Key Biodiversity Areas

Introduction and Atherton Tablelands

Eight areas in Australia have been declared Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) based on their significance for Brolgas or Sarus Cranes. This page covers the establishment of the KBA program in Australia and details of the Atherton Tablelands KBA, far north Queensland (significant for Sarus Crane). Other pages give summaries for the Gulf Plains KBA», north-west Queensland (Brolga and Sarus Crane), and six KBAs» in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, relevant for Brolgas.


Key Biodiversity Areas (previously Important Bird Areas) are a global conservation program implemented in Australia by BirdLife Australia. Sites are chosen based on one or more ‘trigger’ species, using criteria on population size and conservation threats. They are non-governmental and impose no restrictions on landowners, but many include private land so working with landowners is an important ongoing part of bird conservation. For full information on any KBA see the instructions at the end of this page, to search the BirdLife International Datazone.

Australian KBAs and cranes

Eight Australian KBAs are based on their critical habitat for cranes, and (except for the Atherton Tablelands) also significant populations of other waterbirds. Each year the ‘Guardian’ for each KBA conducts an Easter Health Check to assess habitat and other factors affecting the trigger species and in some KBAs there are regular monitoring programs for key species.

Australian KBAs critical for Brolgas and Sarus Cranes

KBALocationSignificance for Cranes
Atherton Tablelands Qld >1% global pop. vulnerable Sarus Crane
Gulf Plains Qld Sarus Crane breeding/>1% global pop. Brolga
Lake Gregory/Paraku WA >1% global pop. Brolga
Mandora Marsh/Anna Plains WA >1% global pop. Brolga
Cadell/Blyth Floodplains NT >1% global pop. Brolga
Blue Mud Bay NT >1% global pop. Brolga
Arafura Swamp NT >1% global pop. Brolga
Alligator Rivers Floodplains NT >1% global pop. Brolga

This page continues with the Atherton Tablelands KBA, see the next pages for the Gulf Plains KBA» and the six Brolga KBAs in WA & NT».

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The Atherton Tablelands: a very unusual KBA

This is a highly unusual KBA, one of only two out of more than 300 in Australia where much-altered agricultural land – not native vegetation or wetlands – makes the area significant habitat for the trigger species (Dutson et al. 2009). There is just one trigger species, the Sarus Crane. Each dry season, the Tablelands has the only known significant concentration of non-breeding Sarus in Australia, with roost sites regularly containing >1% of the global population. Although Least Concern in Australia, the Sarus Crane is globally Vulnerable due to declines and threats in Asia». The KBA covers some 35,400 Ha, a map can be downloaded here (jpg 752KB), with towns marked by initials (Atherton, Kairi, Malanda, Yungaburra). The KBA boundary and baseline population series were derived from preliminary results of the North Queensland Crane Counts» 1997-2008, including the highest estimated number of Sarus ever recorded at one time in Australia, over 3,000.

Expansion of grain cropping and roost sites provided by water impoundments are presumed to have contributed to rapid adoption of the Atherton Tablelands by wintering Sarus Cranes after the first Tablelands sightings in 1967, however there is no evidence of an increase in population (Scambler et al. 2020, see Crane Count results» in Ozcranes Research). Instead there may have been a species replacement – of about 1500 Brolgas, by a similar number of Sarus Cranes – on the Tablelands, due to clearing and drainage of key wetland Brolga roost sites near Atherton from about 1970 (Scambler 2020, see Ozcranes Wongabel-Nyleta Brolga roosts, 1920-1975»).

BirdLife Northern Queensland monitors this KBA with annual crane counts. The Guardian for the Atherton Tablelands KBA is Tim Nevard, whose PhD study with Charles Darwin University was on interactions between Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, including use of agricultural lands and farmer conflict.


Threats and Actions from the formal listing in 2008 (G Harringtonn and E Scambler):

THREATS: Sarus Cranes depend upon the cultivation of maize and peanuts, and grazing. Other crops are of much less value. Tree planting (revegetation or forestry) excludes cranes from roost or feeding sites. Deepening of farm dams for fish stocking excludes cranes from roost sites. ACTIONS: Liaise with agricultural landholders to encourage management regimes that maintain habitat for Sarus Crane. Investigate the effect of human disturbance on Sarus Cranes. Maintain the current low dam level [refers to proposed raising of Tinaroo dam wall: Ed] and cattle grazing which maintains short vegetation along the shore of Lake Tinaroo

Persecution and injuries

Persecution is encountered more outside the KBA, because within the KBA Sarus Cranes are mostly present post-harvest, and vulnerable crops are planted after they leave for the breeding grounds. Powerline strike is the main known cause of mortality in the KBA, usually affecting first year juvenile cranes (for more, see Crane Hazards 2»). Collision risks are not listed in the KBA nomination or monitoring plans. Data from 20 plus years of recruitment studies shows no detectable juvenile mortality during the Tablelands winter (John Grant, unpublished data). However BirdLife Australia could partner with other organisations to mitigate this known threat, to improve wildlife welfare and conservation.

Land use changes

This Table shows land use and management changes at feeding sites and roosts from 1997, which could impact numbers of cranes using the KBA during winter.

Feeding Expansion of sugar cane in lieu of other field crops
Feeding Decline in maize and sorghum due to market downturns in purchaser industries (dairy and beef cattle)
Feeding Improved machinery reducing harvest spillage and thus resources for cranes, even if acreage remains constant
Feeding Conversion of field cropping land to horticulture1
Feeding Conversion of field cropping land to tree crops, especially avocados2
Roost Grazing removed from government lands on Lake Tinaroo shore. Overgrown roosts only occupied when falling water levels expose bare shoreline
Roost Environmental tree planting excludes cranes from roosts
Roost Dams fenced off to improve water quality (with remote water points for cattle) exclude cranes
Roost Roosts deserted when shallow dams had water levels raised for fish farming

1. A 42 Ha property previously rotated through peanuts, maize, potatoes and legumes, with frequent records of feeding Sarus on stubble or fallow, is just one of a number of properties converted to blueberry production by Australia's largest horticultural company Costa Group. Horticultural expansion is expected to continue on similar sites on long leases

2. High quality avocados bear towards the end of Year 2 so give a fast yield from new plantings. Avocados are expanding in the KBA with accelerating demand, and plantations have boundary windbreaks, excluding cranes even from field edges

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Conservation action for this KBA could be seen as somewhat conflicted, due to the benefits a particular agricultural regime seems to have created for Sarus Cranes. When conservation values are created by particular agricultural activities, it may not be possible or reasonable to expect farmers to collaborate to ‘balance their economic wellbeing with that of the birds in the IBA’ as suggested by Dutson et al. Further, and counterintuitively, conservation actions (e.g. tree-planting) aimed at other goals may impact Sarus Cranes in the KBA if they reduce the value (to cranes) of agricultural lands.

Feeding sites: Farmers vary crop types and acreage planted in response to market, technical and regulatory opportunities and constraints, and crane habitat on their lands is an accidental by-product of some farmer choices. Most of the KBA is situated on deep, well-drained basalt soils of high agricultural value. This value is recognised and protected in State, regional and local planning schemes (see references) and is crucial for the local economy and employment. Conservation concern has been expressed about the impact of sugar cane expansion on cranes, but the impact of tree crops and covered horticulture is far greater. Opposition to sugar cane thus seems a subjective reaction to sugar as a crop per se, rather than a response to impacts on cranes. Feeding stations (as used for cranes in Japan) have been suggested as a way to maintain wintering crane numbers on the Tablelands, but the main focus of these proposals is to support tourism (crane-watching) rather than a demonstrated risk of Sarus Crane population decline.

Wetland roosts: Further suburban expansion on the shores of Lake Tinaroo is now limited by the local Planning Scheme, but recreational use is unlikely to change. On private lands, tree planting or farming activities affecting roost sites are determined by landowners. However Sarus Cranes on the Tablelands are quick to adopt new suitable habitat created by changes to farm storages, and Lake Tinaroo has an extensive shoreline with many potential sites. Most of the shoreline is managed by Sunwater, which gives 30-year grazing licences on parts of the Flood Margin Reserve. Leaseholders are required to maintain the flood margin including weed control, which, with grazing, helps to maintain wintering crane roost habitat.


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Next: the Gulf Plains KBA» and six Brolga KBAs in WA and NT».

For full information on any KBA visit BirdLife Datazone. In the Simple Search form, enter the name of the KBA: this gives a brief note on the formal criteria. Click on the NAME of the KBA (it is a link, though it looks like text) to see Tabs with detailed information and maps. A map tool is available at BirdLife Australia KBA page and the original establishment report for KBAs in Australia can be downloaded here, scroll down to ‘Australia's Important Bird Areas: Key sites for bird conservation’, December 2009, by G Dutson, S Garnett and C Gole.

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