With feathered friends in such danger, so are we

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Subject: With feathered friends in such danger, so are we
From: "Tony Lawson" <>
Date: Thu, 2 Oct 2008 14:09:18 +1000

John Huxley
October 2, 2008

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 environmental indicators.

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.

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