National Waterbird Survey

National Waterbird Survey


National Waterbird Survey


Map of survey routes

Read observer journals and see photographs of survey sites updated after each day of survey.

Western Australia (red lines)

Northern Territory (blue lines)

Eastern Australia region (black lines)

South-East region (green lines)

Cape York and Gulf of Carpentaria (purple lines)

Murray River (white lines)

Central Australia region (orange lines)

Victoria-Tasmania region (light-blue lines)

Adelaide region (yellow lines)

Ground Surveys



Project summary

Project Manager: Professor Richard Kingsford
Project Coordinator: Dr John Porter

Aim: The project will develop national methodologies, guidelines and assessment protocols to measure conservation value and success of environmental water delivery to water dependent ecosystems using waterbirds. The project will be delivered across Australia by the University of NSW with state and territory agencies. The main objectives of the study are to:

  1. establish a publicly accessible national database of waterbird data (including national survey protocols, survey results, QA/QC documentation, and data interpretation guidelines;
  2. conduct a national assessment of 907 high conservation value aquatic ecosystems across all Australian jurisdictions using waterbirds as an indicator of value; and
  3. document the quantitative relationships between waterbird numbers and diversity and river flows in eastern Australia (Qld, NSW, ACT, Vic, and SA).

The project will bring together disparate waterbird monitoring programs across Australia through the establishment of a publicly accessible database as a repository for current and past waterbird monitoring projects. The project builds on waterbird monitoring programs in eastern Australia (NSW, Vic, SA, Qld), Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. The project incorporates a national assessment to 56 of Australia’s 64 Ramsar listed wetlands and 851 of Australia’s 904 listed wetlands of national importance. Water dependent ecosystems with high concentrations of waterbirds (>20,000 waterbirds) are recognised within Australia and internationally as being of high conservation value.

Aerial surveys will use the abundance and diversity of waterbirds to assess the condition of high conservation value aquatic ecosystems. Aerial surveys provide information on up to 50 waterbird species, including threatened species and migratory shorebird species, as well as breeding activity. The project will also use long-term data to determine environmental flow requirements for wetlands throughout eastern Australia. The project is funded by the National Water Commission to support the National Water Initiatives and will run for three years from June 2007 to June 2010

The present survey in Australia will complement ongoing waterbird census work in several other continents and therefore could help update/improve population size estimates for species that have populations in our continent.


Research Program: 
Research Themes: 
Rivers and Wetlands

Publications for this project

Author Date Title Description PDF
Kingsford et al. 2017 Continental impacts of water development on waterbirds, contrasting two Australian river basins: Global implications for sustainable water use


The world’s freshwater biotas are declining in diversity, range and abundance, morethan in other realms, with human appropriation of water. Despite considerable dataon the distribution of dams and their hydrological effects on river systems, there arefew expansive and long analyses of impacts on freshwater biota. We investigatedtrends in waterbird communities over 32 years, (1983–2014), at three spatial scales intwo similarly sized large river basins, with contrasting levels of water resource devel-opment, representing almost a third (29%) of Australia: the Murray–Darling Basin andthe Lake Eyre Basin. The Murray–Darling Basin is Australia’s most developed riverbasin (240 dams storing 29,893 GL) while the Lake Eyre Basin is one of the less devel-oped basins (1 dam storing 14 GL). We compared the long-term responses of water-bird communities in the two river basins at river basin, catchment and major wetlandscales. Waterbird abundances were strongly related to river flows and rainfall. For thedeveloped Murray–Darling Basin, we identified significant long-term declines in totalabundances, functional response groups (e.g., piscivores) and individual species ofwaterbird (n = 50), associated with reductions in cumulative annual flow. These trendsindicated ecosystem level changes. Contrastingly, we found no evidence of waterbirddeclines in the undeveloped Lake Eyre Basin. We also modelled the effects of the Aus-tralian Government buying up water rights and returning these to the riverine environ-ment, at a substantial cost (>3.1 AUD billion) which were projected to partly (18%improvement) restore waterbird abundances, but projected climate change effectscould reduce these benefits considerably to only a 1% or 4% improvement, withrespective annual recovery of environmental flows of 2,800 GL or 3,200 GL. Ourunique large temporal and spatial scale analyses demonstrated severe long-term eco-logical impact of water resource development on prominent freshwater animals, withimplications for global management of water resources.

PDF icon Kingsford_et_al-2017-Global_Change_Biology.pdf
Kingsford et al. 2012 National Waterbird Assessment

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News for this project


World's largest wetland study underway

The largest ever survey of the health of Australia's vital wetlands has begun

Updates for this project

2015 National Waterbird Survey

Ground Surveys

National Waterbird Survey – Ground Surveys

The National Survey of Waterbirds is including some ground surveys, at selected locations, to complement and support the aerial survey program. The ground surveys will fill some gaps in coverage, such as urban areas where airspace may be restricted, and provide calibration between aerial and ground data for certain wetlands. They will also provide sample data on species – such as small sized and secretive waterbirds – that are not visible, or that are difficult to identify or count, in aerial surveys.

Adelaide Survey Route

National Waterbird Survey – Adelaide Survey Route

Sunday, 23rd November, 2008 - Observers: Stuart Halse, Paul Wainwright. Heli-Muster Pilot : Phil Stainthorp

Wetlands inland of Adelaide in south-eastern SA were nearly all dry. The few wetlands with water supported relatively large populations of waterbirds, with Black Swan, Australian Shelduck and Grey Teal Common. Chestnut Teal and Royal Spoonbill also occurred in moderate numbers. Bool Lagoon, a Ramsar-listed wetland, was dry in contrast to the extensive irrigation to the east. Another surprise was that many wetlands marked for survey in the map layer we used were, in fact, cleared and either part of dryland paddocks or irrigated areas.


Victoria-Tasmania Survey Route

National Waterbird Survey – Victoria – Tasmania Survey Route

Tuesday, 18th November, 2008 - Observers: Richard Kingsford, John Porter. Pilot : Richard Byrne

We took a coastal route because most of the lakes were near the coast along the south coast of NSW. These provide prime swan habitat. There is a swan lake in NSW and also one in Victoria. Neither had that many swans on them compared to other nearby lakes. The wind was strong and so we had to change our route which was going to go inland and stay on the coast. We completed the day’s survey on the Gippsland Lakes a significantly large system of freshwater and estuarine lakes and swamps near Bairnsdale and Sale in northeastern Victoria. There were many chestnut teal and black swans on the lakes but also a few hundred migratory shorebirds and pied stilts. We have also started to see the odd Pacific Gull during our surveys.


Central Australia Survey Route

National Waterbird Survey – Central Australia Survey Route

This survey was designed to estimate the numbers and diversity of waterbirds on all of Australia’s wetlands. In the better watered areas near the coast, surveys systematically identified wetlands with high concentrations of waterbirds, including wetlands listed on the Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia (DIWA). For central Australia, we checked satellite imagery to identify which wetlands had water and as can be seen from the map, there were relatively few wetlands in Central Australia with water.

Murray River Survey Route

Wednesday, 12th November, 2008 - Observers: Richard Kingsford, Terry Korn. Pilot : Dr George Wilson

We took off from Sydney flying southwest and surveying Blowering Dam on the Tumut River. As part of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, this storage is primarily used by fish-eating birds. We then flew along the River Murray which got progressively drier. There were few billabongs with water along the River Murray. The Barmah-Millewa Forest and Koondrook-Pericoota Forest primarily consisted of the main channel flowing through the forests. There were only a handful of waterbirds on the main channel. Moira Lake within the Barmah-Millewa Forest had only about 50 birds. Hattah Lakes were almost dry with three lakes with little water and a third reasonably full. Waterbirds numbered in the hundreds on the lakes. As we flew towards the meeting of the Murray and the Darling Rivers at the town of Wentworth, the river environment got drier.


South-East Australia Survey Route

Monday, 3rd November, 2008 - Observers : Richard Kingsford, John Porter. Pilot : Richard Byrne

Just north of Sydney after we crossed the Hawkesbury River, we surveyed the Tuggerah Lakes. Here there were hundreds of swans and a few migratory shorebirds but few other birds. We then surveyed part of the Myall Lakes and Wallis Lake and at the same time made a rendezvous with the ABC TV news team to cover the aerial survey. They filmed us on aerial survey over Myall Lakes before we landed on an island on Wallis Lake to be interviewed. We continued north but few of the coastal lakes had many waterbirds until we arrived at the floodplains of the Macleay River just south of the town of Kempsey. Here there were hundreds of Pacific black duck and grey teal, plus quite a few white-faced herons. We moved north to the Clarence and the Everlasting Swamp and the Coldstream wetlands had flocks in the hundreds. The Broadwater on the Clarence River had hundreds of Pacific black duck and chestnut teal sheltering under the mangroves.

ABC media coverage can be found here.


WA Survey Route 30 Sep - 19 Nov

Read the observer's journals from the aerial survey of Western Australia from Broome to Perth

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