This week the NSW government released draft changes to the NSW Biodiversity Act. Most importantly this document is open for public comment in what seems like a 'speak now or forever hold your peace' fashion as the proposal includes restricting public information and making appeal against development more difficult.
Looking at the government website it all (unsurprisingly) looks great, win/win for everyone, the government being the hero and all that. Like with many things in life when you start digging there is a muddy underbelly and in this case you just have to scratch the surface. Today I was sent a synopsis of some of this which puts the proposal in language we can all understand. The bottom line is it's bad news and our natural heritage will suffer for under it. This is not to say that it is all bad but our environment cannot continue to survive under this mindset - please consider reviewing the documents and making a submission to https://www.landmanagement.nsw.gov.au/have-your-say/ before June 28th 2016.
This morning the draft NSW Biodiversity Act was announced for public comment. This proposal constitutes the most serious threat our wildlife has faced during my lifetime.
Over the next few weeks conservation groups will provide submission guides and workshops about the draft Biodiversity Act. In the meantime I have highlighted some of the critical issues for you to be aware of below (and apologise for any errors or omissions)…
Summary: The draft Act would change the nature of NSW biodiversity protections:
· From our current regulatory system where the impact of development proposals is assessed (where unacceptable impacts are refused and/or challenged in court);
· To an offset based system where developments are approved so long as funds are paid to protect and restore biodiversity elsewhere (with no effective refusal or challenge in court)
The draft Act would remove virtually all legal avenues for the public to effectively oppose developments which harm our endangered wildlife. Illegal direct action would become the only effective avenue for community to oppose unacceptable impacts on our natural heritage.
Reduced scale: The draft Act has lower objectives than the current acts. It’s stated objectives are to maintain (not restore) biodiversity and to 'facilitate' sustainable development’.
The scale for biodiversity conservation is broadened from local to bioregional & state only. So while existing declarations for endangered populations remain it would be difficult to list any in the future.
The draft Act provides for continued habitat loss with the scale and rate of loss managed through offsetting. Developments will no longer need to consider indirect impacts such as climate impact, pollution, introduction of pests or other indirect impacts on endangered biodiversity (6.3). Instead a payment will be made to secure a future offset for direct (clearing) impacts only.
Ending legal appeals (Ministerial power): The draft Act removes almost all grounds for appealing developments in court, and gives almost unlimited discretionary power to the Minister for Environment.
There will no longer be avenues for appeal when environmental assessments ignore endangered species, and no avenues for appeal against the merits of proposals. Conversely the draft Act provides numerous appeal rights for those doing the wrong thing: for illegal clearing, failure to meet conservation offset actions (8.23) or if you are refused a licence to harm a protected species (2.16).
The Minister for the Environment can determined developments as they see fit and in the unlikely event the Minister refuses a proposal the developer can submit it to the Premier to resolve (quoting the act) 'as the premier thinks fit' (5.17)
Corruption risk: The ICAC has strongly criticised the proposal for broad Ministerial powers noted above. The new Act goes further and allows for those regulating development offsets to personally invest in the same offsets they approve (6.6). This provides extremely high risks of mismanagement and corruption.
Public information about offsets: The OEH can choose to restrict any information they choose from the public register of offsets (s 9.10) making public oversight of the scheme impossible. OEH already restrict data on BioBanking making it impossible to see where funds for development offsets go – an alarming situation.
There would no longer be a requirement to publicly list submissions lodged against a development (9.3 pt2) and developers could choose to ‘summarize’ ecological assessments for public consultation as they see fit, rather than publicly exhibit the full assessment (9.2 part 4)
Offsets not like-for-like: the draft Act repeatedly claims that offsets will be made for the same species or community which is lost by clearing. In reality the Act details allows offsets to be for a different species or vegetation communities so long as they are considered more threatened.
Misusing bequests & covenants: Some landowners have made the ultimate gift and covenanted their bushland property to conserve it forever after they are gone. Many landowners have done this explicitly to ensure their property is not used to justify or offset development elsewhere.
The draft Act will allow their properties to be converted from the covenant (after death or sale) and be used to offset development (technically: the existing covenants automatically become a Conservation Agreement Tier 2 and can be upgraded to a Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement Tier 1).
This is an appalling breach of trust with the gift these landowners have made. Land gifted to the Nature Conservation Trust with restrictions would also have these restrictions removed (10.8 to 10.9)
Some covenants have also been forcibly created under compliance (i.e. as offsets for illegal clearing) - these could now be cashed in by their owners, rewarding illegal activity and justifying even more land-clearing.
Offsets not to be protected in perpetuity: Offset sites are not in perpetuity but can be cleared by simply ‘offsetting the offset’. Mining rights and mining prospecting override offset sites and their landowners (5.18) and the landowner is not entitled to compensation for the lost biodiversity payments (5.18 pt 8). Offset sites can be developed with consent from the Minister for Environment (s5.10 & 5.16 b) for example or for 'a purpose of special significance to the state' (5.16 c)
No need to have offsets available: Development can proceed by payment into a Biodiversity Conservation Fund even if offsets are not available. Shortages of offsets are likely to be frequent - a current example is the Badgerys Creek Airport development which refuses to pay landowners enough to secure offsets for endangered Marsdenia viridiflora, so will instead fund other actions to ‘assist’ the species. For example offsets could be research and 'education' (3 b) rather than conservation of habitat.
For the brave you can read all the documents at www.landmanagement.nsw.gov.au
Please consider this new threat to our environment and get in touch with out wonderful NGOs as they develop submission guidelines on these matters.
Feel free to distribute this summary and get the discussion started
Again I would like to note that I did not write this summary myself and the person who did does not wish to be named but I hope it will inspire at least some people to take action before it's too late!
I’ve been inspired this week after winning tickets to see Alan Alda’s “Getting beyond a blind date with science”. For those of you who don’t know Alan Alda he is probably most famous for playing ‘Hawkeye’ in one of my all-time favourite TV series; M*A*S*H (as well as writing and producing parts of the show). More recently he has become an advocate for woman’s rights and active in promoting better science communication (through the Alan Alda Centre for Science Communication). Now I won’t give you a lecture on this because we could be here for hours so look him up yourself! You can read lots about Alan at the moment but there are also some great clips on youtube including this one on the ‘Flame Challenge’ which talks about what colour is (think it’s a simple question then you definitely need to watch this) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAFWJGK0G_A
Alan’s basic idea, as I understand it, is that by giving scientists improvisation lessons he can help them become better communicators. Now I’m not 100% convinced of this, I did a year of drama in high school and it didn’t make me a better communicator. But I do understand where he is coming from. As scientists we are expected to present talks and posters at conferences, give lectures to undergrads and as guests at universities/institutions as well as communicate with media if we are ‘lucky’ to work on something deemed interesting/charismatic enough for an interview. I say ‘lucky’ because for many of us we’d really rather not have the media attention. Honestly it’s a bit daunting; most scientists do not have any formal training in public speaking/teaching or media. This is not the reason we got into science and those that did now have jobs in science communication. So where does that leave the rest of us? Well maybe Alan is right, we just need to be able to think on our feet and learn to explain things in a way that non-scientists and even scientists outside our field can easily understand. I do have a bit of an advantage in this area, I work on very charismatic birds (which get lots of oo’s and ahh’s) and on aggression (which people can relate to) but I don’t have confidence. I do have bucket loads more confidence than I did when I started my PhD though and this blog and social media has a lot to do with that. Which leads me to part two of this post;
Oh where to start!? There’s facebook, twitter, Instagram, reddit, pinterest, blogging. Then there are the more professional sites like linkedIn, google+, academia.com and research gate. And that’s just the beginning! Don’t be overwhelmed just pick one and give it a go. Many people say if you don't have a google+ profile you may as well not exist in the eyes of employers so why not start there.
Why create on online presence? Well for a start you already have one. If you have published papers or belong to an institution that has a website (and really which ones don’t?), so why not claim it! Most journals now have a presence on social media so it’s quite likely your papers are already being shared online – so link yourself to the conversation! You might not think you have much to share and you might not be comfortable with self-promotion. Don’t worry you can be as active or passive as you like on social media. Being there and being quiet is better than not being there at all. In reality when you first start there aren’t that many people ‘listening’ anyway.
So they say doctors are the worst patients and it’s no different here, I’m not very good at following my own advice. I know I should blog regularly but in reality I tend to do it when I am avoiding doing the last edits on a paper…. And although I do tweet and have started to use Instagram, I am mostly active as the Australian Bird Study Association (ABSA). On some levels this has been very helpful – it has given me a fairly anonymous shield to hide behind and my ABSA accounts have grown much faster than my personal ones ever will – the @ABSAbirds account on twitter has 844 followers while I have just 162 as myself despite both being active for a similar amount of time.
Different platforms work better for different people. I find that twitter works very well for me, it’s easy to use and I can spend as much or as little time on it as I like. You don’t have to have a twitter account to see what’s going on so have a look. Twitter is also great for following along with conferences even if you aren’t there. The first conference I attended as a tweeter was the Behaviour conference in Cairns last year ( #Behave15 ). It was great! I felt so much more included and involved with everyone there than I had at other conferences. Before I even got there I had connections with other attendees and could see what social occasions were planned. I also could promote my poster and with multiple talk sessions going on at the same time I could read others tweets and didn’t feel like I was missing out because of schedule conflicts.
Most importantly when a Rufous Owl was found roosting outside the venue we could easily spread the word!
When in doubt just remember that the internet was literally invented to help scientists communicate with each other – it’s time to take it back!
Twitter - @ABSAbirds Instagram - ABSAbirds
- @cmyoung - Young.Hamilton
Image here include designs from Vecteezy.com.
Whoops it's been a long time since I wrote anything here! Been very busy with wedding planning, filling in grant applications and writing papers! I'm very excited that the first two papers of my thesis are currently out to review! But more on that another day.
For a long time I've been involved with the Australian Bird Study Association (ABSA). I didn't know it when I met them but the team I learned to band with (8 years ago now!) are all pretty heavily involved in ABSA. In fact one member of the banding team is the president and another, the editor of Corella! I owe them so much as they opened a whole new world of bird research to me while I was still an honours student. I got involved in the committee a few years later (having disappeared overseas for a bit) when my good friend, moved from secretary into the treasurers role, leaving the secretary spot open. I convinced my very patient partner, to take on membership officer and signed myself up as secretary. Later on, as I wasn't able to attend many of the meetings, I passed the role on to the current secretary, and one of the nicest people I know, Katy. I didn't last long as an ordinary committee member and have recently been appointed publicity officer. There has never been an ABSA publicity officer so it's very exciting, although completely terrifying, to start it up!
At first (back in 2007), I wasn't really sure what ABSA was all about. Of course I'd heard of Corella but I'd never thought to look at where it came from. How naïve I was! It turns out that ABSA is so much more than the journal and is such a huge part of bird study in Australia. Incredibly the association was formed in 1962! Under the name Bird Banders Association of NSW (complete history on the ABSA website). Similarly Corella started its life as The Australian Bird Bander. Especially now when we are just beginning to appreciate how essential long term banding projects are, ABSA is more important than ever! My favourite part of Corella is recovery round up. It really reminds me of why these studies are so important.
Times are changing and ABSA is trying to keep up. In addition to the new publicity officer role, the committee also appointed a conservation officer (current secretary Katy Wilkins). We have started sending the quarterly newsletter via email instead of post and moved to a quarterly online edition of Corella, with just one printed copy annually. Amy Greenwood is doing an amazing job on Facebook ('like' us here!) and you can follow me on Twitter @ABSAbirds.
It's been a great experience being part of the committee so far and I hope I can continue for a long time to come, despite my work taking me further and further from the committees base in Sydney. Through ABSA I have discovered bird study projects that I never knew existed, met amazing people that I would never normally have come across and renewed my passion for bird study and the Australian bush.
This year, as I'm not away in the field for the first time in almost 10 years, I'm trying to get involved more in some of the long-term banding projects around NSW. So I've been spending many weekends in the bush with people who I didn't know until very recently, sometimes catching birds and sometimes just sitting around waiting, drinking tea and getting to know my fellow banders. It has been amazing! I have learned so much about Australian birds and I am grateful to everyone on these trips. On a trip recently I was amazed and excited to meet three 17 year old boys with a real passion for birds - they absolutely put me to shame with their bird knowledge! This banding site is at least three hours drive from where any of us live so they had to convince a parent to drive down with them for the weekend too. It works both ways, sometimes kids drag their parents and some parents drag their kids! But everyone seems to enjoy the weekends. Don’t get me wrong these trips are not necessarily organised by ABSA but are run by people with a passion for Australian birds (often ABSA members), it is this passion that keeps me going back.
I'm looking forward to Birdfair 2016 and to the ABSA scientific day and AGM next year. I'm hoping to spread some enthusiasm for bird study through Twitter and get on as many bird banding trips as my schedule will allow (if you live in Sydney and want to join a trip click here). I might even confront my seasickness and go on a pelagic trip later this year! If you haven't already please visit the ABSA website, send us an email/facebook message/tweet or start up a conversation on our forum. We would love to hear from you!
On another birdy note, the 2014 Australasian bird fair is coming up on the weekend of October 25th-26th. The event will be run out of The Armory at Sydney Olympic Park with events all over the park and a shuttle bus between locations (including a stop at the car park!) Its $15 per day or $25 for a weekend pass although you can also get a discount for booking online. There will be loads on from serious talks to less serious sessions (The Bird Brains Quiz with Sean Dooley springs to mind) and fun activities (meet some birds)
Lastly, THE BIG WHITE BIRD SURVEY is on October 26th
Please count at report Cockies http://tiny.cc/17c4nx & Ibis http://tiny.cc/15c4nx across Australia!
"The passenger pigeon needs no protection.…. The snipe too, like the pigeon will take care of itself, and its yearly numbers can not be materially lessened by the gun" (From an 1857 Ohio Senate report to protect birdlife.)
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a very special bird. Martha died on September 1st 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, the worlds last last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).
The story of the passenger pigeon is quite a unique and sad tale. They were once arguably, the most numerous birds in the world, numbering in the billions all across America. Ornithologist John Audubon is said to have watched a flock flying past for three days. This abundance made both adults and chicks easy targets for hunters and game shooters alike. Despite this the birds were not strictly hunted to extinction. Once their numbers were reduced from billions to millions and then thousands, they became harder to harvest in large numbers and therefore unprofitable for hunters. Yet their numbers continued to decline. Not only had humans made a massive impact on passenger pigeon numbers, they also impacted habitat across the country. The reasons for the large flocks became apparent as smaller groups failed to breed and find new food sources effectively. Disease also seemed to impact the small remaining population and the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900.
A similar story followed in Australia with the last Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) dying in Hobart Zoo (as a result of neglect) on September 6th 1936.
Unfortunately it seems we are slow learners and species still go extinct on an all too regular basis, sadly many probably go unnoticed. We are currently right in the middle of a mass extinction event, in Australia mammals in the critical weight range (35 to 5500g) are particularly vulnerable. However the most recent Australian animal believed to have gone extinct is the tiny Christmas Island Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). This little creature disappeared right before our eyes, its demise was well documented and the last living Pipistrelle was seen in August 2009. This was just three years after scientists flagged the declining population but due to policy and government inaction they had to watch it fade away completely. There are some good news stories, for example it looks like there may be a happy ending for Tasmanian Devils thanks to captive breeding efforts and careful planning. Although almost a 5th of vertebrate species are in serious danger of extinction, without conservation efforts this number would be much higher.
After a bit of deliberation over what to write in this post, it was solved for me when I received the e-newsletter from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you have never heard of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology I suggest you visit their page. Especially if you live in America. But warning, you could be there for a while... there is so much information and lots of fun things to look at. In the newsletter I saw that the Funky nests in funky places 2014 winners had been announced. I couldn't resist looking! This is a great competition open to the public, who submit gorgeous photos of birds nesting in unusual places. You don't have to be a professional photographer or ornithologist to enter but the standards seem pretty high. This gorgeous photo on the left is an Anna's hummingbird that built its nest on a antique chandelier, on someones porch. It wasn't the winner of the competition (for that you'll have to go to the website) but it was definitely my personal favourite.
The Cornell Lab do everything very well, they are well and truly world leaders. In particular I love the way they do citizen science. According to their website more than 200,000 people contribute to their projects annually. Can you imagine the power of that data for recording long term trends in bird numbers, migration patterns and habitat use just to name a few. As far as I know there just isn't a resource like that in Australia. Although there are local birding groups across Australia that keep this kind of data, I worry that it often gets lost. Most scientists probably don't even know it exists. Don't get me wrong there are some very good people doing some very good work, ebirders are active here and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is definitely taking leaps in the right direction. The ALA allows you to either submit sightings of species to the general database or contribute to a specific project (e.g. Koala counts or backyard bird surveys). One of the main benefits of CS for researchers is the large amount of data that can be collected over large spacial and temporal scales for very little cost.
So if I think its so amazing why don't I use citizen science (CS)? Unfortunately its not suitable for all research. My current work is on animal behaviour and to make comparisons between individuals or groups I need consistency in observers and I need to closely monitor the information collected. I also work quite remote region of Australia, while CS lends itself more to projects people can do close to where they live or even in their own backyards. CS projects also require a very specific type of scientist or often team of scientist to manage them. These scientists are very good at managing huge (and I mean enormous) databases and more importantly know how to analyses the data (something I still find daunting). Ideally these projects are carefully and thoughtfully designed so that reliable data can be collected by just about anyone. This may limit the kind of work that can be done but also means that the data can always be used.
From where I sit there is one major challenge with CS data that is submitted ad lib, that is data such as bird sightings that people can submit as they choose. I am sure the scientists that are good at this stats things are able to control for this but, as a birder myself, I feel that common species are usually under represented in these. For example if you look at a small area around where my parents live, you would think that you had just as good a chance of seeing a green catbird as an Indian myna. There is one record of each, in fact they were submitted by the same person, on the same day. If you look at a wider circle you find 19 catbirds but still one myna. Now sadly I have not seen a catbird up there but often come across mynas. On the flip side the area around where I live is pretty well covered thanks to the Canberra Ornithologists Group. The moral of this story might be that I need to get off my butt and submit some records myself!
On a slightly different note, just as important as CS is anything that encourages people to think about wildlife. In our busy city lives it is often easy to forget that there is an amazing world out there. There are more types of habitats and animals to fill them than you could ever imagine. Many that science does even know about yet. I really love the Wildlife photographer of the year exhibition for this, and I usually try catch it in Sydney with some like-minded friends. Unfortunately this hasn't happened the last couple of years but I still catch the images floating around the internet. These photos allow us sneak peaks in to the worlds of the animals featured in them and often help us see how our lives and in particular our choices, affect their lives in ways we never consider.