Checking up on the shorebirds in the Whitsunday Islands

By April 10, 2015 May 28th, 2015 Great Barrier Reef Islands

Following on from the seabird survey we conducted through the Whitsunday islands late last year, in March we set out to count shorebirds through the same region. Having limited records in their database, QPWS wanted us the fill the gap and begin to establish a baseline against which future trends can be measured.

Bill skippered Wild Cat out of Mackay Harbour in near perfect conditions and headed for Shaw Island, with four Brown Boobies en route providing our first records for the trip. After a night in the picturesque Neck Bay, we started our official surveying on a couple of nearby beaches, targeting the high tide when the birds are gathered at roosts rather than spread out over larger feeding areas. We counted the birds and noted location and tide details before returning to the boat and motoring on to our next destination.

And so continued our journey over the ensuing nine days. We would move between islands and bays, targeting the most favourable wader habitat, and conducting surveys by walking beaches or inspecting sites from the Wild Cat’s tender. Our itinerary was necessarily fluid due to the uncertainty of the weather, which dictated which areas could be safely and adequately surveyed. The calm conditions we enjoyed for the first five days were gradually replaced by increasing south-easterlies, meaning some intended destinations became no longer possible, but we still managed to cover 32 sites and visit nine spectacular islands.

Overall, shorebird numbers were not great, but this was not entirely unexpected: these continental islands are mostly steep-sided and lack the extensive areas of beach and mudflat required to support large populations; and shorebird numbers have mostly plummeted in recent years anyway, largely due to the development of stopover sites they rely on to refuel during migration from their northern hemisphere breeding grounds.

Ironically, after visiting numerous secluded inlets supporting relatively few birds, the greatest accumulation of waders we encountered was at one of the most heavily-visited areas in the Whitsundays, the famous Whitehaven Beach. Here we encountered numerous plovers, curlews, whimbrels, godwits, sand-plovers and stints – it seems Whitehaven is a magnet for international visitors of all kinds, both feathered and otherwise!

Outside of survey times, we took in all the Whitsundays is famous for, with snorkelling excursions, refreshing dips and hikes through the various habitats these islands support. We finished our journey with a relaxing day on Brampton Island before an easy motor back to Mackay on our final morning.

Ultimately, we provided QPWS with a valuable snapshot of shorebird populations at several Whitsundays sites. Hopefully we can return next year to add more data and visit the sites that were inaccessible this time. Thanks to all our volunteers: Allison from Birds Queensland for leading groups when required; Craig for backing up after January’s Capricorn Cays survey; Selar for his humour and telling us how most of what we saw occurs in his backyard in Sydney; Barb for keeping Bill in line and making the tea; Judit for correcting Tim’s bird IDs; and Miklos ‘The Rabbit’ for devouring the leftovers from every meal. You were all enthusiastic and fast-learning, and contributed valuably to the survey.

Hope to see you all on another Wild Mob adventure soon!

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