Across Australia, wetlands play a vital part in keeping our environment healthy and productive. They provide food and habitat for wildlife. They even help protect our communities from the impacts of floods and pollution and help to improve the quality of our water.
Even beyond our shores, our wetlands play an important role in maintaining global biodiversity. Many of Australia’s freshwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves and coastlines are important feeding grounds for birds that fly here from as far away as the Arctic.
See what you can do to help protect migratory shorebirds.
A 9,000 km journey
Each year, around 2 million migratory shorebirds fly more than 9,000 km from their breeding grounds in Siberia and Alaska to the top of Australia. Around September, 37 species arrive in the country’s north—reaching ‘staging areas’ such as Roebuck Bay and Eighty Mile Beach in north-western Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland.
The birds then disperse across Australia, reaching the south-eastern states by October. In March, the shorebirds return to their staging areas. They form large flocks and feed almost around the clock to build energy reserves to head north.
What happens along the way
Migratory shorebirds breed in the Arctic tundra of Russia and Alaska as well as Mongolia and northern China. When the young are just 6 weeks old, most of the parents leave on their journey south. Two weeks later the young also fly south to avoid the Arctic winter.
Before the epic trip, the young birds almost double their body weight as they build up vital reserves of fat and muscle. Their digestive organs and leg muscles shrink, their hearts grow and their blood thickens to equip them for their long-haul journey.
During their 6 to 8-week journey, they fly nonstop for days at a time before landing to rest. Their final destinations include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand. At the halfway point in central and south Asia, most need to stop to put on more fat to fuel their remaining flights. It is important that they have large areas of suitable habitat, such as food-rich intertidal flats.
The migratory shorebirds’ flight path between the Arctic and Australia is called the East Asian–Australasian Flyway. In the face of ever-increasing human development and loss of habitat, populations of some species that use the flyway are decreasing. This includes the critically-endangered Eastern Curlew and the Great Knot.
Map showing the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, birds start arriving in Australia from September and leave again in March.
To ensure the survival of healthy flyway populations it is critical that all important migratory shorebird feeding and staging areas along the flyway are protected.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) was developed in 1971 to conserve wetlands and halt their worldwide loss. Australia designated the world’s first Ramsar site: Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. We now have 66 Ramsar sites that cover more than 8 million hectares.
You may have seen shorebirds with metal leg bands or coloured flags. Reported sightings of these bands and leg flags provide information about the routes flown by migratory shorebirds and the distances they fly. This information helps scientists to understand their biology and can help in protecting bird populations.
A banded Bar-tailed Godwit with bands and a satellite transmitter antennae. Photo: Lee Tibbitts, USGS
In 2020 satellite tracking showed that a male Bar-tailed Godwit took off from Alaska on 16 August. He landed in New Zealand 11 days later, having flown more than 12,000 km. This is the world record for non-stop flight for any bird.
What you can do to help
Get to know your local wetland and keep an eye out for these amazing yet vulnerable birds.
You can help protect them by:
- not disturbing the birds and keeping your dog on a leash
- reporting banded or tagged birds
- taking home any rubbish, especially plastic and fishing lines
- joining a wetland ‘friends’ group
- participating in shorebird monitoring programs
- celebrating World Migratory Bird Days (May and October every year) and World Wetlands Day (2 February).