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Kakadu Beach Shorebirds Roost

Double-banded Plover in non-breeding plumage: arrived Friday, 12 April 2024. Photo Greg Harrison

Dear reader


Well, it’s official: our resident shorebirds have left, probably late last week around the 1st April.  On Friday 5th  April there were only about 110 godwits, 16 curlews and eight knots and a stray group of 16 Terek Sandpipers on the roost at Kakadu Beach.


They will be heading north for the Yellow Sea on their 13,000 km flight, and then separating, with the godwits flying east across the Bering Sea to the Yukon, and the Great Knots turning west into the Siberian tundra.  Today (Sunday, 7 April), we had no Eastern Curlews but still had some 306 Bar-tailed godwits on the roost; they behaved very differently from our normal resident birds.  They were jittery, quarrelsome and hugging the seawrack along the water’s edge, as if they didn’t know how to adapt to the roost as the high tide came in.  There were no green leg flags (Moreton Bay banded birds)  and only 6 birds with any colour;  the majority were quite slender with no fat reserves fit for a long flight. Judging on their very long bills, I think most were females from down south or New Zealand  (female godwits have longer bills than males).  It was raining at the time, but up in the grey sky over Ningi  I saw a flock of about 35 godwits very high heading north; they passed the roost then turned back and landed which added to the tense situation at the roost.


Only one Beach Stone-Curlew was on the roost; I am pretty sure it was the juvenile; tried to make himself big and strong and chase off a few godwits in the absence of its parents, but when three oystercatchers landed nearby it decided discretion was a safer bet and retreated to the edge of the mangroves to stand forlornly in the rain.


So we have some quiet months as our godwits and knots breed on the other end of the planet.  It is strange to think that when they have such a good time here in Pumicestone Passage, with lots of food and sunshine that these same birds are now high above the South China Sea, overflying naval installations and international tensions, heading towards feeding grounds at the top end of the Yellow Sea, in a completely different environment.  There they will separate from the flocks into pairs and find a suitable habitat in the heather and tundra sedges to breed.


Interestingly, the Pied Stilts arrived back in numbers after being away for nearly a year, 109 adults and one juvenile.  There was also 11 Caspian Terns, one with an orange leg flag. These are big marine terns, the largest tern in the world, easily recognisable by their massive red beak.


Our next excitement will be the arrival of our inter Tasman friends, the Double banded Plovers from New Zealand.  They breed there but winter in Australia. Some were reported from Port of Brisbane so it should only be a week or so before they arrive at Kakadu beach.  Look for small plovers huddled in the tidewrack with sandy brown faces.


I also counted at Godwin Beach where I was thrilled to see 385 Grey-tailed Tattlers land in front of me from an isolated clump of mangroves out to sea where they had been roosting during the high tide. There was also 6 Common Greenshanks, which despite their name are anything but common.


Most of the tattlers were in full breeding plumage with soft grey backs and fine bars across their underparts so they too will be heading north.  I think the curlews leave first, followed by stints, then whimbrels, godwits and knots, and finally Terek sandpipers, greenshanks and tattlers.

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This amazing photo by Greg Harrison shows a massed group of Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris, a medium sized wader that migrates each year to subarctic tundra in north- eastern Siberia to breed, before returning for the summer back to Australia.  Like other shorebirds, knots are in decline and now listed as Critically Endangered; places like Kakadu Beach bird roost provide a safe haven for them during high tides. Knots are almost exclusively marine birds during their time in Australia, feeding on the extensive mudflats of Pumicestone Passage and Godwin Beach. They have a strange habit of clustering in dense knots, although their name may come from the Anglo-Danish ruler Cnut, king of England, Denmark and Norway from 1016 to 1035.  He is reputed to show his courtiers he was not all-powerful, have ordered his throne placed on the beach and commanded the tide not to come in.

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Dear reader


Surprisingly, given how quiet the Passage was because of the light rain, numbers were a little down at the roost today, with the vast majority being Bar-tailed Godwits (1760) and Great Knot (320).  It is possible that some birds are leaving on their great migration north for the breeding season on the Yukon tundra, but it maybe that the rain kept disturbing humans away and there was less incentive to come to the roost.  All of the Toorbul roost came over in one great mass of godwits and knots, but there are other sandbars up the Passage where birds can shelter as long as the tide is not huge and people do not disturb them.  However, my view is that some birds are leaving to travel north. The Curlews (51) are way down on the numbers (400+) that were present back in September last year, and many are in their deep golden brown breeding plumage, so perhaps some are already leaving for Siberia.


It is really disappointing that this year we have had very few smaller waders – sand plovers, stints, etc. And today we had no Australian terns and only 4 Pied Stilts, which are usually present in large numbers. 

Again, it may be the unusual weather patterns we are having, or the flood rains further north and west. However, it shows the value of long term observations to monitor the populations and see which species are under threat.


For some reason, possibly just the spatial distribution of the flock, we had a number of

very early leg flags today, with some old friends, AKA and ASE, who I have recorded numerous times since 2012. 


At this time of the year, when the birds are coming into breeding plumage, it is so much easier to determine which are males (those with chestnut underparts) and females (larger with a longer bill). The flocks are becoming very colourful, so take the opportunity to see them in resplendent spangled silver and black (knots) and chestnut and barred browns (godwits).

Warm regards


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Bar-tailed Godwits in breeding plumage

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