Photographer disturbs birds
A crust of introduced sand has allowed this photographer to scare off roosting shorebirds, Cairns. Photo ©Tony Neilson

New push to save Cairns shorebird habitat

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.

Lesser sand-plover in breeding colours
Cairns shorebirds like this lesser sand-plover want their mud back. ©Tony Neilson

Insufficient food

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.

Huge quantities

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.

Rapid degradation

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.

©Tony Neilson 2018

View along Cairns esplanade boardwalk
Sand chokes much of the Cairns seawall and boardwalk area. Photo ©Tony Neilson

©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.



  • Ian Gibson February 24, 2018 at 10:51 AM Reply

    Hi Tony,
    Seems typical of Councils. They only seem to be happy when we are unhappy and have little or no regard about the ramifications of some of their ill conceived actions.
    Always enjoy your articles by the way.


    • Tony Neilson February 24, 2018 at 11:21 AM Reply

      Many thanks Ian. Yes, this is a particularly annoying situation as we really did think the council understood the impact of its actions and that remedial action would be taken without our having to resort to a public campaign. Meantime, if you want to see some good wader flocks, I suggest you try elsewhere.

  • Rex Whitehead February 24, 2018 at 11:01 PM Reply

    Hi Tony,
    I worked in the Cairns region, 56 years ago. From memory, the Cairns Esplanade was never a swimming/bathing area then. Following regular visits over the years, no matter how it is dressed up, it’s still not a swimming/bathing area now.
    As such, surely, the council can see that there are more tourist dollars to be made (from visiting birders from local and overseas) in keeping the Esplanade as a world renowned migratory bird feeding/ refuge site.
    Especially when the migratory birds visit, in what is normally the tourist off-season. Imagine the boost to the tourist dollar if the migratory waders returned to the numbers of the past.
    Typical council decisions. They just don’t get it do they.

    • Tony Neilson February 25, 2018 at 10:16 AM Reply

      Cheers Rex, good to get a perspective from someone who knew the Cairns esplanade from 56 years ago. One of the council’s ‘justifications’ is that there used to be sand there and they are just reinstating the environment. My information is that this campaign to get rid of the sand will hot up very soon.

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