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The Hungry Snipes

Simon Kennedy | Guest Contributor

Mungalla Station and Indigenous Protected Area is about 15 km from Ingham on the Herbert River floodplain in Queensland. The property is a little under 1,000 hectares, but more than 230 species of birds have been found, making it one of the most diverse bird communities for an area this size in the whole of the Australian continent.


While the sand dune rainforest is mostly intact, and the two large paperbark species grow to impressive heights, a centrepiece of the property is, or rather was, the large floodplain wetlands. Once connected to the estuary and used by thousands of birds, these shallow lakes and lagoons are now chock-full of Olive Hymenachne, a grass introduced from South America that grows to more than 2 metres high. The Hymenachne has pushed out the Blue Water Lilies, Bulkuru (Water Chestnut), Water Primrose and Kang Kong (native water spinach) entirely, and the cattle can’t reach it in the deeper areas for most of the year.


Hit hardest by this change are birds such as our Russian and Japanese visitors, including Latham’s Snipe and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, as well as larger locals such as the Black Swan (not seen at Mungalla for more than three years) and the Australian Pelican.

A Latham’s Snipe feeding at Mungalla Wetlands, August 2023. Photo by Simon Kennedy.


These choked wetlands are still there, but they are effectively “sleeping”, with low numbers of birds, virtually no native plants, and a few species of frog. It's long been the ambition of the Nywaigi people to reverse this and restore the wetlands by reconnecting them to the high tides. So in 2018, Greening Australia installed small groundwater bores which pump small amounts of slightly saline water from the shallow water table underneath the floodplain. Within months the introduced grasses retreated, and thousands of water lilies appeared in their stead, flanked by a range of native aquatic plants, and a sharp increase in bird numbers.


We’ve found that restored wetlands have around four times as many wetland birds and around 10 times as many migratory shorebirds. Weeds are down to below 20%, and the groundwater bore benefits are longer lasting than what we can achieve from weed spraying.


In August 2023, 26 Latham’s Snipe, having left their breeding grounds, arrived at the wetlands that Greening Australia and Mungalla recreated using the bores. It was the biggest flock at Mungalla for six years and the biggest found anywhere in Queensland last year (2023).

Some of the hungry Latham’s Snipe that arrived at the re-created Mungalla Wetlands in August 2023. Photo by Simon Kennedy.


Importantly, I also spent just as much time surveying the nearby areas that are still weedy and didn’t find a single snipe.


Most of the Latham's Snipe are from either Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, or Sakhalin, a Russian island further north, and they touch down here every August. These ones were feeding ravenously in the shallow waters, picking up worms and possibly small water bugs and crustaceans.


In January this year (2024), the Latham’s Snipe was listed as threatened under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity and Conservation (EPBC) Act after data collected and alarm bells raised by both Australian and Japanese scientists. So this is no longer solely a wetland restoration or water quality issue: it’s a Threatened Species Recovery issue and we have the means to do something.


There are many of these “sleeping” freshwater wetlands in North Queensland. I’ve heard countless stories of shallow wetlands once carpeted in water lilies, but now submerged in dense grasses and quiet. It’s time to look at ways to fix this problem, because when August comes around the Snipe will be hungry!


Editor’s note:

Want to know more? Come to Birdlife Northern Queensland's illustrated Presentation by Simon Kennedy: “The hungry snipes – bird responses to restored wetlands in Mungalla".

Simon will talk about the response of birds to restoration of tidal conditions to wetlands at Mungalla Indigenous Protected Area on the Herbert River floodplain. The results suggest it is time to restore other North Queensland floodplain wetlands that have lost tidal connection and become "choked" with weeds, especially given the recent national Threatened Species listing of Latham's Snipe and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, both of which migrate to this region in nationally significant numbers.



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