Each morning, not long after sunrise, Hazel Watson jumps on her bicycle and
joins the joggers, the fishers, the dog-walkers and the construction workers
competing for space on the northern foreshores of Botany Bay. She is there not
for exercise but for expert observation, monitoring bird life put at risk by the
$1 billion expansion of Port Botany.
She cuts a diminutive figure, dwarfed by monster cranes creeping across the
skyline, as she picks her way along the banks of the Penrhyn Estuary, using
binoculars to pick out sharp-tailed sandpipers, golden plovers and bar-tailed
godwits that have wintered in Australia. So far, so encouraging, she says of
preliminary construction work; not only have the birds been left undisturbed,
but their semi-industrial habitat has been improved by the removal of mangroves
and exposure of more mudflats.
More worrying in the long term and further afield, though, the future for
many of Australia's 800 or so bird species looks bleak. Figures from the
BirdLife International world conference in Buenos Aires last week show
populations of resident Australian waders have declined by as much as 80 per
cent over the past 25 years.
Species such as the black-winged stilt and red-necked avocet - which have
long been a colourfully exotic feature of Sydney wetlands - have had a marked
decline, said Dean Ingwersen, a co-ordinator of the Threatened Bird Network. So,
too, have migratory birds.
So, in Tourism Australia terms, where the bloody hell are they? They are
victims of the rapid loss or alteration of wetland habitats in Australia and
elsewhere along the East Asian-Australasian flyway travelled by birds such as
the remarkable godwit, which commutes 12,000 kilometres each way every year
between the much-abused Botany Bay and the Arctic Circle.
The situation is no less encouraging on dry land. Ornithologists, birdos and
twitchers - three distinct species of watchers - must await the 2008 State Of
Australia's Birds report, the first in a series of stocktaking studies due
next month, for confirmation, but early indications are that woodland birds,
such as the hooded robin and regent honeyeater are also being driven out of
traditional habitats by changes in land-use.
Birds Australia, for whom Watson works, has done a wonderful job in recent
years, acquiring bird reserves, plotting and highlighting the plight of
vulnerable species, and encouraging millions of Australians to appreciate better
its avian treasures through initiatives such as the Birds in Backyards program.
Quite right. As American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "I hope you love birds too.
It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
But even those unmoved by the sight and sounds in their Sydney suburban
backyard of, say king parrots, powerful owls and channel-bill cuckoos - all
recent, noisy visitors to my humble North Shore plot - should be perturbed by
the disappearance of birds. For they are not just heavenly adornments, they are
As BirdLife's chief, Dr Mike Rands, explained: "Because birds are found
almost everywhere on Earth, they can act as our eyes and ears, and what they are
telling us is that the deterioration in biodiversity and the environment is
accelerating, not slowing."
As a signatory of the international Ramsar agreement on wetlands, the
Australian Government is fully aware of remedial action, big and small, to save
significant sites such as the dying Coorong at the end of the Murray. What is
lacking is political willpower and a sense of urgency.
Birds may be a only a small bit of the bigger environmental picture. And
Australian bird enthusiasts may lack the political clout of their counterparts
elsewhere such as Britain, where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
has a million members. But as the bumper stickers of other pressure-groups
proclaim, they have a vote, they have a voice. As the dismal bird figures
confirm, those voices should be raised now. Before it is too late.
John Huxley is the author of Dead Parrot, an ornithological detective
story set on Botany Bay and in the bush.