A Greater Crested Tern
One of the biggest names in shorebirds says continued action and a long-term commitment to manage threats and protect the species is needed. Jill Chamberlain has witnessed a steady decline in the number of migratory birds arriving from the northern hemisphere over time. We recently heard from Jill at the Pumicestone Catchment Convergence where she walked us through her shorebird story and the need to take action.
We will also take a look at an exciting Healthy Land and Water led project which is implementing a range of measures aimed at reducing threats to migratory shorebirds in Moreton Bay.
An insider view of what’s happening on the ground: Jill Chamberlain OAM
Jill Chamberlain has been monitoring the sandbanks along the Pumicestone Passage from Bulcock Beach to Bells Creek since 1992 for the Queensland Wader Study Group. She conducts a monthly survey at low tide, to monitor the numbers of migratory and other waterbirds feeding on the sandflats.
She reported seeing many changes over the years in the sandbanks themselves and in the visiting bird population.
The sandflats of the Pumicestone Passage host thousands of migratory shorebirds each year visiting for rest and relaxation in the southern hemisphere.
The birds enjoy an endless summer as they breed and raise their young in summer in places such as Siberia, Alaska and Japan and then travel south for the warmth of our summer, making a round trip of about 26,000 kilometres.
Migratory shorebirds in Australia are the beneficiaries of several international agreements, including the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention), which aims to preserve important wetlands such as the Moreton Bay Ramsar Site in which the Pumicestone Passage is situated.
Australia was one of the five founding nations to the Ramsar Convention which came into being on 2 February 1971, 50 years ago. This was a landmark moment for wetlands, and the start of a global movement to raise awareness about the vital role they play for people and our planet.
On their journey the shorebirds fly a defined route known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway along the shores of Korea, China and Japan. The birds need what are known as staging posts, which are sand or mudflat intertidal areas along their route where they can rest and feed to gain the energy for the next leg of their journey.
Unfortunately, the number of staging posts along the Flyway has decreased as many of these areas used for industrial and residential development.
By the time migratory shorebirds arrive in South East Queensland they are exhausted and need to recover their strength and build their fat reserves.
An increase of up to 70% above their arrival body weight is needed for sufficient energy to fly the long distance back to their breeding grounds and to breed successfully.
Clever strategies help reduce energy consumption while on migration, for example, the Far Eastern Curlew shuts down the organs it doesn’t need for the flight just before it migrates.
Even though South East Queensland, particularly Moreton Bay, provides a perfect staging post for the birds to rest, they are still facing major problems.
Roosting and foraging areas are still being lost or impacted on by development and the birds are frequently disturbed by people, off-leash dogs and kite surfers to name a few. Every time the birds are disturbed, they use up some of the precious energy necessary for their return flight.
Roosting and foraging sites are also subject to pollution, such as excess nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants carried by our waterways.
Like almost all other Flyway areas, Moreton Bay is experiencing a decline in its numbers of migratory shorebirds.
Jill remembers that when she started monitoring she used to see hundreds of birds, including Far Eastern Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit as well as Terek Sandpipers, Greater Sand Plovers and large flocks of migratory and resident terns.
Now she says that she is lucky to see 20 Far Eastern Curlews and 17 Bar-tailed Godwit. She reports there are few Greater Sand Plovers, no Curlew Sandpipers or Terek Sandpipers, fewer other waders and only small flocks of terns.
Populations of the Curlew Sandpiper and the Far Eastern Curlew have declined by up to 80% since the 1980s, and there are now only 35,000 Far Eastern Curlews left worldwide.
It is estimated that there could well be losses of 41% to 70% of breeding habitat for shorebirds by the end of the 21st century, which Jill describes as an appalling prediction.
“The realisation that, in a relatively short time, many more species could simply disappear because of inaction on global warming, and it is a sad indictment of failure to take climate change seriously,” says Jill.
“The sandbanks of the Passage would be all the poorer without their annual migration of summer visitors.”
Jill was born in England and came to Australia in 1958. Having always been interested in the natural environment throughout her childhood, she took an interest in Australian wildlife. This led to membership of Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland and the Queensland Wader Study Group among others.
In 2004 she was honoured by having a nature reserve named after her by the then Caloundra City Council. In 2010 she was awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) for her services to the environment and community and in 2011 the University of the Sunshine Coast made her an Honorary Senior Fellow.
Doing the research: Professor Richard Fuller
Research undertaken by a team from the University of Queensland (UQ), as part of Healthy Land and Water’s Ramsar project, reflects Jill’s reports.
The UQ team lead by Professor Richard Fuller analysed shorebirds and their habitats in Moreton Bay and discovered there is a definite link between the loss of staging posts and the decline in populations of migratory shorebirds.
Professor Fuller’s research focused on where the migratory shorebirds are in Moreton Bay, the abundance of their prey and threats to roosting and feeding habitats.
In a draft report provided to Healthy Land and Water in 2019, the team outlined where the shorebirds visit, the threats they are facing, and provided conclusions and recommendations to protect our shorebirds.
Although habitat loss overseas is a major contributor to migratory shorebird declines, the threats to shorebirds in Moreton Bay that can be addressed here in Australia include human disturbance, development and mangrove encroachment.
The report revealed that many threats to migratory shorebirds have increased since 2005, when the Shorebird Management Strategy for Moreton Bay was released by the Queensland Government.
In partnership with the Queensland Wader Study Group, the team conducted a threat assessment for roosting sites which found that 95% of sites (for which information existed) are, or have been, impacted by one or more of these threats.
As part of the UQ research, Joshua Wilson is trialling drone monitoring of shorebirds. Once refined, this new method will enable monitoring in places difficult to access on foot.
Other research discovered that shorebird prey densities appear to be low in Moreton Bay, and prey size smaller, meaning that the birds need to spend more time foraging to gain sufficient energy, making the impact of disturbance to foraging and roosting birds even more concerning.
Several roosting sites in the area have been destroyed in the past few decades and, as a result, nearly a third of the 30,000 shorebirds that visit Moreton Bay are now dependent on the Port of Brisbane for habitat. This is worrying as by 2044, this area is proposed to be developed further, with little remaining habitat for the shorebirds.
These local threats outlined in the report are at the level at which local councils, regional groups and state governments have the greatest power to take action and make a difference.
Professor Fuller’s team says threats to roosting sites can be readily addressed through appropriate planning and management actions including controlling disturbance and vegetation at roosting sites and reducing off-leash dog disturbance.
The findings emphasised the fact that, as a region, we all have a responsibility to protect our migratory shorebirds.
Healthy Land and Water’s migratory shorebirds project
Healthy Land and Water is proud to be delivering a project which will implement many of Professor Fuller’s recommendations and reduce threats to migratory shorebirds in Moreton Bay.
Professor Fuller’s report led to further funding from the Australian Government’s Environmental Restoration Fund. The new project assesses species abundance, diversity and distribution, and implements actions to reduce threats at priority roosting and foraging sites in Moreton Bay.
Fortunately, Moreton Bay is one of the best monitored regions in Australia due to the long-term commitment of the Queensland Wader Study Group. As a result of their monitoring, we know a lot about the regions’ shorebird populations.
The project is currently finalising data collation and analyses, including the results of the recent Bay-wide Census of roosting sites, which assessed bird number and species, site conditions and disturbance at over 117 sites. The first actions to reduce threats at roost sites are likely to start this winter, whilst most migratory shorebirds are in their northern hemisphere breeding grounds.Through appropriate planning and management actions, the threats impacting Moreton Bay’s migratory shorebirds can and will be addressed, but it will take concerted action and long-term commitment.
This project is supported by Healthy Land and Water through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.