Victorian Wader Study Group

Loss of key refuelling areas – will this mean extinction of migratory shorebirds?
Media Release April 13, 2017

“Migratory shorebirds, amazing global travellers that cover immense distances every year, are in trouble,” said Doug Watkins, Chair of the Australasian Wader Studies Group, a special interest group of BirdLife Australia.

“Populations of these iconic birds, that spend half of the year in Australia during their non-breeding season, have been declining for decades, despite conservation efforts. A new international study has identified where in the flyway the declines are occurring,” he said.

The study has revealed a major hurdle far from away the birds’ Australian habitat, said co-author Associate Professor Richard Fuller from The University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Migratory shorebird populations are plummeting in Australia,” lead author Dr Colin Studds said. “While we are seeing this here with declining numbers, the thing affecting their populations is actually happening thousands of kilometres away in north-eastern Asia.”

Dr Studds, an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the new study showed that a critical factor in the shorebirds’ decline was how dependent they were on mudflats in the Yellow Sea, between China and South Korea, during migration.

“The shorebirds, including species of godwit, curlew, and sandpiper, are ‘cultural keystones’ in Asia and some are found nowhere else in the world,” he said. “The Far Eastern Curlew has been designated as critically endangered and many species are facing dramatic changes in population numbers.”

Many birds follow a migratory path from their non-breeding grounds in Australia to breeding sites in the Arctic, via rest stops in the Yellow Sea—a corridor known as the East Asian -Australasian Flyway . These staging sites are vital to the shorebirds’ successful migration as many shorebirds fly long non-stop flights and reach these critical sites in desperate need of food and rest.

“These birds may spend several weeks refuelling before they continue their migration,” he said.

“Scientists have long believed that loss of these rest stops could be related to the declines, but, there was no smoking gun.”

The new study provides one. The researchers analysed citizen science data collected between 1993 and 2012 on 10 key species to see if a relationship emerged between reliance on the Yellow Sea as a migration stopover and rate of population decline.

What they found was dramatic.

The more a species relied on the Yellow Sea mudflats during migration, the more quickly they were declining.

Even though the birds only spend 1–2 months of the year on the Yellow Sea mudflats, it was the most important factor in determining the population trend, they found.

Associate Professor Fuller said the study was founded on decades of effort counting birds by volunteers across Australia and New Zealand.

“Without this effort the study would have been impossible,” he said.

The results of these counts were also instrumental in allowing the AWSG and BirdLife Australia, together with the University of Queensland and various governments and non-government organisations to formulate the Shorebirds Conservation Action Plan. This Plan monitors the status of shorebird populations, identifies threats and sets out what needs to be done to save the shorebirds in the East Asian -Australasian Flyway.

Australia has signed bilateral migratory bird agreements with China, Korea and Japan to protect migratory birds, yet the birds have continued to decline.

“Every country along the migration route of these birds must protect habitat and reduce hunting to prevent these birds declining further or even going extinct,” said Associate Professor Fuller.

“We are particularly excited that China and Korea have recently begun the process of listing parts of the Yellow Sea as World Heritage Sites. This could prove a vital step in halting these dramatic declines we are seeing.”

The study, published in Nature Communications involved scientists from UQ; University of Maryland; Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; University of California, Santa Barbara; University of New South Wales; Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Victorian State Government; Victorian Wader Study Group; Global Flyway Network, Western Australia; Phillip Island Nature Park, Australia; Ornithological Society of New Zealand; Queensland Wader Study Group; Imperial College London; Avifauna Research and Services Pty Ltd, Australia; and the University of Tasmania.

Contacts:

Associate Professor Richard Fuller, Brisbane, r.fuller@uq.edu.au; +61 458 353 102

Dr Colin Studds, Baltimore, studdsc@umbc.edu; +1 410 455 3054

shoreline habitats
Shoreline habitats for migrating birds are turned into dry land through a process known as reclamation. Image: Nick Murray