Pitter, Patter, Proliferation: Newhaven’s Wet Season Wildlife Boom

17 May. 2024
J Hoyle/AWC

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, on Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja Country in Central Australia, is overflowing with new life after receiving almost a year’s worth of rain in just a few days.

Encountering lush waterfalls and grebes surfacing from deep waters, Newhaven’s annual bird survey volunteers would be forgiven for thinking they’d made a wrong turn to reach the central Australian desert sanctuary.

Bottleneck Lake, clouds reflected in the water Tim Henderson/AWC

This downpour caused havoc for planned events and surveys, but the ever-enthusiastic AWC team managed to find opportunities to tally – keeping a list of vehicles bogged and awarding a sympathetic trophy for the most impressive total bogging. Special credit goes to sanctuary manager Mike Rawnsley for his hard work rescuing ‘boggees’ – a physically demanding task.

With conditions as they were, it soon became clear to the team that travel was off limits, and that the survey, which normally involves 73 survey sites and average daily walks of 10 kilometres, could not go ahead as planned. This didn’t stop the birders, led by the indomitable Judith Hoyle, from seeing nearly 100 species – a solid effort considering they were mostly confined to the operations base.

Judith says that though the survey’s scope was massively constrained this year, their efforts yielded valuable insights into the sanctuary’s avian diversity, providing a snapshot of species abundance in a time of transition.

By the weekend, the tracks had begun to dry out and they could visit some of the nearby lakes, where they were treated with a variety of waterbird visitors, many typically uncommon for the drought-adapted area.

Judith Counting Duck And Grebe At Susie's Lake C Johnston
Judith Hoyle on tiptoe, counting grebes in Susie’s Lake. She says becoming a ‘waterbirder’ was surprisingly effective, as their targets “just thought we were other ducks!”

A few highlights included Banded Lapwings, Pink-eared Ducks, Australasian Darters and Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes. The latter two species were spotted collecting nesting material during the survey, and have since hatched ‘grebelings’ onto vegetation pontoons. The birds have taken advantage of an eruption of shield shrimp—a fossil of a species much unchanged since the Carboniferous period. This desert shrimp relies on long periods of drought to prepare its eggs which hatch enmasse and provide a wealth of food, or ‘resource pulse’ during rains.

Pink Eared Ducks T Henderson/AWC
Pink-eared ducks showcasing their namesake plumage

Birds and aquatic species haven’t been the only wildlife taking advantage of the rains. Ecologist Tim Henderson says, “Newhaven wouldn’t feel like the Okavango Delta without invasive African grasses going bonkers.” The land management team have had their hands full with tackling the opportunistic weed in the leadup to the controlled burn season.

Burrowing frogs have also sprung up from the sand, adding their voices to the sanctuary’s nighttime chorus of insects, dingoes, boobooks and barn owls. All six of Newhaven’s confirmed frog species have been spotted: the Main’s Frog, Desert Spadefoot, Tanami Toadlet, Spencer’s Burrowing Frog, Sudell’s Frog, and Northern Trilling Frog.

Neobatrachus Sp Burrowing Frog Small T Henderson/AWC
Neobatrachus Burrowing frog species.

On the reintroduced mammal front, survey results are encouraging. The team have caught plenty of healthy individuals, despite Mala being less likely to take trap baits during a time of abundance, and curious Bettongs chewing up traps regardless of the season. Notably, many among them are newcomers, born within the sanctuary and previously uncaptured.

Tim says, “We’re hoping the good conditions leads to a boom in small mammal populations. We’ll know more soon, but we’ve already had Newhaven-born females with pouch young in our Bandicoot survey, so we’re feeling optimistic!”

Golden bandicoot pouch young discovered in good health during surveys
Golden bandicoot pouch young discovered in good health during surveys

AWC extends our gratitude to the remarkable volunteers, science, and operations team at Newhaven for their resilience and adaptability in the face of extraordinary challenges. Their collaborative spirit and unwavering determination form the beating heart of the sanctuary, continually achieving positive outcomes they generate for Australian wildlife.

Subscribe to receive our latest news from the field

"*" indicates required fields

Latest news from the field

Brad Leue/AWC
News from the Field Press Release 12 Jun. 2024

Mission to diversify endangered wallaby population in south-west NSW

@ Jane Barlow/Alamy
J2 Geospatial Intelligence Service