December 2015 Field Visit – Bitterns in Rice

I started this year with a wetland visit, and I thought it fitting to end it with another, only this time I decided to look at a very different type of wetland – rice bays.

Egret in rice bay
Intermediate Egret in a rice bay near Leeton NSW

Conservation agriculture is something I am particularly interested in, for numerous reasons. One of these reasons – a very major one – is that off-park conservation is vital to the survival of a great many of our native species. Conservation actions undertaken on private land bolster those undertaken in government-managed National Parks and reserves, and often provide essential corridors of habitat connectivity across landscapes. Without off-park conservation efforts – many of which are on private land – our native species would be in an even stickier situation than they currently are, and the current situation is bad enough.


Early Australian agriculture was very literally of the ‘rip it out and burn the stumps’ variety – landholders in the early 1900s were actually legally required to remove trees from new properties. Add in urban expansion, and an ever-increasing human population clearing land for towns, roads, cities, mines, and all the other accoutrements of modern life, and the habitat loss, and associated species loss, across the continent have been catastrophic.

Toward the end of the 1900s (around the 1970s or so) farmers and conservationists both had a look around and basically went “crap, this isn’t good” – problems like massive erosion, salinity, siltation of waterways, and the spread of pest and weed species, all tied in with native species loss and ecosystem destabilisation, had left an indelible mark on the country. So the farmers and conservationists teamed up and the Landcare movement began.

Over the last 3 or 4 decades social attitudes in general have become more environmentally-conscious, and Australian agricultural practises have become more environmentally-friendly as well (there’s still room for improvement on both fronts, but we’re getting there). Someone said to me recently “If you scratch a farmer these days, you’ll find a greenie” – and while there are always exceptions, this has been true of the majority of farmers I’ve personally met, although I believe most of them would strongly object to being called ‘greenies’.

I’m hoping that as my blog continues I will be able to show-case the conservation efforts of many farmers and other private land-holders, but today I want to focus on one specific conservation agriculture triumph, one that kind of came about by accident, but which is amazing and holds enormous promise for future conservation agriculture practices. Today I’m going to talk about Bitterns in Rice.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and the Australian rice industry cops a lot of flack because of the quantities of water involved in rice production, although like most Australian agricultural practices the rice industry has been working hard to become more environmentally sustainable, especially on the water-efficiency front. It’s also a very important industry economically-speaking, especially in the southern Riverina where entire communities have been built up around irrigated agriculture over the past century. In the last five years it has also been discovered that the Australian rice industry is important for another reason – wetland species conservation.

In 2010 a rice farmer from Mayrung took a photo of an unusual-looking bird he found in one of his rice bays. It turned out to be an Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), a very rarely seen, globally endangered species. As awareness was raised, more and more rice farmers and bird-watchers reported seeing bitterns in rice bays. This raised the question of how many bitterns were using rice bays, and the further questions of if they were breeding in the rice, if they were successfully fledging their young before harvest, where they went outside of the rice season, and what factors affect if a bittern chooses to live in a particular rice bay over another. To find the answers to these questions the Bitterns in Rice Project was born.

The Bitterns in Rice Project is a joint venture between BirdLife Australia, the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, and several other organisations. You can read all about the project and their findings to date on their website. You can also follow them on Facebook, for regular updates and photos.

I am super excited about the things this project has discovered so far about Australasian Bittern ecology in general, and about the use of rice by bitterns, as well as the implications it holds for future conservation efforts for both bitterns and other species. One of the most exciting facts to have come out of the project so far has been the discovery that the rice farms of southern NSW and northern Victoria actually support the largest known breeding population of Australasian Bitterns in the world. You heard me – the largest known breeding population in the world. In our rice.

Seriously, go read about the project, it’s amazing.

The current rice season is well underway, so I decided to go see if I could find some rice-dwelling bitterns for you. I harassed Matt Herring, the ecologist working on the Bitterns in Rice Project, until he very obligingly got permission for me to go visit one of the farms involved in the project. Thank you Matt! I didn’t mean to put you to such trouble, and I am very grateful for your assistance. My thanks also to the property owner who very kindly allowed me onto his farm, despite not knowing me from Adam.

I spent quite a while surveying rice bays through my binoculars, and saw a good number of herons (both white-necked and white-faced), spoonbills (both royal and yellow-billed), ibises (both white and straw-necked), egrets of assorted types, and this swamp harrier (Circus approximans):

harrier in rice
Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) in a rice bay near Leeton NSW
harrier in flight
Swamp Harrier

 

ibis in rice
Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) in a rice bay
white-necked herons
White-necked heron (Ardea pacifica), and either a second heron or an egret
ibises and egret
Two White Ibises and what I believe is a Little Egret in breeding plumage (sadly obscured by grass in the foreground)

The swamp harrier was the highlight of my trip for a while – they’re neither rare nor endangered, but I don’t see them as often as I see herons and ibises and so forth, so they’re always a perk. But I was looking for bitterns and I was determined to keep looking until I’d seen one or my arms refused to hold up my binoculars any more, and finally SUCCESS!

bittern in rice
SUCCESS! One Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) in a rice bay near Leeton NSW

Fortunately, this wasn’t my first Australasian bittern, nor even my first rice-dwelling one, so I knew what to look out for. One of the reasons bitterns are so rarely seen is because they spend most of their time lurking in reeds and rushes (or in this case rice), doing their best ‘I’m just reed’ impression.

BIRP-photo
Photo I pinched from the Bitterns in Rice Project website showing Australasian Bittern in typical posture. Photo very much not mine.

For big brown birds, they blend in surprisingly well, but if you know what to look for the little bit of head and beak pointing up between the leaves is quite distinctive.

I spy a bittern
I spy a bittern
bittern
Gotcha!
Australasian bittern
Psst! Bittern! You’re pointing the wrong way, the rice is slanting the other way, you’re kinda obvious like that

Finding a bittern is an exciting way to end the year – have a happy and safe holiday season everyone, and I’ll see you all again in 2016.

 

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