Scientists call on the public to look to the sky to help the Tassie wedge-tailed eagle

By AG Staff 6 March 2018
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We chat to zoologist Claire Hawkins who recently launched a crowdfunder to help the public count how many wedgies are left in Tasmania.

SOME TASMANIANS may think that the state’s native wedge-tailed eagles are in abundance, but there are possibly less than a thousand left.

“If you ask people around Tasmania now how they think eagles are doing, you get a really mixed response – some reckon eagles have really increased in the last few years, while others say the opposite,” Zoologist Claire Hawkins tells Australian Geographic.

To rectify this inconsistency and update the current data on wedge-tailed eagles, Claire is asking Tasmanians to look to the sky.

This coming May, Claire is hoping to raise enough money through a crowd funding campaign to hold workshops where people will learn how to record and better understand the eagles.

The Where Where Wedgie initiative is a part of a much larger program known as Nature Trackers, which brings citizen scientists together to track different kinds of wildlife. 

“We have Department of Education funding to run Where Where Wedgie for schools, but we want to extend it to involve the general public, widening the reach and impact of the work,” says Claire. 

You can donate to the campaign HERE.

What prompted you to become concerned for the wedge-tailed eagle?

I was well aware that they were threatened long before I came into my job as threatened species zoologist. Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles suffer from an awful range of threats. Firstly, the fact that they’re such shy nesters gets them into terrible trouble. It’s rare for them to nest anywhere that isn’t sheltered by thick forest, so this limits how many can be supported in Tasmania. If they’re approached during the breeding season – even from hundreds of metres away – they can easily desert their egg or chick for long enough that it gets taken by predators. Yet this can often happen to them, because many people don’t know where there’s a nest or that disturbance is a big issue. They’re also prone to collisions and are still the subject of persecution by farmers.

How are Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles unique?

Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles are considered to be a different subspecies (Aquila audax fleayi) from mainland wedgies (Aquila audax audax). Tasmanian wedgies are darker and, on average, bigger, which actually makes them the biggest eagle in Australia. Unlike mainlanders, they only nest in trees, in forested areas, several kilometres apart and usually produce only one egg. Mainland wedge-tailed eagles typically lay two eggs and are open to nesting much closer to other pairs, in isolated trees, and even on cliffs.

Is there any evidence to suggest their populations are under threat?

The best available estimates are that there are less than 1000 adult Tasmanian eagles, and declining, at least that this was the case in the 80s and 90s when most of the data behind these estimates was collected.

The estimates are primarily based on the proportion of nests that were checked that were found to be occupied by a pair of eagles, and road counts, but also in light of all the threats I’ve listed. The information from both the nests and the road counts was rather patchy, but enough to make the biologists really concerned. 

When did you first get the idea of Where Where Wedgie and creating a crowdfunder?

It’s difficult and expensive to get information on threatened species population numbers and changes, and I’d long been thinking how great it would be to invite people living around the state to spend a day or two outdoors helping out. It made sense to encourage everyone interested to get involved, so that they could be involved in gathering, interpreting and sharing up-to-date information. In 2015 I travelled on a Churchill Fellowship to the USA, Hungary and the UK to learn how others around the world ran projects like this.

What will be the biggest challenge?

We can’t monitor how the numbers are changing unless we keep this going for a number of years, which is challening in terms of funding, since government funding cycles can be very unpredictable. We have the promise of some really solid funding to get the basics of the NatureTrackers program started – if we can raise matching funds – but we need everyone involved to know that this is something that, over the long term, has to be maintained by interested members of the community. 

We have more than 7000 observations on Tasmania’s public database, the Natural Values Atlas, and this shows us that eagles travel all over the state. Some of the observations, however, may be of the same eagle, and in other areas, where there aren’t so many eagles, this may be because not many people spend time there. We need everyone out at the same time, making the same effort and telling us both when they didn’t see an eagle as well as when they did 

How will Where Where Wedgie be run?

You can participate for one or more days from Friday-Sunday 25-27 May. You choose one or more 4 km x 4 km squares where you’ll do your survey, and book them. Everyone can see where everyone’s doing their survey, and we’re encouraging them to spread themselves out widely across the state so that we get the best possible picture of numbers everywhere, and are less likely to count the same eagle in more than one square. 

If people are in coverage with a smart phone, we’ll ask them to send off their findings straight away, so that everyone can see how everyone else is doing, and we’ll encourage groups to get together at the end of the weekend for a social celebration to review how everything went.