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Birds Touchdown After Marathon Migration

A dead short-tailed shearwater on the beach at Warrnambool. Photo: Damian White

You may have noticed a few bedraggled-looking or dead birds on east coast shores recently. Now is the time that migratory birds are completing their marathon migrations from breeding in the Arctic Circle. Some have successfully had babies and are ready to start fattening up for next years breeding season in the northern hemisphere. Others aren’t so lucky and although news reports state that bad weather has caused their demise, another factor that is rarely mentioned is starvation and emaciation due to precious habitat degradation.

An epic migration

Each year hundreds of thousands of shore birds undertake an epic migration from Australia’s southern and north western shores, to Northern Siberia, North East Russia, the Arctic Circle and Alaska flying up to 10,000 km non-stop.

The birds spend their non-breeding season in Australia during the Australian spring, summer and early autumn. Due to the enormous tidal variation in north west Australia, the vast exposed mud flats provide a rich and diverse source of plant and animal life on which the birds feed. During this time they moult their weathered flight feathers, grow new flight feathers, restore fat supplies, regain strength and finally develop their breeding plumage in preparation for their northern migration in April/May.

The birds from Australia may fly 6,500 kilometres to Taiwan, or even 7,000-8,000 kms to the Yellow Sea wetlands between South Korea and China where they refuel for a period of 7-20 days in preparation for the next leg of their northbound flight to Artic regions where the snow is melting and the plant and insect life on the tundra has exploded into life.

In these short 8 weeks, the birds mate, nest and incubate eggs. Chicks hatch already covered with down and are able to feed themselves with the abundance of insects. Three weeks later the parents fly south, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves and prepare for their first migration to the Southern Hemisphere. Some weeks later near the end of the Arctic Summer, the chicks are sufficiently developed to instinctively follow the same flight path as their parents on a southern migration.

Recent advances in technology are providing us with significantly more accurate and detailed information on these epic migrations. With careful and accurate banding and tracking methods we are able to pin point the critical habitats and feeding grounds that need to be protected across the globe.

Their character makes up for their dull plumage

Maintaining wetland habitat is crucial

These birds have a high energy output throughout their entire lives, so their food source is critical. Maintaining the habitat along the flight path of migrating birds is critical to the survival of many species, as well as an indicator of global environmental health. Degradation of these environments through wetland reclamation and development impacts on the birds as well as millions of people who have traditionally shared in the rich food source.

Scientists and people concerned with the environment have been encouraging governments in countries along the flight paths to collaborate in protecting these vital habitats.

For more information and to find out what you can do to help these extraordinary birds go to:

Shorebirds 2020 Conservation Website

Birds Australia

Australian Waders Study Group

One Response

  • Peter Bracher
    November 4, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    For Greenies has done it again: Totally Ossum! These migratory species are equally awesome. Up to 10,000 km non-stop flying seems almost unimaginable. I’m humbled and silenced by the wonders of Planet Earth…and feel deeply grateful to Her lovers, supporters and guardians.

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