Desert lakes fill with life

Footage: Alicia Whittington, Parks and Wildlife WA

Record summer rainfall across the western desert from the Eastern Pilbara across the border to the Northern Territory has changed the landscape dramatically. The usually dry salt pans in the eastern desert areas have been inundated to their highest level in 30 years and a rare natural phenomenon is taking place.

In response to summer rains, waterbirds that normally reside on the coast have headed inland to islands in these lakes to breed in their thousands, and have been documented by three member organisations of the Indigenous Desert Alliance (Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, Central Desert Native Title Services, Central Land Council) and the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife.

‘When we looked at the rainfall records and some satellite imagery, we knew this was a rare event’ said Gareth Catt, KJ Healthy Country Coordinator and spokesman for the Indigenous Desert Alliance.  ‘These desert landscapes are some of the largest intact natural areas left on the planet and so little is known about them. We wanted to gather as much information as possible to understand what is occurring in these remote lakes.’

Alicia Whittington, a Conservation Officer with the Department of Parks and Wildlife, explains “it was a unique opportunity to gather as much information as possible to understand the importance of these remote lakes.  Waterbirds that normally reside on the coast are known to head inland to breed on desert island lakes formed during above average summer rains.  This year has been exceptional and a rare chance to record the bird breeding in the desert”.

Parks and Wildlife arranged a small plane to conduct an aerial survey of vast wetlands, flooded rivers and lakes in conjunction with the Indigenous Desert Alliance.  Gareth Catt said “the water was so vast that we felt like we were flying over the ocean. We have long thought that these lakes are significant breeding grounds for several birds, but they exceeded our expectations”,

A large variety of water birds were recorded in this normally arid landscape. The most exciting discovery being large colonies of banded stilts on small islands in the middle of some lakes. On one lake, the estimate was close to 90,000 banded stilts; most breeding in the good conditions.

These birds are found nowhere else but in Australia, looking after them and the iconic lakes that make up their breeding grounds is vital in maintaining the integrity of a desert system we are only beginning to understand.