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Ecologist Dr Donna Belder bird monitoring on Scottsdale Reserve, Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, NSW. Photo: Tad Souden
Ecologist Dr Donna Belder bird monitoring on Scottsdale Reserve, Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, NSW. Photo: Tad Souden

Birdy barometer

Words by Amelia Caddy
Location: Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, New South Wales
Published 25 Mar 2024

Scottsdale’s woodland bird monitoring project sheds light on the habits of resident avifauna – and how to save them.

When ecologist Dr Donna Belder arrives at our Scottsdale Reserve, an hour south of Canberra on Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, her pack contents more closely resembles that of a picnic than ecological fieldwork. 

Woollen blanket? Check. Thermos? Check. Snacks? Check. But as she and her co-worker, Healthy Landscape Manager New South Wales Brenda Duffy, open fine nets and patiently wait for the sun to rise and birds to come, the need for creature comforts becomes clear.

It’s January 2024, and Donna is partway through one of many woodland bird monitoring trips at Scottsdale, that are in addition to our regular monitoring program. This reserve was purchased in 2006 to protect and restore the precious remnant woodlands and support the region’s declining woodland bird population.

Since European settlement, about 80% of Australia’s temperate woodlands have been cleared. The fragmented patches that remain are often in a degraded state, impacted by weeds and livestock. Unsurprisingly, this has had a devastating impact on woodland-dependent birds; one in four are now listed as threatened, and recent research shows their populations are fast declining.

Dr Donna Belder and Brenda Duffy monitor a White-plumed Honeyeater, Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, NSW. Photo: Tad Souden.

“It’s the same story as wildlife across the planet: we’re imposing change on these birds at such a rate that they don’t have time to adapt,” Donna says.

For her, this project is a chance to help reverse some of those declines. At each site, Donna sets up her nets, waits for birds to fly into them, then carefully removes the birds to band their legs and record data about the individual.

“Normally I’m recording the species, age, sex, body measurements, and wing moult. But right on dark, you want to let the birds go as soon as possible so they can find their roosts, so I’ll just put the band on the bird, and record its age and species.”

The plan is that Donna and the team will be able to recapture these birds on future monitoring trips to shed light on population dynamics – such as migration, annual survival rates and recruitment from breeding occurring at Scottsdale – as well as habitat usage.

Already, Donna has had one rare re-capture: a female Hooded Robin. 

In March last year, this species was listed as endangered in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. To increase the opportunity to spot this species on reserve, Donna thoughtfully chose a purple band and a fitting nickname Violet. “We captured her on the second or third day, and on the last day, we caught her again at a different site 3km away,” Donna says.

For Donna and Reserve Manager Phil Palmer, data on species-habitat relationships and population metrics helps inform land management strategies to better support species on reserve. “The insights into the personal lives of birds influence how we operate and allow us to assess species’ responses to our restoration efforts,” Phil explains.

Setting a mist net for bird monitoring at Scottsdale Reserve, Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, NSW. Photo: Tad Souden.

For the past nine years, Phil has overseen the revegetation of over 300 hectares of previously cleared land at Scottsdale. He estimates that around 60,000 trees have been planted on the reserve in that time. “We’re working mostly across Yellow-box Grassy Box Woodlands and Cool Temperate Snow Gum Woodlands. But we also do a lot of work along our creek lines,” he says.

This revegetation work greatly supports woodland birds, plant species are carefully chosen to create structurally complex woodlands, and woody debris is added to enhance habitat – two actions known to have a positive impact on woodland bird numbers and diversity. 

Importantly, the revegetation is reducing the gaps between remnant native habitat on the reserve and in the surrounding region.

Scottsdale sits in a critical migration corridor for birds travelling seasonally between the coast and the high country every year. The less cover available, the more exposed the birds are to predation. “When they’re migrating, you’ll see them congregate at the edge of a patch of bush before the open ground. They’ll sort of psych themselves up, and then they all go together,” Donna explains.

Dr Donna Belder with a Male Superb Fairy Wren, Ngambri and Ngarigo Country, NSW. Photo: Tad Souden.

At Scottsdale, Phil says bird ‘super highways’ have started to form as connectivity improves. “More and more of our revegetation is focused on fortifying the super highways. When you witness the sheer mass of life that moves through the treetops – often silently, and under the cover of thick morning fog – it’s astounding.”

By tagging and then recapturing birds over many years, Donna and Phil will be equipped with the data about how the species are moving between different habitats and revegetation sites on the reserve, whether they’re staying or just passing through, and whether the restored areas are meeting their needs. 

This allows us to finetune our management – to give the region’s woodland birds the best chance of survival now and in the future.

Listen to our Big Sky Country podcast episode ‘Call me by your birdsong’ below, to learn more about some of the innovative ways we are monitoring birds to inform land management strategies and the health of our landscapes.

We thank and gratefully acknowledge the support towards Scottsdale’s woodland bird project from the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship for Bird Research.


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