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.

Contact: tonywneilson@icloud.com

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To write a blog post or submit some of your best images with the backstory, please contact Tony Neilson.
Email: tonywneilson@icloud.com.au