Robbie, the Bittern with a taste for travel

the Australasian Bittern Pic by Matt Herring

The Australasian Bittern
Photo by Matt Herring

The Institute’s Dr Wayne Robinson is a member of an on-going community research project called the “Bitterns in Rice Project”. It is a collaboration that started in 2012 between the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, Birdlife Australia and other organisations. It is being led by former CSU honours student Matt Herring.

Also in the project’s working group is former ILWS PhD student Elisa Tack, who now works for Murray Local Land Services (LLS), as well as representatives from Federation University, Coleambally Irrigation, Riverina LLS, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage and the community.

Australian rice crops support the largest known breeding population of the globally endangered Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), (also known as Bunyip birds) and other threatened species.

“However the biodiversity values of Australian rice crops are poorly known, despite their potential conservation role as agricultural wetlands,” says Dr Robinson, a co-author of a paper ‘Co-management of water for rice production and wetland biodiversity in Australia’.

“Our aim was to estimate the population size and determine the extent of breeding for bird and frog species using Australian rice fields, especially the Australasian Bittern, a cryptic wetland bird known to use rice crops. We also aimed to determine if bitterns or other species were associated with certain agronomic characteristics of rice fields in order to inform guidelines for both sustainable intensification and wildlife-friendly farming (‘land-sharing’) in these systems.”

The project has received funding from Riverina Local Land Services and the team recently completed the surveys for a third rice-growing season, with 80 sites covering 2050 hectares of rice on 41 randomly selected farms.

As the statistician in the team, Dr Robinson is helping to design the sampling program and analysing the data to provide accurate population estimates.

“This has to incorporate the difficulty in detecting the birds even when they are present and allowing for changes in detectability throughout the growing season as the height of the crop increases, making detectability more difficult,” he says.

“We have much analysis ahead, but it’s already clear that in most years, 500-1000 bitterns descend on the rice crops of the New South Wales Riverina. That’s around one quarter or one third of the global total.”

Late in April, a satellite transmitter was attached to the first bittern, a 3-4 month old rice-bred Coleambally male, and the network of non-breeding wetlands the birds use after harvest is being uncovered.

Matt Herring said the young male, known as “Robbie, has already flown 557 kilometres, crossed two state borders and chose the recently restored Pick Swamp in South Australia, which forms part of the Piccaninnie Ponds Karst Wetlands Ramsar site. “After a few days, he began moving along the coast back into Victoria,” says Matt.

For more information about the Bitterns in Rice Project and to follow the journey of Robbie and his mates, check out the project’s new website:

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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