By Joey Clarke, Communications Officer and Laurence Berry, Wildlife Ecologist
AWC is harnessing technology to enhance monitoring of endangered Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) at Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary and Mallee Cliffs National Park in western New South Wales. With funding from the New South Wales Government’s Saving our Species program, the new technique, which uses LiDAR modelling, will enable us to better track populations of the rare bird across large areas.
The Malleefowl is a large, ground- dwelling bird that was once widespread throughout the arid zone of southern Australia. Across much of its range, the species has declined due to loss of habitat, altered fire regimes, and predation by introduced predators, especially foxes. In NSW the Malleefowl is listed as Endangered.
Like their more familiar relative, the Brush Turkey, Malleefowl incubate their eggs in a large mound, constructed by the breeding pair, out of sand and leaf litter. As the leaf litter breaks down it generates heat, and the pair carefully regulates the temperature of the nest by adding or removing sand and debris as required. AWC currently protects Malleefowl populations at four locations, Mt Gibson, Yookamurra and Scotia Wildlife Sanctuaries, as well as Mallee Cliffs National Park. Preliminary data from our sanctuaries suggest that Malleefowl breeding activity is greater within feral predator-free areas.
The conventional method for monitoring Malleefowl involves counting the number of mounds in a given area, and checking which sites have evidence of breeding activity over the course of the year. This approach has several limitations, foremost of which is the problem of detecting mounds across a large scale in the first place. Until now, this has meant long, labour- intensive ground surveys. Malleefowl frequently reuse mound nests over several years, but mounds can be abandoned or moved, and new mounds constructed. To get an accurate picture of overall populations, ecologists needed a more efficient way to detect new and existing mound sites.
The new approach uses a type of aerial mapping technology called LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to model the topography of the surface of the ground at a fine scale. LiDAR data is captured using a special scanning unit fitted to a light aircraft. Potential Malleefowl mounds can be identified in the digital model by size and shape, and ecologists are then deployed to ground-truth each location and confirm the status of the mounds.
Through a new arrangement with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) as part of the Saving our Species program, AWC will be managing the capture of LiDAR data over an area of approximately 200,000 hectares of nationally significant Malleefowl habitat. The area to be mapped includes Mallee Cliffs National Park, which AWC now manages in partnership with NSW National Parks, and Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary. LiDAR capture is planned for the final months of 2018, followed by on-the-ground surveys in early 2019 to verify the presence of the mounds identified from the air.
The Scotia Mallee region is nationally significant for Malleefowl conservation, having avoided the large-scale, high-intensity fires which have impacted remaining Mallee patches in Victoria and South Australia. Using this technology to detect Malleefowl mounds, this project has the potential to rewrite our understanding of Malleefowl densities and breeding activity in the region.