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The Latham’s Snipe Project: Understanding migration and habitat use by Latham’s Snipe

Image: Richard Chamberlain

 

 

Update – satellite tracking of snipe migration has started!  

An exciting development over summer 2016-2017 was the deployment of 2 satellite transmitters on snipe caught at Jerrabomberra Wetlands in Canberra. One of these birds, P9 also known as Tsubasa, has just started migration. Follow their journey on the Latham's Snipe project website.

Update October 9, 2016 - The first Latham’s Snipe T0 with geolocator has been recaptured at Port Fairy.  

More details

Follow the Japanese snipe tracking on the WBSJ blog. For updates on catching and counting check the Latham's Snipe project website.

Update - Latham’s Snipe team visits Hokkaido, Japan

Between July 9 and 22, the Latham’s Snipe project team visited Hokkaido to work with the Wild Bird Society of Japan on their snipe research. During the visit, the team assisted with snipe capture, spoke with primary and secondary school students about snipe research, presented at a community workshop on snipe, and participated in workshop discussions with other snipe experts on how to address snipe declines in Japan.

The trip was a great success and the team learnt a lot from their Japanese colleagues, as well as sharing experiences and knowledge gained through snipe work in south-west Victoria. The Latham’s Snipe Project has forged a strong collaboration with the Wild Bird Society of Japan and looks forward to future research visits and knowledge sharing.

The project team would like to thank the Australia Japan Foundation for providing financial support to visit Japan.

For more details, see the Latham's Snipe website 

Project background

The Latham’s Snipe Project was established to improve our understanding of the ecology of Latham’s snipe Gallinago hardwickii and critical habitats used by the species throughout its life cycle.

The project originated from a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) case concerning the Powling Street wetlands in Port Fairy, south-west Victoria. Powling Street wetlands is one of the most important sites for snipe in south-eastern Australia. A housing development was proposed for a portion of the wetland complex where snipe occur regularly.

South beach Wetlands and Landcare Group was opposing the development on the grounds that it would impact the snipe population there. Dr Birgita Hansen at Federation University provided expert evidence in relation to the likely impact of the proposal on the species. VCAT issued a permit for the development in a reduced form, to be built on ephemeral grassy wetland areas adjacent to the main wetland.

In the wake of this case and the recognition that habitat use by snipe was poorly understood, Dr Hansen initiated a series of surveys to explore relative use of urban and non-urban wetlands by snipe. These surveys have demonstrated the importance of urban wetlands to snipe during their non-breeding season. They have also raised many questions about snipe habitat use on broader scales (including during migration) and their daily, monthly and annual movement patterns.

The Latham’s Snipe project is using a range of techniques to better understand the species including observations, habitat monitoring and mapping, geolocators and satellite tracking. The project also engages communities to try and encourage ownership and protection of the local environment that the Latham’s snipe relies on. Funding toward part of the project has been provided by the Australia Japan Foundation.

Who’s involved

Project leader: Birgita Hansen

Project team: Jodie Honan, David Wilson, Richard Chamberlain, Don Stewart

Collaborators: Lori Gould, Tatsuya Ura, Koyama Kazuo, Simeon Lisovski, Inka Veltheim

Student researchers: Daniel Sheehan

Partner Organisations:

Funding bodies:

  • Australia Japan Foundation
  • Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority
  • Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning
  • Woodlands and Wetlands Trust (Jerrabomberra Wetlands)

About Latham’s Snipe

Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii, also known as Japanese Snipe, is a medium-sized (150-200g) migratory shorebird that breeds in Japan and south-east Siberia. Most of the population spends its non-breeding season in eastern Australia from August to February, with the largest concentrations occurring in south-eastern Australia.

Latham’s Snipe is a shy, secretive bird that is generally widely dispersed in low numbers across wetland and grassland areas. They differ to other shorebird species in preferring open freshwater or brackish wetlands with cover nearby, particularly areas of wet tussock grassland and other dense ground vegetation. During the day snipe prefer to roost in grass and weeds in close proximity to water and at night they disperse to feed in nearby wet paddocks, ditches and other open flooded areas. The distance they move nightly to feed is unknown; however, shorebirds tend to roost in close proximity to their feeding habitats in order to reduce the amount of energy used in nightly transit. Therefore, the distance between snipe roosting and optimal feeding habitats is likely to minimal in order to reduce flight times and so, conserve energy.

Latham’s Snipe is one of 37 migratory shorebirds that occur in Australia and is listed as such under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Listed Migratory Species.  Important habitat for Latham’s Snipe is considered to occur when the site supports 18 or more individuals of the species.

Under the Ramsar convention, one of the criteria for wetlands of international importance is that they hold 1% or more of the global population of a species. There are a handful of sites in Australia that have documented counts of snipe greater than 1% ( which is 360 birds), including Belmont Common (Victoria), Macksville (NSW), Cedar Hill / Hexham swamp (NSW) and Powling Street wetlands (Victoria). Powling Street wetlands has had records of up to 430 birds, with regular counts showing a non-breeding population size of between 50 and 300 birds. It thus qualifies as a nationally and internationally important site for snipe.

Latham’s Snipe is listed under the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA) and threats to the species in one country will have implications for species management in the other. Across their trans-equatorial range, the species is thought to rely on a network of habitat types including wetlands and meadowlands in agricultural and urban areas. Declines in the snipe population have been documented in Japan and ongoing loss of wetlands in its non-breeding areas, caused by drainage and conversion to farmland, may be exacerbating this trend.

Image: Dean Ingwersen

What are the current conservation issues for Latham’s Snipe?

In Australia, Latham’s Snipe were hunted until the late 70s – early 80s, when hunting bans were introduced. The major current threats to snipe in both Australia and Japan is the loss of habitat (particularly wetlands). Latham’s snipe are declining in Japan and are also thought to be declining in Australia.

Critical habitat for mobile fauna like waterbirds is often scattered across a landscape (e.g. swamps and paddocks for feeding, meadowlands for breeding). In Australia, many wetlands and other critical habitats occur on private land and are infrequently managed for conservation purposes. This poses a significant management challenge as habitat conservation relies on the good will of the land holder. This is even more challenging for habitat occurring in urban areas, where there are often a variety of land tenures and competing interests for residential and industrial development.

A case in point is the population at Powling Street wetlands in Port Fairy, Victoria. This population is threatened by a housing development currently under construction on an ephemeral portion of the wetland complex. As significant numbers of snipe occur in urban wetlands along other parts of the south-west Victorian coast (e.g. Peterborough), a similar fate may await these populations as coastal development continues to expand.

Image: Richard Chamberlain

Image: Richard Chamberlain

Image: Birgita Hansen

Objectives of the Latham’s Snipe Project

In order to conserve Latham’s Snipe in multi-use landscapes, we need to identify critical areas that support birds during different stages of their life cycle and understand the key characteristics that define these areas.

This project is using a combination of animal tracking technology, field observations and systematic surveys to determine habitat preferences and movement patterns of Latham’s Snipe, both in Australia, Japan and on migration.

Project activity is focusing on populations in south-west Victoria, which is the species’ stronghold in Australia but has also lost over 70% of its wetlands in the last 100 years.

The Latham’s Snipe project has four key objectives:

(1) Locate representative habitats, in Japan and Australia, used by Latham’s Snipe throughout their annual life cycle, in order to identify priority areas for conservation investment and regular monitoring.

(2) Establish and support a snipe monitoring program that targets wetlands across their Australian range and involves local communities and bird watchers.

(3) Facilitate collaborative research within and between Australia and Japan on a key species of shared interest.

(4) Apply the study findings about snipe habitat use across their range, to build understanding and appreciation of habitat management issues among communities and management agencies.

Tracking and snipe capture

At Port Fairy, 15 years of monitoring by South Beach Wetlands and Landcare Group (SBWLG) has indicated that large numbers of birds (usually several hundred) return to this site annually for their non-breeding period. This provides a unique opportunity to capture birds and fit tracking devices for later retrieval. Previous studies have indicated that Latham’s Snipe are highly site faithful (i.e. they will use the same site each year on return to Australia), so there is a high likelihood these birds will be re-encountered at Port Fairy in the following year.

Funding from the Australia Japan Foundation (AJF) enabled the purchase of light-level geolocators to attach to snipe at Powling Street wetlands. Light-level geolocators by Migratetech are data logging devices that store information about day length, which can be later used to re-construct the movement pathway of the bird by calculating latitude and longitude from the day length signature. This method has been successfully employed on Great Snipe in Sweden, where they had a ~30% retrieval rate. It is also widely used in Australian wader studies and has provided valuable information on migration and breeding of species like Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling. http://www.waderstudygroup.org/article/1839/.

Catching of birds commenced at Powling Street wetlands in September 2015. Birds were captured using mist nets placed through the wetland and adjacent grasslands. Birds were caught prior to dawn when returning to the wetland from their overnight foraging. In total, 14 birds were captured this way and fitted with geolocators. These were mounted on orange plastic ‘leg flags’ and attached to the upper leg. An orange engraved leg flag with a unique alpha-numeric combination was attached to the opposite leg to facilitate field identification of individual marked birds.

Plastic ‘leg flags’ facilitate field identification of individual marked birds.  Image: Richard Chamberlain

Image: Karin Lundström
Image: Lori Gould

In the September 2016, the team will once again attempt catching of snipe in Port Fairy with a view to deploying more geolocators as well as attempting to re-capture birds caught in the 2015-2016 spring-summer season.

Latham’s Snipe counts

Between October 2014 and February 2015, a series of monthly surveys was conducted in the Port Fairy – Warrnambool – Peterborough area (south-west Victoria). Small teams of volunteers counted different wetland sites on the same day – the sites were chosen on the basis that they either regularly supported snipe, had previously supported snipe (in the days when hunting was still allowed) or that they might support snipe. These surveys were repeated in September and November 2015, and January 2016. Surveys were conducted by one or two observers walking a transect through the wetland and counting birds as they flushed from the vegetation.

Powling Street, Latham's Snipe survey.   Image: Richard Chamberlain

Peterborough east wetland September 2015.   Image: Birgita Hansen

A maximum of 15 wetlands were counted on any survey day. Around half of these wetlands occurred within township areas or on the township fringe (designated ‘urban’ wetlands) and the remainder occurred out in agricultural and nature reserve areas (designated ‘rural’). In addition, a number of sites in other areas were also counted during the November 2015 (Geelong / Bellarine, East Gippsland, south-east Melbourne and south-east South Australia) and January 2016 (as above plus Canberra and southern Tasmania) surveys. These counts herald the first attempts to establish south-eastern Australian snipe counts, which are aimed at counting snipe wetlands across the region on a single day, in order to determine relative abundance.

The largest count in 2014-2015 was 348 snipe, which were collectively counted across six wetland sites during November. In 2015-2016, the relative number was much lower, with the maximum count of 334 occurring in November across 14 wetland sites.

Over 80% of snipe counted were in urban wetlands. In south-west Victoria this figure is over 95% - only seven records, over five different months, were obtained from rural wetlands, and these were only from Killarney swamp, Tower Hill and Yambuk Nature Conservation Reserve. In 2014-2015, the lowest count of snipe at Powling Street wetlands was in December (23 birds) and the highest was in October (133 birds). Urban wetlands in Peterborough also held substantial numbers of snipe, with a single small wetland (<0.25 ha) having 169 birds during the November 2014 count. In 2015-2016, counts at Powling Street were much lower (range 1-34), as were counts in Peterborough (range 38-116). This may reflect the much drier conditions across southern Australia in 2015-2016 compared with the previous year. Bureau of Meteorology Annual Climate Report 2015. 

It is clear from the surveys conducted so far that urban wetlands are very important for snipe during the day. What is also clear is that climate (weather) had a strong influence on bird numbers, with far fewer snipe being encountered during the 2015-2016 spring-summer season that the previous year. What we don’t know is where the birds go during the night, and the relative importance of other wetland or ‘wet’ habitats in the region for night time foraging. Addressing these knowledge gaps are the goals of future surveys and tracking.

Image: Peter Grenfell

Latham's Snipe recapture

The first Latham’s Snipe T0 with geolocator has been recaptured at Port Fairy.

The bird, first captured on October 1, 2015, was re-captured on Sunday morning October 9 2016 only a few hundred metres from its original capture site over 12 months previously! The geolocator appeared in good condition and the bird was in good health.

A full migration track for the snipe was obtained (see map below).

T0 left Port Fairy in February 2016 and spent about 2 months in SE Queensland before flying to Cape York (or somewhere in the region) in April. From there the bird flew direct to Hokkaido and arrived around early May. The bird may have incubated a clutch whilst on the breeding grounds somewhere in southern Hokkaido, over May-June. In late August it flew direct from Hokkaido back to SE Queensland in 3 days, where it spent about a month presumably staging before returning to Port Fairy on September 26 2016.

This is the first time a migration track has been obtained in this manner from Latham’s Snipe. This capture confirms what we had suspected, that some snipe return to Powling Street wetlands in Port Fairy each year. We are therefore hopeful we may recapture another of our birds.

Birgita thanks the extremely hard work and dedication of her team in Port Fairy and helpers on catches over the last 13 months, which has made it possible to do this project. And thanks to the VWSG for supporting the project and the Australia Japan Foundation for funding to cover geolocators and our visit to Japan.

 

Project contact

Dr Birgita Hansen

Email: Dr Birgita Hansen  

Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation

Suite 15 Greenhill Enterprise Centre

Federation University Australia, Mount Helen

PO Box 691 Ballarat Vic 3353

 

Links

Latham's Snipe project on wordpress 

The Australia-Japan Foundation (AJF)    

Species profile & threats database - Australian Government  

 

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