A Tale of Two Curlews

Eastern Curlew Image: Andrew Silcocks

While out searching through the migratory shorebirds at Buffalo Creek, Amanda Lilleyman, was delighted to find over a dozen Eastern Curlews, the subject of her research with Charles Darwin University. While Amanda was red hot on her shorebird ID, even I was able to pick the curlews out. 

They are the largest of the world’s shorebirds and have a long, sickle-shape bill that puts an ibis to shame.

The plight of curlews around the world has been extremely dire over the last century. Two of the smaller species have gone extinct, and the Eastern Curlew, once one of our most common and conspicuous coastal waders, has suffered an 85% decline in numbers over the last 40 years. This is clearly linked to the loss of vital habitat in the Yellow Sea where the birds stopover on their epic flight from their Siberian breeding grounds.

But there are issues here in Australia too. Right on Brisbane doorstep is the Moreton Bay KBA, an area of extreme importance for the curlews. But coastal development around the bay, both industrial and residential has squeezed out the number of feeding and roosting sites for these impressive birds. Even today the threats continue. A proposed marina development at Toondah Harbour will destroy one of the last remaining sites favoured by the curlews. BirdLife Australia is working hard with local communities to make sure Toondah remains the haunt of the curlew. For more detail on the campaign visit….

Fascinatingly, in Darwin, things may be looking up for the curlews. Amanda tells me that the site she monitors in the Port of Darwin has actually seen an increase in the number of birds. Earlier in the year she counted 270 roosting there at high tide—possibly the only place in the world where Eastern Curlew numbers have risen!

But overall the story is far from positive. The Port of Darwin is out of bounds to the public, so it has almost accidentally become a place of refuge for the curlews and other shorebirds. One of the biggest issues our migratory shorebirds have to face when in Australia is disturbance from people. We love the beaches too and when we visit, we run the risk of disturbing these birds as they feed. Even more so when we take our dogs and let them off the leash. It may not seem like much but for the shorebirds who have to feed constantly to build up the necessary fat reserves to make their incredibly long journeys (Eastern Curlews fly over 9,000 kilometres to reach their breeding grounds!) this can literally be a matter of life and death. For every time a bird is scared off its feeding time, it is not only missing out on the chance to find another tasty morsel in the form of a crab or a marine worm, but the energy gained from their precious meal is spent of flying away from danger.

As we noted on the beach between Lee Point and Buffalo Creek, the number of people using Darwin’s beaches is increasing every year. It may be that the birds are turning up at the Port of Darwin because their preferred roost sites are now so often disturbed they are not worth using.

Little Curlew Image: Andrew Silcocks

There is another curlew that can be found in Darwin. Or could be found. For years, Darwin was famous among the world birding community for the thousands of Little Curlews (the Eastern Curlew’s smaller cousin) that would descend upon the town every October. They could be found in flocks of hundreds on the grasslands around Darwin, even on local sports ovals. Then they would head off with the first rains of the wet season to the inland plains such as the Barkly Tablelands where they would spend the summer months.

Sadly, I will be very surprised if any Little Curlews are recorded at all in this year’s Backyard Bird Count around. Most of the grasslands they once used have now been taken up by residential developments. And the birds now bypass the city’s parks and other open spaces too. It has got to the stage that a recent sighting of 18 Little Curlews at Katherine sewage ponds is regarded as notable.

This is in context of a massive drop off in numbers globally. We fear that the Little Curlew may be starting down the path taken by its closest relatives, the Eskimo and Slender-billed Curlews which have both ceased to exist on the planet.

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