Godwits wing stretch before flight

Migrating eastern curlew in 'V'
Caught in the rays of a setting sun. Eastern curlews forming a migration ‘V’ high over Roebuck Bay. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

An anxious build-up to the big journey north

Experienced shorebird migration watchers call it the ‘zugunruhe’. And when they see it, they know it won’t be long before one of nature’s great journeys begins.

Zugunruhe is a German word that describes the anxious behaviour of migratory animals – particularly birds – as they prepare to depart for their traditional breeding grounds.

Roebuck Bay, just to the south-east of Broome in Western Australia, is one of the best places in the world to observe the beginning of the annual wading bird migration from Australasia to the Arctic.

Between 4.00 and 6.00pm most evenings through March, a small group of dedicated observers occupies the same spot on the orange pindan cliffs overlooking the eastern end of Roebuck Bay. (They choose that time because most birds migrate late in the day and at night, when they are less vulnerable to predators and flying conditions are usually more settled.)

Vitally important

The watchers are mostly associated with the nearby Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) and they record the identity and exact size of each flock, and precisely when they passed overhead. All vitally important information for tracking the birds up and down the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

But this is not just an exercise in statistics. Many of these people are professional researchers and birding experts who go to extraordinary lengths to keep tabs on these globally threatened world travellers.

Godwits wing stretch before flight
Primed and almost ready to go. This male bar-tailed godwit ‘JBY’ would have been flagged at Roebuck Bay. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Food-rich mudflats

Migratory shorebirds have been coming and going from the food-rich mudflats of Roebuck Bay for aeons. And being right there when the first birds respond to the primeval call to head north is a special experience – even for ‘hardened’ observers.

Tall and bespectacled John Graff is a former assistant warden at the BBO. One of the best birders I have ever met, he is a little shy around people. But when it comes to the birds there are no such inhibitions.

Emotional experience

“Even for me, the departure is emotional,” he confessed as we rattled over a heavily corrugated dirt road running parallel to the bay. “Especially knowing what they are about to do.

“The eastern curlews that flew over our heads last night will still be flying now (mid-afternoon), and still be flying [non-stop] in two days’ time. It is an enormous feat of endurance for them and they have to beat their wings the whole time.”

So how do you know you are seeing the zugunruhe?

“[At Roebuck Bay] you need a relatively low tide and good expanse of exposed mud. A lot of the birds will be wandering around feeding and doing their own thing. But if you see birds roughly lined up and all facing north, they won’t be feeding,” says John.

Exploratory flight

Different species adopt different spacing while on the ground: eastern curlews often spread out while the knots form compact lines. “Eventually, the odd bird will jump up, flap its wings and maybe even take off and do a little exploratory flight, and land again. That’s what we call ‘zugunruhe’. And when you see that you know they are likely to leave that night … but not always!”

On my most recent visit to Roebuck Bay, a flock of about 40 eastern curlews led the migration to their breeding grounds in Mongolia, quickly followed by greater sand-plovers.

“If you’re lucky enough to see them leave they will take off, gradually gain height and eventually form a rough V and head over [the wader watchers’ heads],” says John

Shorebirds feeding on mud at dusk
When the mudflats are exposed, pre-migration feeding continues through the night. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Nervous, perhaps

“Sometimes they will return, and you start putting human emotions into the process, like: Do they have the courage to go? Nervousness, perhaps. And when a flock keeps returning, the numbers steadily grow as other birds decide to join them”.

The size of the bird has nothing to do with the sequence of species departures. They have to wait until their breeding grounds up to 12,000 km away are free from ice and snow.

The more southerly breeders like the eastern curlew and the sand plovers will leave first, and the last to go will be the red knots and ruddy turnstones, which breed right up in the New Siberian Islands.

©Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2018


Linocut print of terek sandpipers
Bar-tailed godwits in flight
Bar-tailed godwit, the much-travelled migrant that inspired an art-driven rescue. Photo ©Tony Neilson

An art-driven rescue effort inspired by the godwit

The plight of the fastest declining group of birds in Australia – and in many other countries – is at the heart of an important international art initiative.

The Flyway Print Exchange and its spin-off The Overwintering Project were created by printmaker and former Birdlife Australia staffer Kate Gorringe-Smith to draw attention to the threatened migratory shorebirds.

Initially inspired by the bar-tailed godwit, which flies further in its lifetime than from Earth to the Moon, Kate is behind a movement using contemporary and traditional print media  to tell the shorebird story as it relates to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Unique migration

Twenty artists from nine of the 23 countries along the flyway have made and exchanged original prints inspired by the unique migration route of the region. The collection has been exhibited a number of times, with more planned.

Meanwhile, Kate’s new ‘Overwintering’ project gathers pace. “The goal is to link artists with their local migratory shorebird habitat – and each other. The focus is the preciousness of this land we call home and the environment that connects us.”

Linocut print of rednecked stints
‘Spotting Stints’ by Karen Neal, 2017. Linocut.
Linocut print of terek sandpipers
‘Tereks Sandpiping’ by Sarah Mitchell, 2018. Linocut with gold gouache.

Printmakers invited

Working to the theme ‘Mapping Sanctuary’, printmakers are invited to contribute one print created in response to the unique nature of their local environment.

“In pondering how their local habitat is precious to shorebirds, artists are also invited to reveal how it is precious to them,” she says. “Migratory shorebirds provide the focus for the project, but artists can respond to any aspect that they perceive as rendering the area unique – such as the geology, prey species, tidal patterns, flora and other local native fauna.

A project about home

“It is a project about home, our unique environment and the migratory shorebirds that spend the greatest part of their year here on the shores of Australia and New Zealand.”

Between the two countries, there are more than 100 internationally important shorebird overwintering sites. “They are not interchangeable: they each possess a unique combination of physical and biological features that make it the perfect sanctuary for migratory shorebirds to return to, year after year.”

Getting involved

Kate says anyone in Australia or New Zealand can participate. “Printmakers can join directly by contributing a print to the Overwintering portfolio, but artists of any kind, plus schools and organisations, can organise their own exhibitions and I will document it on the website and Facebook page.

“The idea is that by having an overarching title for artistic and cultural events that celebrate and raise awareness for migratory shorebirds and their habitat, the project will gradually gain visibility, which will in turn help create a national picture of where habitat exists and how precious it is.”

Kate Gorringe-Smith portrait
Kate Gorringe-Smith, the Australian printmaker driving the shorebird awareness initiative.

A personal response

The prints will become part of a unique folio representing an in-depth personal response to “our unique coast and the sites that our migratory shorebirds depend on in order to survive”. A permanent home for the folio in a state or national collection will be sought.

Coming events include:

6-9 September 2018 – ‘The Overwintering Project: Bound for Botany Bay’, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Art Centre, Broadhurst Gallery, Gymea NSW

24 Sept. – 21 Oct. 2018 – F Project Gallery, Timor Street, Warrnambool

18 Oct. – Nov. 10 2018 – ‘The Overwintering Project: Mapping Sanctuary’, featuring the Overwintering Project print portfolio, Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart

8 Nov. – 31 Dec. 2018 – ‘The Overwintering Project: Mapping Sanctuary’, featuring the Overwintering Project print portfolio, Wyndham Art Gallery,177 Watton Street, Werribee

22 Nov. – 18 January 2019 – Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery

Contacts: email for a project description, or go to the website.

Natural Images© 2018


Birdwatchers with binoculars
Birdwatchers with binoculars
Jury still out on southern shorebird migration numbers – ©Tony Neilson

Anxious wait for the southern migration

September and October are nervous months for watchers of migrating shorebirds on the Southeast Asia Australasia Flyway.

Along coastlines and at traditional feeding grounds they scan for ‘incoming’ and will do their counts by year’s end.

They know the threats these amazing birds face on their 10,000 km-plus return journeys from climate-change-threatened breeding grounds across the Arctic region.

Searing heat

Freezing cold, searing heat, predators and storms are bad enough, but for many they are in greatest peril as a result of habitat loss at key feeding stations along the way.

Many shorebird populations have been halved in recent years – some by 90%. In Cairns (north Queensland) where I live, the waterfront mudflats supported flocks of several thousand waders until quite recently. Now there are just a few hundred and 2017 returns have been sparse so far.

Still too early

But Nigel Jacket, warden of the Broome Bird Observatory in Western Australia says it is too early to know whether numbers are up or down.

Photographer lying in mud
Nigel Jacket ‘observing’ on the Roebuck Bay mudflats – ©Tony Neilson

“We will have a better idea when we do complete counts in November and December. So far [mid-September] numbers in Roebuck Bay are growing quickly but it is hard to tell to what extent. “Long-toed stint numbers seem a bit down but it might be too early to make that call.”

The first godwits

He suggested a delayed or extended northern breeding season could account for slow returns to the southern hemisphere.

Across in New Zealand, the message from Miranda wetlands manager Keith Woodley was much the same: too early. The first flock of godwits (about 500), arrived on 7 September, and based on weather predictions at the Alaska departure point, a second influx was expected within days. But it would be some weeks before comparisons could be drawn.



Godwits flying in formation
Godwits flying in formation
New Zealand-based godwits benefit from only one Yellow Sea stopover. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

An incredible journey with the long-distance waders

(Part II of a three-part exclusive interview with ornithologist and author Keith Woodley by Natural Images founder, Tony Neilson.)

We’ve been banding birds for more than 400 years, and in some parts of the world the practice is so comprehensive that there are almost as many birds with ‘flags’ as without.

The little metal rings, plastic bands and flags used to identify and track migrating shorebirds in particular have enabled scientists and researchers to accumulate valuable in-depth knowledge about the birds – and why so many face extinction.

But there are others who say banding is now excessive, alleging that the process greatly stresses the birds, can cause infection and even limb loss, and is unnatural. Indeed, some purist wildlife photographers won’t shoot birds showing ID tags.

The first record

It is generally acknowledged that the first record of a metal band attached to a bird’s leg was about 1595 when one of Henry IV’s banded peregrine falcons was lost on a bustard hunt in France. It showed up 24 hours later in Malta, about 2173 km away, averaging about 90 km/h for the journey.

Leg-banded godwits at the shoreline
Some photographers won’t shoot birds with leg bands. Not this one. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Ornithologist, author and shorebird migration expert Keith Woodley says being able to track waders over 20,000-plus km migrations to and from nesting grounds is of inestimable value.

Manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre on the Firth of Thames in New Zealand for nearly 25 years, Woodley has witnessed dramatic expansion of international knowledge and understanding of the East Asia-Australasia Flyway

Portrait of Keith Woodley by Tony Neilson
Keith Woodley, transmitters delivered the fantastic E7 story

The vast flocks

“Until the 1990s, we knew little about the vast flocks of shorebirds that made annual migrations from New Zealand and Australia to breed in the Arctic summer. For instance, when I first came here [Miranda] it was generally thought that our bar-tailed godwit population nested in Siberia.

“It’s a [fallacy] that has become ingrained in New Zealand. But the truth is that virtually all of our godwits are a separate population and they breed in Alaska.”

Author of the widely acclaimed book Godwits – long-haul champions, Woodley says banding, flagging and the subsequent development of ultra-light-weight transmitters underpin these knowledge advances.

Knowing individual birds

“Primarily via work done by the Wildlife Service in Alaska, New Zealand researchers based out of Massey [university] and others, plus members of this [Miranda] trust, we probably know more about this [New Zealand] long distance migratory population than any other waders on the planet.

“It’s gone from being a little-known migratory population to something as in-depth as knowing individual birds, their timetables, when they will leave NZ [within 2-3 days] and what areas of Alaska they breed in. It is astonishing.”

Woodley says everything is the result of increased banding, particularly colour-coded and branded plastic leg flags, which brought an “exponential increase” in the number of birds that could be re-sighted. (Using the old, much smaller metal rings, researchers had to band 350 birds to get one recovery overseas.)

Picture shows moment canon net is fired over flock of birds
Shorebirds to be banded and health-checked are captured by skilled canon net operators. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Tremendous stories

“The advent of colour banding in the early 2000s gave us some tremendous stories. Like one bird banded here [Miranda] in March 2004, seen at Yalu Jiang in China late April the same year and seen again in late August on a remote mudflat off the coast of Alaska. And by 8 October 2004 it was back at Miranda. One bird.

“That sort of [capability] confirmed the basic migration routes these birds were taking.”

Flags and bands remain the most widely used tracking system but the development of super-light transmitters – initially implanted but now strapped to the birds’ – has been a game-changer.

Initial trials in Alaska in 2005-06 failed and it wasn’t until Feb 2007 when transmitters were implanted in a few New Zealand bar-tailed godwits at Miranda that the researchers finally had success.

Satellite transmitter on godwit
Solar-powered satellite transmitters weigh just a few grams. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The fantastic E7

“That breakthrough ultimately gave us the fantastic story of ‘E7’, says Woodley with obvious pride. “She was tracked from the Firth of Thames [NZ] to Yalu Jiang in five weeks non-stop, and then non-stop to Alaska.

“And at end of August she set off from Alaska and was tracked back to New Zealand in a non-stop flight of eight days and four hours. Just astonishing.”

Woodley says wildlife research biologist Bob Gill from the Alaska Science Centre had long suspected the bar-tailed godwits were returning to New Zealand non-stop because they were getting so fat before they left.

Much scepticism

“His theory was compelling but remained circumstantial, and there was much scepticism among some seasoned scientists who disputed that no animal was physically capable of doing something like E7 did. But satellite tracking in 2007 changed all that.”

Transmitters have since got smaller and researchers are using more solar-powered backpacks that can be strapped to the birds. They are more streamlined and don’t affect the birds to the extent that earlier models did.

Another transmitter-related finding that could be dubbed the ‘E7 factor’ is linked to stabilised bar-tailed godwit numbers in New Zealand.

Global wader populations are in free-fall and the main cause is massive land reclamation and habitat destruction, particularly along the Chinese and South Korean coasts of the Yellow Sea.

Volunteers at Roebuck Bay checking and banding birds
Birds captured for banding and health checks are kept cool and as calm as possible. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Alaska to NZ direct

“Our bar-tail numbers are down nearly 50 per cent from 20 years ago and red knots may be falling even more sharply,” says Woodley. “But the godwits in particular have stabilised and we are pretty sure that is because they come back direct to New Zealand from Alaska and don’t stop off to refuel on the Yellow Sea where food is now scarce.”

By contrast, waders returning from the Arctic that spend the non-breeding season in northwest Australia stop at the Yellow Sea to ‘refuel’ on both legs of the journey. And their numbers are falling more sharply.

In other words, the New Zealand-bound Alaska breeders pile on extra fat for the direct return flight, rather than take their chances at the threatened Yellow Sea feeding grounds.

Click here to read Part I of the Keith Woodley interview. Part III, the final segment, will be posted in July.)

Story ©Natural Images 2017


Bird researchers with telescopes on Roebuck Bay
Big flock of waders takes flight from a Roebuck Bay beach
A huge flock of roosting waders on Roebuck Bay. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Migrating waders flocking to West Australia’s Roebuck Bay

In the increasingly perilous world of the migratory wading bird, Roebuck Bay on Western Australia’s Kimberly Coast stands out as a rare beacon of hope.

With shorebird numbers in free-fall across the planet, it is something of a miracle that at Roebuck Bay, just south of Broome, they appear to be on the increase. (Likewise in the isolated Eighty Mile Beach area between Broome and Port Headland.)

Nigel Jackett, warden at the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) told Natural Images 130,000 migratory waders were counted on Roebuck Bay in Nov-Dec 2016.

He says that’s around 10% more than for several years. And although some of the increment could be cancelled by the vagaries of the human counting process, it nevertheless bucks global and Australian coastal trends.

Bird researchers with telescopes on Roebuck Bay
Chris Hassell and a researcher from China looking for flagged birds on Roebuck Bay. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Pristine nature

Chris Hassell, a Broome-based shorebird ecologist and Western Australia convenor of the Australasian Wader Study Group (AWSG), thinks the pristine nature of Roebuck Bay has a lot to do with its popularity with waders.

A Ramsar site (wetland of international importance) since 1990, it has extensive and highly biologically diverse intertidal mudflats. Up to 160 square km can be exposed on big tides. Dugongs, green turtles and Australian snubfin dolphins (Orcaella heinsohni) regularly feed on the bay’s extensive seagrass meadows.

Most diverse mudflats

Roebuck Bay is also a major nursery for marine fishes and crustaceans and supports an exceptionally high diversity of benthic invertebrates (est. 300 – 500 species), placing it among the most diverse mudflats in the world, according to the Netherlands Institute.

“An interesting aspect of the [November-December] count is the large number of juveniles arriving for the first time,” says Hassell. “In the case of red-necked stints there were absolute masses of them.”

An exceptional breeding season in Siberia and Western Alaska and the uncluttered expanse of Roebuck Bay could account for the unusually high ‘winter’ influx of young birds. But he says that remains conjecture.

Photographer wriggling through Roebuck Bay mud
BBO warden Nigel Jackett takes his photography seriously. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Uncertain future

Elsewhere, however, the scale of migratory wading bird absences from traditional feeding and wintering grounds is in many cases extreme, and there is future uncertain.

Around the southern coast of the Australian mainland and Tasmania, numbers for previously common species such as the eastern curlew and curlew sandpiper are down more than 90%. They are both now classified ‘critically endangered’.

Habitat destruction

On the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – the main migratory shorebird route from the global south to their breeding grounds in the Arctic – habitat destruction is the birds’ greatest threat.

Land reclamation for commercial development, particularly on the Yellow Sea coast, is frequently cited ahead of climate change for the disappearance of hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of waders.

And the damage has been done in a very short time.

It is only 11 years since ‘Saemangeum’ in South Korea – described by UK shorebird conservation group Wader Quest as “one of the biggest environmental tragedies of all time”.

Important stopover

The estuary at Saemangeum was one of the most important stopover sites for waders on north and south migrations in the Yellow Sea region. An estimated 330,000 individual waders depended on the estuary annually for food and rest.

The mudflat area hosted around 30% of the world population of great knots – about 93,000 individual birds. It was also an important site for the spoon-billed sandpiper, which has become an icon of wader conservation as it teeters on the edge of extinction.

Sterile commercial site

But everything changed when the South Korean Government built a tide barrier across the Saemangeum estuary mouth. By April 2006, the once organism-rich wetland had become a sterile commercial site.

According to Wader Quest, in two years the number of birds at Saemangeum fell by 130,000 individuals, and by 2014 there were just 5,000 birds left.

Researchers wading through mud at low tide on Roebuck Bay
Sampling the cloying mud of Roebuck Bay at low tide requires stamina and fast work. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

China’s critical ‘red line’

The news from neighbouring China is hardly much better, with Science magazine reporting recently that the republic’s vanishing coastal wetlands are nearing ‘critical red line’ status.

Rapid coastal development has transformed marshes and mudflats into ports and urban sprawl. A line of concrete seawalls and sandbags now stretches longer than China’s Great Wall.

Science quotes a 2015 report from Chinese and US scientists warning the decline of China’s wetlands could drive numerous migratory bird species to the brink of extinction and jeopardise nearly 20% of the world’s fisheries.

70% of mangroves gone

At about the same time, China’s central government drew a ‘line in the mud’, decreeing that 53 million ha of wetlands must be conserved. But if current and planned coastal reclamation continue unabated, by 2020 the government’s red line will be crossed.

Half of China’s coastal wetlands have reportedly disappeared over the past 50 years – enclosed by seawalls or overrun by ports and other development. In the same period, 70% of the country’s mangrove forests and 80% of near-shore coral reefs have also been lost, according to China’s State Forestry Administration.

Story ©Natural Images 2017

Shorebirds on a wing and a prayer

Huge flock of sand plovers take to the sky from roosting beach
Will these migrating waders survive?
Migrating waders in breeding plumage, Roebuck Bay, Australia – ©Tony Neilson 2016

Waders battle the twin jaws of change

BY TONY NEILSON. I’m alone on a beach in Western Australian with several thousand plump and beautifully marked wading birds. Soon they will leave to breed in the Arctic, but there are increasing perils along the way.

The assembled knots, curlews, godwits, sandpipers, sand plovers etc. are ready to begin a flight of such distance and danger few other creatures could attempt.

The beach ‘chatter’ begins to build. A few birds near the tideline stretch their wings, take off, circle the bay and return – ignored by the red knots still boring and stabbing the sand for last-minute delicacies.

Regimental file

The whole flock (maybe a 2000) begins to move in regimental file down the beach toward the receding tide.

A few bar-tailed godwits go up, and up: calling, circling and disappearing from view. The rest wait with growing anticipation, while keeping a weather eye out for patrolling raptors.

Beautiful Roebuck Bay, Broome at dusk
Rich red pindan cliffs form the northern collar of beautiful Roebuck Bay – ©Tony Neilson 2016

The ‘first responders’ don’t return to the beach – a good sign that the atmospheric conditions are conducive. Then comes a rustling sound like dead leaves disturbed by a gust of wind, followed by a whoosh as if a distant turbine has just started up. And they are off!

Many are attempting their first migration, and their chances of success will depend substantially on how well the larder is stocked at key feeding locations along the 10,000 km-plus journey to their northern hemisphere nesting grounds.

As I watch them form and swirl above the bay, feelings of joy and wonder are replaced with a deep sadness because I know that many will perish – perhaps more than ever before.

Waders feeding on intertidal mudflats
Huge tidal shifts on Roebuck Bay expose rich feeding for waders – ©Tony Neilson 2016

Massive reclamation in key feeding grounds such as the Yellow Sea coasts of South Korea and southern China has turned once wader-friendly, organism-rich mudflats into sterile industrial land.

And with fewer places to stock up for the second leg of their breeding-induced migration to Arctic regions, many of these great wader species that have been on the planet for millions of years are literally dropping out of the sky – starving and exhausted.

The list of ‘critically endangered’ shorebirds grows at an alarming rate (two more were posted in Australia this year) as they struggle to survive in the twin jaws of human intervention and climate change.

Grey plover feeding on tube worm
A grey plover pulls what looks like a tube worm from deep Roebuck Bay mud – ©Tony Neilson 2016

But there is some cause for optimism. International birding and environmental groups have been working successfully with Chinese government agencies to achieve greater awareness of the need to protect remaining wetlands and mudflats.

According to fresh reports from a group of New Zealand birders who recently received rare access to North Korea, large flocks of migrating waders are enjoying rich pickings in ideal habitat along the secretive country’s coast. The absence of people and industrial development are undoubted benefits. (Hopefully they won’t fall victim to radiation.)

An annual trek

I’ve just (late September) returned from what has become an annual trip across Australia from my east coast home in Cairns to Roebuck Bay in WA – a flight of some 5000km. Which is about half the distance the migrating waders will have travelled (beating their wings all the way) on their return along the East Asian Australasian Flyway from their northern hemisphere breeding grounds.

Asian dowitcher at Roebuck Bay
Roebuck Bay is full of surprises, like this Asian dowitcher (left) – ©Tony Neilson 2016

My destination was the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) – a Birdlife Australia-run collection of huts, research facilities and a deceptively named ‘shade house’ in pindan (red soil) country about 25 km south of Broome. It is also one of the key locations for the internationally important Australian Wader Studies Group, which has banded (in the interests of science) well over 100,000 birds in the general area.

Access to the BBO is sometimes difficult (flooding) and the heat can be draining. But the rich colours of Roebuck Bay (turquoise sea, green mangroves and red rocks), and its wader population of 150,000-plus in summer is breathtakingly beautiful.

And early indications were that returning wader numbers were similar to those of recent years – with an encouragingly large cohort of young knots and curlew sandpiper.