Migratory wading birds roosting on beach
An array of at least 12 shorebird species roosting at high tide on Wader Beach, Roebuck Bay. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

‘A wetland wonder of the world’

There is something magnetic about the BBO – to which I have succumbed.

The ‘affair’ with the Broome Bird Observatory probably began about 15 years ago, when I did a detour to see what all the fuss was about on the way home from some work in Southeast Asia.

There have been at least eight return visits, and I will be back again this October. Perhaps it will be the last? I keep saying so, but the call of beautiful Roebuck Bay (about 30 km southwest of Broome on Australia’s West Coast), its vast inter-tidal mudflats and tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds is very strong.

In their excellent collaborative book Life along land’s edge, authors Danny Rogers, Theunis Piersma, Grant Pearson and Petra de Goeij described Roebuck Bay as one of the wetland wonders of the world.

Largely untouched

Virtually undiscovered by naturalists and bird lovers until the early 1980s, and despite its subsequent popularity among Australian and international birders and photographers, the area remains largely untouched ecologically.

Roebuck Bay is a Ramsar wetland of international importance, a National Heritage site and in 2016 was gazetted a marine park.

For the shorebirds, it is the shallow sloping coast (easier to see and escape danger when roosting), soft, organism-rich sediments and the big tide shifts (10m is common) that are so attractive.

Shorebirds feeding on mudflats
The organism-rich intertidal mud of Roebuck Bay easily supports 140,000-plus migratory shorebirds. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Red pindan road

‘My’ Roebuck Bay is accessed along a 10 km stretch of heavily corrugated and sometimes waterlogged red pindan road running roughly east-west either side of the BBO. Between Crab Creek (east) and Quarry Beach (west) there are many vantage points from which to observe and photograph the waders as they wait out the high tide and resume feeding.

Most shorebird species have preferred roosting beaches: the bigger eastern curlews, whimbrels and greenshanks will go for the wide stretches of red sand to the east of the bay, while much smaller sand plovers and sandpipers like to nestle down among the rockier and pebble-strewn expanses of the aptly named Wader Beach along the western shoreline.

Birds and dinosaurs

Sitting quietly among strikingly eroded 120-150 million-year-old Broome sandstone formations while waiting for the incoming tide to bring the target birds closer, I think about the dinosaurs that once roamed the same area. Huge saucer-like sauropod footprints are preserved in the sandstone at Quarry Beach just a few minutes down the road from where I’m sitting.

The unparalleled biodiversity of Roebuck Bay is the result of geographic, historical and tidal coincidences. And it is one of a handful of intertidal flats in the world so rich in shorebirds.

Fishermen on beach disturb birds
Recreational fishers are among the ‘disturbing’ factors that resting shorebirds must deal with at high tide. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Research facility

It could reasonably be asked what took them so long, but in 1988 the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (now Birdlife Australia) established the BBO on the cliffs above the bay as a research and education facility.

It was basic to say the least: a collection of used dongas and demountable buildings donated by local mining companies and the like.

This year the BBO celebrates its 30th anniversary. And although recent improvements include an upgraded common shadehouse/cooking area and a ‘newish’ building for offices and merchandising, the architectural footprint can still be described as minimal.

Challenging environment

There is absolutely nothing ‘eco-lodge’ about the BBO, which is precisely why I like it. But it is a challenging environment and not for everyone – including some professional staff.

Photographer on stomach in mud
BBO warden and keen photographer Nigel Jacket pushes his camera through the mud on a boogie board. (He hasn’t spotted the waders moving behind him.) Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Nigel Jacket and his wife Jaime have been the live-in wardens for the past three-and-a-half years – and that’s a record. Some of their predecessors have given up after just one season; probably driven off by the combined challenges of the stifling climate, frequent storms, floods and impassable roads, basic living conditions and the demands of the birders, photographers and day-trippers that ‘flock’ to the BBO every year. Not to mention the bird-monitoring and associated research work.

BBO collaboration

The Jackets finish up at the end of this, their fourth season but will remain in Broome to work on “a few projects locally” – including a BBO collaboration with Nyamba Buru Yawuru, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Environs Kimberley and Roebuck Bay Working Group.

The group will deliver a series of school and public workshops building gigantic shorebird and benthic invertebrate puppets, to be used in a large, site-specific production in Broome – all funded by State NRM and Building Better Regions.

©Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2018

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

©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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