Banded Stilts breed on Lake Torrens: The Discovery

Posted on Posted in Central Australia, feathered

By our guest contributor Ben…

As a resident of central Australia I’ve witnessed the country burst to life. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to become involved as a volunteer in the discovery, documentation and eventual banding of a breeding colony of Banded Stilts (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus) at Lake Torrens.

While Banded Stilts are usually found along the coast they will flock (in their hundreds of thousands) to the arid interior when water is around, especially after major rainfall events. With large inland lakes full of water and small crustaceans the conditions are set for the birds to breed and raise chicks.

Usually found on the coast, Banded Stilts flock in their hundreds of thousands to inland lakes after major rains. (Photo B. Parkhurst)

This time last year the media was abuzz with reports of Banded Stilts breeding in huge numbers on Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens. The 2010 breeding event was only the tenth in the past 80 years! 2010 saw roughly 180,000 individuals congregate to procreate.

But the story doesn’t end there.

In February this year, Cyclone Yasi dumped even more rain over central Australia topping up our desert lakes. The stilts continued to gorge themselves on the plentiful supply of brine shrimp and began to breed again.

The 2010 breeding event was only the tenth in 80 years! (Photo B. Parkhurst)

Most of us know that these flood events don’t happen very often. In fact, the last time Banded Stilts were observed breeding at Lake Eyre was in 2000. And this erratic breeding cycle, combined with predation of eggs by Silver Gulls (Larus novaehollandiae), is precisely why the survival of the species has been a concern for ecologists.

Not long after the remnants of Yasi blew through, some interested locals and the Friends of Shorebirds South East (a subsidiary of the Australian Waders Study Group) flew over Lake Torrens in search of Banded Stilts. We weren’t expecting much, thinking it was probably too soon for the stilts to have arrived. But excitement soared when the telltale white dots were spotted covering a few small islands. This was the first clue that another breeding event could be taking place.

Before the plane hit the ground our plans were laid. Within a few hours we stood at the edge of the lake, ready to ground-truth. The weather was unseasonably cold and wet as we trudged through salty mud and water, blindly following the GPS to an island we couldn’t even see.

Left: Reaching an island where Banded Stilts were nesting; Right: This species has a nest that is not much more than a scrape in the ground (photos B. Parkhurst)

At the island we realised we had arrived as the birds were starting to nest. Thousands of stilts were flying around our heads as we counted about 50 individual eggs sitting in their rudimentary nests, a rough scrape in the dirt and stone.

Over the next couple of months we revisited the sites nearly every weekend. We recorded numbers, nest density, searched for birds with leg flags and watched the eggs grow in number and finally hatch. We’d lug our gear for kilometres, getting bogged and thoroughly coated in the salty mud. At the end of a day on the lake you could prop your clothes up against a bush, rigid with salt.

Returning from a long day on the lake (Photo B. Parkhurst)

I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact we were seeing such a rare event unfold before our eyes…

Next week: Ben’s story continues as he recounts the mud, sweat and tears involved in banding hundreds of Banded Stilt chicks.

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