About This Week’s Guest
Dr Eric Woehler OAM is a marine and seabird ecologist, whose work has focused on the beaches of Tasmania and the wild expanses of the Southern Ocean. His work encourages beach users to recognise beaches as habitats and not just there for human use.
This week on Saltwater Library, ecologist Eric Woehler gives us even more reasons to marvel at birds and discusses how we can minimise the impacts of our coastal leisure and recreation on their beach habitats.
- Marine birds
- Bird ecology research
- Beach habitats
- Shorebird nesting and breeding
- Human recreation on beaches
- Tasmania and the Southern Ocean
- Antarctic research vessels
- Birdlife Tasmania
[00:00:00] Rebecca Olive: Hello, and welcome to Saltwater Library, a podcast about our relationships to coasts and oceans.
The Saltwater Library team acknowledges the Jaggera and Turrbal people as the traditional owners of the land and waterways where this podcast is produced. We acknowledge their elders and ancestors, their young people, and recognise their sovereignty was never ceded.
I’m Rebecca Olive and I research ocean sports and physical activities like swimming, surfing and sailing. I’m interested in how these spots shape our relationships to coast and oceans, in who has access to these sports, and how more people can get involved.
[00:00:58] Rebecca Olive: For anyone interested in birds, Eric Woehler is a name that you’re likely familiar with. A lover of all birds, and the current Convener of BirdLife Tasmania, Eric is best known for his work fighting for the conservation and care of shorebird and seabird populations. His work has taken him into the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters multiple times on the RV Investigator and Aurora Australis, as well as seen him regularly walking Tasmania’s coastlines for 40 years to record vulnerable and endangered shorebird populations. His fieldwork and research has been widely used by government seabird conservation strategic plans, and has been important to conservation efforts, such as decisions about high-seas Marine Protected Areas.
Eric has long been tireless in his advocacy of conservation of coastal nesting sites, and in 2021, the importance of his work to Australia was recognised when he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his ‘services to bird ecology’. I was lucky to meet Eric recently at the Australian Coastal Society conference, and was so pleased that he agreed to talk with me on Saltwater Library.
[00:02:10] Rebecca Olive: Eric, you’ve been studying birds for a long time. So what brought you to become an ornithologist?
[00:02:17] Eric Woehler: I really don’t know. I mean, I was at university during my undergraduate degree. I had some really good lectures and really inspiring lectures. And I was one of these people that took four and a half years to get my undergraduate degree because I wanted to learn everything about everything. I just kept enrolling in classes to learn. But it was not until my last year as an undergrad, and I think a lot of the inspiration towards becoming an ecologist came from the original ‘Life on Earth’ TV series by David Attenborough, that was being shown at the time. And the ‘Life on Earth’ series was ground-breaking in terms of the capacity of the television shows, to bring wildlife into people’s homes and to see videos and images of wildlife that until then, they’d only ever seen either paintings or photographs in books.
And then on top of that, one of my lecturers had been to Macquarie Island, a sub-Antarctic Island halfway between Tasmania and the Antarctic, as part of a committee reviewing the science that was being done on Macquarie Island and he gave her a lunchtime slideshow, pretty pictures and just talked about science and Macquarie Island. And that was very much my lightbulb moment. It was something I knew, when I heard him, that that was something I wanted to do. I talked with him afterwards and I was fortunate enough to get to Macquarie Island on the Nella Dan in 1980 to start doing some work for my Honours degree. And if you think the Life on Earth TV series was life altering, stepping off a landing craft onto a pebble beach cobble beach on Macquarie Island, you know, with elephant seals rearing up and Gentoo penguins and fur seals, essentially ignoring the humans on the beaches. It was like stepping onto a different world. And from then on, I was hooked on seabirds, for the next 25 or so years, I was doing a lot of work in Southern Ocean. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’ve seen, you know, with my birdy work, I’ve been very fortunate.
[00:04:25] Rebecca Olive: Now, so it’s been over 40 years of you studying seabird and shorebird populations and especially in the Southern Ocean areas. So how do you do this work recording populations?
[00:04:36] Eric Woehler: The work involves two components. One is the seabirds sea surveys that we undertake from research vessels. So I’ve spent, I think in your introduction you mentioned I’ve spent a lot of time in Southern Ocean, over 400 days at sea the Aurora Australis [Australian Government marine research vessel for the Australian Antarctic Division] doing sea bird and marine mammal surveys. And I’ve now spent about 180, 190 days on the Investigator [Australian Government marine research vessel for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)] doing sea bird and marine mammals surveys.
Most seabirds spend most of their lives away from the colony. So when we see seabirds on the islands where they breed, the gull colonies, the tern colonies, the albatross colonies, that’s only a very small percentage of their life, most of the year in the life of an albatross or a gull or a tern or a penguin is spent at sea away from those colonies. So you need to do the at-sea surveys to see where the birds are going, the concentrations where the birds are feeding. And the complement to that is the colony-based surveys where we go in and we do the surveys of the breeding populations at fixed colony sites over the years. And so by marrying the colony-based surveys of annual breeding population breeding effort, with at-sea distributions and at-sea densities is a way of keeping track of some of these bird populations over time.
And remember that, you know, things like albatrosses, in the absence of human threats or anthropogenic threats, albatrosses can live for 60 to 80 years. And so it’s quite possible for a researcher to be outlived by the study animal that they work on and that’s quite a sobering thought. Yeah, because humans typically have this remarkable arrogance when they go into the field that they’re on top of the food chain, they’re the master of the environment and all the rest of it. When you think that there are albatrosses that I’ve worked on Heard Island and that I’ve seen at sea on those surveys that will still be flying over the Southern Ocean long after I’m past is quite a reality check that you know, we aren’t quite as high on the in the pecking order as we’d like to think. Yeah, sometimes.
[00:06:49] Rebecca Olive: I wanted to talk a bit more about birds. But first, I wanted to ask, so when you’re doing this work, you’re literally looking and counting. So there’s a lot of research work out at sea now around animal populations is done using clever imagery, imagery technologies, right? But that is not you. You’re a clipboard and a pair of binoculars guy.
[00:07:09] Eric Woehler: Yeah, I’m analog in the digital world. So I’m still walking around with binoculars, pen and paper because I can still draw mud maps, I can make sketches, I can make notes to myself. And those notes, and those little sketches are really critical to understand some of the nuances in either the behaviour or the things that we see. Yes, there are automatic cameras that now count penguins, or you’ve got citizen science projects where they count terns or something from drone photography. And that’s fine. I mean, that’s a useful contribution to the overall understanding what’s going on. But you still need human eyes, I believe, in terms of understanding and interpreting what we’re seeing. Some of these events that occur in the colonies and some of these events that you see at sea, are only recorded because somebody is there to see them. You know, it’s one of these things that if you’re not there, you’re going to miss it. And you just have this question mark about why is it that the colony X did such and such this year when we’ve never seen that before, unless the camera’s pointing in the right direction. And it takes a picture at the right moment. Some of those interactions just won’t be recorded.
And as I said, I’ve been fortunate in being able to visit multiple seabird species breeding colonies in different parts of the world. And working with the birds one of the real delights that I’ve had is working on Adélie Penguins on Casey [research station]. I’ve spent eight summers of Casey working on the penguins there. It got to the point by the end of the season, where the birds would, they will have habituated to me, they recognise that I’m not a threat. And I don’t go near the colonies, I was doing all my accounts and everything from well outside the colonies. And it meant that the birds essentially ignored me I became part of the landscape. So the birds would continue doing their own thing, there was no sense that I was modifying or altering their natural behaviours in the colonies. And so it was a real sense of privilege to become essentially transparent or invisible to the wildlife and just there as a researcher, but also as a passive researcher in that I was not impacting on my study species.
[00:09:07] Rebecca Olive: Whenever I visited Hobart, or visit Hobart, and it’s not always there anymore, I love going down to look at and feel very romantic about the Aurora Australis [Research vessel]. Which is such an icon for a lot of Australians and we all have very fond of it, but it’s been retired now, but was it as romantic and experience being on that boat as I like to imagine it was?
[00:09:30] Eric Woehler: Going into the Southern Ocean is always an interesting exercise. I’ve had trips that have gone from Hobart to Casey [research station] in seven days. It’s basically been flat seas and calm conditions all the way through, and just almost surfing from here to Casey. Other times on the maiden voyage of the Aurora Australis back in 1990. When we were there at Heard Island, a sub-Antarctic Island in mid-winter, we actually had mid-winters day on the Aurora Australis. Coming back from Heard Island, we had 23-metre seas. You know, the bridge on the Aurora Australis is 13-metres above the water, and you’re still looking another 10 metres upwards towards the tops of the waves. And so, in those conditions, you know, the only thing that was coming out of the kitchen was cuppa soups and toast. I mean, there’s just no way anyone can do anything. A lot of people obviously were not very happy with the conditions, and you have to put your kitbag at one end of the bed and sort of tie yourself down and they just put the nose of the ship into the waves. And you’re just riding up and down for two days waiting for the storm to pass.
[00:10:31] Rebecca Olive: Romantic and treacherous in equal measure?
[00:10:34] Eric Woehler: Yeah, not so much treacherous such a tricky one. I mean, the ship’s quite capable of surviving those conditions. It’s certainly that romantic notion of going to sea and travelling south to Tasmania, seeing the first albatross gliding over the waves, is always a very special moment. But also the recognition that you know, we’re pushing our comfort zone 23-metres seas in any ship is going to be a bit of a challenge and may not be the most comfortable ride that you’ve ever had. But it’s part of the environment. We can only control, we can only force the environment to suit ourselves up to a certain point. At some point in time, nature reminds us who’s boss.
[00:11:34] Rebecca Olive: Okay, so now I want to bring it back to the coast a little bit more. And I wanted to talk about shorebirds. So can you tell us what shorebirds are? Like, how are they defined?
[00:11:43] Eric Woehler: Shorebirds are a group of probably about 130 or so species of birds. These are birds that we see around wetlands, on our coasts. They used to be called waders because they typically feed on submerged vegetation or submerged surfaces. They’re the closest group to actually sea birds but there’s still like, you feel like almost a bit of a transition in the same way that the coast is the transition between the ocean and the land. So shorebirds are a bit of a transition group from the seabirds of the open seas and the woodland birds that we think of from land areas. So these are birds that inhabit the margins in parts of Australia, inland lagoons, salt pans and things like that. And basically, they’re the largest of the birds is about a kilo, it’s the eastern Curlew that migrates between Siberia and Australia. And the smallest one is barely 25 grams and would fit in the cup of your hand. I gave a talk last night to a community group about migratory shorebirds, and I described the smallest bird the Redneck Stint 25 grams. If you cup your hand, you’d have a little bit of the bill sticking out on one side, little bit of the tail sticking out the other side, that’s it. Those birds can live for up to 20 years. Each year they migrate between their Siberian breeding colonies and Tasmania, which is the southernmost point for their flight. It takes about six weeks to do that little bit of migration, as they hop, skip and jump from Siberia to Tasmania. So they spent about three months of the year in Siberia about three months of the year on the wing flying back and forth, and it’s all powered flight. And then about six months a year down here in Tasmania. Over 20 years, those birds will fly more than half a million kilometres, which is farther than the distance between the Earth and the Moon. That’s how remarkable these birds are.
[00:13:23] Rebecca Olive: No wonder you care about them so much.
[00:13:26] Eric Woehler: Oh, it’s hard not to. The more we know about our birds, and even just the birds around our towns, the more we know about them, the more remarkable they become, the more remarkable what they do is, and the more humans are in awe of birds. It’s as simple as that. And everybody has a story about birds, either birds in their garden or birds that they see when they walk in the dog. Or when they go for a drive or something like that, you know, everyone’s got…
[00:13:52] Rebecca Olive: Birds that swoop you in their nesting season.
[00:13:55] Eric Woehler: Yeah, yeah. They’re being good parents. Every year when the Masked Lapwings, what used to be called Spurwing Plovers, start attacking people, they’re being good parents. A lot of people could take the lessons about being good parents from books because they’re such good parents in terms of the parental investment in their offspring.
[00:14:31] Rebecca Olive: Migration is a really big part of a shorebird’s life then. Is that true for all of shorebirds or is it true for just some of them?
[00:14:38] Eric Woehler: So in Australia, we have a number of resident shorebirds. And so I’ve been working since the early 80s on Hooded Plovers which is a small resident shorebird. It’s found on high energy ocean beaches, sandy beaches, and it was once found from as far north as Southern Queensland down the east coast into Victoria and down to the eastern part of South Australia. Then there was a bit of a gap in the Great Australian Bight and it was found in Southwest and Western WA. It’s also found on the inland salt pans in Western Australia. So that’s its distribution. We now know that the Western Australian birds are different subspecies to the eastern birds because the eastern birds generally don’t go into salt pans or don’t go inland. They’re very much close to obligate species. Based on all the survey work that I’ve been doing and others have been doing on the mainland, we now know that Tasmania holds about 60% of the global population of the Eastern Hooded Plover. They’ve completely disappeared from Queensland, they’re down to about 20 pairs in all of New South Wales because of the human pressures and disturbances on ghosts. Tasmania’s got a minimum of 750 pairs because I’ve met and surveyed 750 pairs of Hooded Plovers in Tasmania so we know Tasmania’s role as a refuge for this species is important both at a national level and international level.
[00:16:00] Rebecca Olive: I just wondered if we can explain the names of some shorebirds? So there’s plovers. You mentioned curlews, terns, the oystercatchers? I’m out now.
[00:16:15] Eric Woehler: Gulls and terns are seabirds. Even though we see them on the shores they’re not a shorebird. They actually spend more time at sea than they do on the shores so they are a true seabird. Look, there’s things like sandpipers, and in the old days, people used to talk about dottrels as well, that was an old name for some of the smaller plovers. And then we’ve got things like the stints even some of the snipe, even some of the water birds that feed in these areas. For most people in Australia, if you go to a beach, you might see something like a Bush Stone Curlew up in the tropics, Pied Oystercatcher, is found around the entire Australian coastline, and even there’s a few birds in southern coastal Papua New Guinea. For the most part, when people go to a beach, they don’t see the birds. They become invisible. They might they used to seeing gulls or something roosting on a beach or feeding on a beach. But for most people, they go to a beach and they don’t really see the birds that are on the beach, or if they do, they don’t register for whatever reason.
[00:17:12] Rebecca Olive: Shorebirds, and I’m assuming some seabirds as well, often build their nests in the dunes on the sand. So they’re really exposed nests. And I know that I’ve seen them where I grew up, on the beach at Suffolk Park and the Northern Rivers, and I used to see signs about being careful because I think it was Little Terns that were nesting there, would it be? Yeah, so the nests are easily destroyed, I’m assuming?
[00:17:35] Eric Woehler: Yeah. In fact, most of these birds nest on the foredunes and between the dunes and the high tide. But they obviously can’t miss below the high tide mark, because the next high tide would wash away the nest and the eggs or the chicks. The foredunes, depending on the profile of the beach, will determine where these birds can nest. Certainly in Tasmania and I’ve done it on the mainland there was a campaign back in the 60s and 70s to introduce Marram Grass to stabilise the dunes and stabilise the coasts in Tasmania. And that’s completely changed the profile and topography of the beaches in Tasmania, they’re much steeper. And in often cases when you have winter storms, you end up with a wall of sand where the waves have eroded away the base of the dunes. Compare that to the native spinifex, which is normally found up on our dunes in Tasmania and elsewhere, where the root system for the spinifex is sitting on top of the sand rather than going as a taproot going into the sand. And so what happens is when a wave comes and hits the foredune, the wave energy rolls up the face of the dune rather than cutting into the base of the dune. And so you maintain a slope and a dune face on the beach where you have spinifex. But where you have Marram Grass, you end up with clumps of sand. Changing the vegetation species on a beach has changed the topography of the beaches, and as a result has changed and obviously, in many cases prevented birds from nesting on the beaches. And things like that also prevent things like penguins from coming back ashore because a penguin has short legs and it’s got to walk up the beach and it’s confronted with a two metre or three metre high sand wall behind which somewhere there’s a penguin colony, it has an impact on the penguins as well. So it’s not just the flying birds that are impacted by change of vegetation.
[00:19:19] Rebecca Olive: I have so many images of the beach that I grew up on doing exactly what you’re talking about with the grasses and how it changes the dune profile.
[00:19:28] Eric Woehler: And when I do all these community talks all around Tasmania when I was up in Cairns last week and did the Coast to Coast Conference, sometimes all it takes is me just to say something like this. And you can see the light bulbs going off on people’s going and saying hey, that’s right. I remember how they used to plant Marram Grass or how the beach topography has changed. And it’s not just a function of sea level rise and storm surges in the ruse. It’s simply just normal wave action, you know, that I’m talking about. And then when you draw, on top of all this, increased frequency of extreme events and storms surges and sea level rise. The coast really is really under threat from natural and unnatural forces.
[00:20:08] Rebecca Olive: Some of the shorebirds, as you explained with the Hooded Plover as an example, some shorebirds are under great threat now and they’re considered quite rare. They’re endangered, I suppose, is the word. So am I right that Hooded Plovers is an example? And I think Pied Oystercatchers is another species that are down to really low numbers of breeding pairs in some places.
[00:20:28] Eric Woehler: Pied Oystercatchers less so this doesn’t have a conservation status at the moment. But Hooded Plover was listed as a threatened species under the EPBC Act [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act] in 2014. That listing then triggered a response if you like, so increase surveys state government’s not Tasmania, putting more effort into coastal management or the New South Wales I know there are people that were working actively to protect individual nests when you’ve only got 18 or 20 pairs of Hooded Plovers, it’s very easy to make the effort to protect individual nests. Here in Tasmania, it’s mainly driven by community groups that put up fences to protect, like what you saw for Little Tern’s that sort of tomato stake and bright twine as a visual barrier. Sometimes that’s all it is. And yeah, a bit of a sign that says this is bird habitat keep out. But that sort of effort has been really driven by community groups rather than real estate agencies.
[00:21:36] Rebecca Olive: And the other thing about the nests is that as well as being very exposed is that they’re quite difficult to spot the eggs are very well camouflaged, and the nests themselves can just be sand or sand with a couple of sticks.
[00:21:49] Eric Woehler: No, no sticks at all! So you know things like the Hooded Plover and the Oystercatcher, the female just lean forward, and the female uses the sternum, the breastbone, to turn around and just form a shallow cup. Hooded Plover nests might be 10 centimetres across, and there’ll be three small eggs in there. The eggs are small enough to fit into a teaspoon. And when the chick is 24 to 48 hours old, the chick would still comfortably sit inside a soup spoon. That’s how small we’re talking about. Pied Oystercatcher the egg, is perhaps maybe a little bit bigger than a chicken egg. But all of the birds that nest on the beaches, the terns, the gulls, the oystercatchers, the plovers, all the eggs are speckled, all the eggs are so well camouflaged.
One of the things that we do down here, obviously pre-COVID, not recently, is that we would put little plaster eggs the same size as a Hooded Plover egg or a Pied Oystercatcher egg in a shallow depression on the sand, with community groups, you know, people cleaning up marine debris or pulling sea spurge or some other plants. And we show them plaster eggs in the nest on the beach. And then we get everyone to take two strides backwards. And most people can’t find the eggs anymore, even though they just saw where we put them. Sometimes the birds will use some shell fragments. Sometimes there’ll be a bit of a stick or something, not as part of the nest construction more as a visual landmark for the birds because some of these birds might walk 100 metres or more from their nest site when they’re foraging on the water’s edge. So if you’re only 10 centimetres [tall], or if your eyes are only 10 centimetres high above the ground, you may need some sort of visual landmark to remind you where the nest is. It makes my job very easy because when I’m doing my surveys, I just follow the footprints. And I’d literally walk up onto a beach when I take some of my students or when I take other researchers on a beach and we step onto a beach and it might be 10 kilometres long, and I say well, we are going to find, and I know that there’s six pairs of plovers on this nest and we’ll find the nests they look at me like I’m from a different planet. That’s how can you possibly find nests on a beach that’s 10 kilometres long when the eggs would fit in a soup spoon.
[00:24:04] Rebecca Olive: But that does make me realise why you need experienced human eyes rather than other research tools which would make it easy to miss things
[00:24:11] Eric Woehler: The behaviour of the birds tells you what’s going on. So when I’m walking on a beach, the call of a Pied Oystercatcher whose partner is on eggs has a different call than Pied Oystercatcher, whose partner is brooding chicks. So I don’t need to look for the nest to know there’s pair of Oystercatchers when I’m walking past their territory. Those birds are on eggs or those birds are on checks the calls of the birds, the behaviour of the birds, will tell you what’s going on. And in the past, some of my work has been criticised as not being science, more like natural history. But it’s because I understand the behaviour because I understand how to interpret what’s going on. I think that actually makes me a better scientist than somebody who’s just going along and mechanically recording numbers and not really tuned into their study animals. That’s my arrogant feeling that I am better person or a better researcher for thinking that.
[00:25:04] Rebecca Olive: Okay, so the shorebirds have these really exposed nests, which I’m assuming is part of why they become so vulnerable. But then what are some of the biggest threats to shorebirds?
[00:25:15] Eric Woehler: The birds were doing fine until Whitey came along. Yeah, it’s only human intervention on our beaches that has generated the threats to these birds. 85% of Australia’s human population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast. So, for 21-22 million people, whatever that figure is, the beach is no more than two hours drive from home. And there’s no doubt Australia is a coastal society. I mean, the beach is integral to Australia’s way of life. The fundamental flaw in that perspective is that we see the beach as a resource. What can we do at the beach? What can we do with the coast or with the beach? We don’t recognise it to be a habitat in its own right. And I’ve done a lot of work with community groups around the State and I’ve had numerous people tell me there’s no way there’s birds nesting on the beach because there’s no trees on the beach. How can they nest? They won’t accept that these birds lay their eggs on the ground, like a turtle lays its eggs into the sand. There is this unwillingness by some people to recognise that the beach is a habitat in its own right.
[00:26:15] Rebecca Olive: When is nesting season then?
[00:26:17] Eric Woehler: Nesting season coincides perfectly with summer holidays. So basically, the breeding season for things like the Hooded Plovers starts towards the end of August and goes through till sometime in February, March. So I’m looking at my calendar, and it’s the fifth of August today. Sometime in the next 10 days, two weeks, I’ll start walking beaches again. The birds are already on territory. Even before I went up to Cairns last week, I’d been doing some surveys on some wetlands up in the far northeast corner of Tasmania, even then, that was the end of July. Most, not all, birds were paired up on the beaches and starting to defend their territories. So we know that the world is getting warmer. We know certainly in Tasmania, the breeding season has advanced four weeks, maybe five weeks in the 20 plus, 30 plus years that I’ve been doing these surveys. So I can certainly remember when I first started doing these surveys, I didn’t really get going until October sometime. These days. I’m starting to do my surveys mid to last trimester of August, and I’ll keep doing it til March.
[00:27:18] Rebecca Olive: So nesting season coincides with our peak tourist seasons. They’re nesting in dunes and before the high-tide line. So I’m assuming four wheel drives [4WDs] are a pretty big problem in some areas.
[00:27:32] Eric Woehler: Yep. Only Victoria has banned 4WDs on beaches. Every other state in Australia allows it. And when you look at places like Stradbroke Island and some of the beaches in Queensland, I think last time I heard some numbers in Australia was something stupid like 12,000 vehicle movements a day in the peak of the, you know, the holiday season. You used to have turtles nesting on those beaches, you used to have birds nesting on those beaches, you’re not going to have anything, you know, nesting on those beaches. And the compaction of the sand by the vehicles also reduces the invertebrate community in the sand as well. So not only are you alienating the habitat by disturbance, you’re also alienating the habitat by changing its physical structure and reducing the sand or the intertidal areas from supporting other birds or other animals as well.
[00:28:19] Rebecca Olive: And then dogs I imagine are quite a big threat as well.
[00:28:24] Eric Woehler: Dogs love eating birds. I’ve done a lot of work over the last 20 years. We started the program back in the early 2000s, Birdlife Tasmania and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust started a community engagement program called ‘Dogs breakfasts’ where we would talk with coastal communities around the State and talk to the dog owners that would exercise their dogs on beaches. There was a bit of a sausage sizzle, so there’s a bit of a bribe for the people to come along. In the early days, we had sponsorship from some dog food companies, and they would give us little sachets of food to give to the dogs. And everyone that came along got a dog leash that said ‘I’m a wet sand walker and I don’t chase chicks’. And we were going through hundreds of those dog leads in the season. You know, it was such a successful campaign. You get a few people who are bloody minded adamant they know better than I do. And they won’t believe that birds nest on the beaches. But for the most part, it was a very successful campaign in raising awareness of the threat of dogs to beach nesting birds.
I mean, I’ve had dog owners telling me that it’s good for the birds to be chased by the dogs because they get to exercise their wings. It’s like as though they don’t exercise their wings at any other time. So those Dogs Breakfast events, as I said, started in Tassie back in 2002 or 2003. And they’ve now gone as far as I know, to every state in Australia, and I think about two or three years ago, the first Dog’s Breakfast was held in [Aotearoa] New Zealand.
[00:29:49] Rebecca Olive: And then the other threat I can imagine possible, I imagine there’s a number but is drones. And we sort of mentioned drones a little bit before thinking of research but then there’s increased drone use on beaches. Is that quite disruptive as well? Or is that okay?
[00:30:04] Eric Woehler: Well it’s not okay? There’s the thing is we’ve got very little work, I was watching a sea eagle will fly past my house over the suburbs. The drones are perceived by many birds as a potential raptor or some sort of predator, so there is always a behavioural response either in terms of stress response, physiological stress, or an actual flight to try and get away. So no, the drones are a big issue.
More so than drones would be things like invasive plants. We’ve got a lot of coastal weeds in Australia. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with sea spurge? It’s a Mediterranean Euphorbia, a succulent that came to South Australia in ballast water from the Mediterranean. It spread from South Australia to Victoria, New South Wales, all of Tasmania and a couple of years ago, first records from New Zealand. The seeds are viable in saltwater for up to two years, and in the warmer parts of that distribution it can actually set seed twice a year. On the west coast of Tasmania, we’ve got literally meadows of sea spurge that might be 500 meters to a kilometre wide. That’s another form of habitat alienation, because it prevents the birds from nesting or feeding or roosting on those beaches.
There’s other issues things like livestock. Many farmers will fence the fence lines from the road or from the property boundary, whatever down to the coast, but they won’t actually close off the paddock at the bottom of the hill or something like that. There’s a reason why the King Island milk and cheeses and everything else tastes so different is because the cattle feed on the beach cast kelp on the on the beaches there. They have a different mineral composition than the grasses. And so it translates through to a change in the flavour of the milk and so, you know, the cheese and everything else just have something slightly different than some unique about it.
Recreational walking, bicycles we’re starting to see, eco tour fat tire bikes on beaches, obviously four wheel drives, quad bikes, mountain bikes, all these sorts of things. Pretty much any human recreational activity on a beach has the potential to impact on nesting birds. This is this is the reality of it. And there’s been work done at Deakin University that shows that the, what’s called the FID, the ‘fight initiation distance’ is a function of how high the eyeball is for that particular bird above the sand. So the taller the bird, the greater the flight initiation distance. And we now know that in some cases, some nesting birds will walk off a nest in response to people on a beach 100-150 meters away because people are seen as predators or potential threats. And so for most shorebirds, because they’re long lived birds as I said, the Hooded Plover can live for 15 years, Pied Oystercatcher, we’ve got birds here in southeast Tasmania over 30 years old. Their response or their strategy in response to perceived threats and predators and whatever else, is for the adults to walk away from the nest. Essentially sacrificing the exam or checks because they’ve got another 10, 20, 30 years of breeding in them, they can always lay another clutch of eggs. Whereas if you lose an adult or a long-lived bird, that has a much bigger impact on the population dynamics, then losing a clutch of two or three eggs. You step onto a beach, and there’s pair of Pied Oystercatchers 100 meters away or less, that bird walks off the nest. In some parts of the mainland, gulls, currawongs and other predators have learned to watch oystercatchers and other birds, and as soon as they step off the nest because somebody stepped onto the beach, down goes the gull, down goes the currawong and takes the eggs or the chicks.
[00:33:56] Rebecca Olive: Humans are part of ecologies. This discussion emphasises that really strongly, right? Whether we want them to be or not. They are. Your advocacy has been trying to encourage people to recognise that. And I know that you’ve had some impact with encouraging different organisations to shift the times of year when they have certain activities. So for example, beach cleanups?
[00:34:16] Eric Woehler: Yeah. And before I answer that question, yes, I mean, I’m not advocating for people not to go to beaches. I mean, the reality is that it will never happen. What I’ve been trying to do, and I think I’ve been moderately successful, is raising awareness of the values, the natural values on those beaches and coastal areas. By making people aware of those values, making people conscious of their potential threats or their potential disturbance to birds, hopefully seeing a change in behaviour.
[00:34:47] Rebecca Olive: because people care about beaches, right?
[00:34:52] Eric Woehler: You’d like to think so. You go to Phillip Island [an island off Melbourne]. Phillip Island has a small population and again, I don’t know the numbers off the top my head, of Hooded Plovers nesting on the beaches. Phillip Island, pre-COVID, was getting around about half a million visitors a year. Most people go to Phillip Island to look at the penguins, sure, but there are also sandy beaches on Phillip Island. Phillip Island actually closes off some of its beaches to protect nesting Hooded Plovers on its beaches. People will recognise that there is a need to regulate or moderate or minimise disturbance to some of these birds.
Because at the moment, the Hooded Plover is listed as vulnerable, so that’s the first step in the category of threatened species. It says, essentially, that once you list a species as being threatened, it is a formal acknowledgement that there are threats, should they continue, they will adversely impact on the population and potentially push their population of that species towards extinction and the loss of that particular species. So by formally declaring a species to be at risk of extinction, by formally declaring it as a threatened species, there is an onus or an expectation of a response in terms of how you then manage those threats, how then manage the habitat for that particular species.
The work that we’ve done here in Tasmania in terms of the surveys of distribution of the nesting habitats that are, not quite the hotspots, but certainly know that most Tasmanian beaches, with few exceptions, support breeding populations of birds. That’s why Tasmania is the refuge we still have birds being lost from the mainland. We’ve done a lot of work with the scale fish aquaculture industry, the Tasmanian salmon industry. As I found out today, it’s actually an $800 million industry these days. There is a problem, not completely sourced from the aquaculture industry, of marine debris on beaches. Lots of plastic ropes, floats, certainly some of the gear from the aquaculture industry washes up on beaches, but the last time I saw any [beach clean] sacks it was only about 10 to 15% of the litter on a beach can be attributed to the aquaculture industry. Most of it actually comes just from the ocean. I mean, Tasmania is sitting in the in the Roaring 40s, the next bit of land to the west of Tasmania is actually Argentina. We have two ocean basins to the west of Tasmania, you got the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, so there’s a very large area for marine debris to wash up on Tasmania’s beaches. So the aquaculture industry has divided different parts of the coastline in the areas where they operate to the different operators. So Company A cleans up this bit of the coastline, Company B cleans up this bit of coastline. I’ve given presentations about my birds to the industry and the industry has changed from summer cleanup to a winter cleaner in recognition that their cleanup activities have the potential to disturb nesting birds. A community group of volunteers going out and doing surveys for 30 years has changed the way a $700, now $800 million dollar industry operates. The cynics and the critics will argue that’s just the companies looking to improve their social licence. But I also talk with the guys who are doing the cleanups, and these guys, they’re out on the water every day, they know what’s going on. They know the birds, they see the birds. Half the time they tell me ‘ah, I found a pair of oystercatchers nesting around the corner here’ or something like that.
Most people, as you said care about the coast. Most people, I believe, have an interest in birds, even if they don’t want to think of themselves as being a greenie or a conservationist, or whatever. Because they’re seeing birds every day on their job or everyday when they walk to work or wherever else, people take a subconscious awareness of their surroundings. And I think birds are an easy, and a very vocal obviously, and often, for many people very visual, component of the landscape, and so people subconsciously, I think, take onboard the birds in their environment more so than if there was a flower or there’s something else going on. I think birds are one of these things that most people, if you ask most people randomly in the street, most people would have a story about birds.
[00:38:43] Rebecca Olive: Yeah. And you know, it’s interesting because I live in the city and in an apartment and under a kind of awning, so I don’t get birds coming to my balcony because they don’t feel very safe. But in the tree outside, there’s kookaburras and rosellas and magpies and currawongs and mynas, of course, and butcher birds and peewees and, you know, that’s just the ones off the top of my head. But I will admit that I notice on the beach gulls and seagulls, sea eagles, but I am certainly guilty of being one of those people who doesn’t notice any other birds on the beach. But I’m going to look now.
[00:39:16] Eric Woehler: And well that’s just it! And that’s what I said before. If all I do by giving talks to community groups, by giving talks to industry groups, by giving talks to council and parks staff, make them aware that there are birds on those beaches, that there are birds nesting on those beaches, and I show them photographs of the eggs, I show them photographs of the chicks, and some of these people come along to some of these Dogs Breakfast events or whatever, if all I do is raise the awareness of people as beach users or coastal visitors, however you want to think of them, I have succeeded. I have made a net contribution, however microscopically small it might be. I have made a change to people’s behaviours. Can’t ask for more than that.
[00:40:00] Rebecca Olive: No, and you’re right. They are amazing. They’re migrations and, we talked last week and you were telling us about a bird that can dive down to 60 metres as well, in the water.
[00:40:11] Eric Woehler: We were talking about Crested Auklets, up in the Aleutians. As I said, the more the more we know about birds, I mean, Emperor Penguins can dive up to 450 metres. That’s 45 atmospheres of pressure. I mean, you know, that’s closer to whale behaviour than a bloody bird. But it’s just the more the more we know about birds, the more remarkable, and I suspect, a mammalogist would argue the same thing, and a frog person would argue the same thing, but the more we know about the animals around us, and some of these birds around us every day of our lives, I mean, I’m not a big fan of sparrows, because they’re introduced, but yeah, our native birds.
The more we know about our wildlife, the more likely we are to appreciate them, more likely, God forbid, that we should respect them, and take pride in the fact that we still have wildlife. As I said, 10 minutes ago, I had a sea eagle flying past just looking at my window. I’m 15 minutes walk from the city centre of Hobart and I see a sea eagle. We’re so fortunate in Australia, many of the capital cities still have this abundance of wildlife around us every day that we almost take for granted. Go to somewhere in South America, go to somewhere in Africa, go even Southeast Asia. Look at what you see and hear in the cities? Nothing. They’re ecological deserts. We’re so privileged and so lucky here in Australia.
[00:41:34] Rebecca Olive: Okay, I’ve got one last question for you, which is, what’s one thing that people can do to take better care of the oceans and coasts we live with?
[00:41:41] Eric Woehler: The one thing really is we need a change of attitude. We need to recognise that our coasts, our beaches, are a habitat and there have been birds breeding on those beaches, feeding on those beaches for 1000s of generations. And we’ve done so much damage to our coasts, and the bird faunas, and to some extent the turtle and everything else. The coasts, the beaches are a habitat. You think about the beach as the transition zone from the ocean to the land. As an ecologist, I call that an ecotone. Whenever you have these boundaries, and these zones between adjacent different types of communities, they’re richer than either of them in isolation. So the coast is a biologically rich area. Sadly, most people don’t realise, not aware. And so we need to respect the beach, we need to recognise that it is a habitat that the birds. Pied Oystercatcher lives on its territory every day of its life for 35 years. Imagine the changes that Pied Oystercatcher will have seen going back to the 80s now. Humans need to recognise that there are animals that have a legitimate claim to those sandy beaches. It’s not just there for human recreation use.
[00:42:57] Rebecca Olive: Well, thank you so much for your time, Eric. That was excellent.
[00:43:01] Eric Woehler: A pleasure.
[00:43:09] Rebecca Olive: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Saltwater Library. It was produced by Hannah Reardon Smith with music by cyberBanshee and art and design by Amelia Hine. Funding is from the Australian Research Council and The University of Queensland. For more information on Saltwater Library and the project it’s part of, you can visit moving oceans.com
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