IT’S an endless summer for the waders that come to our shores, unlike most of the rest of us who have to make the most of the holiday season over the Christmas period.
That’s the time when Tasmanians flock to the beaches to take advantage of the best summer has to offer after our long winter that always seems to stretch well into spring.
Migratory shorebirds, however, manage to dodge winter, travelling to different ends of the earth to exploit the seasons most favourable to them.
Increasingly, though, this cunning evolutionary tactic to cheat winter is coming at a high price for the long-distance shorebirds. They are finding their traditional feeding areas of wetland and mudflat in south-east Asia being drained for agricultural and industrial purposes and in their wintering areas around the coasts of Australia and New Zealand development pressure is also harming the birds.
Another factor threatening the long-term survival of all the 36 migratory shorebirds that travel each year along what is known as the East Asian–Australasian Flyway is disturbance on beaches in summer.
The birds have to share the coastline with increasing numbers of people, who drive their vehicles and run dogs on the mudflats and sandy spits, putting the waders to flight after they have settled down to feed.
It is particularly stressful for the waders nearing migration time, when they need food to power inter-continental flights that may involve a 12,000 kilometre journey to breeding grounds. Some birds like bar-tailed godwits are known to fly more than 6000 kilometres without stopping.
The issue of disturbance is even more critical for the handful of waders that do not undertake the migratory journey, and make Tasmania their permanent home.
These are not only interrupted while feeding and resting, but often have their nests, eggs and young destroyed by beach-users and their pets and vehicles.
The plight of the hooded plover is well documented and publicised by information panels at many beaches but among other breeding shorebirds also under threat are the red-capped plover and the pied oystercatcher.
The oystercatcher is one of the most familiar birds of the beach, about the size of a silver gull with knitting-needle orange bill and legs, but the plovers are harder to see. They are tiny, the hooded with a black cap on white and grey body and the red-capped plover largely brown with a reddish cap.
The red-capped plover has suffered a 25 to 50 per cent decline over the past 25 years at various beaches around Tasmania and the oystercatcher is also under pressure. Tasmania is home to close to 40 per cent of the global population of pied oystercatchers and again these beautiful, elegant birds are suffering serious disturbance, and decline, in the state.
Along with the waders, two species of tern that nest on beaches are struggling for survival: the little tern (with fewer than 10 breeding pairs in the state) and the fairy (200 breeding pairs).
All these species nest in hollow scrapes in soft sand high up the beach. The eggs and chicks are hard to see and are often unknowingly trampled by people or dogs. Chicks may also starve because they hide instead of feeding when disturbed.
By following five simple rules, we can all do our bit during the holiday season to ensure that disturbance of shorebirds is kept to a minimum. The rules are: watch out for birds and keep at least a 50m distance from them; walk on the hard sand at the water’s edge; keep dogs on a lead; stay clear of fenced or signposted nesting sites; observe rules for driving on beaches and keep to the hard sand if driving is allowed.