Friday, 27 March 2015

Little Curlew tracking, a new season begins.

We have received this exciting message from Clive Minton and Inka Veltheim about the beginning of this year's movement of Little Curlews in Northern Australia which we hope to follow and bring in a series of guest blogs by them:

In recent days we’ve started to see the beginning of the northward migration of the little curlew in north west Australia. The map below shows the current location of all six birds, which are carrying satellite transmitters.

Five of the transmitters were put on little curlew in February this year on the plains about 30 km south of Anna Plains station (two) and on the adjacent 80 Mile Beach (three). Since then these birds have moved around on Anna Plains station between an area close to the station itself right down to the southern end of the station (where it adjoins Mandoora station, about 100 km south), opposite the Sandfire station. After yo-yoing around and mostly being at the northern end of this area last week, three of these birds have this week returned to the southern end of the station.

More interesting the other two have moved 200-300 km northwards in what appears to be the first stage of their northward migration. One is on Roebuck Plains and roosted on the plains only just behind the Broome Bird Observatory. The other bird has moved rather further north and is on the Fitzroy River floodplain close to King Sound at Derby. Similar northward movements from Anna Plain station were recorded last year in second half of March.

Little Curlew with leg flag DN fitted with satellite transmitter 142061 16th February 2015 Anna's Station Western Australia, Australia. Photo: Tz-Yu Liao.

We also have one transmitter still operating from the five little curlew on which satellite transmitters were deployed in November 2013. You will recall that this bird has spent most of the 2014/15 non-breeding season on saltmarsh to the northwest of Kununarra. In recent weeks it moved down first to Roebuck Plains, then to Anna Plains, then back to Roebuck Plains and then back again to Anna Plains! It is now at the southern end of the station in the same area as the other three little curlew carrying satellite transmitters put on this year.

Clive Minton processing a Little Curlew.
Photo: Tz-Yu Liao
It will be interesting to see if all of the little curlew move up to Roebuck Plains/Fitzroy River floodplain before their departure from Australia. We will keep everyone informed of any further significant movements. Do please be patient – no news is NO NEWS! One of the frustrating parts of setting the excitement of following migration with satellite transmitters on birds, is the long periods when nothing happens because a bird is resting at a stop over location or is only moving around locally in an area. However, with six birds now carrying satellite transmitters in circulation hopefully there will be plenty of highlights over the next few weeks .

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

'STOP Shorebirds from dying'. BirdLife Australia appeal and Farewell Shorebirds project.

Imagine how tired you would feel if you had to make the incredible non-stop flight from Alaska to Australia like Bar-tailed Godwits do. It would be the equivalent of you running a marathon, non-stop for 9 days at 53kph the whole way with no food, water or rest. Some feat!

Bar-tailed Godwits obviously arrive in Australia after such a journey exhausted and very hungry, they will have lost 50% of their body weight along the way.

This Bar-tailed Godwit was photographed in New Zealand just after it arrived from Alaska. Notice the drooping wings which will have been in motion for the last 8 days with pause.

Obviously they will need to rest and feed and that is why, like wetlands everywhere, Australian wetland habitats are crucial for these and many other species of wader.

The problem is that the wetlands they rely on have been disappearing or are increasingly threatened by human development. For example; the coal loading terminal in the Hunter Estuary in New South Wales which, if it is allowed to go ahead, will destroy irreplaceable intertidal mudflats; the over extraction of water at Coorong in South Australia is turning shallow marshes into saline wastelands; roosting sites are being depleted by residential and tourism developments due to the build up of housing and recreational centres in the Great Barrier Reef Coastal Zone.

All this is happening despite some supposedly being afforded some sort of protection as RAMSAR sites.

As we have often said, and will repeat many times more I feel sure, the problem is that each site is assessed on a case by case basis. The thinking is that in each case 'only a small part of the habitat is being lost and there are still many shorebirds around that can go elsewhere, so the effects are minimal. The problem is that when this happens time and time again the cumulative effect can be devastating however small or insignificant they may each appear on the face of it.. We believe that every piece of wild habitat that still exists is important and should be fought for vigorously, that is why Wader Quest has been set up to support local community conservation projects in the hope that the cumulative effect of these small positive impact projects will at least mitigate the damage being done by so many negative impact projects.

Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica baueri.
Godwit numbers in Australia are down by 50% on average during the last 27 years. Some regions are harder hit than others, in Gulf St Vincent for example they are down by 78% between 1981 and 2004 and by 68% in Moreton Bay in Queensland between 1993 and 2008.

As if this were not bad enough, the Yellow Sea region, which they rely on for their return journey, is being destroyed at an incredible rate by land reclamation, the most famous example being the Saemangeum seawall in South Korea which killed hundreds of thousands of migratory birds most noatbly Great Knots of which around 90,000 disappeared.

BirdLife Australia has an appeal called STOP Shorebirds from dying and is seeking help to fund the campaign. The money will be used to fund research and monitoring of the birds, vital information which is needed to fight decisions that threaten the birds. Without this kind of monitoring we would not know about the plight of the godwits in Australia and many other waders around the world. The information has already been used to gain Vulnerable to Extinction status for the Bar-tailed Godwit in Northern Territory and Western Australia and it is listed as Rare in South Australia which helps in the campaign to save them from further threats.

While others play down the impact of development, BirdLife Australia and many other organisations across the world including Wader Quest, armed with this knowledge, are able to raise awareness and produce policies to protect wetlands and working together can campaign to protect wetlands from a 'death by a thousand cuts'.

If you want to help BirdLife Australia fight to save wader habitat and therefore migratory waders like the Bar-tailed Godwit, then you find out more and donate here. (To donate click the donate button on the page, fill out the on-line form selecting the category Farewell Shorebirds Appeal 2015.)

Bar-tailed Godwits on a beach in Broome, Western Australia. (With Great Knots, Calidris tenuirostris one of the birds hit hardest by the Saemangeum project in South Korea.)

Farewell Shorebirds Project

21st March - 19th April
Details here.

This is a project to raise awareness about waders across Australia. BirdLife Australia encourage people to celebrate the departure of the waders for their breeding grounds, to wish them well and hope that they have the strength, against the odds, to return after the breeding season bringing their offspring with them.

Monday, 16 March 2015

New ID feature for White-rumped and Baird's Sandpiper?

Spending many hours looking at photographs, both our own and on the internet, and more recently at skins at the Natural History Museum in Tring, Elis and I noticed that there was a tendency for the feathering at the base of the bill of these two species to be distinctive and thought that perhaps this could be used as an additional feature to help ID a lone bird in a strange place. We do not claim that this is 100% across the board with all individuals and on its own would not be reliable (wear and tear and moult should always be considered in any assessment of feather features), but here is what we have observed.

Baird's Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (left) and White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis can be hard to tell apart in the field without direct comparison.

Figure 1 (below) White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis (top) Baird's Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (bottom): Note the shape of the feathering at the base of the bill. The Baird's shows a distinct step where the feathering along the lower mandible extends further forward giving the appearance that the bird has a protruding 'lower lip'. The feathering on the White-rumped is less visibly stepped in this way. Also note the respective positioning of the nostrils. On Baird's they are very close to the feathering and the step on the lower mandible extends well along them. On White-rumped the nostrils are further from the feather base and the lower mandible feathering extends only as far as the start of the nostril (see Figure 2 for more clarity).

Photo. 1: White-rumped Sandpiper (above) and Baird's Sandpiper (below).
On Museum specimens (118 Baird's Sandpipers from North, Central and South America and 145 WRS from North, Central and South America including the Falkland Islands and Caribbean Islands) this feature was consistent in the vast majority of specimens examined. Some skins had been damaged in the face area and it was not possible to determine the structure, others did not show the feature to such a degree as that shown here. However we felt that the feature was consistent enough to mention as a possible aid to identifying these two cryptic waders when some doubt arises in the field.

Figure 2: Here are two photos from the field. White rumped (left) and Baird's Sandpiper (right). Note the position of the nostril in relation to the feather details of the birds as outlined above. Also observe the general shape of the feathering at that point. The Baird's is fairly tatty but the feature is still clear.

Figure 2: White-rumped Sandpiper (left) and  Baird's Sandpipercompare the shape of the feathering at the base of the bill. Photos: Elis Simpson - Wader Quest
Here are some more examples from our photo library. Photos 1-3 Baird's Sandpiper, photos 4-7 White-rumped Sandpiper.

Photo 1: Baird's Sandpiper. Lagoa Chaxa, Antofagasta, Chile. 31/10/13

Photo 2: Baird's Sandpiper. Lagoa Chaxa, Antofagasta, Chile. 31/10/13

Photo 3: Baird's Sandpiper. Lagoa Verde, Tierra del Fuego, Chile. 306/11/13

Photo 4: White-rumped Sandpiper. Ubatuba, São Paulo, Brazil. 18/10/10
Photo 5: White-rumped Sandpiper. Ubatuba, São Paulo, Brazil. 24/10/10
Photo 6: White-rumped Sandpiper. Tavares, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. 25/10/13
Here's one that bucks the tend. Although there seems to be a bit more of a step in the feathering in this White-rumped Sandpiper the feathering on the lower mandible still only just reaches the first point of the nostril compare this feature with Photo 1 (above).

Photo 7: White-rumped Sandpiper. Ubatuba, São Paulo, Brazil. 24/10/10

If you look at the webpages for photographs for the two species Baird's & White-rumped you can judge for yourself if we are onto something or not.