Today we are speaking with the passionate and talented Dr Amanda Lilleyman about her journey in wildlife conservation and her work to promote and protect shorebirds. Amanda has won awards, completed her PhD, organized an international conference and worked a wide range of jobs in the wildlife conservation space. For anyone looking to follow in her footsteps, Amanda provides some tips and tricks for making it work in the industry!
Amanda enrolled in a standard bachelor of natural sciences with no idea of majors until an Australian fauna course in her second year changed that. A week of camping with her cohort in Watagans National Park became her first field experience: spotlighting, trapping, triangulation, diurnal rock searches for reptiles – and sold her on ecology from that point on.
Upon her return, Amanda bought a frog and a mammal field guide and began volunteering on spotlight surveys with the frog lab at the University of Newcastle. Although she loved it, it felt like seeing these animals was such an effort… and around this time she noticed birds. Amanda bought a field guide, read it at nights and it became her companion as she started exploring the wonderful world of birds. Early on, her interest was captured by the Bush Stone-curlew, a “land” shorebird threatened by habitat destruction and human disturbance and Amanda volunteered on surveying them. Soon after, she joined a volunteer trip to the Kimberley where she worked with scientists to monitor biodiversity prior to the imminent invasion by cane toads.
This initial taste of research, combined with her interest in Bush Stone-curlew inspired her to Google “research into shorebirds”. And just like that, her Honours project fell perfectly into place.
Amanda moved to Darwin to work and study the response of shorebirds to natural (like birds of prey) and artificial (like dog walkers on beaches) sources of disturbance. From her observations, Amanda conducted shorebird surveys, calculated the energetic cost of disturbance and was able to model the impact of disturbance to shorebirds. She published her results and was able to share her findings with Parks and Wildlife to improve management and conservation outcomes for shorebirds.
Human-wildlife conflict is a challenge globally for many reasons including entitlement to public spaces, lack of education and community engagement. Amanda found that while there is no silver bullet solution, direct positive engagement with offenders was the most effective strategy to change hearts and minds: taking time to show the shorebirds through a scope and speak about the impacts of disturbance. While some people will always remain unresponsive, Amanda demonstrated you can make a positive difference with engagement.
At the end of her Honours, Amanda wasn’t sure what her next steps would be. She embarked on a road trip, only to be pulled back to Darwin when she was offered her dream PhD project, working on the conservation ecology of shorebirds in Darwin Harbour. This project involved understanding the overall population trends of shorebird species by observation at both natural beaches and modified sites (dredge spoil ponds) in Darwin Harbour.
Using observation, cannon netting to attach leg bands and colour flags and radiotracking, Amanda looked at where the birds were going and the resources they relied upon for foraging and roosting. She wanted to investigate movement patterns and site fidelity over time in the shorebirds. To understand the feeding resources for Great Knots, she collected intertidal core samples and analysed 20,000 invertebrates. She found that 80 % of invertebrates were a small clam species, Paphies altenai which was likely a favourite food for Great Knots.
Amanda also took morphometric and body condition measurements when she had birds in the hand and compared this with other birds of the same species around Australia. She found the birds varied in size and mass in different areas of Australia but there was no one size fits all.
Some of Amanda’s main findings from her PhD were important to inform management and improve conservation of shorebirds, not just in the region but across Australia and the flyway. She found the shorebirds had different ecological requirements at different times of year and this should be considered during the development of Darwin Harbour.
“We need to maintain a network of safe and reliable sites for shorebirds within the region so they can move in response to tidal conditions and disturbance”
Amanda’s research fed into a site action plan with BirdLife Top End, engaged stakeholders by structuring her findings in a “reader friendly” format and is planning a workshop and also worked hard on organising the Australasian Ornithological Conference in 2019 where she could network with other shorebird researchers and enthusiasts.
Her PhD work also led her to specialise in strategic planning for the threatened Far Eastern Curlew as a post doc in collaboration with the NESP Threatened Species Hub. As part of this collaborative project, she attached GPS backpacks to 22 curlews to determine both their local movements, migratory cycles and habitat selection.
As part of both her PhD and post doc project, Amanda worked collaboratively with the Larrakia Rangers building a relationship to learn from one another, and develop projects with shared cultural and conservation outcomes. For example, protecting mudflats and mangroves was a priority for conserving both Far Eastern Curlew and culturally important shell middens. In this way, they could recognise a shared resource and space between people and birds which was a lovely connection.
Amanda loved research but couldn’t find a way to stay in the field with such unstable funding. She started applying for many types of wildlife conservation jobs across northern Australia and despite plenty of knock backs, she persisted and received a role in Broome working as a land and sea Indigenous Protected Area coordinator. Although it was nice to have work, she missed the Northern Territory and when a similar role came up in Katherine, she jumped at the opportunity!
“Although it’s my first time in a long time away from the coast, I still visit the shorebirds whenever I am back in Darwin”
Career advice from Amanda
If you’ve been inspired by Amanda’s story and would like to do something similar, you’re in luck! Amanda provides some advice from her experience below:
- Take every opportunity
- When thinking about a PhD… PhDs are difficult but so rewarding, and offer an incredible lifestyle! If you feel overwhelmed by workload, try to think “what does it matter if things take longer than you might have expected?”
- When working with Indigenous rangers… communication is important to understand where everyone is coming from, and learning language is a fun way to build trust and connection.
- If you don’t feel supported and respected in your job, have the confidence to have a conversation or look for something better (it is so important to be supported at work).
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Amanda’s Honours and PhD projects were conducted through Charles Darwin University and supported by the Northern Territory Government. Her post-doc was undertaken in collaboration with NESP Threatened Species Hub and Darwin Port.