Home

Australia’s biggest national shorebird count concludes in Bunbury, with worrying signs for the future

Craig DuncanHarvey-Waroona Reporter
Birdlife member Sue Mather counting shorebirds along the Leschenault Estuary.
Camera IconBirdlife member Sue Mather counting shorebirds along the Leschenault Estuary. Credit: Craig Duncan

From the southern shores of the Busselton Jetty to isolated lakes on Rottnest Island, volunteers along the coast of WA have been counting shorebirds as part of one of the country’s biggest bird surveys.

Birdlife Australia’s shorebird count concluded its coverage of the South West at the weekend in Bunbury, having gathered data from across Australia in the weeks prior.

The count is part of a 20-year-old national survey, gathering shorebird information to learn about the health and habits of native and migratory shorebirds.

Volunteers with Birdlife Bunbury spent their morning counting shorebirds along the Leschenault Estuary.
Camera IconVolunteers with Birdlife Bunbury spent their morning counting shorebirds along the Leschenault Estuary. Credit: Craig Duncan

Get in front of tomorrow's news for FREE

Journalism for the curious Australian across politics, business, culture and opinion.

READ NOW

Bunbury Birdlife convenor Diane Cavanagh said the count was an extremely important resource for conservation efforts across the country.

“We are just a little part of a huge effort that goes across Australia to South-East Asia and the whole flyway documenting what’s happening with the birds,” she said.

“In the end, what is going to help shorebirds survive is dependent on really solid data, scientific analysis and advice.”

Ms Cavanagh said the general impression, however, was this year was going to be down from previous counts.

Birdlife member Sue Mather has been running the shorebird survey at Rottnest Island for the past 20 years and said there were fewer birds counted on the island this year.

“It’s happened before, but it’s hard to know, because these are species that have got declining populations,” she said.

Over the past 50 years shorebird numbers in Australia have decreased dramatically, according to Birdlife Australia’s Western Australian shorebird project coordinator Jeremy Ringma.

One example he gave was the Peel-Yalgorup system that was recorded supporting up to 150,000 water birds in the 1980s.

Today the system is stable but supports only between 40,000 to 50,000 birds, he said.

Birds local to the estuary, such as great egrets are recorded in the count so researchers have a stronger understanding of the health of local bird populations.
Camera IconBirds local to the estuary, such as great egrets are recorded in the count so researchers have a stronger understanding of the health of local bird populations. Credit: Craig Duncan

Dr Ringma said the significant crash was caused by rapid development, primarily around the Yellow Sea, with migratory birds losing two thirds of their habitat in the region since the 1970s.

They’ve just died on mass over the last 20 or 30 years.

This year also showed worrying signs of the impact of climate change.

“Climate change is drying out a bunch of the freshwater systems in our area,” Dr Ringma said.

“These systems dry up and there is a longer period in summer when there is no water in them at all and this is changing the ecological characteristic of the lake itself.

“We are actually starting to observe the early phases of climate change affecting bird populations now.

“It’s happening.”

Little pied cormorants.
Camera IconLittle pied cormorants. Credit: Craig Duncan

Ms Cavanagh said one simple way we can reduce the stress on shorebirds is by keeping our dogs on a lead when in their habitat.

“For the wading birds, who are feeing at the water’s edge, it is so distressing to have dogs running through them,” she said.

“This is a precious privilege we have, seeing these amazing birds on our doorstep.”

She said we need to give these birds the space and care they need so they can focus on what’s important.

Feeding up and getting strong, before they take off for this mighty journey back to Siberia.

Ms Cavanagh expressed her gratitude to all the volunteers who make the count possible.

“This survey is totally depended on volunteers from the community giving their time,” she said.

“We’re just immensely grateful to see the keenness of our Birdlife Bunbury group, to come and give their time to be out there and contributing to this survey.”

Sue Mather and Paul Mincham.
Camera IconSue Mather and Paul Mincham. Credit: Craig Duncan

The results of the 2024 survey will be released in the coming months, with a second smaller survey running later in the year.

For more information about shorebirds and these surveys visit Birdlife Australia.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails