Canberra fire and garden bird surveys

To: <>
Subject: Canberra fire and garden bird surveys
From: "Philip Veerman" <>
Date: Thu, 24 Nov 2005 14:38:47 +1100
Hi David,
Thanks for the enquiry and having made the suggestion and that is a really good and sadly vexed question. I would really like to be able to give a positive answer to this. I hope you don't mind that I post the message also to m("","canberrabirds");"> to show the interest out there (and my thoughts on this are hardly unknown). As with having included most things of relevance, in my 21 Year GBS report (in the section called "the future", at the middle of page 17), I described the fire event and mention the value of the study and this report as a baseline on which to look at possible impacts of the fire (as you suggest). So yes this should be done.
As bad as the fires were, the impact (on birds) was no doubt far greater in the ranges to the west of Canberra than the Canberra suburbs as a whole. However the data we have for those parts is not assembled in the same way that allows assessment of bird abundance relative to variable observer effort. So the impacts are really hard to establish. Work is being done on Superb Lyrebirds at Tidbinbilla (Fullagar / Davey), that no doubt you have seen. Not that suburbs on the western side of Canberra weren't devastated but many other suburbs were not. The GBS collects and pools data from the whole city (plus Queanbeyan), so when the data are pooled, it is hard to see the specific impacts. No doubt there are local impacts. But when birds move from one area to another, statistics if they balance out, can obscure the changes. It will take a more sophisticated system than we have established to look at this. COG publishes Annual Bird Reports each year and anyone is welcome to peruse these. I would wish anyone luck in doing so. Apart from just fire, there is the far bigger effects of drought over the last few years. This comes on top of the increase in abundance of many of our small resident native birds over the duration of the GBS, largely due to maturation of the suburban vegetation. The contrast of Canberra suburbs to surrounding rural areas is a real challenge also.
The most obvious and really immediate impact on birds was the huge numbers of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos that infiltrated the city and over time, in big flocks of up to hundreds. Many other changes have occurred but it is so hard to tease out what cause and effect connections there may be.
You are right to suggest that the Canberra garden bird surveys may provide some answers.  One of the sites that had contributed very well to each of the first 21 years of the GBS year was burnt out. The owner has written up what would ordinarily be considered a good and reasonably interesting report about this. Although it is absolutely fundamental that all scientific papers should refer to prior relevant studies, I believe that this paper suffers greatly diminished credibility by not comparing data or even mentioning the existence of a compiled publication on the GBS data, to which this site had contributed for all 21 years. Also it only addresses this one person's observations at his own site and does not attempt to use or even acknowledge the broader depth of information available from the GBS Reports. But even with this flaw, if someone is exploring the event, I suggest this paper as borderline worthy of citation. See Holland, J (2005), 'Post-fire activity in the north-west part of Chapman during 2004-05, with particular reference to breeding', CBN:30(3): 97-116.
Now as to why it is vexed. Sadly, interactions of committees and people who show personal initiative and value their work and who actually do things, can lead to problems. After my many voluntary years of work in conceiving and building the GBS database (with help from others of course) and compiling and analysing and publishing the results of the survey, for COG's direct and immense benefit and after I gave COG the completed GBS database and after my years of desperate pleading for COG to publish my report on COG's survey (which they had earlier agreed to do), and seeing how successful this publication had become after they didn't publish it and I did (at my own initiative, risk and expense), things deteriorated and COG Committee decided to prevent any further availability of the GBS to me. So sadly, I don't have any knowledge of GBS results since then, beyond the very limited data in the ABR. It cries out for a proper analysis that considers the full background of the survey but I think this is unlikely ever to happen. Certainly even after all this time, there is no visible or audible sign that it is about to happen. I estimate it would only have taken several weeks for me to do it. 
The GBS is now onto its third coordinator since then and although it is continuing, its potentially useful output at this time, when so much of interest could come from it, my assessment of it is that it has reverted to the ultra limited, confused and simplistic interpretations of single species by single years of the COG ABR, diminished in quality even by comparisons with the ABR of many years ago, long before the database existed and all the data were compiled (that showed abundance histograms by month and information on seasonal patterns).
Sorry about that.
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