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Rescue Plains hikers with solar powered satellite backpacks

Conservationists are dressing one of Australia’s rarest bird species, the endangered plains migrant (Pedionomus torquatus), in tiny, solar-powered satellite backpacks.

But it is not made as a fashion statement. Instead, scientists can track these elusive birds for up to two years after their recent release in NSW to improve efforts to conserve and protect them in the future.

Tracking of these birds has been limited as the backpacks only have a 12 week battery life and could only be tracked with transmitters in the field. But now these new solar-powered backpacks can provide data for up to two years and can be tracked via satellite.

The release is part of the NSW Government’s $175 million Saving our Species programme, its flagship program to protect endangered species, which will run from 2016 to 2026.

Close-up of a male Plains hiker. Credit: Alex Pike

“This second release of Plains Walkers back to their native habitat in NSW is the culmination of years of conservation work aimed at bringing the species back from the brink,” said NSW Environment Minister James Griffin.

“Plains migrants are small, ground-dwelling birds that are particularly vulnerable to threats such as foxes and feral cats, as well as the loss of native grassland habitats. They are a critical part of the ecosystem as their presence or absence is an indicator of the health of their natural habitat.

“These flat-bottomed walkers with solar backpacks pave the way for us to collect important data that will ultimately help us improve our efforts to protect wildlife populations in the future.”

Plains migrants were once found from Victoria to Queensland, but are now only found in small, fragmented populations in western Victoria, eastern SA and the western Riverina region of NSW.

Male plainswalker
A male Plains hiker with a solar powered satellite transmitter at the Werribeee Open Range Zoo. Credit Zoos Victoria

It is estimated that there are only between 250 and 1,000 of these birds in the wild today, which is alarming given that the unique steppe wanderer is the only member of its species family (Pedionomidae). The world would lose the last remaining species in the genus if they became extinct.

The release was part of a joint conservation effort involving the governments of NSW, South Australia and Victoria, with the birds being selected from conservation breeding programs at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in NSW (11), Monarto Safari Park in SA (3) and one from the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria.

South Africa’s Minister for Climate, Environment and Water Susan Close says collaboration is key to conservation.

“Three of the recently released birds are from Monarto Safari Park and this project is a great example of how our zoos, with the help of private landowners, are working together across a range of jurisdictions to help save a native species,” says Ms. Close.

The fifteen Plains Walkers were released into Oolambeyan National Park in the NSW Riverina which was given permanent protection in 2002 for its high conservation value for protecting critical habitat for the Plains Walker.

It is the second release in NSW after 10 birds were released near Hay in March and 16 in Victoria in 2021 as part of a national recovery programme.

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