A love for the outdoors led this pair of committed volunteer coordinators to dedicate their time to helping Australia’s most threatened beach-nesting bird. Meet Sue and Ash Read.

‘We hardly ever saw a chick that survived, and now, you know, we regularly, almost every season, have at least some of our chicks get through to the flying stage, which is also very satisfying for us as volunteers as well.’ – Ash Read
Sue and Ash Read
Sue and Ash at home.

Sue: ‘Well, I'm originally from Adelaide. When I finished my uni degree – science and teaching – I was looking for work, and that led me to New Zealand. I couldn't get work here as a teacher because there was an oversupply of teachers. So I went there, and that's where I met Ash (another Australian), who was also a teacher.

We lived in New Zealand for 10 years and then came back to Australia – more for family, for me, and for Ash, for a change of job. That took us to Melbourne, and I continued teaching. And then 10 years later we thought, we'll try something totally different. So we went for a lifestyle change and grew Australian natives and proteas in McLaren Vale. Ten years sort of seems to be our thing; we've done extremely well with the hoodies, we've exceeded 10 years.

So that led us here. We retired. In our retirement, we're both keen walkers and we enjoy the outdoors, and that's how we got involved with the hoodie program really – from just beach walks.’
Sue and Ash Read's cut flowers arranged by Sue
Flowers from Sue and Ash’s cut-flower farm, arranged by Sue.

Ash: ‘When we came back to Australia from New Zealand, we moved into Melbourne, and that's where I became a member of what, in those days, was the RAOU, the Royal Australian Ornithologists Union, and of course, they've gone through several name changes, and are now Birdlife Australia. I've been a member of that for 30 years now. So I’ve had that interest in birds and nature all my life. And now, as we’ve gotten older, we've become keen photographers as well because of the revolution that's come about through digital photography that’s made it so much more accessible for everybody now.

I love being outside – love the outdoors. Love birds, animals, plants and landscapes because I actually had a background in geology as well. So, I just love being outdoors.’

Sue: ‘Same for me really, because often, when you're out outdoors and you know – particularly in New Zealand and Australia – when you're walking in spectacular scenery, it just blows your mind really, and, and it's calming, it's really a place to relax and recharge.

And then, you know, the bonus is when you do get nice photos or good memories. You know? Yeah, that's the satisfying part of it all.’

Sue and Ash Read-credit Richard Morton
Photo: Richard Morton.

Ash: ‘Because of the walks on the beach, we'd seen the hoodies around, we knew what they were, and we also knew they were a threatened species. We used to see – often – the parents with chicks, and then a few days later you wouldn’t see the chicks anymore. So we knew that they weren't having a good time here.

Our involvement came about when Emma Stephens [from BirdLife Australia/Green Adelaide] placed an advert in the paper looking for volunteers. So I met up with Emma and we went from there. That was in 2009.

What we're trying to do really is mitigate the human effects on the birds. There are other problems with things like tides washing out nests but we’re not trying to protect them from natural events. We're trying to protect them from human disturbance.

One of the problems here now is there’s a lot more people on the beaches. This area of the state has become much more settled than when we originally moved over here. The number of suburban developments is quite enormous and still ongoing, so the number of people using our beaches is much greater.

We also had particularly bad seasons with foxes, and they're a major threat. Last season we had a shocking time with foxes taking the eggs. And it's just the general pressure of people and feral species maybe.’

Humans of GA-Adult hooded plover and chick-credit Sue and Ash Read
A hooded plover adult and chick. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Sue: ‘That includes the plants too. That’s been occurring at one or 2 of our locations where the beaches have been overgrown by introduced grasses and that's pushed the birds out further into areas that are a little less safe for them to nest. It's also because of the damage it does in terms of profile with storms; it means that the chicks can't escape and find hiding places as readily.

We’re Onkaparinga beaches basically. Lonsdale to Aldinga, Sellicks.

We started with like 3 or 4 pairs [of hoodies] on our beaches and now we’ve got 10 – that’s increased the workload just a tad. But we've got a great bunch of volunteers that are very dedicated and another volunteer now looks after the beaches from Aldinga to Sellicks.

We’ve probably got 30 [volunteers]. Not all active at the same time, for various reasons; work or away, or thereabouts. But there’s a steady rock core.’

Volunteers putting up a hooded plover sign on the beach-credit Sue and Ash Read
Volunteers putting up a hooded plover sign on the beach. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Sue: ‘It has [changed our lives]. I mean, we take the responsibility fairly seriously. So it does take a lot of our time, which we're happy to do. So for 6 months of the year during the breeding season we coordinate our volunteers monitoring the hooded plovers.

The benefits, besides having successes on the beaches, is that we do have a great bunch of people that we're working with, with a you know, shared purpose. And we get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from working with those people.’

Ash: ‘Also, awareness of what's involved in protecting threatened species too is something that I don’t suppose many people of the general public would know just what actually is involved, unless you actually are hands on in one of these projects.’

Sue: ‘The coordination between Green Adelaide, council, local groups and BirdLife is phenomenal.’

Hooded plover volunteers standing with temporary beach signage-credit Sue and Ash Read
Volunteers with temporary hooded plover signage set up on the beach. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Ash: ‘We can see from the success that we've had over the 12 seasons that we've been doing it where, as Sue said, we've gone from just a few pairs to triple that number now on our beaches. So we have seen success that we never saw before we started.

As we said, we hardly ever saw a chick that survived, and now, you know, we regularly, almost every season, have at least some of our chicks get through to the flying stage, which is also very satisfying for us as volunteers as well.’

Sue: ‘The other thing too is that we've noticed that there are a couple of communities, particularly Maslin Beach and Port Willunga, where many of the regular beach-goers have become interested and incredibly supportive.

For example, at Maslin Beach for 2 years in a row, we've had 2 chicks fledge from a pair there, on a beach, part of which is an unleashed dog beach. And it’s only because the community, while not all may be leashing their dogs, they have kept their dogs away from the birds and often tell other walkers, “look out for where the birds are”.

So it's a community effort as much as it is our effort to get these fledglings through. So that gives us a lot of satisfaction.’

A young hooded plover chick-credit Sue and Ash Read.
A young hooded plover chick. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.
Ash: ‘For a very small adjustment to what you’re doing, you can have a profound effect on the wildlife. To me, that's an important role.

I think it would be a shame to think that we could not share the beaches with wildlife.’

Sue: ‘When we talk to people on the beach they often lament, “Oh, we used to see lots of different birds on the beach.” As Ash said, a small change in behaviour, or the way you use a beach, means that you can still have wildlife on the beaches, it doesn't have to disappear.’

Ash: ‘There’s going to be continuing problems [for beach-nesting birds] and one thing with the program is it’ll have to be continuous because if we stopped doing what we're doing now, we'd just regress straight right back to what it was in the past.

Because the birds do need to be protected, I'm afraid. They couldn't battle through on their own with so much human presence on the beaches.’

Adult hooded plover with chick-credit Sue and Ash Read
An adult “hoodie” and chick. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Ash: ‘Since we’ve been involved with the program, nesting success has gone up enormously but the chick survival rate hasn’t improved to the same extent.

We’re only getting a greater number of chicks that fledge simply because of the successful rate of hatching. We still lose a massively high proportion of them.

It takes 5 weeks [until they can fly] so it is very, very hard for the chicks, especially the first week when they’re really small and, strangely enough, toward the end, when they’re big but still can’t fly – they’re much more visible to predators and can’t fly to get away from them.

So we lose a lot of birds in the first week and a lot of birds in the last week [before they learn to fly], which is pretty hard after you’ve been following them for 4 weeks.’

Young hooded plover chick-credit Sue and Ash Read
A small and fluffy-looking hooded plover chick. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Sue: ‘That’s the hard part about the volunteering I guess. On the plus side, we match or do better on our beaches with breeding success as it would be in the wild. So we’re equalling that or improving on that – but success in the wild is not very high.

As coordinators we have to keep saying to our volunteers, “Yeah it’s disappointing we’ve lost them but look at the overall season, we’ve met or exceeded what would normally be happening.”

That’s probably the biggest challenge for volunteers. Disappointment.’

Juvenile hooded plover-credit Sue and Ash Read
A hooded plover juvenile (chick that has made it to flying stage). Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Ash: ‘My father was a very keen sportsman and used to take us regularly to the cricket and football, and bought me a pair of binoculars. He used to laugh because I spent more time looking at birds than the sport.’

Sue: ‘From my point of view, I guess it's infectious because it really wasn't until I met Ash – and because we lived in NZ I think – that I started to explore the outdoors. By virtue of that, that means flora and fauna as well. Ash’s passion is so infectious, by default I’ve acquired it as well.’

Ash: ‘[What I love most about nature is] its unpredictability. You can go back to the same place over and over again and you never know if it’s going to be the same.’

Sue: ‘And sometimes the unexpected happens. The other day, we were out photographing birds, and they came so close to us. We had to back off because the lenses wouldn't focus to take photos.’

Ash: ‘Recently we've been out photographing spotted pardalotes. They’re something we don't see very often so we've been very lucky to get that serendipitous moment. We were somewhere we weren’t expecting to find that sort of bird and there they were, on the ground in front of us.’

Male spotted pardalote-credit Sue and Ash Read
A male spotted pardalote. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Ash: ‘In the [hooded plover] off-season, we track where the birds are, what they’re doing, and particularly our successful fledglings from last season – so where are they, are they still around or have they moved to another area?’

Sue: ‘Because the new fledglings are now mature, they’ll be looking for a territory. They’re looking for partners and if they’ve found one and a vacant suitable nesting site, they could breed.’
Juvenile hooded plovers stretching their wings-credit Sue and Ash Read
Juvenile hooded plovers (older than 5 weeks) stretching their wings. Photo: Sue and Ash Read.

Ash: ‘As the proper breeding starts, the first thing we start looking for is the obvious signs of breeding behaviour. The more you get to know the birds, the more you can read the signs.’

Sue: ‘So we’ve started to monitor the beaches already from the point of view that after flocking over the non-breeding season, the birds will return to their own territories, if they left their territories at all – some birds don’t.’

Ash: ‘By mid-August we would expect to have several pairs nesting and then the breeding season will soon be in full swing.’

Humans of Green Adelaide is a first-person series about the people of Adelaide and their connection with nature. Come on everyone, let’s green Adelaide!

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