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Contact Call | Volume 11 Number 2 | June 2022


Honorary Life Membership is awarded to someone for making a distinguished contribution to the objects of BirdLife Australia and its predecessor organisations. It is the highest award to recognise our members for their distinguished contribution to the organisation. This year, at the BirdLife Australia Annual General Meeting (28 May 2022) Graham Harrington’s tremendous contribution to BirdLife Australia was recognised with Honorary Life Membership.

Volunteers and Graham Harrington (centre front seated) at the 2019 Grasswren Survey

Graham joined the RAOU back in the early 1970’s. Since then, he has continued to be an important, even critical, individual in the workings and achievements of our organisation, especially in achieving conservation results. He has succeeded in bringing scientific approaches to everyday members – recognising the importance of "citizen science” to deliver conservation results. As a highly regarded research scientist and leader in both savannah ecology and tropical rainforest ecology with CSIRO, he has always seen a sound scientific basis as one of the core strengths of our organisation. But he also understands and actively works to ensure that the science engages ALL of our members and anyone interested in birds as beautiful creatures.

A summary of Graham’s achievements

Leadership roles in management committees of the organisation

  • In 1994, at the inaugural meeting of the North Queensland chapter of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU), in recognition of Graham’s significant role in organising and leading the meeting, he was voted in as the first convenor. This inaugural branch ambitiously encompassed a huge area from Mackay north to the Torres Strait and across to the Northern Territory-Queensland border.

  • Graham has been an integral part of what is now known as BirdLife Northern Queensland ever since, serving on its management committee in all years, except 1998–2001. Graham’s committee roles have included Convenor 1994 – 1998 and 2004 – 2005, Conservation Representative (2001 – 2002, 2004 – 2008), Important Bird Area (IBA)/Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) Coordinator (2005 – 2018), Grasswren Survey Coordinator (leading the first surveys in 2008 up to 2018 when he “retired” as coordinator but is still a critical member of the coordination group), and occasional Secretary and Tablelands Activities Co-ordinator.

  • As Convenor of the North Queensland Branch Graham served on the national committee of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU). In 1998 he was elected President of the Union, at a time of unprecedented change. Two critical projects, The Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Birds (HANZAB) and Atlas 2 were in full swing, demanding considerable resources. The Union adopted bird conservation as an equal partner to ornithological science, broke from New Zealand, and changed it’s name to Birds Australia. This was the brainchild of the CEO David Baker-Gabb, but it was enthusiastically supported by Graham and the national committee, although it was only achieved in the face of trenchant opposition from traditional power groups. However the membership accepted the changes with enthusiasm and the organisation has never looked back.

  • The centenary of the RAOU occurred during Graham’s presidency. He commissioned a centenary painting from William Cooper, the pre-eminent bird artist in Australia. Unfortunately due to misunderstanding it was sold to an American but a limited run of prints was enthusiastically received by the members.

  • Even while serving as President, Graham never stopped contributing to the Northern Queensland group, becoming the coordinator of the major bird mapping activity (Atlas 2) for northern Queensland from 1998 until its completion in 2006, prior to its transition to Birdata.

From left: Renee Cassels, Sam Willis, Peter Valentine, Martin Willis, Ray Pierce, Wendy Cooper, Tom Collis and Graham Harrington at a BirdLife Northern Queensland Committee meeting in 2018

Conservation achievements

  • In 2014 Graham received a BirdLife Australia Distinguished Service Award (BDSA) because of his work as IBA/KBA Coordinator. His work has led to critical information being collected about north Queensland species at a time of major environmental change while generating enthusiasm for, and promoting the value of, citizen science.

  • He has initiated and led surveys to establish the status of significant restricted-range species including the Carpentarian and Kalkadoon Grasswrens, and understanding the role of fire within their habitats. In 2016, these dedicated efforts led to the Carpentarian Grasswren being listed as Endangered. Soon after, Graham developed a strategic partnership between Southern Gulf NRM and BirdLife Northern Queensland which strengthened fire management for Carpentarian Grasswren conservation with on-ground monitoring provided by BirdLife Northern Queensland volunteers. This collaboration still stands today. This collaboration has achieved conservation actions and grasswren monitoring across approximately 700,000 hectares of critical grasswren habitat including the Buckley River and Boodjamulla KBAs.

  • He also developed methods for ongoing monitoring of Tooth-billed and Golden Bowerbirds, and coordinated initial surveys within the Wet Tropics KBAs.

  • He has been an influential member of the group that coordinates and analyses the Brolga and Sarus Crane counts on the Atherton Tablelands. He has co-authored several papers and articles on these results, including a recent paper (2020) that analysed 20 years of data collected by the citizen scientists he helped train and inspire. He also investigated crop damage caused by the cranes, which had resulted in illegal culling of these species on affected farmlands. He has himself trained and led many field volunteers, raised funding, liaised with local landholders and ensured publication of results.

  • He has had outstanding success rate in winning funds from corporations, trust funds, government grants and crowd-funding. This is based on his ability to effectively communicate projects’ purpose and outcomes, and establishing good relations with the donors and funders.

  • Graham’s initiatives have resulted in the development of important long-term monitoring projects on these endangered/threatened species and at-risk indicator species in KBAs.

Graham with Henry Stoetzel, recipient of the 2021 Graham Harrington Student Research Scholarship

Champion of citizen-science

Graham is a strong champion of ensuring that our organisation retains science at its core.

  • He has pioneered methods for assessing the status of threatened species through simple techniques that can readily be used by everyday members without scientific backgrounds. This has resulted in literally hundreds of volunteers being able to contribute to the scientific work of assessing population status of the grasswrens, bowerbirds, and cranes.

  • He forged an initial partnership with Bush Heritage to provide bird surveys as part of their ongoing monitoring of biodiversity on their reserves. This has had lasting benefit as the one initial reserve in north Queensland has now grown into four reserves, with more likely to be added. This partnership is now being developed at a national level between the two organisations.

  • He was a regional reviewer for Atlas 1 and Atlas 2. In Atlas 1 he surveyed previously unsurveyed parts of northwest New South Wales. He also participated in a survey of the Gibson Desert. This was the first time Europeans had undertaken bird surveys in that country. At the end of Atlas 2 he co-ordinated volunteers’ inputs, and led a push to survey under-surveyed parts of northern Queensland, especially on Cape York Peninsula, eg McIlwraith Ranges surveys back in 1992.

  • In recognition of Graham’s significant contribution to our Northern Queensland branch, BirdLife Australia and birding conservation in particular in our region, BirdLife Northern Queensland has created the Graham Harrington Research Scholarship, which is awarded annually to foster ornithological and conservation research by students on the region’s threatened species.

From left: Lindsay and Keith Fisher, artists and Graham Harrington at the Mission Beach Cassowary Festival in 2019

Mentor to us all

Graham’s enduring legacy is that he has mentored so many of us to take on the roles that he has filled over these years. This has included:

  • New program leaders for grasswrens, Bush Heritage surveys, crane counts, bowerbird counts.

  • Leading Birding for Beginners workshops to encourage new birders to develop the same passion for birds as he has.

  • Mentoring young birders and encouraging and supporting their career development.

Graham has made life-long contributions to lead and bring us all “standing together to stop extinctions” of our unique birdlife and is a very deserving recipient of a BirdLife Australia Honorary Life Membership. We sincerely congratulate him and thank him for his dedication to our birds.

From left: Ceinwen, Graham and Kath with the chopper that allowed our surveyors to access remote areas of Boondjamulla National Park in 2016, looking for grasswrens

From left: Martin Willis, Graham Harrington, Patrick Webster (2019 Graham Harrington Student Research Scholarship recipient), and Peter Valentine


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