Citizen science bird monitoring to assess habitat health

A project was undertaken by CCWA to test the effectiveness of a standardized bush-bird monitoring method that could be used by citizen scientists to investigate the ecological outcomes of revegetation and habitat management.

When restoration and bushland management is undertaken there is typically no funding for long-term monitoring. This hampers our capacity to learn from the work and adapt our activities to improve results. As well as being a tool for adaptive management, having a habitat value assessment methodology helps us communicate the outcome of our work and is likely to increase commitment and support for ongoing efforts.

The commitment required for long-term ecological monitoring generally precludes the continuous engagement of professional ecologists. Citizen-science models that combine the expertise of professionals (or mentors) with the observational skills of amateurs (citizens) provide a potential solution to assessing long-term ecological change.

In this project the Conservation Council of WA, led by Nic Dunlop, developed a robust bush-bird based monitoring methodology and sampling protocol that is suitable for amateur observers and can be applied across bio-regions and measure the outcomes of restoration and management actions operating on different spatial scales.

This methodology was based on examining the structure of the bush-birds communities rather than just bird species richness. Species richness or diversity indices do not necessarily provide much information on the ecological state of bush patches or of ecological processes. Instead the bird species were categorized into functional groups based on published and unpublished knowledge about foraging ecology and movements. What birds do (for example their foraging ecology and movements) is the important link with ecological resources and process. Categorizations may also be refined so that the groups are indicators of processes likely to be influenced by the management interventions.

The use of functional groups of species (guilds) allow this standard methodology to be used in different ecosystems providing for comparisons with different regions and bird species. It isn’t just the species of birds that matter but what these species do in ecosystems and what they utilise from their habitats.  Comparing the functional group structure of restoration with reference sites indicates what processes are operating or absent in revegetated systems.

In the first phase of assessing the methodology, 14 larger scale restoration sites were selected in Gondwana Link to assess their habitat value as compared to the ‘control’ bushland sites nearby. The restored sites were all very different eg different time since planting, species richness, soil types, complexity of planning and implementation, equipment and levels of management post-planting.

Volunteers were trained by in bird recognition and then a series of bird surveys were undertaken at the restoration sites and in neighbouring bushland patches. The volunteers and coordinators camped out as each site was surveyed dawn and dusk for 5 days. In total 20 volunteers undertook a total of 166 person/days of survey work.

After data was processed and analysed, Nic Dunlop could draw the conclusion that the more complex, species rich, ‘better‘ restoration had habitat values that were approaching those of remnant bushland. In simple terms – the better the restoration, the better the habitat. Seems obvious but needed to be tested. It was also surprising how quickly the quality restoration sites provided the habitat values of natural bush – within 5 years.

Subsequent projects have examined have used bush-bird community monitoring as an approach to assessing the effectiveness of other management treatments such as feral animal control and the targeted use of fire.

This work was led by the Nic Dunlop, Conservation Council of WA.

The project was supported by funding from the Western Australian Government’s State Natural Resource Management Program supported by Royalties for Regions.


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© Raana Scott - Carnaby cockatoo in flight, flame grevillea