Esplanade 'beach', birds scared off by jumping tourist in bikini
Cairns visitors can now play (and frighten birds) where they would once have sunk without trace. Photo: ©Tony Neilson 2016

Wader devastation on Cairns Esplanade

A globally renowned wading bird viewing location in the far north of Australia has been devastated by a beach-creation program where nutrient-rich mudflats once prevailed. And the destruction continues.

The city of Cairns in Queensland is internationally synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef and nearby rainforests. And its recent ‘discovery’ by cashed-up Chinese travellers has aided the city’s commercial recovery from damaging cyclones and economic stagnation.

But as Natural Images discovered, the good news doesn’t extend to the town’s famed Esplanade where once extensive and organism-rich mudflats supported many thousands of wading birds. The mud is being ‘drowned’ by the local authority’s unfettered, and almost certainly illegal, sand-dumping activities.

Very close range

On good tides, the Esplanade was one of the world’s best places to easily see a comprehensive range of migrating shorebird species in good numbers – and at very close range. So much so that birders from around the globe would ‘flock’ there, able to study their subjects for hours at a time – with or without scopes, ‘bins’ and super-telephoto lenses.

Sadly, that is no longer the case.

On the pretext that there was once (maybe thousands of years ago) sand along the old shoreline, the Cairns Regional Council (CRC) started a spurious beach creation (aka ‘sand nourishment’) program. Apparently, the tourists preferred the aesthetics of a sanded shoreline to the dark-brown ooze that nature had provided. Of course they did!

Nothing altruistic

But the real reason for the ‘nourishment’ has very little to do with altruism: the shoreline is purely and simply a convenient place for the council to spread thousands of tonnes of sand extracted from stormwater outlets along the waterfront.

As a result, international visitors and local dog-owners have large areas of impacted sand on which to stroll and ‘selfie’ with the penguins – right under the big yellow and red signs warning the public to beware of the crocodiles! If it were not so serious it would be laughable.

Where once they would have sunk without trace in nourishing mud, people are able to walk out into the receding tide for more than 100 m.

Beyond the limit

Huge quantities of sand have been spread like a cream collar along the 2.5 km length of the Esplanade since the activity was intensified about three years ago. And with the help of tides and currents, the sand has encroached into Trinity Bay by upwards of 150 m, and across a broad front.

That’s 100 m beyond the limit apparently set by a permit to ‘nourish’ issued Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP).

Mechanical diggers shifting sand on Esplanade foreshore
Sand being spread on what was mudflat along the Cairns Esplanade. Photo ©Tony Neilson

The impact of this piece of environmental vandalism is far-reaching. The creeping sands have solidified the mud and strangled much of the life out of a previously food-rich area. For the migrating wading birds and numerous other creatures that depended on the mud for their survival, the impact has been devastating.

A concrete-like mix

Also decimated is the population of amphibious mudskippers that once ‘crutched’ (on their pectoral fins), gaped (like hippo’s) and fed in their thousands on the rich intertidal zone – providing in turn good pickings for numerous predators, including some waders. (Like many gobies, mudskippers are proficient burrowers, but a concrete-like mix of sand and mud is clearly not to their liking.)

Rear view of bird watchers looking across intertidal area
Where are the waders? Birdwatchers from the Cairns ‘4 O’Clock Club’ scan what have become the Esplanade sand flats.

Environmental and birding interests have been lobbying local politicians for several years, persistently pointing out the obvious: sand is killing the mudflats and has forced the birds to try elsewhere for food. (The migrating waders’ global dilemma in a nutshell.) But despite promises to cease and desist, sand is continually reapplied.

Professional bird guides and their clients are the other endangered species on the ‘Nard’ these days. Presumably because their clients don’t get terribly excited about studying a few hardy pelicans, silver gulls and egrets.

Stay home

To those tourists and bird watchers contemplating a trip to Cairns and expecting to see thousands of waders on the good tides, I suggest you stay home until further notice.

As recently as two years ago godwits, knots, sandpipers and numerous other migrating waders worked the Cairns mudflats in their thousands. Now, on a good day, there are just a few small groups finding enough food to make it worth their while to stick around. The rest are likely to have flown south to somewhere like Townsville where the welcome is apparently warmer!

Surprisingly abundant

Ironically, two of Australia’s most recently gazetted ‘critically endangered’ migrating waders – the eastern curlew and the curlew sandpiper – are seen regularly along the Esplanade. The latter don’t hang about for long (no prizes for guessing why). But the much bigger eastern curlews (and their whimbrel cousins) seem to like the place – probably something to do with their long beaks being able to penetrate the sand crust.

Group of curlew sandpipers
Ironically, critically endangered curlew sandpipers are regularly seen on the Cairns Esplanade – ©Tony Neilson 2016

A Cairns council-commissioned ‘independent expert’ report on the sand movement problem across the waterfront has been delivered, and although not made public (October), it is understood to confirm that the council’s ‘nourishment’ activities are at the root of the issue.

Environmental disgrace

Local birding and environmental groups are now pressing the authority to clean up the mess it created and to ban any further distribution of sand along the Cairns foreshore. But as at late October, truckloads of material excavated from stormwater drains were still being spread along the foreshore.

While not on the scale of mounting environmental threats to the nearby Great Barrier Reef, the continued man-made destruction of the Cairns wading bird feeding ground is a disgrace that should not be allowed to continue.

Author, Tony Neilson is a close observer of the migrating wader situation in the Cairns area, where he lives.


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


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