Saving Australia’s migratory shorebirds

151 edit 2 Eastern curlew Toondah Harbour 12 January 2016 comp

The critically endangered eastern curlew is the largest migratory shorebird to visit Australia

A new plan to help protect 35 species of shorebirds was launched by the Australian Government and Birdlife Australia recently at a summit in Melbourne.

Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt spoke at the event (Photo SBS)

Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt at the Shorebird Summit (Photo SBS)

These birds regularly travel thousands of kilometres along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway to visit our shores during their non-breeding season. They rely on Australia’s coastal and freshwater wetlands as places to rest and feed

But the perilous nature of migration, where birds cross multiple national boundaries, means shorebirds face a multitude of threats.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said a new Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds was a significant step in the right direction, according to an SBS news report.

Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds

The Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds recognises that populations of some of these shorebirds are in decline, and there is a growing need to reduce the threats to their habitat.

The plan targets protection of important habitats for migratory shorebirds within the East Asian-Australasian Flyway though Australia’s interaction with other countries.

Within Australia, the Plan targets protection of important habitats. Actions will include investigation of the significance of cumulative impacts on migratory shorebird habitat and populations in Australia.

Conservation scientist Dr Richard Fuller explained why we need to save these birds at the Shorebird Summit in Melbourne on 8 April.

Conserving migratory shorebirds – by Dr Richard Fuller

Dr Richard Fuller of the University of Queensland's Fuller Lab

Dr Richard Fuller of the University of Queensland’s Fuller Lab

In 2007, a female bar-tailed godwit was fitted with a satellite tracking device, so scientists could follow her migration. On 17th March she took off from the tidal flat in New Zealand where she had spent the summer.

Six days later she touched down in China to rest and feed, having flown 10,300 km. She took off again on the 2nd of May and flew right across the northern Pacific for 6,500 km to Alaska, where she laid eggs and raised her young.

What she did next amazed every migration scientist on the planet. She took off on 30th August, and flew straight across the Pacific back to New Zealand in a single flight of 12,000 km without stopping, without landing. She had completed one of the longest migration flights ever recorded.

These incredible journeys take our shorebirds across international borders. Every country along the migration routes of these birds must play their part in saving them.

And save them we must. Our scientific analysis, funded in part by the Commonwealth Government, has shown that 90% of migratory shorebird species in Australia are in rapid decline.

177 Eastern Curlew at Oyster Point 29 January 2015 Oyster Point edited 12 April 2016 comp

Eastern curlews in flight

Some of the results of our work literally moved me to tears. Populations of the eastern curlew and curlew sandpiper have crashed by more than 80% over the last 20-30 years. The Commonwealth Government has acted quickly on this evidence to list both species as Critically Endangered in Australia. The first step in helping them recover.

Why are these birds in such big trouble? Well, because they travel such long distances, migratory birds need safe havens to rest and feed all along the way. If one site they depend on is lost, they might not be able to complete their journey.

Bar-tailed godwit feeding nearToondah Harbour in Cleveland

Bar-tailed godwit feeding nearToondah Harbour in Cleveland

Right here in Australia, our coastlines are crowded places. Australians love the beach, and so do shorebirds! Disturbance from dogs, people and cars on beaches impacts the ability of birds to recover from their long journeys.

Working in partnership with the state government in Queensland, the results of scientific analysis are encouraging. Careful zoning of coastal protected areas can mean that 90% of recreational activity can continue, while 97% of shorebirds are well protected, even along the busy coastlines of south-east Queensland.

Hunting is commonplace around the flyway, with thousands of birds still being illegally killed every year. Australia has banned the hunting of migratory shorebirds, and helping other nations to address this problem is crucial.

East Asian Australasian Flyway by Fuller Lab (click to enlarge)

East Asian Australasian Flyway by Fuller Lab (click to enlarge)

The biggest single threat to our shorebirds is loss of habitat along the coastlines of China and Korea. This Yellow Sea region is the crucial re-fuelling stop for many of our birds as they migrate to the Arctic and back.

Our work has shown that 67% of the habitat for Australia’s shorebirds when they pass through China and Korea has been lost in the past 50 years. This is mainly a result of coastal reclamation and declines in river sediment loads. Australian shorebirds that depend most on China and Korea while on migration, are declining the fastest.

But there is hope. Australia has signed agreements with Japan, China and Korea, and participates in multilateral initiatives of various kinds. Yet the birds have continued to slide toward extinction while these agreements have been in force. Clearly we need to do much more to make them work.

How might our beleaguered migratory shorebirds fare over the coming decades? One possibility is a depressingly bleak future. One in which habitat loss and other threats continue at their current pace, leading many species to the brink of extinction, and beyond.

But there’s another possible future. One in which shorebird populations recover from this crash, and once again grace our coastlines in impressive and inspiring numbers. A future in which Australia has worked hard:

  • protecting and managing the key habitats we have left
  • preventing further loss of important sites
  • properly mitigating or offsetting impact, where developments must go ahead
  • learning new technologies to restore lost habitat
  • and working with other countries so they can achieve similar results

Today marks a watershed, a moment where we decide which of these futures we wish to see. Let’s take full responsibility for conserving migratory shorebirds within our borders. And let’s see Australia persuading, helping, yes if necessary pestering, other countries to do likewise.

I’m delighted to see the Commonwealth Government moving decisively on this issue. This sends a clear message to every country in this flyway – Australia is serious about saving our migratory birds.

Dr Richard Fuller – 8 April 2016

Further information

More information is available in this lecture by Dr Richard Fuller titled:

Why are Queensland’s migratory shore-birds disappearing?


Published by Redlands2030 – 12 April 2016


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2 thoughts on “Saving Australia’s migratory shorebirds

  1. Toondah Harbour. What Walker Corporation operators need to know is that Moreton Bay’s famous migratory shorebirds could make their 10,000 km+ journeys in vain if this harbour upgrade goes ahead, according to ecology experts. More than 20 bird species, including critically endangered eastern curlew, flock to mudflats throughout Wynnum, Manly & Redlands each year. Qld Wader Group ecologist David Milton said the $1.3 billion redevelopment upgrading harbour into tourism, residential & recreational destination would destroy parts of this crucial habitat. Walker Corp spokeswoman disagreed project would threaten eastern curlew & an ‘in-house’ survey found less than seven of the birds used the site at any one time. It would be ludicrous to expect all species of migratory birds flock to the Toondah site at the same time. Each decision in itself isn’t going to cause extinction of any one species, but cumulatively, would.
    Petition calling on Qld Govt to develop a new plan for the Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area has 1373+ signatures. Qld Wader Studies Group & Birdlife Southern Qld petition states Walker Corp’s plan would have a range of adverse environmental effects. Office of Dep Premier & Min for Infrastructure, Local Govt & Planning supported the project but that it needed to meet environmental planning & native title requirements. Qld Govt declared Toondah Harbour a Priority Development Area at request of RCC in 2013….but…what was not taken into account was the fact this is a RAMSAR site…which states: “Ramsar Convention aims to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve those that remain. Moreton Bay site was declared in 1993 and meets six of the nine Ramsar criterion”… which must be respected. Proposal has been referred to Commonwealth Environment Minister with decision due April 18, 2016. The ball is in their court for arriving at the right decision for economic benefits to the community while at the same time preserving habitat for migratory shorebird species that travel each year to this Moreton Bay site from Siberia, Russia…remembering that ‘extinction is forever’.

    that would be a great idea to help save these beautiful animals

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