“Almost mythical” is how conservationist Matthew Herring describes the Australian painted snipe, one of the rarest birds on this continent.
“Some of these terms are used,” says Herring, “but they really are.”
It is believed that there are only about 340 individuals left, but that is not all that makes them rare. Australian Painted Snipes exemplify the saying “out of sight, out of mind”. Even birders with decades in the field forget they exist.
“They are super-smart, cover-dependent, mud-loving, aquatic-plant-hide shorebirds,” says Herring.
A research project that correlated the evolutionary uniqueness of the world’s nearly 10,000 bird species with their conservation status, as a way of prioritizing them, placed the Australian painted snipe at number 29.
“So it’s definitely a strange bird,” says Herring.
And an elusive one. It covers a vast area, from the Murray-Darling Basin to the Kimberley. Sightings are few and far between.
“From memory if you look [the apps] Birdata and eBird in the last two years, I think there are five records across Australia,” says Herring.
With so few sightings, researchers struggle to complete even the most basic knowledge about the painted snipe, written with a hyphen to distinguish it from the “true” snipes, to which it is only distantly related. It is not even clear why there are so few of them. Herring, who runs consultancy firm Murray Wildlifesays habitat destruction and introduced predators are likely to play a role, as well as extreme weather events caused by climate change, but in other parts of the world, the South American painted snipe and the greater Asian and Asian painted snipe Africa are doing well.
“Maybe the nature of Australia, maybe the ephemeral nature of [Australian] wetlands is less suitable for that particular organism which is a painted snipe,” says Herring.
Herring describes the Australian painted snipe as the wetlands equivalent of the night parrot, but notes that even the night parrot, which is so elusive that it for a century it was thought to be extinct, is better known to Western science. Unlike the night parrot, there are no recordings of the call of the Australian painted snipe.
Like many other Australian wetland birds, painted snipes appear to be nomadic, but Herring says they “just disappear for months or years.”
“And we don’t know where the strongholds are during the winter or during the droughts. It is very difficult to keep a bird if you don’t know where it is for years.”
That’s why Herring and his colleagues, a mix of shorebird experts from various universities and other organizations, have asked the public for help.
“We rely on all the birders across the country and other people who are in the wetlands to report sightings to australian bird life and they will come back to us,” he says.
In early November, Herring announced a crowdfunding campaign hoping to raise $116,300 in 40 days. That would allow his team to place at least 12 painted snipes with satellite transmitters and eventually learn where the birds go for years at a time when they’re out of sight.
It’s not the first conservation effort to turn to crowdfunding: In recent years, researchers studying glossy black cockatoos, Kangaroo Island common browns, swift parrots and many more have applied for public assistance. Herring himself led a previous crowdfunding effort for Australasian bitterns.
Professor Euan Ritchie, a wildlife ecologist at Deakin University, says the public should not be left to fund research on endangered species.
“Australia is an extremely wealthy nation, but when it comes to conserving and caring for our life-supporting ecosystems and the world’s unique wildlife, there is too often little or no financial support from governments,” he says.
In October, the Minister for the Environment, Tanya Plibersek, said the government was committed to ending Australia’s extinction crisisbut remains to be seen how will you keep that promise.
Says Ritchie: “Australian governments can apparently afford $250bn in tax cuts for the rich, over $100bn for new submarines and $10bn a year for fossil fuel subsidies.
“Chronic underfunding of conservation not only puts our natural wonders at greater risk of deterioration or, at worst, neglect, but fails to capitalize on the enormous social, cultural, economic and environmental opportunities to invest in the recovery and maintenance of nature”.
Herring admits there is some crowdfunding fatigue.
“I swore I would never do it again…but we were actually forced down this path. It is urgent. You can run a campaign and be ready to buy transmitters and send people into the field right away, and many research grants can take six months or a year, sometimes even longer. Crowdfunding has that urgency about it, which is great.”
The campaign reached its goal on December 18, with four days to go, thanks to donations from more than 250 people. Many have probably never heard of painted snipes before.
“And that’s one of the real benefits of crowdfunding,” says Herring. “That makes me feel good”.
Against the backdrop of Australia’s and the world’s extinction crisis, we need all the good stories we can get.