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A global shorebird flight pattern – Flyways in Cairns

Peter Valentine | Conservation Officer


Australian filmmaker, Randall Wood, has made a cracker of a film to focus attention on the wondrous nature and terrible plight of migratory shorebirds. We “northerners” were treated to an excellent showing of “Flyways – The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds” at Event Cinema in Cairns on Sunday, 4th June. There were 151 of us able to enjoy the film on the big screen, and of these, 80–90 stayed for the Q&A at the end, with support from Sally Sheldon. The sound and visual quality of the film was excellent.


Australian filmmaker, Randall Wood
Advertising by Antidote Films for the Cairns screening. This was one of many screenings around Australia. See https://antidotefilms.com.au/flyways-documentary/


The showing of the film was timely, as BirdLife is ramping up its opposition to the Toondah Development in Moreton Bay, now under consideration for approval by the Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek. The Ramsar site hosts critical habitat for the Far Eastern Curlew and the proposed destructive development is inappropriate. Randall Wood made the film in part to try and counteract the poor awareness about the threats to waders throughout their range, and having grown up overlooking Moreton Bay, he was deeply concerned about this development.


Far Eastern Curlews: the focus of the Flyways film (plus Red-necked Avocets) at Toorbul, Moreton Bay, where the film was concentrated. Photo: Peter Valentine.


But he expanded the focus to capture the antipodean perspective using a species from South America (Hudsonian Godwit); another from Africa (Red Knot); and the third from Australia (the Far Eastern Curlew). One vehicle the film uses to improve understanding, is to draw in scientists and local communities from each of the three flyways to help us appreciate both the austral summer conditions for each species, and the breeding situations in the northern hemisphere. For each flyway further threats were revealed for the birds as they flew their extensive flyways.


Hudsonian Godwit in Alaska. Photo by Melissa Groo IN Robbins J. (2022). This Wonder Bird Flies Thousands of Miles, Non-Stop, as Part of an Epic Migration in Alaska: a Smithsonian magazine special report. Science, January 2022.


Waders at Roebuck Bay, Broome, WA, including Red Knot in breeding plumage with others, ready to leave for their breeding grounds. Photo: Peter Valentine.


In order that scientists might gain a better appreciation of the flyways, individual birds have for some time been tagged with satellite trackers as well as leg bands, and the information garnered has proved amazing. Each Far Eastern Curlew flies over 10,000 km from Australia to the breeding grounds in Siberia, and after a brief breeding season, returns again to Australia. This species really is more Australian than anything as although they do not breed here, breeding birds spend about 60% of their time in Australia (some along the east coast, others in the northwest). Immatures might spend their first few years in Australia full time.


The Far Eastern Curlew. Photo: Peter Valentine.

Randall Wood took advantage of the known patterns to tell the story from the point of view of the Far Eastern Curlew, a species in critical decline. Key threats are developments along the Yellow Sea, especially the more southern parts visited by the South-east Queensland population. But, perhaps, even more disturbing is that this population faces more threats in Australia than does the north-western Australia population, and it is notable that the relative decline is much greater in the south-eastern Australia population. Coastal developments here no doubt explain this difference as more habitat is under threat, and has already been lost. For this reason key habitat areas in the Cairns area should be seen as critical for the species, as Sally Sheldon suggested.




Luckily for the film production, a single Far Eastern Curlew, which had been satellite tagged for several years (AAD), continued to broadcast locational data, and the film follows this bird as part of the Australian story. It was particularly fascinating for the audience to have that intimate link with our own Far Eastern Curlew. I found it intriguing to see the researchers and volunteers trying hard to capture and band additional birds, led by Richard Fuller’s team from the University of Queensland, despite all the barriers to success. Every care for the bird is the priority, and in the circumstances, no bird was caught by either cannon net or mist net.


But the producer wanted to bring home the global pattern and so we were also shown the work of scientists in Africa, on the Red Knot population migrating through Europe to Siberia. The researchers in western Africa (Mauritania) are attempting to understand the conditions for the Red Knots along their flyway, and to consider how climate change may challenge successful breeding in the Arctic.




Disturbances and inadequate food supplies along the flyway are real issues also. My guess is that many of us were horrified to find that the returning birds flying through France are heavily shot despite their threatened status. Of course the French are not the only people who eat small birds… and in some cases there is direct competition between humans and Red Knots for the same bivalve mollusc.


The third focal point of the film is South America, where we were shown the Hudsonian Godwits in Chile prior to their departure, and then during arrival and nesting activities in Alaska. Once again there were many field challenges for the scientists, and it was a treat to be taken inside the project and to feel and understand the pressures of such studies. The links between locals and visiting scientists was important.




Although the Hudsonian Godwit is not an Australian species, a few vagrants have been recorded here including some long-staying individuals. The Black-tailed Godwit we are familiar with on the Cairns Esplanade is a slightly larger sister species, and is similar except for the black under-wing coverts of the Hudsonian. The attempts to find nests were well shown as were the various threats to the nesting birds. The sight of a godwit perched on the top of a spruce tree was quite unexpected. The rapidity at which chicks move away from the nest was also fascinating and the consequent challenge for researchers in locating these chicks was a factor in trying to get short-term tracking tags in place.





The sight of a Hudsonian Godwit on top of a spruce tree, while nesting in Alaska, was quite unexpected (footage of this appears in the Flyways film). Photo by Melissa Groo IN Robbins J. 2022. This Wonder Bird Flies Thousands of Miles, Non-Stop, as Part of an Epic Migration IN Alaska: a Smithsonian magazine special report. Science, Jan 2022.



Overall the film was a spectacular success despite the various difficulties encountered. Yes, it is disturbing as well as we contemplate the horrors ahead for so many of our bird species likely to be devastated by climate change. But this record of the birds and their caring communities and researchers is a testament to hope. The amazing shots of flying waders up close (produced I think in a wind tunnel), while spectacular to see, was only a tiny part of the attraction. The film was so fascinating that I will be watching the ABC program about it with a repeat of some of the footage. Wonderful work from Randall Wood and team.



Editor’s Note


A big thank you to Peter Valentine who arranged for the film, “Flyways: the untold journey of migratory shore birds”, to be shown here in Cairns; and for his review below. Thank you also to Sally Sheldon for her valuable Q&A contribution after the film. And thank you to those helpful souls who spread the word about the film in our region.


Need an excuse to jump in a plane for a break? Three more screenings are advertised: Deckchair Cinema, Darwin NT (14Jun2023, 7pm); The Regent Cinema, Murwillumbah NSW (18Jun2023, 5:45pm); and The Gala Twin Cinema, Warrawong, NSW (18Jun2023, 4:15pm). See https://antidotefilms.com.au/flyways-documentary/

Jennifer H Muir
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