Rostratula australis (Australian Painted Snipe)

Advice to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) on Amendments to the list of Threatened Species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)

1. Scientific name, common name (where appropriate), major taxon group

Rostratula australis (Australian Painted Snipe)

Until recently, the Australian Painted Snipe was considered to be a subspecies of the species Rostratula benghalensis that occurs in Africa and Asia. A recent taxonomic study by Lane and Rogers (2000) together with a DNA study, as yet unpublished, verify that the Australian Painted Snipe is a separate species. It has been confirmed that this new species is acceptable, that it will be known as Rostratula australis (Australian Painted Snipe), and that it will appear in the new Australian checklist of birds to be published in 2003. There is no evidence that the Australian Painted Snipe migrates outside of Australia.

2. Description

The Australian Painted Snipe is a stocky wader around 220-250 mm in length with a long pinkish bill. The adult female, more colourful than the male, is chestnut-bronze on the head, neck and throat, with white around the eye and a white stripe through the crown. Her back and wings are metallic green, barred with black and chestnut, and there is a pale stripe extending from the shoulder into a V down its upper back. The adult male is similar to the female, but smaller, duller, and more buff. Much of his plumage is streaked brownish or buff and he has prominent buff spots on his wings.

The species is usually found in shallow inland wetlands, either freshwater or brackish, and often the wetlands are of a type that are temporary or infrequently filled.

3. National Context

The Australian Painted Snipe is infrequently and irregularly recorded from shallow inland wetlands throughout much of Australia, excluding Tasmania (from where there is only one record) and Cape York Peninsula. Lane and Rogers (2000) were only able to find 550 records for the species across Australia from 1800 until 2000. Over the two decades prior to 2002, there were only 5-25 records per year (unpublished data). Records of the Australian Painted Snipe generally refer to single birds, though there have been sightings of small groups of 3-4 and flocks up to about 30 (Marchant and Higgins 1993). Most records are from the south-east of South Australia, the Riverina of Victoria and NSW, the northern NSW river basins west of the Great Dividing Range, the Channel Country of Queensland and the Fitzroy River basin in central Queensland. The species was common last century on the swamps of the Swan Coastal Plains, Western Australia, but it is now very rare in this area. There are occasional reports from northern Western Australia, inland Northern Territory, inland and sub-coastal north Queensland, and coastal south-eastern Australia, particularly around population centres where there are extensive sub-coastal plains with many shallow wetlands. The Murray-Darling drainage system is considered to be a stronghold for the species.

The species is listed as rare or threatened under Queensland, NSW, Victorian, South Australian, Western Australian and Northern Territory legislation. Currently, the Australian Painted Snipe is not listed as threatened under the Commonwealth EPBC Act, however it is listed under the migratory and the marine provisions of the EPBC Act as Rostratula benghalensis as it was considered to be part of this species when these listings were made.

4. How judged by TSSC in relation to the EPBC Act criteria.

TSSC judges the species to be eligible for listing as vulnerable under the EPBC Act. The justification against the criteria is as follows:

Criterion 1 - Decline in numbers

The population size, distribution and ecology of the Australian Painted Snipe is not well known. It is a cryptic species that is not often recorded. It hides in vegetation and appears to rest by day and become active towards evening and at night. It is not known to be permanently resident at any site, and may be nomadic, moving round areas of suitable habitat. The number of records to date suggest the species occurs in low numbers. The population size is not known, but Watkins (1993) estimated the population to be 1,500, while Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated the population to be 5,000 breeding birds. The basis for these estimates is not clear.

In Australia, there are a number of large bird databases that have been used to demonstrate changes in bird population numbers. These databases have been used by Lane and Rogers (2000) to argue that a decline in numbers of Australian Painted Snipes of around 70-80% has occurred since the 1950s. Similarly, a direct comparison of figures from the Birds Australia 1977-1981 Field Atlas database, and the more recent 1998-2002 Field Atlas database shows a decline in the order of 77%. However, in both cases, there are uncertainties regarding the validity of comparing data across the databases and the statistical rigour of the analyses. Therefore this data is considered to be inconclusive.

An independent expert on Australia's bird databases has conducted a number of unpublished analyses on the Eastcoast bird database (for details of this database, see Griffioen and Clarke 2002). While acknowledging that such a comparison across databases is limited, the expert concludes that a substantial decline has occurred since the 1970s. Of all the analyses to date, this one gives most support to the notion that a marked decline has occurred in numbers of Australian Painted Snipe.

In Queensland, anecdotal evidence by National Parks and Wildlife Service staff also indicates declines in numbers of Australian Painted Snipe has occurred over the last 3-4 decades.

Wetlands, the habitat of the Australian Painted Snipe, have been altered significantly throughout Australia since European settlement, with approximately 50% of Australian wetlands converted to other uses. In some regions, the loss has been greater than in other areas. For example, on the Swan Coastal Plain of Western Australia, 75% of the wetlands have been filled or drained, and in south-east South Australia, 89% have been destroyed (Environment Australia 1997). A number of wetland systems in the Murray-Darling Basin have suffered considerably from degradation and loss due to changes in flooding patterns and land uses. For example, it is estimated that about 76% of the Lower Murrumbidgee wetlands have been lost or degraded, and substantial changes have also occurred in the Macquarie Wetlands, Chowchilla floodplain and Gwydir wetlands (Kingsford and Thomas 1995, 2001; Kingsford 2000). In Victoria, shallow freshwater marshes and edges of deep freshwater marshes, the preferred habitat of Australian Painted Snipe, have been depleted more than any other type of wetlands. As a result of this well-documented decline in wetlands, it may be inferred that substantial areas of suitable habitat for the Australian Painted Snipe have also declined, and that because of this, the population numbers of this already scarce species have further diminished. Although the loss of wetlands would be detrimental to all waterbirds, it is likely to be particularly so to an uncommon species of waterbird such as the Australian Painted Snipe.

As influxes of numbers of Australian Painted Snipe irregularly occur in areas, it is possible that the species naturally fluctuates in numbers, building up in numbers when environmental conditions are favourable and declining when conditions are less favourable. There has been some speculation that the decline in numbers of Australian Painted Snipe may be associated with natural fluctuations in the population. In 2001-2002, with the start of a national Painted Snipe Project, there was an unusually large number of sightings. The factors contributing to this large number of sightings were thought to be: (1) a good breeding year for the species in 2000-01; (2) widespread inland drought driving birds towards the coast where they are more likely to be seen; and (3) increased awareness in the bird watching community that sightings should be reported. However, it is considered that the decline observed in the Australian Painted Snipe since the 1950s-1970s is not part of a natural fluctuation in the population. The decline has been prolonged, is widespread and has occurred over various wet and dry cycles.

The likely causes of the decline of the Australian Painted Snipe are habitat modification and loss. The species has probably suffered considerably from wetland drainage and the diversion of water from rivers, which means that shallow wetlands, its key habitat, never form. Major water resource developments in the northern Murray-Darling Basin from the 1960s-1990s have coincided with a decline in Snipe numbers (Lane and Rogers 2000). Salinization is also likely to be adversely affecting suitable habitat, as is grazing and trampling by stock. Grazing and trampling by stock in wetland areas can reduce or eliminate the vegetative cover used by the Snipe for shelter (especially when breeding), and allow easier access to the birds by predators. Impact on habitat through grazing and tramping by stock are thought to be the reason for the decline in numbers in the Kimberley, Western Australia, (Johnstone and Storr 1998). Similarly, cultivation practices that remove the perennial vegetation round the edges of swamps and wetlands are thought to increase the vulnerability of the Snipe to predation.

Another threat to the Australian Painted Snipe is likely to be predation by feral animals. This species is a ground-nesting bird, and predation by foxes on eggs and young birds is known to occur.

In summary, the Australian Painted Snipe is not often recorded and is in limited numbers across its range. Although there have been a number of analyses investigating the decline in numbers of Painted Snipe, none of them are conclusive. However, the consistent trend in all the analyses and evidence is the same - they all indicate a substantial decline in numbers has occurred over the last few decades. The reason for the species' decline is likely to be associated with the loss of inland wetlands, its key habitat, large changes to wetland systems and predation by introduced animals. Most likely, the Australian Painted Snipe will continue to decline in numbers because the processes that have caused past declines in numbers are ongoing.

Therefore, the species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under this criterion.

Criterion 2 - Geographic distribution

The Australian Painted Snipe is infrequently and irregularly recorded in Australia. It is absent from Cape York Peninsula and has been recorded only once from Tasmania. There has been no marked change in the range of this species over time.

Possibly there has been a reduction in the area that it occupies within its range (sometimes referred to as area of occupancy). When comparing geographic data from the Birds Australia databases, the Painted Snipe has been recorded in much fewer areas during the 1998-2002 Field Atlas compared to the earlier 1977-1981 Field Atlas, suggesting that this species is declining in the areas that it occupies within its range. However, as the Australian Painted Snipe appears to fluctuate in numbers and in the areas it occupies in response to environmental conditions, the significance of the decrease shown between the two Atlases cannot be ascertained until the causes of the decrease are looked at in more detail.

There is insufficient quantitative data available against this criterion. Therefore, the species is not eligible for listing under this criterion.

Criterion 3 - Population size and decline in numbers or distribution

It seems likely that the total population of mature individuals of Australian Painted Snipe does not exceed 10,000 mature individuals, and is therefore limited. The population size is not known, but Watkins (1993) estimated the population to be 1,500, while Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated the population to be 5,000 breeding birds. The basis for these estimates is not clear. Lane and Rogers (2000) were only able to find 550 records for the species across Australia from 1800 until 2000. Over the two decades prior to 2002, there were only 5-25 records per year (unpublished data). Records of the Australian Painted Snipe generally refer to single birds but there are sightings of small groups of 3-4 and flocks up to about 30 (Marchant and Higgins 1993).

The trends in the available data and evidence are consistent and considered to be sufficient enough to indicate that the Australian Painted Snipe has declined substantially in numbers, with possible declines of up to 90%, though there are some concerns regarding the limitations of some of this data (see Criterion 1). There has been some speculation that the decline in numbers of Australian Painted Snipe may be associated with natural fluctuations in the population. In 2001-2002, with the start of a national Painted Snipe Project, there was an unusually large number of sightings. The factors contributing to this large number of sightings were thought to be: (1) a good breeding year for the species in 2000-01; (2) widespread inland drought driving birds towards the coast where they are more likely to be seen; and (3) increased awareness in the bird watching community that sightings should be reported. However, it is considered that the decline observed in the Australian Painted Snipe since the 1950s-1970s is not part of a natural fluctuation in the population. The decline has been prolonged, is widespread and has occurred over various wet and dry cycles.

The likely causes of the decline of the Australian Painted Snipe are habitat modification and loss. The species has probably suffered considerably from wetland drainage and the diversion of water from rivers, which means that shallow wetlands, its key habitat, never form. Major water resource developments in the northern Murray-Darling Basin from the 1960s-1990s have coincided with a decline in Snipe numbers (Lane and Rogers 2000). Salinization is also likely to be adversely affecting suitable habitat, as is grazing and trampling by stock. Grazing and trampling by stock in wetland areas can reduce or eliminate the vegetative cover used by the Snipe for shelter (especially when breeding), and allow easier assess to the birds by predators. Impact on habitat through grazing and trampling by stock are thought to be the reason for the decline in numbers in the Kimberley, Western Australia, (Johnstone and Storr 1998). Similarly, cultivation practices that remove the perennial vegetation round the edges of swamps and wetlands are thought to increase the vulnerability of the Snipe to predation. Another threat to the Australian Painted Snipe is likely to be predation by feral animals. This species is a ground-nesting bird, and predation by foxes on eggs and young birds is known to occur. Most likely, the Australian Painted Snipe will continue to decline in numbers because the processes that have caused past decline in numbers are ongoing.

In summary, the population of the Australian Painted Snipe may naturally fluctuate in numbers, but it is unlikely to ever exceed 10 000 mature individuals. In the past it has declined in numbers, and most likely will continue to decline as result of further loss of suitable wetland habitat.

Therefore, the species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under this criterion.

Criterion 4 - Population size

The population is most likely greater than 1000 mature individuals. The population size is not known, but Watkins (1993) estimated the population to be 1,500, while Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated the population to be 5,000 breeding birds. The basis for these estimates is not clear. There is no other quantitative data available against this criterion.

Therefore, the species is not eligible for listing under this criterion.

Criterion 5 - Probability of extinction in the wild

There is no quantitative data available against this criterion.

5. Conclusion

Records indicate that the Australian Painted Snipe is in limited numbers across its range. The trends in the available data and evidence are consistent, and considered to be sufficient enough to indicate that the Australian Painted Snipe has declined substantially in numbers, with possible declines of up to 90%, though there are some concerns regarding the limitations of some of this data. Although this species may undergo natural fluctuations in numbers, the recently observed decline is not considered to be part of a natural cycle. The species is likely to have suffered from loss of its wetland habitat, as over 50% of wetland habitat in Australia has been lost or altered since European settlement. The impact of past and future losses of wetlands will most likely result in further declines in numbers of this rare species. The species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under criteria 1 and 3.

6. Recommendation

TSSC recommends that the list referred to in section 178 of the EPBC Act be amended by
including in the list in the vulnerable category:

Rostratula australis (Australian Painted Snipe)

Publications used to assess the nomination

Anon. 2002. Painted Snippets - Newsletter of the Australian Painted Snipe Project. 1: 1-5

Davis, J.A., and R. Froend. 1999. Loss and degradation of wetlands in southwestern Australia: underlying causes, consequences and solutions. Wetlands Ecology and Management 7: 13-23.

Environment Australia. 1997. The Wetlands Policy of the Commonwealth Government of Australia. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Johnstone, R.E. and Storr, G.M. 1998. Handbook of Western Australian Birds. Vol. 1. Non-passerines (Emu to Dollarbird). WA Museum, Perth.

Garnett, S.T., and G.M. Crowley. 2000. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Griffioen , P.A. and M.F. Clarke 2002. Large-scale bird movement patterns evident in eastern Australian atlas data. Emu 102: 99-125.

Hassell, C.J., and D.I. Rogers. 2002. Painted Snipe nesting at Taylor's Lagoon near Broome, north-western Australia. The Stilt 41:14-21.

Hornsby, P. 1998. Observations of a Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis and Great Egret Ardea alba in the North Flinders Ranges. South Aust. Orn. 33: 25-6.

Johnstone, R.E., and G.M. Storr. 1998. Handbook of Western Australian Birds. Vol. 1. Non-passerines (Emu to Dollarbird). WA Museum, Perth.

Kingsford, R.T. 2000. Ecological impacts if dams, water diversions and river management on floodplain wetlands in Australia. Austral Ecol. 25:109-127.

Kingsford, R.T. and Thomas, R.F. 1995. The Macquarie Marshes in arid Australia and their waterbirds: A 50‑year history of decline. Environ. Management 19:867‑878.

Kingsford, R.T. and Thomas, R.F. 2001. Changing water regimes and wetland habitat on the Lower Murrumbidgee floodplain of the Murrumbidgee River in arid Australia. Report to Environment Australia.

Lane, B. A. and Rogers, D. I. 2000. The taxonomic and conservation status of the Australian Painted Snipe Rostratula (benghalensis) australis. Stilt 36:26-34.

Leach, G.J., Lloyd, C.G. and Hines, H.B. 1987. Observations at the nest of the Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis in south-east Queensland. Aust.Bird Watcher 12:15-19.

Marchant, S. and Higgins, P.J. (eds) 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 2. Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. 1999. Threatened Species Information Sheet - Painted Snipe. NPWS, Hurstville.

Rogers, D. 2001. Conservation Directions - Painted Snipe. Wingspan 11(4): 6-7.

Rogers, D. 2002. Australian Painted Snipe needs help. The Tattler 30: 1-2.

Watkins, D. 1993 A National Plan for Shorebird Conservation in Australia. RAOU Report No. 90.