Let's Flock Together

The dragonflies have arrived! Their arrival signals the dispersal of dramatic clouds, the conclusion of the wet season and the departure of up to 37 migratory shorebirds who call the Top End home in summer.

Fancy yourself a world traveler? Our yearly temporary residents may challenge you to that title. Their north-south 11,000 km journey along the East Asian-Australian flyway traverses 23 countries: from their northern breeding areas in Russia and the USA (Alaska), via China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, to Australia and New Zealand. Our visitors lose up to 40% of their body weight during their long-haul flight, which makes feeding areas here in the Territory, and along their route, of vital importance.

Supporters recently joined Top End Sea Life and migratory shorebird-PhD student, Amanda Lilleyman, to prove the early bird does catch the worm. We met for an early Sunday morning walk to watch and learn more about our visiting shorebirds.

The Far Eastern Curlew is the biggest of all shorebird species, and sports the longest bill, which it uses to probe our sandy tidal areas for crunchy crabs. This shorebird species only occurs in our flyway, with 75% of the global population wintering in Australia.

Only female Grey Plovers like Australia, with virtually all those that spend the nonbreeding season here being of the fairer gender. This makes Australia a critical location for the continued survival of the species.

The most common and abundant shorebird in Darwin is the Great Knot. Shorebird counts, which allow us to track how many visit our coastline each year, have counted up to 9,000 individuals in one sitting at Buffalo Creek and Lee Point. During low tide they can be found on the sand flats feeding upon invertebrates. Unfortunately this species is considered symbolic for the worldwide decline in migratory shorebird populations. The global population of the Great Knot has plummeted in recent years, with a loss of 90,000 individuals as a direct result of habitat destruction at a significant stopover site in South Korea.

This location in South Korea borders the Yellow Sea to the east with China to the west. It is the most important site for all our migratory shorebirds, as they gain additional reserves in preparation for their final flight to breeding grounds and to sustain them upon arrival when feeding conditions may be poor. Industrial pollution, agricultural runoff and domestic sewage continue to contaminate the Yellow Sea’s coastal waters and habitats.

The 23 countries these birds pass on their north-south migration include nearly half the world’s human population and some of the world’s fastest growing economies. This combination leads to increased development pressures on these important feeding tidal flats and wetlands.

Conservation measures are difficult to implement for a species whose critical habitats traverse many countries. We have taken steps in the Top End; there are dog-free beach zones to protect key shorebird habitats. But coastal development proposals continue to target mangroves and other crucial coastal habitats for the many migratory shorebird species who touch down in Darwin and grace our shoreline every wet season.

Let’s hope these essential areas can be retained, so we can flock together and watch shorebirds feeding and roosting on this important refueling layover for years to come.

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