The sight of 22 eastern curlew – the biggest of all the birds termed waders – on the Pittwater mudflats carried with it a tinge of sadness.
As I watched these dramatic birds, notable for their long down-curved bills, probing for marine worms and molluscs the thought occurred to me that it might be the last time I’d see this species in such great numbers in Tasmania. It might even be the last time I saw an eastern curlew.
Numbers of the curlew have been in freefall in recent years as their mudflat and marsh habitat has slowly vanished under the bulldozer and plough across their vast migratory range, that stretches from inside the Arctic Circle to the bays of southern Tasmania.
All the 36 migratory shorebirds that travel each year along what is known as the East Asian–Australasian Flyway (EAAF), from the Northern Hemisphere to Australia and New Zealand, are registering staggering declines – sometimes at the rate of 10 per cent a year – and there are very real fears that they may eventually vanish from our shores altogether.
Out of approximately 30 species which eventually reach Tasmania none are facing as big a crisis as the eastern curlew, and a smaller cousin, the curlew sandpiper.
Eastern curlew numbers are down by about 75 per cent from counts of the birds conducted in the 1960s. Curlew sandpipers are down by a staggering 90 per cent.
Locally these two species are in danger of becoming extinct.
The eastern curlew – a large bird standing up to 66cm tall – was once incredibly common in Tasmanian waters, where they were hunted for the pot.
Early accounts dating from the start of the last century describe flocks of curlew as so thick that they moved across the mudflats around Sorell in a black cloud, darkening the sky.
Thousands were shot by hunting parties in spring and summer, complementing the hunt for duck in the autumn.
I now only see the occasional specimen, and so finding 22 in early October shortly after they had arrived from the north was a real treat.
I had been alerted to the presence of a large flock by Els Wakefield, who compiles the rare bird sightings report for Tasmania for Birdlife Australia magazine. She had seen 12 at Cambridge, fitting in some birding after taking a relative early one morning to the airport.
She took me to the spot about a week later but we were unsuccessful and then, checking the south-western side of Pittwater near Seven Mile Beach, we were led on what can only been described as a wild goose chase – by either a skylark or a starling mimicking the calls of curlews from a patch of dry woodland fringing the mudflats.
We soon found the birds, however, and were delighted to discover the original flock of 12 had swelled to 22.
The migratory shorebirds are under threat from three directions. Not only is hunting in the northern hemisphere and coastal development in Australia affecting them, the most critical danger appears to be the drainage of vital staging grounds in south-east Asia, particularly around the Yellow Sea bordered by China and the two Koreas. Most Yellow Sea tidal mudflats are disappearing under development, in one of the most densely populated places on earth.
The plight of our shorebirds was highlighted recently in an article in Birdlife Tasmania’s Yellowthroat newsletter, in which the organisation’s chairman, Eric Woehler, pointed out there was an accurate picture of the scale of the crisis because our 30 species of migrants had been monitored during the summer and winter months since the early 1960s.
“The observed decreases in Tasmania are also being observed elsewhere in Australia,
but the Tasmanian data have typically been of greater magnitude and earlier than elsewhere, suggesting Tasmania is serving as an early warning indicator for migratory shorebirds in Australia and the EAAF,” he wrote.