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How are our migratory shorebirds faring during their stay in the Arctic?

As we say goodbye to winter in Moreton Bay, most of our migratory shorebirds that made the long flight to the Arctic to breed during the northern summer are on their way home. But what of the breeding grounds they are leaving? What effect is climate change and wildfire having on them?

Wildfires have been a natural part of boreal forests and Arctic tundra ecosystems for thousands of years. Indeed, the Gwich’in Indigenous peoples of North-West Canada have traditionally burnt grass during early springtime in the North, when the meadows have thawed but there is still snow around the timber line. This increased the biodiversity of plant species and fertilized the soil so that plants were more nutritious and increased the land’s carrying capacity of animals.

However, if that same fire were lit – or if it were a spontaneous wildfire - just a month later, it could be extraordinarily destructive and destroy the rich structures of those plants, interfering with migrating animals and birds. The Gwich’in Council International is leading much of the work to understand, respond to, and adapt to wildfires.

The Arctic is warming at more than three times the rate of the rest of the world, making it possible for industry and agriculture to move further north. Most wildfires are sparked by human activity, even in the Arctic. Also, a warming Arctic has more lightning strikes, further increasing the likelihood of fires.

The wildfire season is longer now, with fires more frequent and intense. Their number has more than tripled since 2018 in much of the Arctic.

Our Moreton Bay birds started moving north from March onward, and migrating over the East Asian-Australasian Flyway to breeding grounds in the high Arctic, primarily Eastern Siberia and Alaska, and in sub-Arctic areas in N E China, Mongolia and Russia.

They nest there, mostly on shallow mounds in open, boggy areas, leaving them vulnerable to fires which are not only burning in trees and grasses but also under the ground. Fires can smoulder there throughout the winter, re-igniting in early spring – these are known as “zombie fires” and are very difficult to extinguish.

Another important impact of climate change on the breeding pattern of migratory birds in the Arctic is that some are now being born too late for the period of peak abundance of insects, the chicks’ source of food. Summer is starting earlier and with it the emergence of insects from the soil. However, the birds do not appear to be adjusting their travel schedule, so they may arrive too late in the breeding grounds for the chicks to make best use of the burst of insect life.

This reduces their growing capability and scientists have observed that in some species individuals are becoming smaller. Most worryingly they have shorter bills which, once back in their southern feeding grounds, affects their ability to forage deeply enough for the protein-rich food they need, forcing them to eat less satisfactory vegetal matter nearer the surface.

As the climate continues to warm, species globally are starting to track for cooler climates towards the Poles. But for Arctic species they are already at the top of the world, with nowhere to go. Their habitat must necessarily contract…

Regular counts of the shorebirds on their return to Australia will hopefully not reveal a dramatic decrease in their numbers following the Arctic wildfires. Fire is of course not the only climate-related reason for a decline. Rising sea levels on staging grounds and increased storm activity are also factors, together with the ongoing problem of reclamation for urbanisation and industry of essential habitat along the Flyway. Pollution and hunting also add to the hazards they face.

For all these reasons, it is more critical than ever that their summer habitat here in the southern hemisphere be protected, to enable them to feed and rest without disturbance before embarking on their next epic migration.

It’s vital to protect migratory shorebirds while they summer across Moreton Bay – here in our own backyard. Grey-tailed Tattlers, Godwin Beach. Photo © Darren Jew

BIEPA encourages the community to protect, care for, and restore Bribie Island's natural habitats, so all life flourishes. Bribie Island and the surrounding shoreline, Pumicestone Passage and Moreton Bay are all listed by the IUCN as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance. BIEPA calls on all levels of government to respect both the Ramsar Convention, and the CMS (Convention on Migratory Species), to which Australia are signatories. Shorebirds deserve better protections through nature-positive urban planning decisions, and better management of human-preventable disturbances.



  • Consider the ways you might help reduce human-preventable disturbances such as those by off-leash dogs in public and any dogs and (careless human ) incursions into shorebird areas. Report any illegal harvesting of shellfish (bird and fish food-source) from tidal flats. Encourage neighbours to keep their cats contained indoors, in an outdoor enclosure or closely supervised within their property.

  • Advocate for the retention of all remaining intact native habitat on Bribie and for the restriction of encroachment of the urban footprint into nature. Make formal submissions to Development Applications that would adversely affect our remaining nature.

  • Learn more about the plight of migratory shorebirds – stream the film "Flyways" on ABC iView.

  • Introduce the kids to the amazing shorebird story via the Wing Threads program.

  • Join our Wildlife Team to help on their Securing Shorebirds project!

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1 comentario

Miembro desconocido
05 sept 2023

Wonderful article...many Thanks Kathleen.

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