In Focus: Research providing knowledge to maintain viable waterbird populations in the Coorong South Lagoon

The Coorong is renowned nationally and internationally for its waterbirds. It is an important site for migratory species of the East Asian-Australasian flyway, an area that encompasses the annual migration route for over 50 million migratory waterbirds that extends from Arctic Russia and Northern America to Australia and New Zealand. The Coorong also provides important foraging and breeding habitat and summer/drought refuge for non-migratory birds. Historically, over 300 species have been observed within 1 km of the Coorong and Lower Lakes region, 119 of which are reliant on wetland habitats. In drought years, the region can support more than 90% of the waterbird species found across all six Living Murray Icon Wetland Sites within the Murray-Darling Basin, and between 100,000 to 300,000 birds are regularly supported in the region. However, for the Coorong South Lagoon, ongoing declines in the numbers of many waterbirds species have been observed, with declines in populations and habitat more severe in the Coorong than for other wetlands in Australia.

This article is the latest in a series of In Focus articles published in the Goyder Institute eNews on the Goyder Institute-led research being delivered as part of the $77.8 million Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin (HCHB) Program. This initiative of the Australian and South Australian governments aims to support the long-term health of the Coorong by providing evidence-based solutions to both immediate threats and future conditions under a changing climate. The Goyder Institute for Water Research is the delivery partner for research components of HCHB, providing independent research to inform future management decisions for the region.

In this issue, we explore the research on waterbird populations in the Coorong being led by Associate Professor Phill Cassey and Professor Justin Brookes from The University of Adelaide in partnership with teams at Birdlife Australia, Deakin University and the University of Queensland.

A contributing factor to the decline in many waterbird species in the Coorong is thought to be a reduction in the availability in food resources, which itself is driven by fundamental modifications to hydrology and water quality.

“Over the past 20 years or more, the ecological condition of the Coorong South Lagoon has deteriorated, with increasing salinities in the Coorong South Lagoon and changes in hydrology” said Assoc. Prof. Cassey. “This has reduced both habitat availability and food resources for many waterbird species. Hypersalinity in the South Lagoon has reduced the abundance and diversity of prey species for pisciverous birds and wading birds feeding on macroinvertebrates at the shoreline. Nutrient accumulation due to poor flushing also stimulates filamentous algal blooms, which impacts sediment quality and aquatic plants and forms algal mats that restrict waterbird access to food.” he said.

The waterbird research undertaken through the HCHB program is examining how to maintain viable populations of waterbirds in the Coorong South Lagoon, focussing on a number of key waterbird species: Australian pelican, sharp-tailed sandpiper, red-necked avocet and chestnut teal. This includes developing models to understand the likely response of these species to management scenarios. These models are informed by data collected to understand waterbird habitat quality; the importance of regional wetlands close to the Coorong; and how key waterbird species move within the Coorong and between these wetlands and beyond.

“Wetlands in the broader landscape provide a mosaic of different habitats that are required to support waterbird populations” said Dr Thomas Prowse, postdoctoral researcher on the HCHB Waterbirds project. “Birds move within and between the different wetlands as they search for suitable habitat and food resources” he said. “While the Coorong undoubtedly provides critical habitat for many species, as the condition of the Coorong South Lagoon has declined, we are finding that other, smaller wetlands in the region are really important for providing additional food and habitat sources”. This means that looking after the condition of the wetlands in the broader landscape can provide benefits to the waterbird populations of the Coorong, and vice versa.

By attaching GPS tracking units to key bird species, the research team are examining how the birds move around and how long they spend in different locations. But catching birds of the right size and sex to fit the tracking devices can be challenging.

“It certainly hasn’t been easy to catch some of the birds to tag them” Dr Prowse said. “To tag red-necked avocets, for example, we have to sneak up on them in the water at night time as they feed” he said. “It’s very difficult as they get spooked very easily and quickly fly away. But for those avocets that we have tagged, they are showing some really interesting movements up and down the Coorong and to other surrounding wetlands, as well as long distance movements to Victoria. When we examine the quality of the habitat that they are spending time at, we can gain a greater understanding as to what is important to those bird species”.

The team have also managed to tag some sharp-tailed sandpipers prior to the species’ winter migration to the northern hemisphere to habitats around southeast Asia and China.

“Sharp-tailed sandpipers are small-medium sized birds that typically weigh less than 100 grams as adults. The satellite tags we are using to track them weigh less than 2 grams so that they don’t affect the birds in flight.” said Dr Prowse. “We managed to tag some of these ‘Sharpies’ just as they began their migration, and one bird flew to northern South Australia, spending a number of weeks in the Lake Eyre basin. Another bird flew directly to the Tenant Creek area of the Northern Territory, covering 1,967 km in less than 38 hours. Unfortunately the tags then stopped transmitting and we lost track of those birds” he said. “ But we are really excited that these ‘Sharpies’ are returning to the Coorong as part of their summer migration in the coming weeks. We hope to be able to tag some more birds to examine their summer movements within the Coorong and their movements as they depart northwards again in the Autumn”.

“By collating historical data on the key waterbird species, as well as using the new data we are collecting as part of the HCHB Waterbirds project, we are able to develop and produce new and updated models to provide a greater understanding of how waterbirds may respond to different management scenarios” said Assoc. Prof. Cassey. “We have also had fantastic support and assistance from the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corporation who have shared their knowledge on bird species and will be assisting with the tagging and monitoring of the birds this year” he said.

The next year of research being undertaken by the Goyder Institute team will collect further data on habitat quality and bird movements to help inform the refinement of models to help understand how key waterbird species will respond to management scenarios in the Coorong South Lagoon.

More information on the HCHB waterbirds research can be found here. For further information on the Goyder Institute-led HCHB research, please contact Dr Alec Rolston.

This project is part of the Department for Environment and Water’s Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin Program, which is jointly funded by the Australian and South Australian governments.

Tags: Coorong Lower Lakes & Murray Mouth SA Department for Environment and Water (DEW) Goyder Institute News Murray River Murray-Darling Basin University of Adelaide Water for the Environment Wetlands

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Chris Wright

Manager Water Science, DEW

Chris Wright holds significant experience in public sector senior leadership, having led policy, scientific and operational business units over the last twelve years in both State and Commonwealth government agencies. Chris has excellent experiences in leading policy and strategy formulation. He is skilled in building and maintaining networks across the public and private sectors to facilitate business delivery; leading and negotiating with others to achieve outcomes; and in bridging the science-policy gap, drawing on earlier roles in geospatial information systems (GIS) consulting. Chris’s formal qualifications include a Bachelor of Social Science, a Masters of Spatial Information Science and graduation from the AICD Company Directors course in 2019.

Dr Ilka Wallis

Senior Lecturer, Flinders University

Dr Ilka Wallis is a hydrogeologist with areas of expertise in quantitative hydrogeology and geochemistry. Ilka focuses on the development of reactive geochemical transport models which integrate fundamental processes that are normally studied in isolation (hydrogeological, mineralogical, geochemical and biochemical).

Ilka is also an Adjunct Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba, Canada since 2017.

Peter Goonan

Environmental Science Branch, EPA

Peter Goonan is the Principal Aquatic Biologist in the Environmental Science Branch of the EPA. He has over 30 years’ experience monitoring the condition of aquatic ecosystems in SA and assessing the environmental effects caused by discharges, deposits and contaminants entering inland and coastal waters. He specialises in aquatic invertebrate identification and their responses to contaminants and water quality stressors. He also provides expert professional advice relating to water quality risks, regulation, policy, and strategic directions, and represents the EPA as an expert witness in court.

Dr Paul Monis

Manager, Research Stakeholders and Planning, SA Water

Dr Paul Monis is a technical expert within SA Water’s Business Services group, which provides scientific expertise to support the delivery of water and wastewater services to SA Water’s customers. He has specialist expertise in the areas of biotechnology and microbiology, with almost 20 years’ experience applying DNA-based and other technologies to address water quality challenges posed by microorganisms, especially enteric pathogens. Dr Monis also holds title of Adjunct Associate Professor at Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and UniSA.

Jennie Fluin

Principal Advisor Research Partnerships, DEW

Jennie’s role in the Department for Environment and Water (DEW) allows her to foster and strengthen opportunities for researchers to better connect with government to enable evidence-based decision making. Jennie has extensive experience working in both universities and government, allowing her to bridge the divide between the two sectors. She is focused on connecting natural resource researchers with natural resource decision makers, and facilitating fit for purpose partnerships.

Dr Tanya Doody

Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

Dr Tanya Doody is a Principal Research Scientist working on high impact spatial eco-hydrological projects within CSIRO’s Land and Water Business Unit. Dr Doody leads the Managing Water Ecosystems Group, based in Adelaide, Albury and Canberra and has significant experience in quantifying the water requirements of vegetation and at times, their impact on water resources. This involves ecophysiological field-based research to underpin remote sensing tools to scale regionally to improve our understanding of the effect of flood regimes on the health of water-dependent ecosystems on the Murray-Darling Basin floodplains. Additional research includes investigating the ecological response of vegetation to water availability and environmental water to inform integrated basin water planning and management.

Professor Lin Crase

Dean of Programs (Accounting & Finance), UniSA

Professor Lin Crase is Professor of Economics and Dean of Programs (Accounting & Finance) at UniSA. He joined UniSA in February 2016 as Head of School of Commerce. Prior to commencing at UniSA, Lin was Professor and Director of the Centre for Water Policy and Management at La Trobe University.

Lin’s research has focused on applied economics in the context of water. He has analysed water markets and the property rights that attend them, water pricing and numerous applications of water policy. Whilst his expertise includes the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, he has also worked on projects in south Asia, Japan and Europe. Lin has published over 100 journal articles, numerous book chapters, four books and a range of other papers and opinion pieces.

Professor Justin Brookes

Director, Water Research Centre, University of Adelaide

Justin has broad research interests in limnology and water treatment with a primary focus on coupling between hydrodynamics, biology and water quality contaminants such as cyanobacteria and pathogens. He is a founding member of the management committee of the IWA Specialist Group on Lake and Reservoir Management and member of the Steering Committee for the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network.

Justin has a PhD and a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours from the University of Adelaide.

Daniel Flaherty


Daniel Flaherty is the Accountant for the Goyder Institute for Water Research.

Daniel has extensive experience in higher education having worked in senior financial management roles at the University of South Australia, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide over the past 26 years. Daniel has also been a Board Director on a number of university related entities. Prior to that, Daniel has worked in a range of agencies in the Commonwealth and State Governments.

Daniel is a Fellow of CPA Australia and has a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Adelaide.

Dr Alec Rolston

Interim Director

Alec Rolston joined the Institute in 2021 as Research Program Manager of the Goyder Institute’s research projects in the Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin program. He has extensive experience in integrated water resource management, integrated catchment management, drinking water source protection and wetland ecology, conservation and management across Europe and Australia.

Alec holds a PhD from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and has worked with An Fóram Uisce|The Water Forum and the Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland as well as the MANTEL Innovative Training Network across Europe.

Alec spent his early career in Adelaide working with Flinders University through the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth (CLLAMM) Ecology Research Cluster and within the Department for Environment and Water.

Daniel Pierce

Research and Development Officer

Daniel Pierce has managed research projects at the Goyder Institute for Water Research since November 2017 under both the second and third terms of the Institute.

Daniel brings experience in project management and knowledge transfer and application from 4 years working as a Senior Hydrogeologist in the Department for Environment and Water (DEW) in South Australia and from 13 years of private sector work in environmental management, science and engineering in Australia and the South Pacific. His work with DEW has included providing technical advice to the development and revision of Water Allocation Plans around South Australia in collaboration with researchers and policy makers, and managing a team of groundwater modellers and hydrogeologists involved in an assortment of water resource management issues.

Daniel has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons, Environmental) and a Bachelor of Science (Geography) from the University of Western Australia.

Professor Enzo Lombi

Dean of Research, UniSA STEM

Professor Lombi’s main contributions to environmental research cover various aspects of contaminant risk assessment, biogeochemistry, ecotoxicology and waste management. Furthermore, the methodological development he has pursued in his research has provided the basis for collaborative efforts in a variety of research areas ranging from soil fertility and plant physiology to human health issues related to contaminant uptake via occupational exposure and diet. In the last few years he has been increasingly focusing on the transformation and toxicity of manufactured nanomaterials in the environment.

Dr Carmel Pollino

Research Director Land and Water, CSIRO

Dr Carmel Pollino is a Research Director for Land and Water at CSIRO. She has 20 years of experience working on water issues in Australia and throughout Asia. Carmel has degrees in science and environmental law and works across the science and policy interface. Significant areas of research in Environmental Flows, Hydrology, Ecology and Integrated River Basin Planning. Carmel is the lead and also a contributor to global working groups on water and has published widely in this domain.

Professor Bronwyn Gillanders

Head of School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Professor Bronwyn Gillanders is interim Head of School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide. Prof Gillanders completed her BSc at the University of Canterbury, MSc at the University of Otago and her PhD at the University of Sydney. She has a research background in environmental science focused predominantly on freshwater and marine ecology.

Her research interests include integrated marine management; coastal carbon opportunities; multiple use activities and cumulative impact assessment; biology, ecology and fisheries of cephalopods; stocking and provenance of fish; plastics in the marine environment including in seafood; use of fish bones (and other calcified structures) for assessing ecological and environmental change. She has trained and mentored ~70 Honours and Higher Degree Research students and shaped the future of 1000s of students through her undergraduate teaching. She is passionate about encouraging capable women to enter and remain in science careers.

Dan Jordan

Director, Water Security, Policy and Planning, Department for Environment and Water (DEW)

Dan Jordan is the Director, Water Security, Policy and Planning, Department for Environment and Water (DEW). Dan is also the Basin Officials Committee Alternate Member for South Australia.

Professor Okke Batelaan

Dean, School of the Environment, Flinders University

Professor Okke Batelaan is a graduate of the Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (MSc – Hydrogeology) and of the Free University Brussels, Belgium (PhD – Engineering). He worked for more than 20 years at the Free University Brussels and also led the hydrogeology group at the KU Leuven, Belgium since 2006. He was chairman of the Interuniversity Programme in Water Resources Engineering.

Since 2012 Okke Batelaan is Strategic Professor in Hydrogeology and currently Dean of the School of the Environment, Flinders University. Okke has broad experience in teaching groundwater hydrology, groundwater modelling, GIS and remote sensing for hydrological applications. He was supervisor of more than 140 MSc and 25 PhD students. He has extensive research experience and a publication record in shallow groundwater hydrology and modeling, recharge-discharge estimation and modeling, urban hydrology and distributed modelling, ecohydrology and impacts of land use and climate change on groundwater systems. He coordinated and participated in a large number of projects in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and Australia. He is editor-in-chief of Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies and of MDPI-Hydrology.