitywater spokesperson says: “We will assess if additional gates can be opened. Our priority is to ensure none of our actions adversely affect neighbouring properties and the opening of any tidal gates needs to be well considered. Our key purpose for this site is to generate nutrient and vegetation offsets. While the opening of tidal gates is an opportunity to also improve biodiversity on the site, this is not our primary intention.”

Southern half of the wetland this week - still dry as some floodgates remain shut
In September 2016 I found another area of wetland at West Coolum, 1.5 kilometres east of Yandina Creek. This 90-hectare site has similarly been inundated by tidal water following the breakdown of floodgates on former cane farmland. The area does not appear to be as rich in birdlife as Yandina Creek but nonetheless has potential. The land is owned by the Sunshine Coast Council and zoned “open space sport environment”.

Coolum West Wetland
I wrote to the council asking that the site I've dubbed Coolum West Wetland be rezoned and protected as wetland. The council replied that it is assessing the environmental value of the land, which is separated from the Yandina Creek Wetland by the 440-hectare Coolum Creek Reserve. All three sites – Coolum Creek Reserve, Yandina Creek Wetland and West Coolum – may be protected as a contiguous 740-hectare bushland and wetland reserve in the heart of the Sunshine Coast.
Now that would be one for the birds.