Bush birds respond to environmental water in Murray

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There’s fresh hope for woodland bird populations thanks to environmental water. The latest research, focusing on wetlands in southern NSW, shows that woodland birds are responding to environmental water by feeding and – most importantly – breeding in nearby bushland.

While the link between wetlands and waterbirds is clear, the role environmental water plays in supporting woodland birds, and other terrestrial species, along the River Murray is only now being monitored and understood. Over the past 12 months, close to 300 bird surveys have been conducted in Murray Valley National Park in southern NSW.

Ecologist Rick Webster said surveys showed the diversity and number of birds was substantially higher in areas that had received environmental water compared with areas that had not.

The survey results demonstrate that numerous woodland birds are benefiting from environmental watering including species known to be declining across the mid-West of NSW.

“Brown treecreepers, red-capped robins, dusky woodswallows and restless flycatchers have all been observed in increasing numbers in and around areas of environmental watering,” Mr Webster said.

“Water has led to an increase in the biomass of vegetation – plants are healthier and the ground layer is more diverse. At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in the variety and abundance of insects which are a staple food for most birds.

“In Murray Valley National Park, these improved conditions have resulted in many woodland birds nesting and producing young, including white-throated treecreepers, crested shrike-tits, black-faced cuckoo-shrikes and dusky woodswallows,” he said.


Woodland birds like the crested shrike-tit (pictured) are benefiting from environmental flows. Photo M Todd OEH.

The effects of environmental watering can be seen well beyond the confines of the river bank.

“Water flows out into the forest via a network of creeks, wetlands and underground aquifers. Plants far away from the original water source are able to tap into flows above and below ground and respond by increasing their foliage, flowering and setting seed,” Mr Webster said.

“In turn, these plants provide ideal habitat where birds can feed and nest.

“Aquatic plants respond too and this diversity of plant life allows a range of insects to survive and provide a food source to various bush birds that feed within different levels of the vegetation,” he said.


Healthy habitat, as a result of environmental watering, supports a multitude of species including the red-capped robin (pictured). Photo M Todd OEH.

The survey results are good news for surrounding regions.

“Murray Valley National Park forms part of a vegetated corridor along the River Murray. These forests act as a ‘source’ of birds for the surrounding regions where they may be declining,” he said.

“At different times of the year, the woodland birds move in and out of the forest depending on their needs. Rainbow bee-eaters, sacred kingfishers, white winged-trillers and leaden flycatchers move into the forest over spring, summer and autumn while winter migrants like the flame robin make use of the forests during the cooler months.

“Then there are the birds that come and go depending on seasonal conditions in other vegetation communities in the surrounding region. Fuscous and yellow-faced honeyeaters have been recorded in the park when conditions are dry in the box and ironbark forests of northern Victoria.

“This makes environmental watering even more important for maintaining a healthy habitat and ensuring we continue to see these beautiful birds in our backyards and natural bushland,” Mr Webster said.


Woodland birds provide a range of economic benefits for riverine communities. Dusky woodswallow. Photo M Todd OEH.

The results of these woodland bird surveys are helping to inform the management of environmental watering events within Murray Valley National Park and beyond.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage is the lead agency for management and delivery of water for environmental uses in NSW.

Senior Environmental Water Manager Paul Childs said waterbirds often steal the spotlight when it comes to environmental watering success stories, but woodland birds are just as important.

“Wetland and woodland birds have an important role to play in the floodplain ecosystem and the broader landscape,” Mr Childs said.

“Birds are predominantly insectivores and often eat the insects that we would consider pests. This has important implications for agricultural industries and communities.


The brolga (pictured) is one of many waterbird species enjoying the benefits of healthy habitat as a result of environmental water. Photo M Todd OEH.



“Some of the insects eaten by birds are responsible for eucalypt dieback, so healthy bird populations are essential to ensuring healthy trees in towns, on farms and within the wetland/woodland environment.

“Along with bees, birds are pollinators and can play an important role in food production.

“Birds also provide a clear economic benefit in terms of tourism. Birdwatchers will travel hundreds of kilometres and spend thousands of dollars in local communities to see the birds that are unique to a particular region.

In southern NSW, we can lay claim to several species that are particularly sought-after by birdwatchers – superb parrots, Australasian bitterns, painted snipes, brolgas and rainbow bee-eaters.

“Native birds also have significant cultural importance as a traditional source of food for Aboriginal people and totem species linking Aboriginal people to special places within the landscape.

“The results of this latest round of bird surveys do influence the ways in which we manage environmental water events in the Murray valley. The needs of woodland and wetland birds help to determine the timing of watering events, the extent and duration. Having the science to back up our decision making processes ensures a transparent and well informed pathway with clear benefits to all stakeholders,” Mr Childs said.


Birdwatchers will travel hundreds of kilometres to see beautiful birds including the rainbow bee-eater (pictured), at home in the Murray valley. Photo M Todd OEH.

Bird surveys have been undertaken as part of The Living Murray (TLM) bush bird condition monitoring and in order to provide baseline information prior to an ecological thinning trial in MVNP. The baseline information will allow for monitoring of any changes in bush bird species diversity and populations.

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