Standing on a traffic island, it was not the safest or most convenient place to watch birds. I had no other option. At high tide in Ralphs Bay the roosting waders were crowded onto the only patch of seashell and sand they could find just a metre or so beneath the highway running through Lauderdale that borders the bay.
A report of rare banded stilts in the bay had drawn me to Lauderdale but driving through the hamlet I had caught sight of a flock of smaller waders and decided to check these out first.
After parking in the car park of a café just over the road from where the little waders were resting between tides I settled for my traffic island spot fearing I would spook the birds if I crossed to the narrow grass verge on their side of the highway.
Much of RalphsBay, one of Tasmania’s premier bird-watching spots, is like that. It can only be viewed from roads that hem in the mudflats and marshlands.
Traffic roaring past on two sides of my island “hide” gave me some anxious moments but it was worth it. What I had found was a party of double-banded plovers, winter migrants from New Zealand.
There was an added bonus: several of the elegant if portly birds were still in their distinctive summer plumage. I could see the double bands of black and chestnut which a little later in the season would fade into the uniform grey-brown plumage that the plovers usually wear on their wintering grounds. It is these bands of colour that give the species its common name of double-banded plover.
Great skill is required to separate the smaller wader species which generally display similar plumage far from their breeding grounds. The double-banded plover is the only bird found in Australia to actually migrate from east to west, with most of the other migratory shorebirds travelling to the northern hemisphere in summer to breed. These migrants then head south as the northern winter sets in and spend the summer in Australia.
Remarkably, about half the double-banded plover population choses not to go in search of the sun, but merely flies to south-eastern Australian mainland shores and Tasmania to chance the winter there. Even that must be preferable to its breeding range in the highlands and mountains of New Zealand’s south island, which are snow-capped in winter.
Often migratory northern birds choose to over-winter in Tasmania and, giving up on the banded stilts, I searched for these, but the usual bar-tailed godwits and occasional curlew failed to show.
I could only find a close relative of the double-banded plovers, the slightly smaller red-capped plovers which are resident on Tasmania’s shorelines year-round.
When I refer to the “small” waders I’m talking of tiny birds less than 20 centimetres in length, including bill. The red-necked stint commonly seen in Tasmania during the summer measures only 12 centimetres but somehow manages to fly to breeding grounds within the Arctic circle each year.
The far-flung worlds of mudflat and tundra at different ends of the planet seemed a long way off as I dodged traffic on South Arm Rd in Lauderdale. One plover at least would not be making it home. It lay dead on the tarmacadum, killed by a car as it came in to land. Alongside it was the larger body of one of Lauderdale’s residents, a black-faced cormorant.