Shorebirds at a high tide roost
Shorebird numbers along Trinity Inlet have dropped up to 80% in three years. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Shorebird population plummets in Cairns

The death knell hasn’t sounded over the Cairns Esplanade as an internationally recognised shorebird habitat. But it is imminent.

It is mid-September, and although there has been a bit of an influx in recent days, the total number of returned migratory shorebirds along the city’s waterfront is painfully small. It’s stretching it to say there are 200.

By my ad hoc observations, that represents a drop of about 90% in a very short time.

Strong evidence

Conventional opinion will say the crash in migratory wader numbers is mostly the result of changed conditions elsewhere in the world. But there is strong evidence to suggest the major cause of the Cairns catastrophe is local.

Almost certainly, the real culprit is a sand-spreading regime introduced a few years ago by the Cairns Regional Council (CRC), which has adversely affected the nutrient value of the inshore mudflats.

Just four years ago, it was common to see a couple of thousand waders ‘working’ the intertidal area every day during the non-breeding season. Then came the CRC’s beach-creation and foreshore ‘beautification’ campaign, which resulted in vast quantities of relocated sand being spread by tide and weather across the mud.

Paul Fisk sampling Cairns esplanade mud
Environmental consultant, Paul Fisk checking ‘sand creep’ on Trinity Inlet, Cairns. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Warning the council

Local environmental consultant Paul Fisk is part of a group that has been warning the council for several years about the ecological impact of its actions. He says there is little doubt that introduced sand is a major reason why wader numbers on the Esplanade have plunged.

He has been conducting bi-monthly shorebird counts at 1.6m – 2.0m high tides across Trinity Inlet for the past three years and, depending on the time of year, he says there has been a decline of between 50 and 80%.

“Data from similar studies I undertook back in 1988 show there were over 2000 birds on the Esplanade during peak periods [September/October], but from 2015-17, the average had dropped to around 700.

“And it is getting worse. The number of over-wintering birds in 2018 was less than half that of the previous three years.”

Bar graph showing drop in wader numbers
A huge drop in average Esplanade wader populations since 2015 – Source: ©Paul Fisk 2018

Dramatic declines

Paul’s graphs accompanying this post show dramatic declines across all of the major species, and his projection is a continuation of the trend.

From my own observations, it would seem that of those birds hard-wired to come to the Cairns waterfront, most are not sticking around like they used to. The menu at Café de Sand is obviously not to their taste!

From several rough counts I conducted in the first two weeks of September, the strongest numbers on a given day were: 150 great knots, 17 grey-tailed tattlers, 5 black-tailed godwits, 2 bar-tailed godwits, 5 curlew sandpipers, 4 sharp-tailed sandpipers, 2 lesser sand-plovers, 2 eastern curlews, 8 resident whimbrels and 2 terek sandpipers.

A clearer picture will emerge by the end of September when most of the migratory birds that are returning to Cairns (and other regular East Coast destinations) will have arrived.

Chart showing Bar-tailed godwit decline
The recent crash in bar-tailed godwit numbers is obvious – Source: ©Paul Fisk 2018

Better news from Broome

Meantime, a quick check with the good people at the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) on the other site of the country produced encouraging early indications. BBO warden Nigel Jacket says although it is still too early to tell (late August), “First juveniles are arriving, including heaps and heaps of sharpies and curlew sandpipers.” (The BBO conducts its major counts in November.)

FOOTNOTE: Following submissions by Paul Fisk and others, the Cairns council has agreed to construct foreshore groynes along the southern end of the Esplanade to curtail sand creep. They will be small and hidden from view below the boardwalk, and it remains to be seen if they will be enough to prevent more sand choking the mudflats. Hopefully some birds will hang around to find out.

©Natural Images 2018


©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.


5 thoughts on “LOCAL CATASTROPHE

  • Mick Brasher September 21, 2018 at 2:24 PM Reply

    It really pulls you up when you see such huge declines in bird numbers. There is some solace if the birds are simply moving on further down their pathway, but hopefully the local sand problem can be overcome. The city should realise that these drops in migratory bird numbers will cost it tourist dollars too

  • Tony Neilson September 21, 2018 at 3:52 PM Reply

    A few more migratory shorebirds have turned up since I wrote the blog, but those of us who monitor this stuff know that the numbers are as stated – about 80% down on the recent past. The council knows it has screwed up big time and we may well have embarrass them via the media of they don’t start pulling the sand off the bay.

  • Lindsay September 23, 2018 at 4:14 PM Reply

    Reading this in Wyndham having just feasted on shorebirds at BBO just over a week ago. Numbers there seem to be good and it was amazing to see so many.

  • Carol Iles October 15, 2018 at 9:58 PM Reply

    Would a nice big storm do anything to fix this? It would be interesting to see all that sand dumped on the esplanade or into the underground carparks. Sadly, Cairns City Council have shown that wildlife is not on their radar. Birdwatchers are generally unrecognised tourism, but are still small fry compared to the general tourists who would only have seen mud, not one of the world’s great spectacles. Now those who might have been sparked into interest will look at the signage and wonder why it’s there when there are no birds.

    • Tony Neilson October 16, 2018 at 3:40 PM Reply

      Thoughtful as always, Carol. An ultimate irony, indeed re the signage. But Cairns is not alone – heard on the ABC that Stockton bridge (Hunter River) wader numbers have crashed this year.

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