Passion and persistence: what you put in is what you get out

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Passion and persistence: what you put in is what you get out

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Some background on why I was recently awarded the NT Young Achiever ConocoPhillips Environment Award

I started out in research because I was fascinated by shorebirds and I wanted to become an expert on them. As an honours student I dreamed of working my way to the top, one day becoming Prof. Lilleyman, up there with the likes of Prof. Theunis Piersma (world-leading researcher on shorebirds). That is still a dream, but now part of my dream is to include community engagement as a key component of my research on migratory shorebirds.

I became involved in community engagement through citizen science projects during my undergraduate years. For instance I learnt that people power meant that a bird census could be conducted on the Endangered Bush Stone-curlew, which then led to management actions to help the species. The fun part of the census night was playing the call of the bird and waiting for a response to record whether the species was present or absent. The other fun part of the night was gathering at the local hall beforehand with all the teams, listening to the census coordinator give out instructions for the activity. It was a room full of like-minded people, all interested in finding out more about this bird species. That’s where it all started, where I realised that community involvement could play an important role in conserving birds (and other wildlife of course).  

I research shorebirds for a few reasons – they have interesting migratory ecology, they are hard to identify (and absolutely beautiful), they flock together in their thousands and that is a spectacular sight, counting them for monitoring requires skill and patience, and they are a highly threatened group of birds that require immediate conservation action. I think it is safe to say that all research on them helps in some way. Research on their feeding ecology helps us to understand what they eat, where they eat, how the tide influences their feeding rates and if there is enough food in an area. On the other side of the spectrum, art exhibitions (such as the Flyway Print Exchange by Kate Gorringe-Smith) help to strengthen the international collaborations and conservation efforts across multi-jurisdictional and across political boundaries. Art can communicate to members of the community when the science does not ‘speak’. The blend of science, art and community events is a winning combination and an attempt has been made in recent years to cultivate support for shorebirds to improve their conservation status. Being involved in all three of these components is exciting and is part of the reason I was recently awarded the NT Young Achiever  ConocoPhillips Environment Award.

Since moving to Darwin I have been an active member of the Northern Territory Field Naturalists’ Club and have led a few excursions to look at migratory shorebirds, intertidal habitat and what the birds feed on and how to sample for it. My honours research project was instrumental in my involvement with some adaptive management actions with NT Parks and Wildlife at their Casuarina Coastal Reserve. This site is incredibly important for migratory shorebirds and the major threat to the birds there is disturbance by humans and dogs. My research suggested that chronic disturbance to roosting shorebirds on non-breeding grounds could reduce energy reserves to levels below the threshold for replenishment by normal intake rates and thus having negative effects on survival or reproductive success. This is a nice example of how research findings can be applied to have positive outcomes. It gives a sense of purpose to the work you’re doing.

My role in the community has grown over the years and I’ve worked with the City of Darwin, Darwin Port, NT Parks and Wildlife, NT Government Department of Business, Territoria Civil, EcoScience Pty Ltd, Australian Marine Conservation Society/Top End Sea Life, NT Environment Centre, Australasian Wader Studies Group, Shorebirds 2020, and Conservation Volunteers Australia on various shorebird-related things. My involvement with all these organisations or companies involved positive and factual communication about migratory shorebirds in Darwin, and the first step to being successful in that role was knowing the information and being excited enough about the topic so I could generate enthusiasm from the stakeholder or community member that I was involved with.

The thing with shorebirds is that their migratory nature places them at the hand of various threats throughout their flyway (East Asian-Australasian Flyway), and these cumulative threats have led to the decline of many species. The main threat to migratory shorebirds is the destruction and loss of habitat in core staging areas of their flyway, places such as the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea – areas where more than 65 % of tidal flats have been destroyed for development. Habitat is also being lost on the non-breeding grounds in Australia and some species have suffered local extinction at sites where they were once numerous.

So with this grave reality for shorebirds, where does community engagement fit in? You would think that the numerous bilateral agreements and commonwealth legislation would provide enough protection to preserve shorebirds and their habitat into the future… But you are wrong. A disconnection exists between the official documents and the action on the ground. We are not doing enough and the birds are suffering from it. How do development proposals go ahead when critically endangered species occur across a mudflat, an area critical to their migration cycle? It’s astonishing and I’m not the only one to think it. There is a large shorebird community in Australia (and across the world) committed to advocating for shorebirds to ensure that they are appropriately managed and protected throughout their entire distribution. The shorebird groups are primarily made up of volunteers that spend their time and money working to monitor, count, band, and protect shorebirds. The value of community volunteers cannot be underestimated in any citizen science project – they are the force behind the work being done, and in the shorebird world this has been quantified (page 19) and what an extraordinary input from amateur scientists. These people are fascinated by the birds and usually drawn in to this ‘Wader World’ by the enthusiastic people that drive the science. Having the ability to communicate the facts is key to building the energy required to protect these birds. It’s an ongoing battle, and one that will not be won soon or easily. In Australia, small steps are taken to preserve important habitat, every site as part of the stepping stone network that birds use as they move across the continent.

To put the story together, we know that millions of shorebirds migrate between hemispheres in a north-south orientation between Siberia and Australia, they need rich feeding grounds in the Yellow Sea – an area critical to their migration cycle, the current protection is not enough and here in Australia we can set an example of how to look after these birds so that future generations can experience and enjoy them.

So to put that in a local context in Darwin, we know that the main threats to shorebirds are the loss of important habitat and disturbance to birds. As a community member you can help by keeping up-to-date with any coastal development proposals and having a say during the community consultation stage. For people that use beaches, you can help shorebirds by reading signs and being aware of dog zoning regulations. If you already know about these things then you can be a shorebird advocate and have a chat to any ‘offenders’ and offer some information on why shorebirds shouldn’t be disturbed. These small steps are all important and with more and more community members learning about shorebirds we can be confident that we are working together to improve the dire situation that shorebirds are in.

While we may not halt the current rate of coastal development in the Yellow Sea, we can do our best to provide safe and good-quality habitat on the non-breeding grounds in Australia. We can set an example of what shorebird conservation should be like and a recent shorebird summit aimed to do this by gathering the top scientists, planners and politicians together to brainstorm ways to halt the current species decline.

Community members can help shorebirds by engaging with your friends and families, the wider community, politicians, businesses and organisations about the wonderful world of these birds. The beautiful transition of plumages as they go into and out of breeding colours, the extreme endurance required for migrations of more than 13 000 kms, the threats they face while flying across the world. These are the facts that people love to hear and it’s an emotive story. We all have a role to play in wildlife conservation, and mine is to protect shorebirds through research and community engagement. Join the team and helps these birds!

My tips for successful community engagement and science communication:

  1. Know the facts on your topic and be confident.
  2. Be positive and enthusiastic about your topic.
  3. Take opportunities to talk about your research and refine your communication skills.
  4. Listen to the stakeholders and community members that you are involved with.
  5. Suggest solutions to problems and seek help from appropriate people when necessary.