Dancing Brolgas

This article was published in a special Wetlands edition of Wingspan, former membership magazine of Birds Australia (now BirdLife), Vol. 14:4 December 2004. The original text is reproduced by permission (edited for web by Ozcranes). Matt is the southern Australia representative for the Australian Crane Network. His wide range of studies, reports and community action on Brolgas and wetlands can be seen at Murray Wildlife.

In Part 1 Matt reported seriously low Brolga numbers in southern Australia. Now in Part 2, he reveals important steps for wetland management which are gaining key support from southern farmers, for Brolga conservation. These issues – flooding, grazing, fire and landowner support – are also vital for cranes in northern Australia.

Dancing Brolgas

by Matthew Herring

Part 2 | A national icon: hope and action in the south

Creating and managing wetlands for Brolgas Down south, Brolgas usually breed between July and December, in response to winter and spring rainfall. They nest as isolated pairs, each pair typically requiring a large (30-200 ha) ephemeral, shallow (maximum depth about 60 cm) and well-vegetated wetland, with little or no tree cover. In the Riverina, more than 90 per cent of breeding sites are Canegrass (Eragrostis australasica, E. infecunda) or Spike-rush (Eleocharis species) dominated wetlands. Many wetlands of this type have been lost since European settlement.

The management of flooding, grazing and fire regimes at the remaining wetlands is very important, as they have a huge effect on the structure and composition of wetland vegetation. For example, under certain circumstances, Canegrass can form thick rank growth that reaches more than two metres in height, whilst more permanent water regimes benefit other tall, robust waterplants, such as Cumbungi (Typha species). When breeding, Brolgas avoid wetland vegetation taller than about a metre, probably because adults like to maintain a panoramic view of their surrounds. Fortunately (for Brolgas at least), Canegrass and Cumbungi are often burnt or crash-grazed to encourage succulent shoots and palatable growth, promoting the future grazing value for stock.

Promisingly, Brolgas will also breed in small (<5 ha) artificial wetlands – large farm dams – provided there are seasonally flooded shallows about 30cm deep, with a healthy cover of emergent waterplants. Landholders with large storage or recycling dams on their farms are in a good position to create potential Brolga breeding habitat. Simple modifications to farm dams can dramatically increase their value for Brolgas, other waterbirds and biodiversity generally. Earthworks to create seasonally flooded shallows and a reduction in grazing pressure are amongst the most successful techniques.

Brolga nest

A species worth focussing on People readily identify Brolgas, and observers (mostly farmers) have played a key role in my research, helping to locate breeding and flocking sites each year.

← Brolga nest with surrounding ‘moat’ (M Herring)

Extensive landholder engagement has revealed that the Brolga is an effective communication tool for promoting wetland conservation. Comfortingly, there is now a great deal of wetland conservation targeted at Brolgas in south-eastern Australia.

Brolgas have become flagship species for wetland biota; deservedly so, because their breeding sites are particularly rich in bird life. Good numbers of species like the Baillon's and Spotted Crakes, Glossy Ibis, Black Swan, Purple Swamphen and Red-kneed Dotterel are commonly found at Brolga sites. Of particular significance, more than a third of Brolga breeding sites in the Riverina support the Australasian Bittern, a rare, cover-dependent species of national conservation concern. And finally, even the near-mythical Australian Painted Snipe has been found at a handful of Brolga breeding sites. A big challenge for the future management of Brolga wetlands is incorporating the breeding habitat requirements of these (and other) species. Striking the balance between too much wetland plant cover and not enough is at the heart of this challenge.

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«Back to Part 1 | A national icon: trouble in the south

About the authorSince his seminal honours thesis on Brolga breeding habitat, Matthew has worked as an ecologist and environmental education professional. His projects have focussed on wetland management for threatened waterbirds, collaborating with more than 3,000 farmers. His most recent major project is Bitterns in Rice, for more information visit Murray Wildlife.

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