Farmers turned bird photographers spread wings for environmental conservation

Farmers turned bird photographers spread wings for environmental conservation

Rebecca Van Dyk first noticed a huge variety of beautiful birds flying by her waterside window in Lake Cargelligo in far-west New South Wales two years ago.

But her camera was the only way she could get a closer look at the birds.

"We didn't have any binoculars so we would zoom in as close as we could to get to the bird," Ms Van Dyk said.

This makeshift magnifier began an obsession with the 220-plus bird species that flocked to the lake.

Ms Van Dyk and her husband Sandy then began photographing the birds and sharing them on social media, with the goal of documenting every single species.

"As we were taking the photos, I came to the realisation that we knew nothing about the birds and that most people around us had no idea what was here either," she said.

Birds flock to lake from around the world

Nearing 200 species photographed for the project, Ms Van Dyk said they had even added three more species to the list since they first picked up the camera.

The lack of local awareness for the region's bird species alarmed the Van Dyks, given many were either vulnerable or threatened.

"The most concerning thing to me is not many people in the area know what is here, so that's why we're using our Facebook page, hoping to reach out to everybody," Ms Van Dyk said.

"If you don't know what birds are here, how can you look after the birds?"

Ms Van Dyk said Lake Cargelligo and its surrounding waterways attracted a bevy of birds from around the world.

"We've got quite a fascinating wetlands system here, which means we get all of the water birds," she said.

"I photographed a bird last year that had just arrived from Japan.

"They come from all over just here to Lake Cargelligo, which is so exciting."

Ms Van Dyk said tourists similarly flock to the area to discover its bird life, and the more locals know about them the more likely the region's tourism can continue to capitalise on the natural asset.

Photography a gateway to conservation

National Bird Week has been encouraging Australians to take part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, an initiative to document the biodiversity of bird species throughout urban and regional areas.

Grassroots initiatives like the Van Dyk's are taking the concept a step further though.

Almost two years after their first photo, the Van Dyks are now preparing to expand their knowledge of the area's birds and begin actively conserving the dwindling habitat.

Ms Van Dyk said valuable nesting trees were in short supply for many of the threatened species, due to farmers clearing land and fisherman uprooting kurrajong trees for their valuable grubs to use as bait.

"When you've got every single woodcutter, every single fisherman, every single farmer with that mindset that 'it's just one tree' — if everyone thinks that way that's all of the trees gone," she said.

"They're just paddock birds to some people and they take no notice, but if you don't know what is there, how is it protected?"

Ms Van Dyk said educating children about local birds was a top priority, as well as preserving whatever trees still remained in the area by installing tin guards to ward off hungry goannas.

Having recently joined the local Landcare chapter, Ms Van Dyk said more funding was still needed to begin impactful conservation.

Citizen science vital to conservation efforts

Mick Roderick is Bird Life Australia's Woodland Bird Project Manager for New South Wales.

He said residents of remote communities who take it upon themselves to document bird populations are vital for conservation efforts.

"We absolutely need that information," Mr Roderick said.

"Bird Life Australia cannot act on any bird conservation issue without the background information and data, and that mostly comes from the citizen science."

Mr Roderick said most of Bird Life Australia's 50 staff live in Melbourne, and rely heavily on locals taking note of vulnerable and threatened species.

"We really need these regional people, the keen people that are out there taking photos and posting them on Facebook and celebrating the bird life," he said.

"These are really the people who turn the cogs of bird conservation in Australia."

Mr Roderick said capitalising on Lake Cargelligo's eclectic bird species to create a bird watching tourism destination could raise awareness for conservation efforts and support the local economy.

"The Lake Cargelligo tourism people have an opportunity to perhaps bang the drum of how amazing the bird watching is in that area and attract a more diverse array of tourists to the region," he said.

"You need people to actually go out and experience how incredible these places are and how significant they are for threatened species and biodiversity."

'It's an addiction'

With ongoing support from the community, the Van Dyks are determined to continue broadening their knowledge of local birds well after they have photographed the last species.

"I want to know everything that there is to know about the birds in the area; their habitat, where they nest, when they arrive, when they migrate," Ms Van Dyk said.

"It's an addiction, and it's a really enjoyable one and it's a really rewarding one."

Ms Van Dyk said knowing the more nuanced details of the area's threatened species would give them a better chance at impacting the birds' survival.

The couple have been preparing their 25-acre property to become a bird sanctuary in the near future.

"I would love to find every single nest in the area, especially for the threatened birds, and learn what's important to keep the birds here," she said.

"It's everyone's backyard, it's everyone's town. It's so important for everyone to look after their own backyard."