A magical, mystery tour took me to some far-flung corners of a magical world on a beautiful winter’s day last month.
Not so much far-flung for me – being a half hour’s drive from home – but far-flung for birds travelling from one side of the world to the other.
Tasmanian bird-watchers were making their annual winter wader count and I took the opportunity to discover some of these hidden places along southern Tasmania’s shores where waders that normally fly to the northern hemisphere during the Tasmanian winter can be found.
I had as my guide Els Wakefield who compiles the Tasmanian rare bird report for BirdLife Australia magazine and she told me that on the previous day she had already found a flock of 17 bar-tailed godwits and individual birds of another visitor from breeding grounds within the Arctic Circle, red-necked stints.
It promised to be an interesting day.
I often see these birds in summer and I was not so much interested in discovering how many choose to over-winter on these shores, but to find the actual places where they feed and roost. Knowing the location of these secret places would no doubt add to my wader checklist during the summer months and give me a chance to spot rarities I have missed in the past.
Godwits and stints – along with myriad other waders – fly thousands of kilometres each year to and from their breeding ground and they require not only productive feeding grounds in marsh and on mudflat, but places to rest to build strength for the onward journey.
Much publicity has been given to vanishing wetlands along the migration route through such densely-populated places as the two Koreas and China but a trip around the mudflats at the extreme southern end of the waders’ range – RalphsBay at Lauderdale and Orielton Lagoon and Pittwater at Sorrell – reveal that shorebirds are under pressure here too. The pressure comes not so much from the reclamation of wetland feeding grounds but the expansion of suburbia to the very edge of the sheltered sea-shell beaches were the birds rest.
Els Wakefield is the widow of noted Tasmanian naturalist, Dr Bill Wakefield, and she brought all the couple’s experience of monitoring these southern sites over the years to give me a greater insight into the needs of waders away from their breeding grounds.
A vital site might just be a low line of rocks that shields stints from northern winds, or a concrete oyster-boat jetty jutting into a lagoon where plovers find shelter, or an area of thick black mud behind a sandbank that attracts the bigger waders like the godwits and eastern curlews; they are all places in need of protection.
On our magical mystery tour we drove muddy lanes adjoining the marshes at Orielton and visited several areas where oysters are farmed. Here Els Wakefield said the oyster fishermen went to great lengths not to disturb the waders close to where they were hauling in their catch.
Some places were noted for a particular species, like rare pacific golden plovers found on the eastern side of Orielton Lagoon and sheltered, shallow waters that attracted an elegant, long-legged wader, the greenshank.
As Wakefield pointed out, development at Midway Point is threatening one of these locations, with new properties apparently reaching right down to the watermark. Here children and dogs will no doubt disturb roosting waders in the not too distant future.
After our tour I was pleased with the haul of birds we had seen, the godwits, stints and a winter visitor from New Zealand, double-banded plovers, among them but I was a little saddened to discover that in what could be great areas for bird safaris in summer no provision was being made for a simple buffer zone between creeping suburbia and the wonders of nature.
Birds of the forest might find a home in suburbia but waders and the world of concrete and glass, and dogs and cats, certainly do not mix.