The Great Gariwerd Bird Survey: Fostering citizen science to facilitate the collection of long-term broad-scale datasets in south-west Victoria

One of the great challenges in trying to understand how long-term gradual change (caused by drivers like climate) is impacting on the biodiversity of a region, is being able to afford and carry out the monitoring required to obtain the data that shows what is actually happening.

Wonderful volunteer citizen scientists from the Dunkeld Great Gariwerd Bird Survey group.

As a result of climate change, native species will experience changes in their local environments and will either need to adjust, move to live elsewhere, or be driven to extinction. Predicted rising temperatures and falling rainfall will, for example, shift climates of Warrnambool and Hamilton to be more like the current climate of Benalla. Such changes will have unknown but possibly dramatic effects on local biodiversity.

Climate refuges and well-connected areas of natural vegetation may be required in order for species to persist in a landscape. Allowing species to easily move from what is becoming unsuitable habitat to either more suitable areas as they appear or into the remaining relatively stable climate refuges may be critical for their survival. Unfortunately for many species, connectivity between remaining patches of habitat has been impacted by land use change and fragmentation of natural habitat since colonisation. This is particularly true across the Western District of Victoria where extensive areas have been highly modified, resulting in many relatively small and isolated fragments of bushland. Compare the images below showing pre-1750 modelled habitat (Figure 1A) and current remnant habitat (Figure 1B).

Landscape management and design is the primary way land managers can assist biodiversity under these circumstances. But to do this successfully, managers need real time data supported by solid baseline information.

One of the great challenges in ecology is that the measurement of biological diversity and comparison across time and space is confounded by natural changes in species composition and diversity that occur in all plant and animal communities. Species have natural cycles in population abundance. These natural increases and decreases through time can be driven by such factors as cycles in environmental parameters like rainfall patterns, through to plant and animal community-based factors such as competition and predation. In turn, communities may undergo directional change from one state to another (e.g. following wildfire), they may be intrinsically undergoing succession or they may be changing as a consequence of extrinsic factors such as disturbance, pollution or invasive species. Regional patterns of habitat fragmentation may be driving metapopulation dynamics, with inevitable loss or gain of a species from or to a community.

Thus, effective study of large-scale patterns in natural resources management requires collection of a vast amount of data, across an array of locations, habitats, landscapes and land use types, over long time spans, making it difficult and expensive to fund and maintain such programs using professionals. Defining a current baseline for species distribution and determining their responses to changing climate requires a long-term broad scale scientifically valid data set – something we do not have in most regions!

One way to obtain such data is through citizen science

The current concept of effective citizen science programs, involves the integration of explicit and tested protocols for collecting data, vetting of data by professional scientists, and inclusion of specific and measurable goals for public education.

Most research projects rely on skilled scientists to design, implement and carry out the monitoring projects. Such projects are costly, generally short-term, ask specific questions and are restricted to obtaining data from relatively small areas. In contrast, citizen science programs have been shown to (Lindenmayer et al. 2014):

  • facilitate more extensive data collection that would not be possible if scientists had to collect data on their own, especially on private land;
  • increase community awareness and appreciation of the process of scientific enquiry;
  • enhance the potential for the implementation of scientific findings;
  • promote and value local knowledge; and
  • reduce costs and increased ability to implement wide scale long-term monitoring projects.

Unfortunately one of the challenges of citizen science programs is finding people with the level of skills necessary to carry out surveys effectively and collect high quality data. The number of people who know how to carry out bird surveys, for example, in in decline across Australia and science programs in our universities have tended to teach less natural history.

Establishing the biannual Great Gariwerd Bird Survey

To begin to address this shortfall of skilled birders across the south-west region of Victoria, NGT recently implemented a long-term citizen science program called the Great Gariwerd Bird Survey (GGBS) in the Grampians / Gariwerd National Park. To train skilled observers, reduce the impact of observer bias and improve data quality we implemented a monitoring program underpinned by a detailed training program, tutoring by more experienced observers and follow up reporting of analysed data and additional training events.

The establishment of the GGBS with Parks Victoria was possible through support through the Australian Heritage Grants Program. To date we have seen 40 trained observers undertake 20 minute bird surveys at 36 two-hectare sites in stringybark woodlands on four occasions in both autumn and spring in 2021, making a total of 144 surveys. Analysis of the data collected has shown that with training and ongoing support the quality of the data collected was good and continues to improve over time. The rate of species detection by the citizen scientists did not differ from that obtained by a professional ecologist surveying the same sites (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Species accumulation curves (Rarefaction (Sest) comparing citizen scientist and professional bird survey data for the GGBS. The yellow curve indicates a professional ecologist, while the blue curve indicates citizen scientists.

Both the proportion of surveys in which species were detected (Figure 4) and the number of birds detected per survey did differ between the professional and the citizen scientists. However, importantly, this difference decreased as the citizen scientists gained more practical onground experience and attended special workshops to address identified skill shortfalls. For example, the cryptic small birds, living in dense scrub, with difficult to distinguish calls presented the greatest challenge. After one year of the program the citizen scientists are not yet skilled professionals, but they are well on their way. Retaining their interest in the project as their skills continue to evolve and grow is now fundamental to the long-term success of the project.

Figure 4: Comparison between citizen scientists and professional surveyors in species detection rates. Overall proportion of surveys each species was recorded in spring. Orange line indicates line of equality. Blue dotted line is line of best fit. R2 spring = 0.744.. Bird species well below the orange line are detected less often than anticipated by the citizen scientists.

To date NGT has run seven 10-week 40-hour bird identification and monitoring courses across the Western District in Victoria to train nearly 130 people in the past 18 months. Two more courses (20 people / course) are funded and planned over the next six months.

Expanding the Program

With up to 170 people trained to a high level in bird identification and monitoring across the Western District and with the interest and support of bird clubs and field naturalist groups in the region, there is an opportunity to develop and implement a comprehensive long-term monitoring program across the region.

Recent funding through the Barwon South West Climate Adaptation Strategy section within DELWP is helping NGT to develop and implement a comprehensive long-term monitoring program across the Glenelg Hopkins CMA region. The project aims to:

  1. Develop, write up and print a comprehensive long-term biodiversity monitoring program containing a detailed program rationale clearly outlining project objectives and design, survey protocol, data storage and upkeep, and standard operating procedures to inform future participants.
  2. Select randomised sites across the region; up to 300 sites may be selected. These sites would be stratified, for example, within EVCs and within different land management groups, to be representative of potential climate refugia and control sites, and across different rainfall bands and for different aspects.
  3. Establish and mark all sites.
  4. Work with a groups like Birdlife Australia to use their existing Birdata app to enable ease of data entry, high quality data entry and storage, surveyor data access, and long-term data set management.
Greg Kerr leading a bird watching session.

It is hoped that future funding will enable us to foster the development of a management group with representatives from a range of bird clubs and natural history groups from across the region to oversee program maintenance into the future, run workshops to bring trained community bird observers on board, explain the program and establish protocols, provide access to apps like Avenza and maps of survey sites, and plan surveys on an annual basis, and endeavour to get a minimum of one bird survey at each site annually in spring but encourage more in other seasons on an ongoing basis.

Ongoing community involvement in running of surveys, undertaking of surveys and compilation and analysis of data has the potential to raise community awareness of the status of regional biodiversity and facilitate transition of knowledge between generations. By facilitating active community involvement in their environment, this program aims to improve community health and wellbeing, improve knowledge and management of natural systems and biodiversity, help identify knowledge gaps, provide a method for assessing impacts of on-ground works, enable changing patterns of biodiversity to be identified over time and assessment of anticipated climate change refuge value. A critical benefit is quantification of ecosystem change associated with gradual long-term climate change. Knowledge gained may enable preparedness and management of biodiversity in the face of extreme weather, including directly informing location and scope of habitat restoration projects. This program redresses declining community natural history knowledge and skills, builds capacity to undertake surveys, empowers people to identify remnant sites under threat and enable work to ameliorate these threats. In developing and establishing the project it is hoped that collaboration and partnerships across government sectors and community groups will strengthen over time. If succesful this project has the potential to be extended to other regions in Victoria.

This project received grant funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Heritage Grants Program, Glenelg-Hopkins CMA Victorian Landcare Grant, and a generous Biodiversity Conservation Grant from The Ross Trust

Greg Kerr