A passion for birds. Meet PhD student Donna Jean Belder

Publication date
Monday, 30 Nov 2015

Besides being lovely to have around, birds fulfil critical roles in ecosystems, so I see their ongoing decline in Australia and elsewhere as a matter of utmost concern.

Meet PhD student Donna Jean Belder from the Fenner School of Environment and Society who researches threatened bird communities. She was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from The Margaret Middleton Fund announced by the Australian Academy of Science.

What do you study at ANU?

My PhD project is looking at the survival and persistence of birds in box-gum grassy woodland restoration plantings. I am focusing on small woodland birds, including species of conservation concern like the Diamond Firetail, Speckled Warbler and Rufous Whistler.

The general aim is to establish whether restoration plantings provide suitable long-term habitat for bird species such as these in box-gum grassy woodlands. These woodlands are a critically-endangered ecological community, with less than 5 per cent of the original habitat remaining intact. Bird species that rely on these woodlands are facing significant ongoing declines and it is vital that restoration efforts create suitable habitat in which birds can breed and thrive. My research is part of Professor David Lindenmayer's long-term South West Slopes restoration study in NSW.

I am seven months into my PhD, and will soon be finishing a chaotic but rewarding first field season.

What does the Margaret Middleton Fund grant allow you to do that you may otherwise not be able to?

The Margaret Middleton Fund grant will ensure that I can continue to conduct bird banding in my study sites - this enables me to track the persistence, breeding effort and habitat-use of individual birds in my study sites. Bird banding is a very labour-intensive exercise, requiring volunteer assistants and specialist equipment, so the cost can soon add up. The Margaret Middleton Fund grant will be invaluable for supporting this activity.

What is your favourite spot on campus?

I enjoy the lawn and garden area between the Forestry and Geography buildings.

I like it because...

I love just sitting and watching which birds turn up. There are regularly satin bowerbirds, gang-gang cockatoos and a highly entertaining family of white-winged choughs.

If you were free for an afternoon, what would you do?

Being a total bird nerd, you would probably find me birdwatching in the botanic gardens, Mulligan's Flat or Jerrabomberra wetlands.

Why did you choose your field of study?

I have always been interested in birds and the natural environment, and studied Ecology as an undergraduate in Adelaide because it was what I was most passionate about. My honours supervisor, David Paton, an extraordinarily dedicated expert on Australian bird conservation, inspired me to focus on addressing the issues faced by birds in altered landscapes. Besides being lovely to have around, birds fulfil critical roles in ecosystems, so I see their ongoing decline in Australia and elsewhere as a matter of utmost concern.

Where has your research taken you geographically and is there somewhere you'd like to go?

This time last year I was lucky enough to be volunteering on a research trip to the Huon Mountains in Papua New Guinea, studying the breeding behaviour of some endemic robins and birds-of-paradise - a life-changing experience! It was an incredible opportunity to work in such a challenging and untouched region. One day I would love the chance to do research in South America, as the bird diversity there is simply amazing.

What do you want to do after you complete your studies?

I would like to either pursue a career in academia, or work for a conservation organisation or consultancy dealing with bird conservation.

What is something people may not know about you?

I went to Bolivia on exchange as a teenager so I can speak pretty good Spanish.

I also enjoy documenting my bird adventures on Instagram - @acanthizidae.

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