Captivated by Curlews - Peter Lindenmayer

I was in my late teens and living in Brisbane when I first started noticing that the urban birds around me were actually much more interesting than I’d realised. There was a Pied Butcher Bird that frequented the garden where I lived, and I remembered that my grandmother, who lived on the Mary River just outside Maryborough, used to say that they were her favourites because of their glorious calls.
The noisy Rainbow Lorikeets woke me on summer mornings as they screeched and squabbled among the blossoms, but I found their antics hilarious as they hung from branches lapping up the nectar. I wasn’t so keen on having to dodge the defensive flights of Masked Lapwings (we called them Spur-winged Plovers in those days) when I walked across the park to the bus stop in the breeding season, but I had to admire their commitment. And at a factory where I worked, lunchtimes featured entertainment by a family of Magpies who knew that they could count on snacks from our outdoor lunch tables if they caroled insistently until fed.
I was on a trip to the coast when, quite accidentally, I came across Toondah Harbour at low tide. That morning the mudflats were thick with birds of all kinds, each energetically working the ground and puddles in their own special way. Some I already knew, like the stocky Pied Oystercatchers and the anorexic-looking Black-winged Stilts. But there were many others unfamiliar to me – and I only later realised that these were some of our long-distance migrants.
Then I noticed, further out, a silhouetted line of larger birds with long curved beaks, all facing the same direction and almost rhythmically bending, probing, standing up, moving on, repeating. Not quite in unison, but all with the same serious, well-practiced urgency. Amused and intrigued, I immediately thought of an ungainly but oddly elegant modern avian ballet. What on earth were those birds?
My still new field guidebook told me that these were Eastern Curlews, and they instantly became my favourite waders. And then I discovered that they were “endangered”, so I had to look that up. My education in the realities of bird survival was beginning. (That was more decades ago than I like to count, and it’s now even worse – the Eastern Curlew has been classified as Critically Endangered, with numbers continuing to fall.)
I don’t claim to be a serious birder. True, my old bird books now have scribbled lists of the species that I’ve been able to name in the various places I’ve lived. However, serious twitchers would laugh at the paltry numbers of species jotted down, as my identification skills remain pretty poor and I seem to have a terrible memory for bird calls. But I have a growing appreciation of the important role they play in our ecosystems. And frankly, some birds just capture my imagination.
One group that really impresses me are the long distance migrants, and particularly, after that first Brisbane summer sighting, our Eastern Curlew. It’s perhaps a bit presumptuous to call the Eastern Curlew “ours”, as after all every one of them was hatched in the remote parts of eastern Russia or north China.
But Eastern Curlews are smart enough to know that Australia is the best place to spend summer, so each year they make that extraordinary journey down south, covering around 12,000 kilometres to reach our shores. They’re so loyal that I reckon they should qualify for permanent seasonal worker visas, if not full citizenship. And then as soon as our first autumn winds blow cold, like so many Australians they head north for warmer weather. But Eastern Curlews go further, retracing their flights back to exotic places like Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula where they mate, nest and raise young in the balmy Siberian summer. (As climate change shifts the life cycles of the invertebrates that make up their main food source there, they may have to arrive sooner to meet the peak food supply times, so like all or us they’re vulnerable to global forces as well as local ones.)
After my first Toondah visit I returned again and again, and to other parts of Moreton Bay, particularly delighting in the flocks of voraciously feeding birds, each species with its own niches, its own behavioural quirks. Until finally, with winter approaching, the numbers fell and the mudflats were left to the resident birds again. Since then I’ve seen Eastern Curlews (and many other waders) in a few other places, from the Victorian coast to the sandflats of East Arnhemland. But only ever two or three at a time, never the numbers I saw at Toondah.
So when I first heard about the plans to turn Toondah Harbour into yet another mammoth seaside housing complex, my immediate reaction was dismay. The proposed 3,500 unit development would virtually eliminate vital feeding grounds for thousands of birds, many of them species that are already endangered.
It’s true, Toondah isn’t your classic Aussie beach, all golden sand and crashing surf, so it doesn’t attract thousands of families taking the kids out for a day in the sun and the water. That makes it seem like a soft target for developers wanting to turn it into yet another manufactured canal and townhouse lookalike. Toondah’s beauty is more subtle than those stereotypical Aussie beaches – but more importantly, its ecological importance is actually far greater. Sorry Bondi, etc, but that’s right – apart from the seagulls foraging for fish ‘n chip leftovers, you don’t provide much nutrient for bird life.
The mangroves and mudflats of Toondah (and other coastal areas like it) are important carbon stores. But they’re also home to millions of small sea creatures that are food sources for dozens of bird species. And before they’re devoured by hungry birds, these invertebrates help keep our oceans healthy by processing and recycling nutrients in our waters. So feeding waders are part of a complex and balanced ecological system that we disrupt at our peril. And it’s not just Toondah - Eastern Curlews and their migratory wader mates are found at many other coastal sites in all Australian states – particularly where tidal flats are relatively undisturbed.
It’s important to note that the most significant threats to Eastern Curlews, and to many other migratory waders, comes from the destruction of their stop-over points on their flights to and from their far northern and southern habitats. The mudflats in and around the Yellow Sea – in northern China, Korea and Japan – provide the nutrients that fuel the next stages of these birds’ journeys. Inappropriate development and pollution has a major impact on feeding opportunities in these places, and as food supplies drop, migratory waders struggle to build up the stores of fat they need to complete their next long flights. And so, sadly, many undernourished migrants fall into the sea exhausted before they reach land again.
Fortunately, local and international bird advocates in these Asian countries are speaking out to stop inappropriate development, and governments are slowly starting to respond. So it’s important that those of us in the Eastern Curlews’ southern hemisphere habitats also do our bit to ensure that the birds get enough nutrients from our coastlines to make their next trip back to their northerly breeding grounds. We can start by making sure that Toondah remains a safe harbour for birds, rather than a home they’ll soon be evicted from.
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Peter Lindenmayer is the author of Malishka – a Curlew comes back to our coast, an illustrated children’s story, with some bird activities for kids and information for adults. Beautifully illustrated by Canberra artist and NatureArt Lab tutor Lesley Wallington. Available online from Wildlife Queensland – wildlife.org.au/shop . Proceeds from the sale support bird conservation organisations.

Curlew drawings by Lesley Wallington

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