Community & Business

21 May, 2022

The amazing world of international waders.

I WONDER how many people have heard about the Cairns bird named Nordy?

“Nordy” the Nordmann’s Greenshank that has now spent two remarkable summers on the Cairns Esplanade. Photo: Peter Valentine
“Nordy” the Nordmann’s Greenshank that has now spent two remarkable summers on the Cairns Esplanade. Photo: Peter Valentine

This endangered international migratory wader, a Nordmann’s Greenshank, is a rarity anywhere, as the global population is less than 1000, but suddenly a lot of north Queenslanders have got to know Nordy. 

Normally, they breed on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia during the northern hemisphere summer. After breeding, they fly south to coastal areas of SE Asia during our summer. But at Christmas 2020 one Nordmann’s Greenshank was identified on the Cairns Esplanade and so began the saga of Nordy. Because of its rarity in Australia (this is the first record for eastern Australia and only two other records in far northern WA) many people were keen to see it, and very soon the news spread and people started travelling to Cairns from all over Australia – just to see Nordy! 

Right through the summer people enjoyed the sight of Nordy feeding on crabs along the Cairns Esplanade until finally, in April, Nordy departed. At the end of our wet season, most international migrants head north again to fly an astonishing distance to reach their breeding grounds. Sophisticated and tiny satellite trackers have finally revealed more detail about how and where these birds travel, halfway round the world. One amazing species is the Bar-tailed Godwit that flies non-stop from Alaska in the USA to New Zealand and Eastern Australia, a distance of 11,000 km completed in eight days! Weighing only 400 grams, this is quite a feat. Godwits can live for 18- 20 years and make that journey every year. The tiny Red-necked Stint is only 40 grams and yet each year flies from our tidal areas and other wetlands all the way north to the Siberian tundra to breed, returning here around August. 

There are about 35 species of migratory waders who fly each year from the northern hemisphere to Australia, in total about two million birds. Some species are much more abundant than others and there are another 24 species that are classed as vagrants, that do not normally occur here but occasionally, like the Nordmann’s Greenshank, fly a bit off course and end up in Australia. Accidental tourists. 

Recently, many species have become threatened by developments and habitat loss, both in their breeding areas (due mainly to climate change impacts) and in their stopover locations in the East Asian Flyway where many species stop to feed and build strength for the next leg. There are also some threats within Australia from disturbance to the feeding birds, and with coastal developments. Australia has a number of agreements with other countries to protect these birds. 

But getting back to Nordy, one further development occurred in 2021 when Nordy turned up again on the Cairns Esplanade, for the second year in a row. A lot of local birders cheered and now wonder whether the bird will return again in late 2022, perhaps with a mate? 

In April each year, BirdLife Northern Queensland have a Wave the Waders Goodbye activity on the Cairns Esplanade … a bon voyage event to wish the birds a safe flight and a successful breeding season. There is the strong hope that they may safely return again in the coming August/September. Our migratory waders do occur in many places along the coastline, and some use freshwater habitats on the Tablelands. 

Nordy will probably depart for the north in the very near future, if he has not already done so. There is little doubt many eyes will be searching for this bird in December. Will we have a chance to say hello again?

Wonders of Wildlife with Peter Valentine.

Bar-tailed Godwit in flight at the Cairns Esplanade.
Bar-tailed Godwit in flight at the Cairns Esplanade.

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