Bird banding and one man’s 30-year duty tracking diversity

Sydney 2000
A Pacific baza hawk seen searching for food in the gardens at Mount Annan. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

(Supplied: Corey Callaghan) Photo:
The eastern yellow robin is found in a wide range of habitats from dry woodlands to rainforests.
The white-browed scrubwren lives in rainforest, open forest, woodland and heaths. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

Adult male superb fairy-wrens have rich blue and black plumage. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Alan Leishman records all his banded birds on system cards. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Other species though have been driven out by newcomers like the bell miners which only started appearing in the Mount Annan gardens in 2011.”In my lifetime, they’ve been dispersing from the Nepean, to Revesby and Scheyville National Park,” Mr Leishman said.”They’re common right down the coast, but they’re not a good thing.”Like the noisy miners they’re an aggressive bird; they feed on insects and they drive the honeyeaters out.”Some populations like superb fairy-wrens have remained steady given their ability to “fit in with human habitation”, Mr Leishman said. Photo:
The birds get tangled in the soft nets which are camouflaged in the bushland. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
In his 30 years at Mount Annan, Mr Leishman has seen rainfall decline, land clearing, habitat modification and the botanic gardens slowly “closed in” by the construction of the neighbouring M5 and surrounding housing estates.Dr Martin said researchers were working hard to stop the garden becoming “an island”, which would severely reduce cross pollination and the migration of animals, including three species of kangaroo in the area that frequently move along the green corridor between between Mount Annan and the Nepean River.Mr Leishman’s 30-year records, which he has started writing up into a scientific paper, are vital in the understanding and monitoring of bird populations in the area.One of the most notable changes has been silvereye birds which have significantly declined in numbers across the Cumberland Plains, partly due to the growth of African olive — an exotic noxious weed food source. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
It starts at dawn with the setup of several misting nets; the sites chosen by “gosh and by god” according to Mr Leishman, but which practically allow the nets to be camouflaged among the trees and long grasses.Every 40 minutes, he returns to the nets to disentangle the birds that have flown into them.On one of the rounds, Mr Leishman had to call in some tools to help extract a golden whistler after it had gotten the net twisted around its beak.After about 20 minutes, the bird came free and was put inside a white cotton bag for the walk back to the makeshift workstation beside the road. I’ll enter the information into the computer later when I get home.”

A white-browed scrubwren has its beak-to-head measurements taken. Photo:
PhD student Vicky Austen lets a brown thornbill go after taking its measurements. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Joining Mr Leishman this week were PhD students Vicky Austen and Corey Callaghan, who along with wildlife ecologist John Martin caught and recorded 22 birds.For each one they identified the species, recorded any visible features, then measured the bird’s weight, wing span, tail and head-to-beak length before letting it go.Among the captures were a few superb fairy-wrens, white-browed scrub wrens, a grey fantail, an eastern yellow robin, a bell miner and a red-browed firetail. Photo:
A pick had to be used to detangle this golden whistler who had the net caught around its beak. Photo:
This azure kingfisher is only the second caught in Alan Leishman’s 30 years at Mount Annan. Birds of Mount Annan The ABBBS has compiled more than two million records since it started in 1953.For the past three decades, Mr Leishman has been banding at Mount Annan every second Tuesday of the month.The process takes several hours. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
When asked about how distressed the birds got, Mr Leishman said: “It obviously has some stress, no doubt.”Who wants to be caught in a big net and have what’s like a big gold ring put around their finger?”He later added that he had not noticed any long-term effects in the birds after catching the same ones on subsequent occasions.Recording the dataMost of the birds caught already have bands on their legs and have hand-written record cards which Mr Leishman stores in old metal drawers in the back of his van.”Well there were no computers when I started,” he laughed.”It is much easier with cards … (Supplied: John Martin)
The smallest of them, a brown thornbill, weighed just six grams.The team was most excited though with an unbanded 38-gram azure kingfisher.It was only the second kingfisher Mr Leishman had seen in his 30-odd years of work.”There is a level of pleasure when you’ve found that birds are still there.So far, Mr Leishman has captured thousands of birds and recorded more than 180 species in the gardens.Tracking changesMr Leishman has honed his talent for recognising bird calls and the ability to spot the tiniest of wings in the tree canopy.But he has also witnessed first hand significant changes to the diversity of birds as a result of residential and industrial development and the effects of climate change. Photo:
Each bird has their wing length, tail length and weight measured by researchers. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
While checking the nets, Mr Leishman fondly recalled one of the oldest birds he encountered — a yellow thornbill that weighed about seven grams and which he caught multiple times over 16 years.”Most yellow thornbills from hatching period, probably only live for three months,” he said.”Most birds have a very short lifespan, but there are a number of individuals, once they know the area, they are able to live for a fairly long period of time.”Handing over to the next generationAt 76, Mr Leishman said he had no plans to hang up his binoculars or his nets anytime soon, although he does hope to pass on his knowledge to someone willing to dedicate themselves to bird banding at Mount Annan for another few decades.”Thirty years seems a reasonable amount of time and I would hope that someone may come back and look at [the data] and do some comparisons,” he said.”I don’t think the prognosis is good, I think we’ll have some big changes in the bird population.”We have some critically endangered birds in Australia, and at what point do we do something about it?”You leave it too long and you won’t have enough birds to work with and enough diversity to work with.”

A red-browed finch is detangled from the misting nets (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
That comment proved unintentionally ironic at noon when the team packed up the nets and the tools and headed to lunch.As he reviewed the list of birds, Mr Leishman appeared slightly disappointed.”You get your good days and your bad days,” he said.”Twenty-two is below average.”One day, I had 800 birds fly into the nets.”
The female golden whistler is found in wooded habitats and dense areas. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

Which birds topped the Aussie backyard census?

(Supplied: Corey Callaghan) Photo:
The brown thornbill is found in dense shrubby habitats.

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The brown thornbill is found only in eastern and south-eastern Australia (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
(ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
He has spent much of his life banding and collecting information about birds — starting at the age of 25 — and training young ecologists in the technique.”I’ve always loved the outdoors.”It’s one of those things children don’t get enough of. They look at [the bush] and go, ‘ooh, there’s snakes’.”Yes, there are snakes and other things here, but when you walk around confidently and keep your eyes open, there’s no real problem.”I’ve had a few raptors put their claws through my fingers and things like that … As Alan Leishman treks through the bush of the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan, he whistles as he works.But it is no ordinary whistle.He is returning the call of a grey shrike-thrush, one of the many bird species he has tracked for the past 31 years.”It’s very appropriately named harmonica — it’s scientific name,” he explained.Mr Leishman is a self-described “non-professional bird bander”. it’s all part of the operation.”Netting the birdsBanding is a universal technique to monitor threatened and migratory birds. When caught, they are fitted with a uniquely numbered metal band or tag around their lower leg.In Australia, the bands are provided by the Federal Government and the information is collated by the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme (ABBBS), of which Mr Leishman helps coordinate. Photo:
An adult male superb fairy-wren gets disentangled from the misting net.
(Supplied: Corey Callaghan) Photo:
The red-browed finch is most easily recognised by its bright red eyebrow, rump and beak.
ABC Radio Sydney


Amanda Hoh


February 17, 2017 15:07:12

Video: Bird banding in the Australian Botanic Garden

(ABC News)

(Supplied: Corey Callaghan) Photo:
The azure kingfisher is never far from water and is found across northern and eastern Australia.
(ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh) Photo:
Bell miners were first recorded in Mount Annan in 2011 but have since driven out other species.