I’m writing this in what passes for the lounge at Armidale airport on the New South Wales northern tablelands waiting for a plane to take me back to Sydney.

I’ve been here for the past week to attend the biennial Australasian Ornithological Conference, this year held in the salubrious surrounds of the Armidale Ex-Serviceman’s Club – known locally as the “Servies“. It was well attended, with about two hundred or so delegates, many of whom made presentations over the 4 days of the meeting.

I long ago gave up going to conferences where I’m not presenting a paper and my presentation was in the first session of the first day – good in one way that it gave me lots of time to catch other presentations – not so good in that I had to be ready from the get go – oh well, that’s what pre-conference Sundays are for.

My picks of the conference (apart from my own paper of course!) are as follows:

The first paper that caught my attention wasBird Hunting in Ujung Karawang Natural Preserve, Bekasi, West Java” by Surya Purnama of the State University of Yogyakarta.

Surya’s presentation was loaded with dramatic pictures of the bird trade in West Java and riveting details of the scope, economic and ecological impact that this very commercial trade has on the birds in this part of the world.

As a friend who has worked in Indonesia for many years advised me, the notion of the conservation of Indonesia’s bird population is largely an alien concept in that country. Coupled with the very small numbers working on birds and their habitats in Indonesia it appears that there are serious and long-term issues of grave concern.

Surya notes in his conference abstract that the issues related to the mass taking of birds is complex and not just about conservation biology and has complex cultural and economic dimensions as well:

Bird Hunting in Ujung Karawang Natural Preserve, Bekasi, West Java: Bird hunting is one potential cause of the decline of bird populations in Indonesia. However besides providing a source of income for some people, it has also cultural importance for a long time. The numbers of water birds being caught have been staggering. In 1979, an estimated one million birds were caught in the Indramayu area of Java alone, but this had declined to about 300,000 in 1984-5, 200,000 in 1987, and 150,000 in 1992.

We interviewed hunters in the [UIjung Karawang Natural Preserve, Bekasi, West Java] from January 2007 to February 2009 to record their hunting methods. Our study showed approximately 612,000 birds were collected from 63 species.

Bird hunting in this area is dominated by economical need, with both the hunter and middle-man being poor people living in outlying areas. Birds are mostly captured and consumed by people in and around the [UIjung Karawang] Natural Preserve.

I’ll have a further look at the many issues that arise from bird hunting and the subsistence economy in West java in the near future.

The second paper that caught my attention was a Plenary presentation by my old mate Dave Watson (see two recent posts of an interview that I conducted with Dave at the AOC here and here) from Charles Sturt University.

Dave’s plenary paper to the conference was entitled “A Productivity-based Explanation for Woodland Bird Declines: Poor Soils Yield Less Food”. In part, his abstract for that paper reads:

All organisms ultimately depend on water and nutrients, yet the importance of these bottom-up factors in explaining occurrence patterns in fragmented landscapes has only recently emerged. In addition to dramatic changes in habitat quality and extent, consider how nutrient inputs to woodlands have changed over the last century. The nitrogen-fixing plants that once provided most of the soil-borne Nitrogen have undergone widespread changes in abundance-some were cleared, others actively favoured and most preferentially consumed by domestic stock. The soils that have some of the lowest available Phosphorous on earth require large and frequent inputs to grow food and fibre, with surface run-off leading to dramatically elevated levels in adjacent woodlands. The mistletoes and parasitic shrubs that concentrate many nutrients have undergone dramatic changes in abundance, becoming super-abundant in some regions, locally extinct in others. The frequency and intensity of fires have fundamentally changed, increasing or decreasing availability of some elements by orders of magnitude. These changes to nutrient inputs have likely driven major changes in below-ground microbial communities, altering their composition and thereby fundamentally modifying the foundation of woodland food-webs.

I develop the hypothesis that changes in the availability of ground-dwelling arthropods underlie widely reported changes in bird occurrence in remnant woodlands, especially ground-foraging insectivores.

I evaluate this idea with existing data and demonstrate a high congruence with many findings, both from south-eastern Australia and elsewhere. Finally, I articulate a series of testable predictions based on this hypothesis and encourage researchers to incorporate this bottom-up perspective in their work.

The third presentation that caught my attention was given by Professor Stephen Garnett of the Charles Darwin University at Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Professor Garnett’s plenary presentation concentrated on the savannas of northern Australia – that cover much of the top third of the Australian continent.

His paper, “Conservation Issues for Birds in the Northern Savannas” traversed the vroad set of issues related to conservation of bird habitats across the savanna lands. His abstract for that paper included the following:

The savannas of northern Australia are vast, nearly two million [square kilometres], with an avifauna that is remarkably intact. Extremely infertile soils and a wet season that, though reliable, stutters at the start in a way that can kill most crops has more or less protected its integrity from rampaging agriculture.

As a result the extinction debt that stalks birds in fragmented landscapes in absent- savanna birds can range uninterrupted to follow itinerant resources, wetlands are largely un-drained and coastlines largely unmodified. But, while the landscapes can look healthy, there have also been many changes since pastoral settlement in the 1880s – changes to fire management, heavy grazing pressure and removal of traditional management.

Similarly the many modern drivers of change will also draw heavily on environmental resources while the first heavy drops are falling from the fast-gathering storm of climate change. This paper considers the history of the existing avifauna of Australia’s tropical savannas, how that avifauna may respond to existing and impending challenges and the policies we need to help them to do so.

I have a few notes from Profesor Garnett’s paper that add a bit to his presentation and wouls be happy to share those if requested.

Another presentation at AOC 2009 that really caught my eye included, mainly because it related to my interest in Aboriginal ornithology and land management, included a poster presentation by Alex Anderson from the Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change at the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Townsville.

For me, Alex’s project should have been in the main oral presentation session of the conference – not least because he details the negotiation and methodology required of any researcher working

Alex’s poster abstract said that:

Cape York contains some of Australia’s most biologically and culturally important landscapes. Recent changes to tenure legislation has resulted in the establishment of new “Cape York Aboriginal land” national parks.

The first of these “Kulla Cypal National Park”, encompasses an isolated, highly biodiverse and potentially sensitive patch of uplkand rainforest which is home to a number of endemic species and subspecies of vertebrates. As part of my PhD research, I negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the traditional owners of this area, represented by the KULLA Trust in Coen, to conduct surveys of rainforest birds.

Among the first of its kind in Queensland, this memorandum explicitly outlined obligations and requirements of both parties that needed to be fulfilled before access to traditional lands was granted. Topics covered included intellectual property rights, guarantees of research access to country, and an undertaking to involve local children through presentations to the Coen school.

While still in its early stages, this aspect of my work has proved to be extremely rewarding, and has been well received by the local community. More than simply satisfying basic requirements to access country, here a carefully negotiated memorandum of understanding has provided a framework for increasing local participation in research, and increasing opportunities for combining sustainable community development, ornithological research, and conservation land management on Cape York peninsula.

Another poster presentation (and one that I’m more than happy to admit to my involvement in by providing photographs and some advice on identification etc – and in being available at the conference to talk about the posters) was that by Dr Myf Turpin, now of Griffith University in Queensland but working through the Charles Darwin University in Darwin when she did the great work on these posters.

Myf’s abstract for the AOC conference follows:

Birds that tell people things: A series of bird posters in four Central Australian Aboriginal languages

In many cultures birds indicate things in the environment and can be harbingers of bad news through their role in mythology. Birds can signal where water can be found, the presence of game or other food, seasonal events, as well as danger or bad news.

This series of posters features birds that indicate ecological and social events in four Central Australian Aboriginal languages: Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr and Kaytetye.

The posters are the result of collaborative work with highly-skilled Aboriginal language speakers, ornithologists and linguists. They are produced by the Cultural Signs Project, based at the School for Social Policy and Research, CDU.

Currently we are seeking expressions of interest from members of other language groups across Australia who may be interested in developing similar posters for their own languages.

These posters have proven to be valuable for the elicitation of other aspects of local bird knowledge, including behaviour, habitats, breeding biology and links to cultural and traditional beliefs and customs. These posters are also suitable as a language aide in schools and as a means of transmitting knowledge between generations.

Myf has provided some further background to the work she and her collaborators did on this project:

The Spotted Nightjar calls when Dingo Pups are born: Birds as Indicators in the Arandic Region of Central Australia

In the course of linguistic documentation of Arandic languages, a group of related Aboriginal languages spoken in central Australia, I collaborated on a project with scientists and Arandic speakers to document Arandic ways of reading the environment for impending cultural, ecological and meteorological events. I discuss some results of this project and methodological issues involved.

The project collated existing Arandic languages materials on this topic to create a text database. The database was sorted by either the sign (e.g Spotted Nightjar) or signifier (e.g. Dingo pups). This was used as a stimulus for discussion with senior Arandic speakers. We found that a sign could have different meanings in different contexts or through different behaviours, and that there was some variability across the different languages, although particular signs were widespread. Whilst our project was to document all kinds of signs, birds were by far the largest category.

Arandic languages are highly endangered and speakers are gravely concerned that their languages are at risk. As a resource for learning and promoting Arandic knowledge, the project produced a series of bird posters. Each poster includes a photograph of the bird, its Aboriginal, scientific and common name, and information about what it signifies with an English translation. The posters group birds according to Arandic taxonomies, such as food signalling birds.

These posters have also proven to be valuable for the elicitation of other aspects of local bird knowledge, including behaviour, breeding biology and links to cultural and traditional beliefs and customs.

Finally I’d like to draw your attention to a conference presentation by Andrew McIntyre of the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water on Aboriginal-owned land to the west of Glen Innes in central western NSW and points to the growing significance of the many large tracts of land owned and managed by Aboriginal people across Australia..

The Role Aboriginal Land Plays in Woodland Bird Conservation in the New England Tablelands – Surveys of Aboriginal land west of Glen Innes have determined the presence of a range of woodland birds including nine threatened species of conservation concern. The diversity and integrity of the woodland habitats and their landscape probably explains the richness and composition of the bird community.

Better conditions in late summer 2009 explain the presence of Hooded Robins, Painted Button-Quail, and a substantial increase in the numbers of Diamond Firetail and Turquoise Parrot from the previous winter. Based on this work and property management planning the Glen Innes Aboriginal Land Council has been successful in gaining Australian Government funding to manage the property as an Indigenous Protected Area.

The study shows the value of large intact areas of woodland communities for the conservation of a range of woodland sbirds and the potential contribution that Indigenous-owned lands may play.