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The Eastern Curlew

Who is the eastern curlew?

Here in Australia, many people are familiar with bush-stone curlews. Their eerie cries have been haunting campers nation-wide for many years. However, another species of curlew – the eastern curlew – is significantly less well-known and prevalent.

Eastern curlews are the largest wader bird in Australia. They have a very distinctive beak which is long and curves downwards, making them easy to spot. The birds can be seen stalking slowly through mudflats and wetland areas, foraging food from the surface or probing deep in the mud or sand with their long bills.

However, perhaps the most interesting thing that sets the eastern curlew apart from the bush-stone curlew is its massive migration. This species, and other migratory shorebird species, fly from northern China or Russia all the way through Asia across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, and sometimes even further, to New Zealand.

Over the course of its yearly migration, a single eastern curlew can fly more than 20,000 kilometres on a return trip, sometimes flying for days at a time without a break.

If an eastern curlew lives for 20 years, it will have flown a distance roughly equivalent to the distance between Earth and the moon.

Why are we worried about them?

Unlike many birds, the eastern curlew can't glide. This means that for stretches of its journey to breeding grounds in the north, the eastern curlew flaps continuously for days on end, not stopping for food or rest. After thousands of kilometres of flying the eastern curlew loses 40% to 70% of its body weight, and its muscles begin to be digested for energy. The bird must stop at a feeding ground to rebuild muscle and fat – this is called ‘roosting’. In order to continue the migration, the shorebirds need to greatly increase their body weight by feasting during these roosting stopovers. If they don’t build up enough body fat/energy, the birds may die on the next leg of their migration.

Unfortunately, many of the roosting areas throughout Asia and Australia have been heavily impacted by coastal development. Roosting grounds, including coastal wetlands and muddy intertidal zones, have been destroyed, leading to a massive decline in the number of eastern curlews, as well as other shorebirds.

Eastern curlews are now listed as Endangered in the Nature Conservation Act 1992 and Critically Endangered in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. They are protected under:

  • Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement
  • China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement
  • Republic of Korea-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention)
  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

About 75% of the world’s curlews winter in Australia, so we have a particular responsibility to protect them to the best of our ability.

The effect of disturbances

We know it is important that all migratory shorebirds put on as much weight as they can while they’re roosting. Disturbance has been identified as one of the major threats to shorebirds at all high tide roosting areas in the Mackay region which are in proximity to urban areas.

The effect of this disturbance is to reduce the amount of resting time the birds have, forcing them to use excessive energy at a time when they need to maximise their reserves for migration. This can cause their migration to fail or reduce their ability to breed at the end of migration.

What can we do?

The most important thing that you can do to help is to stay well away from roosting shorebirds, and make sure to always use a leash when walking dogs. Every time shorebirds are forced to take flight, they burn vital energy. Unfortunately, few are aware of the impact that people and dogs can have when they walk near shorebirds. Spread this information, particularly with your friends and family that enjoy walking on the beach.

  • Avoid driving any type of vehicle, flying drones or operating any recreational devices near shorebirds. Imagine an eastern curlew confronting a kite surfer for the first time; it probably thinks it is the biggest predator it has ever seen!
  • Don't drive along the beach at high tide or above the high-water mark — you may destroy shorebird nests.
  • If you are fishing from a sandbar, stand as far away as possible from where the birds are gathered.
  • Feral animals can kill shorebirds — you can report any sightings of feral animals to the council or contact the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries on 13 25 23.
  • Consider how your actions may disturb shorebirds. This can include where you set up camp or a simple stroll through a roost site at high tide.
  • Prevent pollution — remember that birds are heavily impacted by eating plastic, accidentally mistaking it for food.

The life of an Eastern Curlew

After six months of feeding, on the mud and the sand

There are urges inside, telling me to leave this fair land

It’s all part of my life, that’s annually planned

Must be patient and wait, for the biological command

When the weather is right, I’ll set off with the rest

Each one of us knows, which direction is best

But our experience and skill will be put to the test

To arrive safely home and organise somewhere to nest

Daryl Barnes

Crazy Bird Stories

This project is supported by Reef Catchments, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.