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Jan 28: “Those sandplovers are moving fast!”
 

Up at 0315 this morning and off to pick up Micha Jackson, who was coming with me on a Queensland Wader Study Group mission to catch shorebirds at the Port of Brisbane. Micha leads an important project studying the use of artificial habitats by migratory shorebirds in the Chinese Yellow Sea, and is recently back from fieldwork near Shanghai where she documented the largest ever group of Spoon-billed Sandpipers foraging away from mudflats on artificial ponds – an important discovery indeed, particularly if it can established what conditions favour the spoonies, and if those conditions can be created through management. She is hoping to find out during her ongoing PhD studies at UQ.

We arrived at the rendenzous on Curlew Street at 0428 ahead of the main group of folks, and relieved to be on time. A Brown Quail was calling, and House Sparrows were chirping in the artificial light. The Port is one of the last strongholds of House Sparrow in urban Brisbane, a huge decline for the species in the last few decades in the city. They are still common out of the city in rural towns but have largely gone from suburban Brisbane. The rest of the crew arrived presently, including our leader Jon Coleman, stalwart of the Queensland Wader Study Group, and instrumental in efforts to understand the migration routes and local site use by shorebirds in Moreton Bay and elsewhere in Queensland. The QWSG has been monitoring shorebirds for decades, and their meticulously curated data has been central to demonstrating regional and national declines of shorebirds, and showing that the cause of their declines is habitat loss in the Yellow Sea on their migration route. The dedication of the volunteers that tirelessly monitor shorebirds under the count programme organised by QWSG continues to astound me, and I’m so grateful they are doing what they are doing – collecting continuous data even when funding regimes etc change. Such data has been crucial to the shorebird conservation effort. The group recently celebrated their 25th birthday, and here’s to another equally effective 25 years. You can join here and support the work of the group, financially and / or by getting into the field.

Upwards of 10,000 shorebirds roost at the Port of Brisbane, in the newly reclaimed area at the north end of Fisherman Islands. This area is a working part of the Port and unfortunately there is no public access at present. The shallow pools are excellent habitat, and rocky bunds around them also attract species that prefer hard substrate, a rare commodity along the Brisbane mainland coast. The QWSG team had set up cannon nets in two different spots yesterday, and we waited expectantly as Robert Bush and Jon Coleman checked whether birds were close to either net. While they did this, I scoped around looking for birds, and was immediately rewarded with a fine pair of Sooty Oystercatchers on the rocky sea wall, and a brilliant flyby from an Eastern Reef Egret. I was over the moon with the egret – it is an extremely scarce species in Brisbane because of the real lack of suitable rocky shore or reef habitat. I was worried about how to connect with this species, and just delighted to have seen one so early in the year. I desperately hoped a lone tattler on the rocky sea wall would be a Wandering, but it looked stubbornly perfect for Grey-tailed in the telescope no matter how hard I tried. Scoping along the beach where the first net was located, there was a Ruddy Turnstone in the small shorebird flock, a third year tick.

In terms of the cannon-net catch, the news wasn’t great – the lower net had no birds remaining near it, and I helped a few others remove the net from the beach before it got inundated by the tide. See here for a brief explanation of cannon-netting. Up at the other net there were about 1,500 shorebirds in the area, mainly Lesser Sand Plovers, but a real mixed bag. Of particular interest were a group of about 20 Grey Plovers, one of the scarcest regularly occurring migratory shorebirds in Moreton Bay, and another very welcome addition to the year list. Eventually I also picked out a Broad-billed Sandpiper in the mixed flock, associating with Curlew Sandpipers. Despite all the birds in the area, few were close to the net, and Micha Jackson and David Milton were sent in to “twinkle” – very slowly and carefully moving within sight of the birds in the hope they walk towards the catching area. Despite some outstandingly professional twinkling, it just wasn’t to be. The sandplovers started walking slowly towards the net, exactly as planned, but then they began moving fast and eventually took flight and settled on another pond. There would be no catch today. We packed up the second net and left the Port – we would have to come back and try another time.

With a whopping four year ticks today (Sooty Oystercatcher, Eastern Reef Egret, Ruddy Turnstone and Grey Plover), my year list ended the day at 210 species. I spent 3 hours 23 minutes birding, walked 3.763 km and drove 81.3 km.

Eastern Reef Egret, Port of Brisbane, 28th Jan 2018