Sharing Science Guide:
Satellite Tracking of Australian Waterbirds

Why we track Australian waterbirds

Historically, waterbirds breed in large numbers during inland flood events, with some species only breeding every several years due when conditions are dry. Over the last few decades, as a result of river regulation and a drying climate, large breeding events have occurred a lot less often. When they have happened, floods are often shorter and there’s not enough time or food for the birds to raise their chicks, so breeding can fail. Most breeding these days happens sporadically in relatively small numbers. This might not be sufficient to keep these waterbird populations going in the long term.

CSIRO ecologists are working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to track the movements of waterbird species using transmitters. This allows us to understand why, when and in what patterns waterbirds move, so that they can be supported through environmental watering. Protecting and maintaining suitable feeding and nesting habitats, both between and during flood events, is essential to maximise waterbird recruitment, maintain populations, and conserve biodiversity. This requires careful management of water regimes.

Heather McGinness fitting a straw-necked ibis with a satellite transmitter. Photo: CSIRO

“Waterbirds can fly very long distances to take advantage of food booms provided by floodwaters – but we didn’t know how fast, by what routes, at what times of year, which wetlands were important as stopovers for them, whether they truly ‘migrated’ vs just being nomadic all the time and whether they were loyal to particular sites (showing ‘site fidelity’). We also didn’t have good information on how far waterbirds were willing to fly from their roosts or nests to feed, or how long they stayed in and around nesting sites. This is all important information for water managers wanting to support breeding and feeding habitats for waterbird species survival. Satellite tracking gives us all of this, and more”

– Dr Heather McGinness, Waterbirds Project leader, CSIRO Land & Water

How do the satellite transmitters work?

People often ask us how the transmitters work once they are attached to the bird.  We also want to provide reassurance that the methods do not cause any harm.   Each transmitter has the following features:

  • Lightweight Various sizes, weights and types, depending on the species and purpose the transmitter weighs less than <5%  bird bodyweight, usually ~1-2%
  • High frequency transmittingproviding location fixes every 10 min, 60 min, 3-hours, 12-hours
  • High accuracylocation fixes are given at tens of of metres, usually <15 m
  • Long duration – the transmitters are solar-powered so they can last from months to years.
  • No recapture or base station required to get the data as it automatically uploads to satellites.

The welfare of the bird is always our top priority.

How are the transmitters attached?

Transmitters are attached to the bird using a custom-made and custom-fitted ‘backpack’ style harness made of Teflon ribbon that is very smooth and light.  In addition:

  • Staff are fully trained and licenced
  • The project team are highly experienced and have captured and fitted satellite transmitters to over 100 individuals of multiple bird species
  • the method used to catch the birds and fit the transmitters is Animal Ethics Committee approved and State/Territory Government Scientific Licence approved methods
  • All work is conducted with awareness of the weather so that  extreme temperatures, rain and winds are avoided (reducing stress on the birds.
  • Captures occur early in the day with visits to individual sites limited to minimise disturbance.
  • The number of people and the number of handlers is limited to minimise disturbance and bird stress
Straw-necked ibis with fitted transmitter. Photo: CSIRO
Different transmitters. Photo: Heather McGinness
Setting up snares out in the field. Photo: CSIRO

Which waterbirds are we tracking?

Australian White Ibis
Royal Spoonbill
Straw-necked Ibis

What the collected data shows

The data collected helps create datasets and maps, including on waterbird movement, habitat selection, and roosting and nesting sites. The tracking allows for a better understanding of the range of influences on waterbird survival: the interactions between water flow, food availability, and waterbird movements – where do they go during and between breeding events, and why?

View Tracking Reports






If you would like to hear Heather talking about this research you can follow this link to a webinar she gave on the topic about the work she is undertaking through the Flow-MER Program.

Webisode – Spatial and temporal scales of waterbird movements and habitat use

More information and how to get involved

Feel free to contact Dr. Heather McGinness for more information on the Waterbirds Project:

Dr Heather McGinness
Waterbirds Project leader, CSIRO Land & Water

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