Western Australia’s inland lakes become breeding grounds for thousands of waterbirds

Thousands of bird fly over an island in the western desert

(Eliza Wood; 31 Mar 2017)

Western Australia’s northern desert region has been transformed into a breeding ground for thousands of waterbirds following a record-breaking wet season.

In the area from the East Pilbara to the Northern Territory border, the salt pans have filled to the highest level in 30 years.

Staff from the Indigenous Desert Alliance and Parks and Wildlife surveyed the area recently by plane.

Alliance spokesman Gareth Catt said the usually-coastal birds would have flown in from as far as South Australia as soon as heavy rains began.

“January had more than double the record rain at Telfer [in the East Pilbara], so we knew that it was very likely that some of the lakes had filled,” Mr Catt said.

“So we went out to see what birds might be on those lakes and found some colonies of tens of thousands of birds in some locations.”

On one lake Mr Catt estimated there were 90,000 banded stilts.

“It was absolutely spectacular, and beyond our expectations of what we might find,” he said.

“Not a whole lot is known about the banded stilt.

“We know that they spend a lot of their time on the coast, and they come inland immediately as rain starts to fall with these big events.

“They’re a colonial breeder; they seem to be really on top of each other [and] were on the smallest islands in the middle of the lakes in [the] tens of thousands.”

Chicks and eggs in nests spotted

Mr Catt said the filling of the lakes and the arrival of the birds for breeding was ecologically significant.

“We’re expecting that there would be enough water from this fill event for the birds to breed at least once and to be successful,” he said.

“In some locations we saw chicks that had just recently hatched but in most places, the birds were sitting on eggs when we were looking at the nesting sites.”

He said while the desert had not had rain like this for 30 years, the likelihood of it happening again soon was increasing.

“With climate change, the north-western desert is starting to get more frequent rain events over summer,” Mr Catt said.

“So the interval between these big rain events is getting shorter [and] it could be that the desert becomes a bit more green in the future.”