News of the rapid decline of the Cairns Esplanade as a prime shorebird-watching location is spreading.
Wader Quest, a respected UK-based charity promoting international shorebird conservation, is the latest organisation to highlight the plight of this once outstanding Australian wader viewing location.
It its April newsletter, Mandy Soymonoff, a Cairns-based researcher and former warden of the Broome Bird Observatory in WA, raises doubts about the Esplanade’s ability to support even much-reduced wader populations.
In the spotlight is the Cairns Regional Council’s attempts to create a sandy beach over mudflats.
Blanket of sand
“The result is a blanket of sand … Mudskippers are no longer common and my favourite wader observation sites no longer throng with probing and pecking bills … While the waders are roosting on the sand bar at high tide, it is now solid enough for people and dogs to walk out to and disturb the resting flocks.” Soymonoff writes.
“Will the Cairns Esplanade cease to be an amazing place to watch waders or will the combined efforts of local council, state government agencies and environmental groups come up with a plan to ensure the waders are accommodated? This will be a pivotal year in securing their future as a Cairns icon.”
News has come through that should have international shorebird researchers and conservationists jumping for joy – albeit guardedly.
The New China News Agency (Xinhua) reported on January 17 that the Chinese Government had introduced tough new regulations on land reclamation along the country’s coastline.
The agency says Beijing is vowing to demolish buildings on illegally reclaimed land and will stop approving general reclamation projects. This is tremendously important for the huge flocks of migratory shorebirds threatened by recent habitat loss on a grand scale.
The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) says it will demolish structures, shut down all illegally reclaimed land and illegally established waste discharge outlets that damage the marine environment.
SOA deputy director Lin Shanqing said reclamation projects that did not concern the national economy and people’s livelihoods would not be approved in future.
“Reclamation projects that have been approved but have not started and do not comply with the current policy will all be stopped,” he told Xinhua.Annual land reclamation quota to provinces would also cease.
Key fuelling station
“Using reclaimed land for commercial real estate development is prohibited and all reclamation activities in the Bohai Sea area [a key ‘fuelling station’ for shorebirds flying to and from northern hemisphere nesting sites] will be banned,” Lin says
Nearly 160,000 ha of ‘maritime’ land have been legally approved for reclamation in China since 2002.
For international shorebird researchers and wildlife conservationists who have campaigned long and hard to protect nearly 500 species of migratory birds that rely on Yellow Sea coastal habitats in China and South Korea, this news is huge.
“I’ve never heard of anything quite so monumental,”Nicola Crockford of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in Sandy, UK told Science.
Government got message
And Jing Li of Shanghai-based non-profit Saving the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper group says, “The message has reached the central government.” (The spoon-billed sandpiper is critically endangered, with only about 220 breeding pairs left. Their unique bill has evolved so they can feed more efficiently on small mud-loving crustaceans.)
Renowned ecologist and migratory wader expert Theunis Piersma describes the decision as, “A true sea change in the official political attitudes to the very large and internationally shared biodiversity values of the shorelines of China.”
Piersma is professor of global flyway ecology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and a regular visitor at the Broome Bird Observatory in Western Australia.
Keep on tracking
He says research (by members of the Global Flyway Network) will continue, using satellite tracking to show which habitats are most important, and to track progress in reserves. “We need to keep a close eye on the development of the population and see whether the recoveries actually will take place following [this] political change,” he said.
However, Li sounded a note of warning – that the new regulation focuses on stopping reclamation but not directly on conserving biodiversity. He also suspects there will be strong opposition from local governments that rely on coastal development for revenue.
A fresh outbreak of hostilities is looming over a major sand-spreading project that threatens to destroy the internationally renowned shorebird feeding grounds on the Cairns waterfront.
The city’s esplanade in Australia’s Far North has long been a magnet for hungry migrating waders, and for the birdwatchers who come from all over the world to see the birds at close range.
But all that has changed – and in a very short time.
Although not on the same scale as the habitat destruction that has occurred in Southern China and South Korea, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of mudflats have been reclaimed for industrial development, the impact is the same.
Because there is insufficient food to sustain them on their long journeys north and south, migrating shorebird numbers along the Yellow Sea coast have dropped alarmingly.
So, too, in Cairns, where the regional council’s sand-spreading program has rendered barren vast areas of previously organism-rich mudflat. Where just a few years ago wader flocks of several thousand would feed daily on the esplanade, now there are just a couple of hundred – on a good day!
Negotiations over the last two years between Cairns Regional Council (CRC) officials and a small group of local birders and environmental experts appeared to have produced a mutually agreeable solution: No ‘new’ sand would be introduced until independent studies were completed.
That was about eight months ago, but on a regular basis ever since – particularly after rain – the council has added huge quantities of beach sand to the foreshore. Introduced for mainly aesthetic reasons (sand is more attractive to tourists than mud), the feeding grounds are now clogged and unable to support the previous number of shorebirds.
Apparently fed up with being fobbed off, the original action group is now planning to enlist the muscle of powerful government agencies and environmental organisations in a public campaign to force the CRC to clean up the mess it has created.
As a Cairns resident and frequenter of the esplanade, I have seen at first hand the rapid degradation of the inshore mudflats. And as a conservation photographer, I lament the disappearance of so many of our annual visitors (shorebirds and birdwatchers).
The creeping carpet of sand washed off the council’s artificial beaches has enabled people (and their pets) to walk out into the bay over solid ground – inevitably chasing the roosting birds off in the process.
We will continue to watch and support this conservation project.
Michaelmas Cay, about 40 km offshore from Cairns in Australia’s Far North, is one of the most important seabird breeding sites within Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
In peak season (summer) there can be 20,000 birds and 16 species represented on the tiny low-lying cay. And when stepping on to the creamy sand below the rookery, even the most committed aviphobe is hard pressed not to stand in awe at the frenetic scene ahead.
Most people go to the cay to snorkel and scuba the surrounding reef formations. But long before the strictly controlled tour vessels tie up at their mooring sites, you are surrounded by seabirds heading out and returning from fishing expeditions.
Main breeding species
Common noddies, sooty terns, crested terns and lesser crested terns are the main breeding species on the cay, which was formed entirely by plants and animals. Others known to use the rookery include: the endangered little tern, brown boobies, lesser frigate birds, ruddy turnstones, silver gulls, bridled terns, black-naped terns, reef herons and roseate terns.
And if you keep your eyes open there can often be a few surprises – like the red-footed boobies (uncommon in the region) that sometimes take up station early in the morning on service vessels.
On a recent visit, a lone sanderling emerged from a pack of terns and noddies around the back of the cay. Sometimes confused with red-necked stints by visiting northern hemisphere birders, the sanderling is fairly common in southern and north-west Australia but much less so at a place like Michaelmas Cay.
Note: Although visitors may only set foot on Michaelmas Cay in a small roped off area just below the rookery, views of the birds (especially the laid back common noddies) are excellent and at times ‘intimate’. However, some of my images with this article were shot from a small boat around the ‘back’ of the cay – courtesy of the tour operator.)
The decimated shorebird population of the Cairns Esplanade in Far North Queensland is about to receive help – from the organisation that threatened them in the first place.
A recent ‘beach’ creation project entailing dispersal of huge quantities of introduced and excavated sand along the city’s Trinity Bay foreshore has had a devastating impact on a habitat that previously supported wader flocks numbering thousands.
Just four years ago there were food-rich inter-tidal mudflats right up to the water’s edge for the birds to feed on – disturbed only by a few idiots who soon found themselves waste deep in mud.
The volume of introduced sand was such that it was quickly collected by tides and annual cyclones, and dispersed 100-plus metres into the bay. That had the double impact of massively reducing the nutrient value of the mud and ‘solidifying’ it – enabling more people to wander further out for a ‘selfie’, or to let their dogs loose where the birds once fed or rested in peace.
But there is some good news for the remaining few hundred. The Cairns Regional Council (CRC) has seen the error of its ways and is backing a wader protection campaign.
Sand spreading is being confined to half the previous area until an independent study of dispersal by tidal and storm action is evaluated. Meanwhile, the CRC is funding an educational signage campaign to improve public understanding of the shorebirds and why they should not be disturbed – especially by people, dogs and drones.
Uniqueness of Cairns
The uniqueness of Cairns as a wader watching location was noted by Keith Woodley, manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand, during a recent visit.
An internationally recognised wader expert and author of several books on the subject, Woodley told Natural Images he had never been anywhere where the waders were so close and approachable as on the Cairns foreshore.
“Having normally skittish birds like godwits and knots walking along the shoreline just a couple of metres away is astonishing in my experience. Most places around the world I go to observe waders you need a powerful scope at the very least,” he said.
(Footnote: A suite of bird-friendly public information signs (examples above) has been designed and is expected to be installed in early 2018.)
For those living in the tropical north of Australia, the approach of Christmas is also a reminder of the coming cyclone season.
In an average year 10-13 cyclones will form off the country’s tropical coastline from December to April. And according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2017-18 will be an ‘average year’.
The majority of those storms will blow themselves out while still at sea, but typically at least four will cross the Australian coast in a season.
The destructive power of these dangerous weather systems is well known to those who live in coastal Far North Queensland. But while we humans can generally ‘hunker down’ and ride them out, I am often asked ‘what happens to the birds?’
According to Birdlife Australia, the birds do much the same as us – except they probably know well before we do when the big storms are coming, and head inland to safety. (There is some evidence that birds respond to drops in pressure and therefore seek shelter before the storm hits.)
Holding on tight
“They’re going to find some dense shrubs and they’ll be going into trees close to trunks and holding on tight,” Dr Holly Parsons told the ABC. “They tend to avoid high trees during lightning storms.”
Some will be killed or injured in a bad storm, but Dr Parsons says most will “cope ok”.
Passerines (perching birds) like magpies, currawongs and fairy-wrens do well because their feet are designed to have three toes forward and three toes back to grip on to branches.
They also have a tendon in their legs that locks down tight to help them hold on.
The clever sunbird
The best survival story I’ve heard for a while demonstrated how a female olive-backed sunbird protected her brood during a major blow.
Cairns mate and keen birdo, Norton (Norty) Gill had sunbirds nesting under an eve of his holiday house and he watched how the female (they do all the construction) set about protecting her eggs until the storm subsided.
First, she stitched up the nest entrance, then she added some entwined grass and fibre to the bottom of the dangling abode, pulled it up and secured the structure parallel to the ceiling
When the storm passed, she returned, released the tie-off and let the nest down, opened the entrance and settled back on her eggs.
Two chicks fledged and apparently made it safely through the gauntlet of predatory butcher birds.
Migratory shorebird populations in the Cairns area of Far North Queensland continue to fall at a dramatic rate.
Although not a site of great significance in the global scheme of wading bird things, it is special for one important reason.
For decades, the city’s esplanade has been a magnet to local and international birders and photographers because the roosting shorebirds can be observed at very close quarters.
Until about 2014 it was common to see 2000 – 3000 waders a day along the Trinity Bay shoreline at high tide. But that is no longer the case.
News got worse
A late September 2016 count in the bay area by local birders produced less than 1000 waders. And the news just got a whole lot worse. A 30 September 2017 survey by roughly the same group identified 650 waders – the lowest ever recorded at that time of year. (Red-necked stints and bar-tailed godwits made up 63%.)
External factors such as climate change and massive feeding ground loss along the East Asian-Australasian flyway will have contributed to this disaster. But there is another likely culprit much closer to home.
Massive quantities of sand added (for largely aesthetic reasons) to the esplanade foreshore by the Cairns Regional Council, has degraded the previously nutrient-rich mudflats.
Accurate counts of shorebird returns at key sites around Australia and New Zealand won’t be available until late November, but early indications are that they are ‘normal’.
That being so, it would be reasonable to assume the Cairns decline is more a case of the waders going elsewhere for food than any of the other external factors.
Local birding groups continue to work with the Cairns council on various remedial initiatives, but progress is slow and full recovery of the vast mudflat ecosystem may ultimately rely on Nature herself.
It hadn’t rained for a year and none was expected for another six months.
That was the backdrop to a recent 4000 km road trip southwest from Cairns to Bourke on the NSW border and back up through Longreach and Winton.
The trip was memorable for many reasons, including some great photography opportunities with birds I had not previously seen.
But there was another, totally tragic side to the journey that will live with me for the rest of my days: road kill and animal starvation.
Thousands of carcasses
Along some stretches of highway – most notably between Charleville and Cunnamulla, and Cunnamulla to Bourke – thousands of carcasses littered the roads and verges.
The majority were kangaroos, wallabies and emus, plus foxes, pigs, a goat or three and numerous birds. But sadly, I didn’t see a single flattened cat. In one stretch I counted more than 200 victims in 3 km.
None of this is new to regular outback travellers in Australia. But the scale of the carnage is greater because the roads are a fatal attraction to starving animals.
With nothing to eat on the bone-dry open plains and a recent explosion in emu and roo populations, they head for the highways, where early morning dew collects and moistens a little fresh growth at the edges.
Balloon on a stick
While sitting under a tree at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s famous Bowra Station lagoon near Cunnamulla, I watched a grey kangaroo slowly approach the water’s edge – its head lolling at the end of its neck like a fairground balloon on a stick. It was clearly exhausted.
After a few minutes it shuffled away to some bushes, flopped on its side and lay still – dead by morning.
Interestingly, at least one kangaroo appeared to have adapted to the situation, spending hours in the middle of the lagoon every day, happily munching on young reed shoots while the sick and the dying looked on.
Why South Korea is such a threat to migrating waders
Huge land reclamation projects along the Yellow Sea coasts of China and South Korea are blamed for the massive decline in migratory shorebird numbers. But where does the real danger lie?
Unchecked conversion of tidal mudflats to industrial development has destroyed crucial feeding grounds for waders migrating to and from Arctic and North Asian breeding territories.
Until recently, researchers regarded China and South Korea as similarly culpable. But amid fresh allegations of deep-seated corruption and environmental duplicity in South Korea, that country has emerged as the major threat.
Situation is dire
Leading shorebird migration researcher and regular visitor the Yellow Sea feeding grounds, New Zealander Keith Woodley, says the reclamation situation in South Korea is dire.
While he is “quietly optimistic’ about changing attitudes and more stringent government policies on coastal conversion in China, Woodley says South Korea is a totally different story.
“They hold these wonderfully organised Ramsar [Convention on Wetlands] partners meetings on biodiversity and make promises about no more reclamation. But when the circus folds up and leaves town, the reclamation starts again,” says the manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre near Auckland.
“My understanding of South Korea is that the development industry and the government are in a corrupt relationship, and that’s that.”
Woodley recently attended a workshop on development guidelines for a wetland education centre in the city of Seosan. “It is a brand new, state-of-the-art complex and interpretation centre with a big viewing tower and wonderful artwork displays. Just magic!
“It sits on an escarpment just southwest of Seoul and celebrates biodiversity, shorebirds and shorebird habitat etc. But when you look out from the viewing platform, all you can see is flat land that used to be mudflats and shorebird habitat. Now it is reclaimed for rice paddies and other stuff.
“Building this wonderful ‘palace’ celebrating biodiversity that presides over a converted landscape is typical South Korea.”
The Saemangeum seawall – the world’s largest – wiped out 41,000 ha of mudflats and is by far the country’s most infamous coastal reclamation project.
“We [the Southeast Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership] monitored the project over several years. And just before the wall was completed [opened 2010], a colleague shot some video showing a flock of great knots – 60,000 of them in a fantastic whirling mass.
“I was at the same site one year later minus one day and by that stage I could barely find 600 great knots.”
Woodley says all the areas around Saemangeum were counted for shorebirds in 2007-08, plus key sites in China, but none of the missing knots was seen again.
“Maybe they went to North Korea but summer counts in northwest Australia over the next two years confirmed the total absence of 22 percent of the great knots from the population. And there is only one explanation for that – Saemangeum. It is pretty stark evidence and a classic case against the South Koreans.”
Positive signs in China
Although the scale of reclamation in China has been “exponentially worse”, Woodley says there are positive signs of change in the People’s Republic. “The state council has put down some stringent and comprehensive policy guidelines, involving all manner of water and air quality issues – the latter being a source of acute embarrassment.”
The sea cucumber industry, which has been developing rapidly in recent years, is a case in point. “The whole reserve of Yalu Jiang – 60km of coastline – is basically a grid of aquaculture ponds, particularly for sea cucumber.
“As I understand it, once the sea cucumber is harvested it has to be cleaned out with chemicals, and the result has been a huge environmental mess. So anything that curtails that industry has got to be good.”
One of the most positive conservation developments occurred at Woodley’s Miranda Wetland office in March 2016 when a senior minister from China and New Zealand Government officials signed an agreement to set up some new protected areas for shorebirds – particularly red knots – in the Bohai Sea (China coast).
Woodley says Broome-based Chris Hassell from the Global Flyway Network has been monitoring Bohai for nearly a decade. “He has established that it is the most important site on the flyway for red knots – maybe half the global population stops there.
“And their favourite stopping place was right in the midst of this massive industrial development. People have been desperate to save that site… and this agreement between New Zealand and China specifically mentioned that area.
The decent thing
“It now comes down to local authorities doing the decent thing. But there is a saying among Chinese officials that ‘Beijing is a long way away’.
“Putting everything together, however, I think there is cause for quiet optimism that the Chinese understand the need to protect these coastal wetlands. Whether it will be quick and extensive enough to make a huge difference remains to be seen.”
(This is the third and final instalment of an interview with Keith Woodley conducted by Tony Neilson in February 2017. In addition to his extensive experience as an ornithologist, Keith is the author of the excellent GODWITS: Long-haul champions – the story of one bird’s voyage.)
It wasn’t exactly Baywatch – no cameras or ripped lifeguards – but it was a rescue just the same.
The mini drama unfolded while sheltering from the relentless sun behind some rocks on a deserted beach about 30 km south of Broome on Australia’s northwest coast.
The tides are notoriously big in those parts, and I was sitting out a 10.5 m beauty that had compromised my return route to camp.
Not a bad place though to contemplate one’s navel: eroded orange (pindan) cliffs, narrow beaches and piled up remnants of an ancient seabed all around, milky surf and an azure Indian Ocean out front. About 300 m to the right, the ebbing tide would soon reveal the 130 million-year-old footprints of several dinosaur species …
Waving for help
There was something moving down among some rocks near the tideline. It seemed to be waving for help; probably a sandbar shark discarded by local fishermen.
In fact, it was a green sea turtle, wedged tightly in the rocks where it may have been feeding and became stranded by the rapidly receding tide.
If you’ve ever tried to lift a mature green turtle you will know they are heavy and have very powerful front flippers. They also don’t like being picked up, and this one dealt me several strong blows to the forearm.
But in the best lifesaver traditions, the rescue was completed and the beautiful, albeit barnacle-encrusted, creature slowly dragged herself back into the sea. Was that a ‘wave’ of thanks I saw?
I say ‘her’ because female green turtles are apparently more abundant than males, and she also appeared to have a shortish tail (another sign, I’m told).
Worryingly, the barnacles evident around her big coal-black eyes, and on both flippers, can apparently cover turtles to such an extent that they are blind and disabled.
Regardless, it was a great feeling being able to do a wild creature a favour – even it there was nobody around to applaud or ask for want a selfie with the hero.
And here’s a spooky thing: as my turtle slid under the waves, I swear I saw four others poke their heads above water about 20 m out. Were they looking for their mate or just coming up for air? I like to think the former.
(Footnote: The area where this event occurred is now part of a world-renowned conservation area known as the Yawuru Nagulagun/Roebuck Bay Marine Park.)