Issue 10
Monday, 03 July 2017
Charles Darwin University
The Greater Sand Plover is endangered in some parts of the world. Photo: Sarah Mackie
The Greater Sand Plover is endangered in some parts of the world. Photo: Sarah Mackie

Species find refuge on urban beaches

By Leanne Miles

Critically endangered birds following the endless summer on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are taking refuge in the Top End of Australia, with research finding that the coast surrounding Darwin is a critical feeding ground and rest stop.

Charles Darwin University PhD candidate Amanda Lilleyman has been researching migratory shorebirds in and around Darwin for the past five years with her findings highlighting the need to protect areas where the birds take refuge.

She has discovered that the birds, some flying up to 11,000 km a year, arrived in Darwin in August/September and dispersed throughout various locations to roost and feed before beginning their long flight back to the northern hemisphere in March/April to breed.

“These birds are the ultimate athletes; they undergo some incredible physiological changes,” she said. “Before their return flight they will increase their body fat and muscle mass by between 40 and 70 per cent. They will also shrink some of their organs that are not used during flight.”

Amanda found high numbers of birds arriving annually to roost in Darwin were critically endangered in other states of Australia and parts of the world, such as the Greater Sand Plover.

Through her research, Amanda has built the first comprehensive picture (in an urban context) of not only the species composition but also what they were feeding on and where they were roosting.

“The critically endangered Eastern Curlew and vulnerable Greater Sand Plover are two species that are doing poorly in the flyway, with population declines listed for both,” she said.

“Despite this, both species are doing well locally in the NT and have increased in number on a local scale in Darwin Harbour.”

With many of the birds returning to the Top End due to access to good food resources, roosting habitat and with population numbers bucking national and international trends, Amanda’s research suggests that Darwin could be an internationally significant refuge for shorebirds.

“Now that we understand the importance of this safe haven right on our doorstep, we have an obligation to ensure that this network of sites remains available to them in the future,” Amanda said.