News

Satellite tracking update and national surveys results January 2022

The new year has got off to a great start with five Latham’s Snipe satellitte tagged and transmitting from various parts of Australia. Three of these snipe are the Wild Bird Society of Japan tagged birds, and data is still being received intermittently from them. One has spent almost its entire time on farmland in the Niangala region of NSW, inland of Port Macquarie and south-east of Tamworth. Another roamed around a bit and visited some far-flung locations like Venus Bay in Victoria before settling down in parkland in western Sydney. And the third has spent a lot of its time in the ACT / NSW alps.

In early December 2021, the ACT team managed to find the Covid-19 gap to get a catch done at Jerrabomberra wetlands. It was destined to go pretty well as there had been record numbers of snipe recorded earlier in spring within the wetlands complex, and then 1 week out from the catching a large number of snipe were sighted at the Billabong in the south end, near the car yards. So only a single night’s catching was required and the team caught their largest catch ever at Jerrabomberra of 11 snipe. Everyone was very excited, especially as we had three PinPoint Argos tags left to deploy. Two were from previous years and there was a single new one. Consistent with patterns we have seen in the past, there were quite a few fatter birds in the catch compared to the Jan/Feb catches from previous years. The three largest adult birds (>150g) were selected for tags and fitted with leg loop harnesses. This is the first time we have used the leg loops on latham’s snipe and after some fiddling around, got them fitted nicely. The birds were held briefly just to allow them to shuffle their harnesses into position and then released near Kelly’s swamp.

ELF50 ready to go
ELF51 also ready to go
Kellys swamp, full of water. The conditions for catching were perfect.

Regular transmissions have been received from two of the birds, carrying orange engraved leg flags 50 and 51, but no data was ever received from the third bird (which could be a failed tag). The tags were programmed to take day and night fixes for about a month and this has proved to be a good decision as we have obtained loads of data showing the areas the birds are roosting and foraging in. As with previous years, they are almost always using completely distinct areas at night and day (see image below).

Between the WBSJ tracking and our tracking, we are starting to build a good picture of snipe movement in Australia. There are still many gaps of course, and a lack of complete migration tracks makes it harder to work out where important migration sites are outside Australia. The figure below provides a snapshot of the recent tracking data from the five tagged snipe.

Most recent locations of the five satellite tagged snipe. The purple dots represent the Wild Bird Society of Japan birds and the green symbols are the ACT birds. Satellite data courtesy of the WBSJ.

National surveys 2021

As most people know, it has been an unusually wet year with the Bureau of Meteorology declaring La Niña conditions in spring. As a consequence, we have seen numbers of snipe exceeding any in past years. So despite Covid-19 preventing some people from doing surveys, we had the highest counts ever in November 2021. Paradoxically, quite a few of the usual “good sites” had too much water and not many snipe were recorded – this was particularly the case for East Gippsland and sites in Queensland.

Highlights for the surveys were:

  • Total September count was 1124 from 121 sites. This included 9 new sites.
  • The regions with the largest totals in September were Central Tasmania (85 snipe), East Gippsland (98 snipe), Geelong-Bellarine (71 snipe), Hunter region (91 snipe), northern-west Tasmania (91 snipe all Smithton), Otway shipwreck coast (121 snipe all at Peterborough), Port Fairy-Warrnambool (90 snipe), SE South Australia (110 snipe) and West Gippsland (74 snipe).
  • Total November count was 1946 for 119 sites. This was a seasonal record! This included only 4 new sites.
  • The regions with the largest totals in November were Victorian western Central Highlands (220 snipe), northern NSW (125 snipe), NSW Hunter region (259 snipe), Port Fairy – Warrnambool (179 snipe), SE South Australia (247 snipe), West Gippsland (155 snipe) and of course Smithton and Peterborough
Summary of seasonal surveys since 2015.

It is always great to see the count results and the findings of peoples’ surveys. But there are also often other little treasurers that come with receiving everyone’s data and entering the data. The photos of people counting are always wonderful, as are the photos of snipe in flight or going about their business.

Here’s some gems from past surveys:

What is also wonderful is people’s care of their sites. For example, one of the counters made the following comment in relation to rubbish dumping at their survey site last year:

We actually reported the dumping, rubbish etc to the council and they fed back to me it had subsequently been inspected and is on a list for clean up. I am now concerned they’ll clean it up and disturb the snipe. Oh dear, conservation work is complicated I realise!

The law of unintended consequences! It seems to happen too often when trying to do conservation. So for those of you fighting your local conservation fights, you are not alone when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere.

With the new(ish) datasheets, there have been some fabulous site maps produced by counters and included with the snipe count data. Two examples are below, which the counters have given permission to share with you.

If you are not keen on GPS and smart devices, here is another great way to record your surveys!

Other snipe news

Not all news this year is good. One of our counters in the Geelong region, Rustem Upton, passed away earlier in January. This was pretty sudden and shocking for most of us that didn’t know him that well. He was extremely dedicated to the snipe surveys and was a meticulous observer. I would like to express my gratitude for the contribution he made to the snipe project. We will strive to carry on his legacy at his favourite snipe site, Begola wetlands.

The other news is fortunately much less sad. The snipe project will be cranking up another notch in Canberra in 2022 with the commencement of a PhD project investigating snipe movement ecology. I am pleased to announce that our colleague Lori Gould will be taking up this PhD. This is great news for the snipe project as Lori has been instrumental in initiating and driving it in Canberra and has lots of experience with the species. She will be based at ANU and working with Professor Adrian Manning, Heather Mcginness and myself to undertake this project. The project will be supported by an ANU Research Training Program scholarship and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust.

It couldn’t happen without the volunteers and collaborators…

My thanks to all the counters that have managed to get to their sites to survey in 2021. And a special thanks to the Jerrabomberra wetlands catching team who have been so dedicated to the cause and made the effort each year to slog through wetlands at 4am. We now have a very experienced team of snipe catchers and they have made this part of the project possible. And finally I’d like to thank Tatsuya Ura and the Wild Bird Society of Japan, who have kept us up-to-date with their tracking project.

Other snipe news

We were fortunate to get an article published in The Conversation in late August that provides a story about snipe migration and the challenges we have faced trying to conserve the species. The article is available to read here.

Recently the Friends of Mason Park wetlands in Sydney produced a very informative video about the site, which is not far from the Sydney Olympic Park wetlands – a nationally significant habitat area for snipe and one of the snipe monitoring sites. The interesting back story at Mason Park is the loss of shorebird habitat from mangrove encroachment, a problem occurring also in the Hexham swamp near Newcastle, another important snipe site. The Friends of Mason Park have been doing a lot of habitat modification works, which will hopefully promote the return of habitats more suitable to support snipe and other shorebirds.

There are still challenges for snipe at many other sites in Australia, all in urban areas. In Brisbane, the state government has plans for a major road through the Eagleby wetlands, which turned up a survey result over the EPBC Act threshold of 18 birds for national significance. In south-west Victoria, there is still pressure on the wetlands in Peterborough, our largest snipe site. It is unclear whether a housing development proposal will be made for the Robertson street wetland, recently sold to an unknown buyer. And challenges still exist in Port Fairy in terms of highlighting the ongoing significance of wetlands in the town for snipe, and encouraging council to reconsider the timing and extent of various planned works at Powling Street wetlands and nearby Sandy Cove. Only through the efforts of local counters and interested community members, combined with insights from the monitoring, can we hope to influence decision-makers to take snipe wetland conservation more seriously.

Three Japanese snipe migrated to Australia!

Since late August, the three Latham’s Snipe tagged by the Wild Bird Society of Japan have been busy moving around parts of eastern Australia. They have used a surprising range of locations and habitats, most of which are not locations with previous records. It has been immensely exciting and satisfying to see these tracking results.

Below is a visual summary of where the snipe have been. All images have been kindly supplied by the WBSJ and annotated.

19/9/2021. Snipe 198428 was still in PNG, 198427 was near Port Macquarie after spending about 3 weeks in Cape York, and 198429 went to Sydney via Menindee Lakes, after spending a few days south of Gladstone. Image courtesy of WBSJ.

By Sept 27, 198428 had left PNG and was inland of Hervey Bay, 198427 was south of Armidale in northern NSW, and 198429 had moved to Venus Bay in Victoria.

By 18 Oct, 198428 was in the New South Wales high plains near the ACT border, 198427 was still south of Armidale, and 198429 had left Venus Bay and had moved to western Sydney.

We were very excited when 198429 turned up in Venus Bay (Victoria), especially after it looked like it was going to stay in Sydney (after making a huge detour via Menindee Lakes on its way to Sydney!). Venus Basy is one of our monitoring sites that meets the EPBC Act criteria for national importance. And now it has decided it doesn’t like the Victorian coast and has headed back to Sydney!

Snipe 198427 seems quite content to hang around Armidale / Port Macquarie region and has moved around only a little bit in that time.

We were concerned about 198428 for sometime as it had transmitted intermittently from PNG, but then it finally arrived in Australia and is now in the NSW highlands, close to Kosciuszko NP. This is intriguing news as we get very few records of snipe from the high country and its importance for Latham’s Snipe is still unclear.

The Wild Bird Society of Japan have achieved these outstanding tracking results through their patient persistence and hrd work in northern Japan. The results accumulating are providing really great insights to snipe migration but more importantly their choice of stopover habitat, many that are locations where snipe have rarely been recorded previously.

Thanks to URA Tatsuya at the WBSJ for providing regular location updates.

Exciting snipe research news

We have very exciting news from our colleagues at that Wild Bird Society of Japan. They have tagged a number of latham’s snipe オオジシギ in Hokkaido with satellite transmitters and three of those birds have sucessfully completed their southward migration! Woo hoo!

Two snipe arrived in Australia on 24th August, one south of Weipa on the west side of Cape York and the other south of Gladstone just east of the Bruce Highway near Bororen. As of August 26, both birds were still in the same general area.

The third snipe went to the south-east Papua New Guinea and is north of Port Moresby in forested areas.

Locations of the three snipe as of August 26. Map courtesy of the Wild Bird Society of Japan

You can find the latest updates on the WSBJ snipe tracking project on Facebook (you don’t need an account to view).

These snipe have travelled 7800km over 5 days to reach their southerly destinations. This adds to the amazing migration of T0 obtained from geolocator data back in 2016, which followed almost exactly the same route across the Pacific Ocean.

Wood Snipe tracking

In other exciting snipe news, a team of intrepid researchers at the University of Queensland, Peking University and Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding have been searching for the elusive wood snipe in the Himalayas.

At over 3000m altitude, they have been attempting to catch wood snipe and fit them with satellite tracking devices. This is a species that is very poorly known and there is no information about their seasonal migrations between the Himalayas and the Laos and Burmese lowlands.

Wood snipe breeding habitat. Photo courtery of Ren Xiaotong

They have successfully located nests of wood snipe and also tagged several birds at a breeding site in Pingwu, Sichuan Province.

Fitting a tag to a wood snipe. Photo courtesy of Chen Lifang.

One of their tagged wood snipe has started its southward migration and is en route to the Vietnamese lowlands.

Wood Snipe tracking August 2021. Image courtesy of Ren Xiaotong.
Wood Snipe chicks. Photo courtesy of Ren Xiaotong

The first snipe of the season has arrived!

Yesterday August 8th, the first two snipe were sighted back at Jerrabomberra wetlands. This is over a week earlier than any previous year for which there was a record. Is it this wet season we have had in south-eastern Australia?

In far north Queensland, there were three early August records also, two from the Atherton Tablelands and one from Prosperpine. These are on ebird for folk who are curious to see for themselves.

So now is the time to be on the lookout for snipe in your local wetlands!

And don’t forget the national snipe surveys start up again in September, on Saturday 18th. Please get in contact with Birgita before the end of August if you’re interested in being involved.

2020-2021: a season of mixed blessings for snipe

It is been a while since I posted here, but no, the project hasn’t died! Work life has got in the way and data entry at my end has been severely delayed. But I can finally report on the outcomes of this survey season, which was a great one.

The season totals were September 1342 snipe from 148 sites, November 1619 snipe from 132 sites, and January 1455 snipe from 149 sites.

Results from the Latham’s Snipe national sureys since the 2015-2016 season.

The regions that consistently had large numbers of snipe were East Gippsland, Geelong-Bellarine, north-west Tasmania, Port Fairy-Warrnambool, and west Gippsland. And the three sites that had consistently high totals were Peterborough (max count 187 in November), Smithton (max count in 134 in November) and Fox Lake (max count 74 in January).

This season was a bumper season for snipe. There was so much water about and the numbers generally reflected this, although at some sites the wet conditions produced the paradoxical result of no snipe, because vegetation got too tall or too think, making the habitat unsuitable.

We were very fortunate that most people were able to get out and survey despite covid restrictions, and I am immensely grateful to all the counters for their efforts.

Unfortunately, several of our sites are facing threats from development. The most significant of these is Peterborough wetlands, which is threatened by housing development thanks to Melbourne investors and the sea changers buying up land. As the popularity (and housing price) of the township goes up, the council is making land use changes in the township to accommodate the growing population, which are also impacting snipe habitats. It is looking very grim there at the moment and we are most concerned that Australia’s largest snipe population could be severely impacted by development.

There are also other sites under threat. The Allansford wetlands are threatened by development, and there are 3 sites potentially under threat due to road duplication projects.

I am in the process of preparing a scientific publication about the results of the national surveys. One of the early findings is the lack of protection for snipe wetlands – less than 10% of snipe recorded were at sites with any form of official protection. This confirms what we are observing from these development threats in different parts of the country, and demonstrates that Latham’s Snipe are afforded no protection in this country. This is a matter for urgent legal and planning attention.

Snipe at Bul Bul Crescent wetland. Photo courtesy of Jim Stone
Searching for snipe at Macalistair wetland. Photo courtesy of Jack Winterbottom

September survey results and the EAAF Shorebird Science Meeting

The start of the 2020-2021 snipe season has gone much better than expected. The total number of snipe counted for the September 26 survey was 1347 for 150 sites – 24 of these sites were new for the National Surveys and accounted for 149 snipe. This result compares favourably to the September 2019 survey, where we had 1229 snipe for 126.

A snipe snapped landing at a new survey site in Craigieburn, Greater Melbourne. Photo: Beverley Van Praagh
Some of highest snipe numbers were recorded in Astonville, northern NSW . Photo: David Charley
Hearts Morass in East Gippsland had high numbers of snipe in the Sept survey. Photo: Jack Winterbottom

We were expecting potentially poor results this time around after the >40% decline in snipe numbers was detected during the Japanese breeding ground surveys in May. This was thought to be a consequence of the bushfires and drought effects. It is still possible these factors have had an impact on the snipe population, but the effect could have been diluted by the nature of our survey sites – as many are in urban areas they may be more stable and less likely to fluctuate with large population changes. But there is no evidence yet to support this theory.

EAAF Shorebird Science Meeting

In other news, the EAAFSSM is currently underway in Korea, although the whole conference has been moved online. Birgita has presented some findings from the Latham’s Snipe Projet satellite tracking, showing the importance of Papua New Guinea to migrating snipe. The abstract of the talk is below.

Latham’s Snipe is one of two Gallinago species confirmed in Papua New Guinea, the other being Swinhoe’s Snipe. Both species are essentially identical in the field, and extreme care and perseverance is required to differentiate them based on observations alone. As a consequence, where the species overlap, sight-based records are often unable to be verified and the distribution of each species in overlap zones is difficult to determine. This is the case for Papua New Guinea, where Swinhoe’s Snipe is considered the dominant species, and the majority of accepted records for Latham’s Snipe stem from coastal locations near the capital of Port Moresby. Between 2016 and 2020, light-level geolocators and satellite transmitters were deployed to obtain migration information for the species. Two geolocator retrievals in south-eastern Australia indicated use of Papua New Guinea on northward and / or southward migration, although the resolution of the data were insufficient to determine stopover locations. Three satellite transmitter deployments (two in Canberra, Australia, and one in Hokkaido, Japan) have provided high resolution location information, and the first conclusive evidence of staging by Latham’s Snipe in the Papua New Guinean highlands (between 1500-2500m ASL). The two Canberra-tagged snipe used modified wetlands and agricultural areas near human habitation in the highlands, while the Hokkaido-tagged snipe stopped on the Papuan coast near the border with Papua New Guinea. While these represent only a small sample size, they nevertheless demonstrate that Latham’s Snipe distribution is significantly broader than officially documented. These findings also highlight the importance of this region for migrating snipe. Targeted investigation of the population extent, habitat use and priority areas for conservation in New Guinea is urgently required.

Please contact Birgita if you would like more information

2020-2021 snipe surveys kick off September 26

This season’s snipe surveys start on Saturday 26th September. We have the most unusual situation this year of course, due to covid and restrictions. That will affect out Melbourne counters and some of our important sites there, which is disppointing. But we are hoping that everyone else can safely get out to their nearby wetlands to find out how many snipe have come back. There have already been quite a few records from some of our regular sites, including an early Victorian arrival at Lara wetlands on August 11.

In other news, the Wild Bird Society of Japan tagged some snipe over winter in Hokkaido with 2g PTTs. Two of those birds are still transmitting, one is in central Honshu and the other is in northern Hokkaido after making what appears to be an attempt to migrate and then turning back. This might have been due to a massive typhoon in the region at the time. Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/wbsjoojishigi/ (in Japanese).

The International Shorebird Twitter Conference is on October 7 and 8. Birgita @geethansen will be giving a twitter presentation on the snipe staging records from PNG on October 7 at 640pm AEST.

We have also had both conservation successes and failures recently. The success was the decision by Gold Coast Council to retain the remains of Black Swan Lake, which had been partially infilled by the adjacent Turf Club for a carpark. Amazing that such a thing still happens in this day and age! Nevertheless, we put our evidence to council about protection of sites that support snipe and the likelihood that snipe were using the site on northward and southward migration. That evidence was considered in the decision. This is a great outcome for conservation and for the local community who want to protect their wetland values.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the QLD government and the Cairns port authority are busily dumping dread spoil and wind farm materials all over the remaining habitat at Tingara Street, Portsmith in Cairns, which snipe use regularly on migration. This site has held nationally significant numbers of snipe on a number of occasions. It is most disappointing to see the destruction of this site for something as mundane as handling dredge spoil, which could potentially be transported anywhere. Clearly we have a long way yet to go to improve snipe conservation.

Pacific Golden Plover surrounded by dredging materials and dredge spoil at Tingara Street. Photo: Jude Friesen

Massive declines of snipe オオジシギ on the breeding grounds in 2020

The Wild Bird Society of Japan have finished analsying their results from the 2020 (boreal) spring breeding grounds surveys in Hokkaido. They surveyed a subset of the core sites that were counted in 2018 (roughly 10%). From those 2018 surveys, they derived a popuation estimate of 35,000 snipe.

They found significantly reduced numbers of snipe across these surveyed sites in May 2020 – the population estimate was around 20,000 birds or 42% less than in 2018. This reflects a massive decline in the species between the two years. While lesser numbers of sites were surveyed, the same population estimation method was used.

The WBSJ researchers were unable to account for this decline at local (Hokkaido) sites, and therefore conclude that the drought and major bushfires in SE Australia over summer 2019-2020 has impacted the breeding population.

You can find out more on the WBSJ website.

We have long known that snipe use alpine / highlands habitats but the size and distribution of the population is unknown. It seems likely that snipe using alpine wetlands have been impacted by the wildlifes. We hope to raise some funds through the bushfire recovery funding schemes to investigate these populations and determine the extent of impacts to both birds and wetlands.

The upcoming national surveys will be critical in determining the extent of the population decline and flow-on effects of the bushfires to populations at important non-breeding sites. I encourage everyone to set aside the surveys dates in their calendar. They are:

September 26, November 21 and January 23.

Never has the need for the nationally coordinated surveys been so strong. Of course, field work will only proceed in areas not subject to COVID19 restrictions.

Japanese video of catching from January

Thanks to the excellent camera work by Ishida-san, Hokkaido Television Broadcasting and the Wild Bird Society of Japan have produced a short video from their visit to Canberra in January. The link to view it is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84ywNOOKrfo&feature=youtu.be

There have been no further transmissions from any of our tagged snipe, so there will be no further updates on the satellite tracking until next season.