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Birds of summer from Coogee to Laos

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

Wherever I go, so do my bird watching interests. I have even started compiling a bird list for the parliamentary precinct: so far variety has been low. But what I miss out in terms of diversity the magpies make up for with their antics.

This summer I had what I think will be an all time bird watching highlight for me. I was swimming at Wylies Baths, a stunning rockpool at Coogee, when a small pied cormorant landed about three metres from me.

I have always wanted to watch a bird swim underwater and here was my chance. Fortunately I had goggles on and dived as the little pied cormorant took off underwater. It was spectacular seeing it twist and swerve after a school of fish.

I was not fortunate enough to see the cormorant catch its meal but I know the expedition was a success. When I surfaced the little cormorant was already bobbing on the surface munching on its dinner.

We had a few more dives together and then the little bird swam around on the surface with the other swimmers for a while and I decided I better get back to doing my lengths.

My other curious bird watching experience comes from my December visit to Laos to look at Australian involvement with dam building in that country. There is an obvious lack of birds in this country. I’m not just talking about variety but numbers of any species. 

In the capital Vientiane I saw three Indian mynas and a small brown songbird in the guest house where we stayed. In central Laos I never spotted one bird, not counting of course the chooks and ducks in the villages.

What I have been told and it is mentioned a few times in this travel blog discussion is that the reason there are so few birds is that they are eaten as a source of much needed protein.

This is understandable. AusAID reports  that 40 per cent of all Lao children under five years are moderately stunted and 50 per cent of rural children under five years are severely malnourished. Even agriculture is tough. In Laos with only 0.34 per cent of the land is used for permanent crops. I picked up that information from the CIA World Factbook. Only 4.01 per cent of Laos is arable. 

I have been told that if one goes to the right places there are birds. Wikipedia has an impressive bird list of 701 species for Laos and IUCN is doing excellent work with the Lao government to protect wetlands and create national parks.

But I was still surprised that some of the bird species common to Asian cities had not built up their numbers in Vientiane.  I rarely saw a bird in Bangkok but I think that is more understandable with 12 to 20 million who live and work in the city, high air pollution and lack of habitat and vegetation corridors. But Vientiane for all the development in recent years still has many trees and it is nestled on the banks of the Mekong. I would have thought available habitat and food would support some bird numbers.  Maybe the explanation here also is the cooking pot but I still wonder.

Hopefully the Lao government finds a development path that ensures all their people have enough food and maybe then the birds will return.

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