Tiny solar backpacks helping save endangered birds from extinction

Tiny solar-powered, satellite backpacks are tracking one of Australia's rarest bird species after they were released for only the second time ever in New South Wales as part of a conservation effort between the New South Wales, South Australian and Victorian Governments.

Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus), male

Fifteen critically endangered plains-wanderers have been released into Oolambeyan National Park in the NSW Riverina, which was protected in perpetuity in 2002 due to its high conservation value in protecting critical habitat for the plains-wanderer.

NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said the release of the birds is part of the NSW Government's Saving our Species program, which is backed by a $175 million commitment over 10 years.

"This second-ever release of plains-wanderers back into their native habitat in New South Wales is the culmination of years of conservation work aimed at bringing the species back from the brink," Mr Griffin said.

"Plains-wanderers are a small, ground-dwelling bird that is particularly vulnerable to threats such as foxes and feral cats, and native grassland habitat loss. They're a critical part of the ecosystem because their presence or absence is an indicator of the health of their native habitat.

"These solar-backpack wearing plains-wanderers are paving the way for us to gather important data, which will ultimately help us improve our conservation efforts for wild populations into the future."

Their new solar-powered backpacks can provide data for up to two years via satellite tracking. Tracking of released birds has previously been limited by a 12-week backpack battery life, and they could only be tracked with transmitters in the field.

The 15 recently released birds were carefully selected from conservation breeding programs, with 11 coming from Taronga Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales, 3 from Monarto Safari Park in South Australia, and one from Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria.

The second NSW release comes after 10 birds were released near Hay in March, and 16 in Victoria in 2021 as part of a national recovery program to save the species from extinction.

The plains-wanderer is the sole member of its species family and are genetically distinct from any other species in the world. If they become extinct, the world will lose the last remaining species in the genus.

South Australian Minister for Climate, Environment and Water Susan Close said collaboration is key to conservation.

"Three of the recently released birds have come from Monarto Safari Park, and this project is a great example of our zoos working together across a number of jurisdictions with the help of private landholders to help save a native species," Ms Close said.

Victorian Minister for Environment and Climate Action Lily D'Ambrosio said the second release of 15 plains-wanderers in New South Wales builds on the initial trial in Victoria last year.

"This is the first ever plains-wanderer release to use satellite technology to track the endangered species and the more we know about this elusive bird, the better chance we have at conservation success. This joint initiative is part of our record investment into protecting our precious biodiversity," Ms D'Ambrosio said.

The NSW Government's program to conserve and protect plains-wanderers also involves supporting private landholders through the Biodiversity Conservation Trust to actively manage and protect plains-wanderer habitat, and undertake feral animal control programs.

The program receives funding through the NSW Government's Saving our Species program and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, National Landcare Program, and Zoos Victoria.