Rain lashed against my bedroom window but that was not to deter me from the annual Birdlife Tasmania shorebird count.
I checked my phone before leaving and there was no message to say the count had been called off, so I was on my way.
The organisation has been counting birds around Tasmania’s shores for half a century and this data has already proven invaluable in assessing shorebird numbers, and drawing up strategies for their protection. I was determined to play my part. I had not done the wader count before, although I had taken part in a much easier survey to count numbers of gulls.
Shorebirds, particularly the migratory waders, provide the ultimate challenge for bird-watchers. Not only are some of them incredibly small, the size of sparrows, they also lose their bright and colourful mating plumage while away from their breeding grounds in northern Asia.
What’s more, they inhabit the vast mudflats and saltmarshes around Australia’s shores in summer and much walking and stalking has to be done to get close enough to identify them.
I went equipped for the task, though, a telescope and tripod strung over my shoulder. What’s more I had rain gear, knowing I’d be out on marsh and mudflat for many hours.
The rain was still bucketing down when I checked my phone one more time. Still no message that the count had been cancelled, and I was on my way to the area designed for me, a stretch of coastline south of Sorell, starting at Iron Creek and taking in the Dodges Ferry, Carlton and finally Primrose Sands.
As I drove over the Midway Point causeway I could see that the weather was beginning to clear and surmised that the organisers had had their eye on the weather forecast for the day, and rain or shine the count would take place.
There are a hardy bunch, the members of Birdlife Tasmania and I thought of them packing their telescopes, and flasks of coffee, and setting off as I had done, water-resistant pens and notebooks at the ready.
The annual bird count is assuming growing importance each year as visiting waders suffer dramatic decreases in numbers. Some of these birds, like godwits and curlews, fly from within the Arctic Circle to the southern hemisphere when their breeding grounds freeze over and food supplies vanish.
The long-distance travellers – members of some species complete thousands of kilometres along the way non-stop – need refuelling stops to feed and rest and the wetlands that form many of these are being drained and degraded at an alarming rate. It’s unfortunate that our birds have to fly through one of the most densely populated regions of the planet – the area surrounding the Yellow Sea bordering China and the two Koreas.
The rain eased slightly during the wader count, with a hint of blue sky, but was soon falling again after I had made my first count at the vast estuary into which Iron Creek drains. I looked for international travellers in vain and even struggled to count good numbers of the resident waders that breed in Tasmania, the pied and sooty oystercatchers. Our own breeding birds are also suffering because of development around our coastline and increasing disturbance along beaches.
Next stop, Jones Bay at Lewisham, had good numbers of masked lapwings and then it was on to Tiger Head and Red Ochre Beaches at Dodges Ferry, banjo frogs croaking in a lagoon squeezed between the two.
More oystercatchers dotted the beaches but I searched without success for other residents, like hooded and red-capped plovers.
I wondered if the other counters out on the marshes around the state’s coastlines were having more success and I was keen to see the tally at the end of the day.
Excitedly I checked in with Birdlife Tasmania next day and was met with silence at the end of the line, and then a surprised voice.
“But the count is next weekend,” said the co-ordinator. In my enthusiasm to get to the marshes I had misread the date, and set off on the wrong day. I had do it all again the next weekend, but at least it didn’t rain.