Researchers hit the beach searching for birds

Posted: 9am 26 Jan 2022

Instead of taking a break over summer, a group of University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) students has been hard at work researching birds and other vertebrates on beaches including at Bribie Island.

They have made some surprising observations about how urbanisation is affecting bird populations – from large raptors to small songbirds.

USC PhD candidate Brittany Elliott and Science Honours students Jasmine Ballantyne and Taylor Cooper have been studying vertebrates (animals that have a backbone) of the coastal dunes of South East Queensland.

Their work has focused principally on birds – from large raptors, such as sea eagles and ospreys, to the small songbirds of the coastal heathlands.

It has taken them to 20 sites on the Sunshine Coast, along with locations on North Stradbroke and Bribie Islands.

Surveys have been typically done using motion-activated cameras, resulting in some spectacular images.

Making a difference

The students’ supervisor, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology Dr Ben Gilby, says the work will help assess the health of animal populations across the region and identify whether humans are having an impact on animal distribution.

Dr Gilby, who is based at USC’s Moreton Bay campus at Petrie, said the students’ ongoing work had already provided some important insights.

“Jasmine and Taylor found significant effects of coastal urbanisation on bird assemblages in their projects,” he says.

“Biodiversity tends to be lower at sites nearer to urbanisation.

“Taylor's research showed, however, that there is nuance in this. Some species of honeyeater are more abundant in areas where they can sneak a feed from flowers in people's gardens.

“Jasmine's work showed that this urbanisation effect extends into the sea, affecting the distribution of fish in the surf zones of the same beaches.”

Taylor, who studies at USC Moreton Bay, says being in nature and observing wildlife is the best part of her degree.

“It is exciting, interesting and challenging, and I love that our research is working towards making a difference to conserve our beautiful wildlife and environment,” she says.

What’s next?

Brittany and Dr Gilby will now work on a project seeking to connect this bird research with information about plants and insects.

“This will give us a great overarching perspective of the condition of coastal dunes,” Dr Gilby says. “We will also be expanding the surveys of the ospreys and eagles from just the beaches and into the surrounding landscapes.

“For example, we'll be surveying sites across the Pumicestone, Maroochy and Mooloolah catchments to identify hotpots of osprey abundance, and therefore to identify possible sites where management should be focused.”

Dr Gilby says the work is supported by Sunshine Coast Council and is part of a larger project monitoring the condition of coastal ecosystems.

The USC researchers are also providing updates to traditional owners and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

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