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Introducing Fiona Spruzen...

Name: Fiona Spruzen
Education: Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Biological Science, Bachelor of Antarctic Studies (Honours)
Current Occupation: PhD student
Where: School of Zoology, University of Tasmania

Fiona grew up in Melbourne and at high school biology was her favourite subject. “I had a great science teacher,” Fiona says, “who was very enthusiastic.” Going to university to study science appealed to Fiona, as it enabled her to do a broad degree that would give her plenty of different opportunities. She completed a Bachelor of Science at Monash University in Victoria, majoring in physiology, but realised that marine science intrigued her more. With this in mind, Fiona moved to Queensland to do another degree, majoring in biological sciences, at James Cook University.


Having studied for so many years, Fiona took a year off at the end of her second degree to work. “That year really helped me to re-focus and to maintain my enthusiasm for study. I did the same thing at the end of high school before even starting uni,” she says. But a lifelong dream to go to Antarctica – “It’s one of the reasons I did science” – and an Honours project beckoning at the University of Tasmania prompted Fiona to pursue her science career. She moved to Hobart in 1997 to do a Bachelor of Antarctic Studies with Honours, studying the influence of synoptic weather patterns on the flight behaviour of albatrosses. It led to the fulfilling of her dream.

“When I completed Honours I was lucky enough to become a bird observer on a number of marine science cruises to Antarctica,” say Fiona. “I also had two summers in the Antarctic as a volunteer field assistant. I spent 6 months at Mawson station in 1998/99, working with Adelie penguins, and 3 months at Davis station in 2001 drilling for soil samples at the bottom of frozen lakes. It is an amazing place, and I feel very lucky to have worked there.”

Fiona again took some time off after her Antarctic expeditions. She spent two years living in London and travelling in Europe. After returning to Australia, she decided that enrolling in a PhD would be a great way to not only get back into science but also to manage her own research project.

“I’m now halfway through my PhD with Zoology at the University of Tasmania,” Fiona explains. “My research is looking at shorebird habitat use in the Robbins Passage wetlands in far NW Tasmania. This wetland is the largest in Tasmania, with more shorebirds than any other site in Tasmania, yet very little is known about the birds here. I’m trying to determine why the birds feed where they do, and if the choice of feeding site is influenced by habitat variables, such as sediment type, intertidal invertebrates, seagrass abundance, etc.”

“I’m also investigating roost sites to determine why the birds only roost in certain areas, and which species roost where. This information will help to develop criteria to identify important shorebird areas, which may then be used in the development of management plans for wetland areas.”

Fiona loves the flexibility of her chosen career. “I love working in the field, the lab, or the office, as well as discovering new things about the subject you’re working on,” she says. “It’s also very stimulating mentally, and keeps you thinking all the time!”

Find out more about Fiona's research

Key words: Albatrosses, Antarctica, Penguins, Shorebirds, Wetlands, Macroinvertebrates.

Robbins Passage wetlands are a coastal wetland located in North West Tasmania, with an area of over 100km2. It is nationally recognised as one of the most important wetlands for shorebirds in Tasmania and has been selected as a priority site by WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Australia, as part of their Shorebird Conservation Project. The bay contains a wide range of habitats, such as sandflats, mudflats, beaches, rocky shores, salt-marshes and estuaries, on which the birds feed, roost and breed. The area is home to the largest number of shorebirds in Tasmania, supporting nationally significant numbers of seven species of shorebird including the ruddy turnstone, red-necked stint, double-banded plover, sooty oystercatcher and pied oystercatcher.

The Robbins Passage wetlands are in a relatively natural state, but as coastal development increases, so the pressures on the wetland will increase. Changes in agricultural land use and the development of wind farms in the area both have the potential to adversely affect the birds. It is important to investigate the ecology of the wetland before it is affected by these developments. This project will provide fundamental baseline information on the location and activities of the shorebirds in the Robbins Passage wetlands, and will involve mapping of important ecological sites in this nationally recognised wetland, providing essential information for future conservation and management strategies.

The main objective of Fiona’s research is to determine criteria to enable us to identify important shorebird habitats in temperate coastal wetlands. Her aims are to:

  • Identify and confirm the main roost sites within the wetlands, and to monitor bird numbers at these sites.
  • Investigate roost habitat choice in shorebirds, and to develop a roost-choice model for temperate coastal environments.
  • Investigate the foraging distributions of shorebirds among different habitats within the wetlands.
  • Investigate the macroinvertebrate community composition and spatial variation within and among these habitats.

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