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Climate impacts on terrestrial nomadic and resident birds of the Australian interior

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Tuesday, December 10, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Background: Australia experienced during 2010 and 2011 rainfall of a scale and intensity that was unprecedented in recorded history, driven by the strongest La Niňa weather pattern since 1917. This resulted in a period of ecological boom and presented a research opportunity to study the immediate impacts of such climatic events on the natural ecosystems of the interior. Since then, we have collected data, through extensive field surveys, on the terrestrial nomadic and resident bird species of the interior, and now have an extensive dataset of bird abundance in the period following these rainfall events and through subsequent wet-dry cycles. We intend to continue monitoring these areas as part of this PhD to explore the longer-term fluctuations in nomadic and resident species in response to inter-annual climatic changes.
Aims: The project aims to collect data on bird abundances, continuing our previous monitoring, and to analyse these combined data to understand the role of climate and other factors in determining the distribution of terrestrial birds of the interior of Australia, in order to optimise their conservation. Mobile and nomadic species are usually poorly protected and their movements are poorly understood. Here we intend to develop a better understanding of their ecology and hence how best to protect them against current and future threats.
Methodology: We aim to continue monitoring a series of long-distance (1000km+) transects across the interior of SE and central Australia, using line and point censuses. We will repeat these transects for three further years. The student will be involved in data collection and subsequent analyses. We will also deploy acoustic recording equipment to monitor changing bird activity over the seasons. The resultant occurrence and abundance datasets will be related to remote sensed climatic and vegetation data. We will create dynamic models to simulate the movement patterns of birds across the Australian interior and use these to inform conservation planning. We will also explore the potential of climate change to alter the occurrence of these species and will identify key sites to protect such species in the future.
Timetable: In year 1 the student will collate datasets and undertake preliminary analyses on the data already collected (8 years). The student will also deploy automated recorders and help organize, and partake in, a first survey expedition. In the second year they will organise a second survey and will continue analyses of the vocalisation and transect data. They will develop and validate simple movement models to simulate the changing distributions of nomadic species. In year three, they will analyse the inter-annual variability of the interior species and use population/movement models to inform the current and future conservation of species.
Novelty: This work takes advantage of a unique series of climatic fluctuations and an associated bird abundance datasets. It will use cutting-edge analytical methods to develop real-world solutions to conservation issues. We are in a unique position to undertake the work, which will build on ongoing projects The newly collected fine temporal and spatial datasets for bird distributions in a rarely studied system provide a unique opportunity to further our understanding of these systems.
Student Training: The student will receive training in several key disciplines in conservation biology, including field census, analytical and modelling techniques. They will join the Conservation Ecology Group at Durham (, a dynamic team including a large cohort of postgraduate students. They will also spend time at the University of Queensland.
Maintenance Payment to successful student: £14,700 (approx.) p.a. plus tuition fee for 3.5 years (see for further details).

Funding Notes

Funded by a Durham Doctoral Scholarship, this project is in competition with others for funding. If you are interested in applying, contact Prof Willis () asap (and by 10th December at latest), with a CV and covering letter. The best applicants will be contacted and encouraged to apply online via View Website attaching their CV, covering letter, 2 academic references, and evidence of previous academic qualifications. This scheme requires additional information uploaded, which Prof Willis will advise upon. Further details available at: View Website (from 2018 round) and View Website


Stephens et al. (2016) Consistent response of bird populations to climate change on two continents. Science, 352 (6281), 84-87
Baker et al. (2015) Assessing climate change impacts for vertebrate fauna across the West Africa protected area network. Div. & Dist. 21, 991-1003
Pacifici et al. (2014) Assessing species vulnerability to climate change Nature Climate Change, 5, 215-224
Runge et al. (2014) Conserving mobile species. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 12: 395-402.

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