Explore eight unique conservation travel opportunities offered by some of Australia’s leading wildlife tour operators, including citizen science and wildlife atlassing, habitat restoration projects, environmental watering and ornithological opportunities.
Tracking Osprey on the Eyre Peninsula with Fran Solly
A year and half ago, a group of keen birdwatchers named a bird after Fran Solly. The award-winning photographer – who escorts Australian Coastal Safaris guests on photography tours – explains that the Western Osprey chick was tagged in November 2020 as part of the South Australian Government’s Osprey and White-bellied Sea-Eagle Recovery Program. The Port Lincoln Osprey team decided to name the bird Solly because of Fran’s longstanding interest in local birds.
“This was the first time in Australia we have been involved in putting a satellite tracker on an Osprey chick,” Fran says. “The data we have since collected has been astounding. We expected the bird to fly 20 to 40 kilometres after leaving its nest. It flew 400 kilometres within its first week.”
Fran has been watching birds for over 35 years and shares the many observations and interesting facts she has gained in that time with participants of any Australian Coastal Safaris photography tour she leads. She educates guests about local birds, such as the migratory Red-necked Stints, Ruddy Turnstones and others that arrive in the area in April and leave again in October, as well as the resident Eyre Peninsula birds like the Hooded Plover and many more of the 270 species recorded in the area.
Photographing the birds adds another element that Fran is passionate about. “I started keeping lists of birds I saw about 35 years ago, and the more I saw, the more I trained my eye,” she says. “Then, about 12 years ago, I began photographing birds, basically teaching myself as I went along. It’s great to be able to share my knowledge with other bird enthusiasts.”
Fran encourages guests to become involved in bird spotting, noting their behaviours, and of course photographing the birds. “If we see a bird that is of particular interest, I report that through to the local national parks team and I encourage guests to help me with the reporting,” she says. “I talk about photographing birds, and of course I enjoy getting hands-on with guests who bring their own cameras along.”
Related Experience – Southern Eyre Peninsula Birdwatching
Exploring the Impacts of Climate Change at Mungo National Park with Roger Smith
When you ask Roger Smith, co-founder of Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours along with Janine Duffy, about climate change at Mungo National Park, he cites an example. “To help people understand the impacts of climate change in a certain area, I usually profile a creature,” he says. “I’ve been visiting Mungo for over five decades and have noticed the number of emus over the last few years has declined.”
Mungo National Park was recognised and included in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Region in 1981 for its record of Aboriginal settlement (experts hypothesise that the park is home to the oldest culture on earth after the discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man), its strong representation of Australian megafauna, and its important geological attributes.
The park – which spans 111,000 hectares – is also famous for its diverse bird life. “Many serious birdwatchers come here to see the 150 or so species of birds we have here,” Roger says. “The Pink Cockatoo, Chestnut-crowned Babbler and a staggering diversity of parrots are all highlights.”
Emus, are one of the more popular birds to spot, however, in April 2021 Roger saw only eight emus over three days. “A few years ago, at the same time of the year, I’d usually see hundreds,” he says. “One of the most important things we do when we assess the impacts of climate change is to monitor the health of the environment, and one of the best ways to do this is to track and record the number of creatures we see.”
Although the majority of the emus seemed to have moved on to ‘greener pastures’ for now, Roger is confident that they will return (probably in reduced numbers), explaining that animals naturally move between areas to survive different booms and busts. “Australian wildlife is capable of dealing with dramatic changes in the environment,” he explains.
In the meantime, spotting an emu feels just that little bit more special when in Mungo, and Roger says that by coming along on the Mungo Outback Journey, guests are already partaking in important conservational work. “By walking around, looking for seeds, looking for wildlife, and logging the species that we see, guests are already doing a great deal,” he says. “However, for Mungo to lose so many of its emus is extraordinary, and a warning that even Australia’s toughest bird is having problems with climate change.”
Related Experience – Mungo Outback Journey
Tracking Manta Rays with Amelia Armstrong
Manta Rays have been around for millions of years, and their reliable aggregations are an important part of Western Australia’s marine ecotourism offering. Yet, it was only discovered as recently as 2009 that there are two species of Manta Rays.
“To think that an entire species with a five-metre wingspan had gone unnoticed for so long goes to show just how much we have left to learn about our oceans,” explains Project Manta researcher Amelia Armstrong. “Almost all of the information we have about reef Manta Rays globally has therefore been from the last 10 years. Our goal at Project Manta is to study and expand our knowledge on the population ecology and biology of Manta Rays within Australian waters.”
Project Manta was founded in 2009 at Brisbane’s University of Queensland, and in 2015 the multidisciplinary organisation joined forces with researchers at Murdoch University in Perth, which in turn facilitated an opportunity to expand Manta Ray studies from the east coast to the west of Australia.
“I was born and grew up in Queensland, but when the opportunity came up to study Manta Rays in Exmouth, I jumped,” Amelia says. “The work we are doing here on Ningaloo is very exciting and progressing really well. We study their movement, biology, what they eat and where they go. In Exmouth, Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks Ningaloo have been paramount in supporting the studies and in sharing findings with their guests.”
When opportunities arise, Amelia loves getting on board a charter boat with Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks Ningaloo to chat all things Manta Rays. “I could talk all day long about them,” she laughs. “And I certainly do if guests are interested in hearing about these charismatic creatures.”
She explains that the two hot spots in Western Australia for monitoring Manta Ray activity are in Exmouth and Coral Bay and that, thanks to the unique spot patterns on the belly of reef Manta Rays, combined with ongoing photo ID submissions from the public, Project Manta has been able to identify more than 1200 individuals that call Ningaloo home.
Related Experience – Manta Rays Private Charter
Championing Environmental Flows of the Murray River with Tony Sharley
The Murray-Darling Basin spans an area of one million square kilometres, and for owner and founder of Murray River Trails, Tony Sharley, its protection is crucial. “Having a basin like this is significant,” he explains. “It is one-seventh the size of Australia, or four times the size of New Zealand, and if we protect it and ensure we get the flow regimes right, we have a resource that will attract people from all over to see it.”
Overbank flows (small floods that feed forests and fill shallow lakes) trigger the regeneration of phytoplankton and zooplankton, which in turn initiates the breeding cycle in insects, frogs, fish and water birds and recharges groundwater systems. “It’s a natural and vitally important cycle,” Tony explains.
“But since the introduction of water storage systems and the growth of the irrigation industry, the overbank flows have dramatically decreased.” Tony and his guides discuss the concept of river health throughout all tours, engaging guests with fascinating stories that capture the importance of preserving the environment.
“Most of the people who book with us love to learn and crave a greater depth of understanding,” Tony explains. “The challenge is to help people understand why balanced water sharing is the key to the future of the basin, and why more water must return to its environment.”
Up until the 1920s, the rivers flowing in the Murray-Darling Basin were unregulated, so 90 percent of the water flowed out to sea covering floodplains and filling wetlands and creeks along the 2,500km plus journey. “This is an ephemeral river system that naturally flooded and dried almost every year, but today we have reversed the way the system works by keeping floodplains dry most of the time and allowing only 10 percent of the water to flow out to the sea,” Tony explains.
“The other 90 percent is held up in dams and released slowly for irrigation and for small environmental purposes, and that’s not enough to spill out onto the floodplains. Consequently, we don’t get those triggering events as frequently – the flooding of dry ground that produces that smorgasbord of food that results in a natural breeding event.”
Related Experience – Murray River Safari
Managing the Largest Humpback Whale Photo Database in Australia with Stephanie Stack
Photo identification programs have been the backbone of marine mammal studies for decades, allowing researchers to identify individuals by comparing photos in existing catalogues.
“We track Humpback Whales by photographing the underside of their tail fluke, where they have a unique pigmentation pattern,” explains Stephanie Stack, Chief Biologist at Pacific Whale Foundation. “Pacific Whale Foundation Eco-Adventures Australia is a social enterprise owned by Pacific Whale Foundation, and the profits from our marine eco-tours support whale and dolphin research, marine education for children, and ocean conservation programs. We are proud of our database, which is one of the biggest photo catalogues in the world and has over 6,900 individual Humpback Whale files.”
Stephanie explains that the identification program is an asset that is used beyond just finding individual whales. “We are using the photo identification program for longevity. We’re trying to learn how long the whales live for, since that is one question researchers do not know the answer to yet.”
Commercial whaling ceased in Australia in 1978, and identifying whales through photo-taking began in the 1980s. “We photograph whales as calves, and then we keep documenting individuals throughout their life. If we stop seeing an individual whale over a long period of time, it’s a fairly good indication it has passed away, but we are still tracking some of the whales that were photographed in the 1980s,” Stephanie says.
Guests can contribute to the project by taking their own photos while on board (photos can be uploaded to www.pacificwhale.org/donatephotos) or after the tour, and by sharing the opportunity with family and friends. “We don’t often see the same whales day to day because the population off the east coast of Australia is so large – there are 25,000 or more whales in the area,” explains Stephanie.
“That’s why we turn to boat operators and other water users to crowd source the photo identification effort. There are many people out on the water – often with cameras and sometimes telephoto lens’ – so we can increase our efforts if others participate.”
For those who want stay up-to-date with whale sightings, the Pacific Whale Foundation Humpback whale catalogue is a live file accessible via www.happywhale.com/org/494.
Related Experience – Ultimate Hervey Bay Whale Watching
Exploring Tasmania’s Botanic Riches with Geoff Curry
When Geoff Curry, long-standing guide with Premier Travel Tasmania, talks about plants, he likes to focus on their ever-evolving relationship with their surroundings. “I’m very interested in how everything interacts with each other. The forest isn’t just a bunch of trees, it’s a living and dynamic place,” he explains. “That’s the story I like to tell when I’m guiding.”
Aside from guiding tours for Premier Travel Tasmania, Geoff is President of Threatened Plants Tasmania (TPT) group and is the Conservation Officer for a national orchid society. It’s no surprise, then, that guests exploring with Geoff can learn a great deal about Tasmania’s flora. “There are over 1950 species of endemic plants in Tasmania and over 200 species of native orchids, of which 71 species of these are endemic to the state,” he says. “I’m especially fascinated by terrestrial ground orchids, as many do not photosynthesise and rely completely on microscopic fungi to survive.”
Close to Hobart, is Mount Field National Park where guests can see a diverse range of plant life in a relatively compact space. “Within 30 minutes of drive time we go from a reasonably low altitude up into alpine country and there is a significant change in the habitat and plant life we come across,” Geoff explains. “We see how the trees change in size, starting with the massive giant ash trees and then driving further up to the snow gums, which are quite small. I talk about geology and glaciation, and how the plants and environment interact with each other.”
In Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park, Geoff concentrates on the alpine grasslands and open forest. “I like to point out the pencil pines, as some of them may be over 500 years old. I also like to show guests the deciduous beech (nothofagus gunii) in the alpine forest. It’s endemic to Tasmania and it’s Australia’s only deciduous tree,” he says. “There are plenty of easy boardwalks to take guests on and we often encounter the local wildlife, including Tasmanian Pademelons and wombats.”
Coles Bay on Tasmania’s East Coast again offers a completely different perspective on plant life, with coastal dry forests growing in an area dominated by granite. “Here we explore a completely different habitat and suite of plants,” Geoff says. “That includes up to 60 species of orchids that can be found flowering during the year.”
Related Experience – 5 Day Tasmanian Wildlife and Wilderness
Rehabilitating Maria Island with Ben Brown
The founder of The Maria Island Walk, Ian Johnstone, has always been passionate about both showcasing and taking care of Maria Island, drawing that philosophy into his teachings and subsequently into the guides’ work. “So, rehabilitation work on the island is just something that comes naturally to the guides,” says operations manager, Ben Brown.
“Over the years we’ve conducted bird surveys, collected marine debris, gathered and studied Tasmanian Devil scat and planted trees, alongside our guests and volunteer organisations such as Taroona Scouts.”
The tree planting work that is presently a focus was begun in 2014, and Ben explains that, since its inception, over 200 trees have been planted on Four Mile Headland, which is located about seven kilometres from Darlington and where The Maria Island Walk guests arrive on day two of the four-day walk.
“The mammals that live on the island, especially the grazing mammals such as wallabies and kangaroos, tend to favour the green vegetation, so if you have a few dry years in a row there are only hardy shrubs left. This loss of green vegetation not only reduces the wildlife’s food source, but it can also lead to soil loss and erosion,” Ben explains.
“A tree planting program such as the one we have undertaken can be a great help. The trees help to hold the soil together and prevent environmental degradation. The new plants also provide habitat for many of the native birds.” Two plant species – Coast Wattle and Sheoak – were selected for planting at Four Mile Headland, chosen specifically because they are the dominant trees in the area and The Maria Island Walk team wanted to replicate the natural ecosystem.
Ben notes that rehabilitation work is always in motion along The Maria Island Walk, and the idea is to involve guests in various environmental programs in the future, such as weed eradication. “We are also looking at potential partnership opportunities with companies working around Maria Island,” he says. “It’s a beautiful part of Tasmania and we want to look after it.”
Related Experience – Maria Island Winter Escape
Researching Christmas Island’s Endemic Birds with Mark Holdsworth
According to Mark Holdsworth, Indian Ocean Experiences’ bird expert, one of the best times to experience Christmas Island’s birds is during Bird ‘n’ Nature Week. “May to November is our dry period here, and this year Bird ‘n’ Nature week falls between 30 August and 6 September,” Mark says.
“The birds are about, and the time is optimal as it coincides when researchers, including me, visit the island. Guests can assist us with capturing, measuring and placing bands on the birds before we release them. It’s a great opportunity for close encounters with some of the island’s special birds.”
Although the island is home to only a handful of endemic birds, Mark explains that the bird-watching experience is unforgettable. “Christmas Island sits atop of an ancient volcanic seamount surrounded by a vast ocean. And, because there is no easy way to land on the island, the wildlife has either flown or washed up here over millennia,” Mark explains. “We don’t have many bird species on the island because of its location, but what we do have is unique.”
Mark likens the Christmas Island nature experience to Galapagos, with ample opportunities for guests to get close to the birds. “There was no human occupation on the island until Europeans created a settlement in 1888 to exploit phosphate, so the wildlife had not evolved to fear people. The birds are approachable, especially the critically endangered Christmas Island Goshawk, which I have spent many years studying,” he says. “We are able to get within a metre of these birds, and this provides great opportunities for both research and bird-watching.”
To seal the deal, Mark and the team ensure that guests are split into small groups during Bird ‘n’ Nature Week, with each group assigned their own researcher for the day. “The beauty of doing it this way is that we are able to work around the island and show guests all of the island’s birds, including Goshawks, Abbott’s, Brown and Red-footed Boobies, and White-tailed (including the unique golden form) and Red- tailed Tropicbirds.” Mark says. “Each group has their own dynamics, and I can’t think of any other bird-watching experience that offers such a personal and direct connection.”
Related Experience – Christmas Island Birdwatching