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Birding by the sea

Contact Call | Volume 11 Number 4 | December 2022

I love living and birding near the ocean. I think it’s a hangover from my upbringing on the windswept Lancashire coast of north-west England. Yet, however different Cairns is climatologically and ecologically from my childhood haunts, it shares a critical thing in common – the meeting point of the land and sea.

There’s something about that boundary that is embedded in my psyche, together with the birds I used to observe regularly: the wildfowl that would migrate in tens of thousands from their breeding grounds in the mysterious Arctic tundra – from Greenland, Iceland, Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya; and the waders that would be seen regularly in their company during the winter months.

The common calidrids (the typical sandpipers) were the Dunlins and Red Knots, and you would regularly see mesmerising murmurations as thousands of mixed-flock waders would take to the air along the shoreline. However, there was one calidrid that I loved to watch, but which was more difficult to observe on the coast.

So, as a young teenager, I’d hop on my bicycle most weekends and cycle 11 miles to an inland wetland RSPB reserve – Martin Mere, where I first became accustomed to the cacophony of wintering wildfowl, but also some waders. It was here, I’d be able to hunker down in one of the many excellent hides and watch the enigmatic Ruff.

The Australian Bird Guide describes Ruff as a “Large, gangly sandpiper with bizarre breeding plumages and behaviour.” Although Ruff is a regular, yet rare visitor to Australia (with a handful of reports from the Cairns region), it was a commonly seen non-breeding visitor to the UK.

I was lucky enough to return to the UK in February and re-visit Martin Mere, where I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with nine Ruff, which were possibly Reeve – the name given to the female Ruff. Having not seen one for many years, I had forgotten just how odd it looks in the flesh. You just can’t mistake it for any other wader, never mind any other bird.

I like to think that it’s the Hoatzin of waders – unique, slightly weird, yet also attracting a congratulatory admiration that it exists in the first place. It appears completely out of proportion, like an avian equivalent of that pot-bellied dinosaur, Therizinosaur. The group I saw were all adult non-breeding, with a knot-like bill, orange legs, a rotund white belly, and brown upper parts with distinct white edges to the feathers.

Ruff, however, get their name from the spectacular male breeding plumage, which resembles the fashionable decorative collars seen in 16th century England. Unfortunately breeding plumage has not been seen yet in an Australian specimen.

The foraging method has some similarities to a Common Greenshank: it’s an exploratory wader that is fairly quick, with a tendency to frequently stand tall, and survey the surroundings, and sometimes turn back and forth and circle, whilst prodding the substrate. Trying to pick a handful of waders to talk about is an almost impossible task for me. Most weekends I’ll be scanning the mudflats of the Cairns Esplanade, checking the regulars, and seeing if anything unusual crops up. This time of year is particularly exciting, as the migration of waders from their Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds on the East Asian- Australasian Flyway (EAAF) inevitably brings birds that are moulting out of their breeding plumage, but it also brings the juveniles which, depending on the species, can be identifiable on a scale from fairly straight forward to a bit harder, then moving upwards from quite difficult to devilishly difficult, which is quickly followed by don’t even try.

That’s the part I love the most. It’s the ”What is that?” question that hits you with full force when you see the unfamiliar. There’s a few pairs of waders commonly seen in northern Queensland that some birders have the most difficulty differentiating – the Lesser from the Greater Sand Plover, the Bar-tailed from the Black- tailed Godwit, the Great from the Red Knot, and the Grey-tailed Tattler from the Wandering. Of course there are many more, but the Red Knot is an interesting one because we do commonly get around 200 Great Knots feeding on the

Cairns Esplanade, and the occasional Red Knot will be in the mix, so it’s always great to re-familiarise oneself with the idiosyncrasies of that sandpiper as it attempts to hide in plain sight.

The Red Knot’s main features that differentiate it from the Great Knot are the smaller size, drabber plumage, small chevrons along the flanks, and shorter bill. Depending on the distance from which you see the bird, some of those features are more noticeable than others and, paradoxically, it’s actually easier to pick up the size difference at a distance, even when silhouetted against the tideline. However, one thing that is commonly overlooked is the Red Knot’s foraging method.

Next time you find a Red Knot, or have one pointed out to you, observe it for 10 minutes in comparison to the Great Knots (as inevitably you will find it with its larger cousins). What you’ll find is that it is a much busier and slightly faster forager. It’s a subtle difference that, together with size, may just help you pick one out at a distance.

Red Knot, juvenile, Cairns Esplanade, September 2022.

Almost every Red Knot I’ve seen on the Esplanade has been an adult non-breeding bird, but this year I managed to see a spectacularly plumaged juvenile. I most certainly had a “What is that?” moment, before realising, with the combination of size, bill length and buff breast, that it must be a young Red Knot. All the Australian bird guides I own don’t quite capture the tones or contrast that I saw in this bird, but the key plumage identifier of pale fringes and dark submarginal line to the coverts is a perfect description of what you will find on a juvenile Red Knot.

Recently we had another celebrated juvenile wader visit our shores for a little less than three weeks – the Asian Dowitcher. This species is a highly twitchable rare migrant that seems to show up in Cairns on average once every two to three years. The last time for Cairns was in 2019, when I saw it briefly at high tide one afternoon. This time around, I managed to observe the dowitcher many times, and got a real sense of its ‘jizz’ and foraging behaviour.

Asian Dowitcher, juvenile, Cairns Esplanade, October 2022 .

It’s often compared to the Bar-tailed Godwit, with which it shares superficial similarities, but once you get a close (or even a far) look at the dark straight bill, with its bulbous tip, there’s no mistaking this bird belongs to the genus Limnodromus. Seen next to a Bar-tailed Godwit, you can tell that it is slightly smaller, but the thing that really sets it apart is, again, the way it forages.

You’ll often hear waders associated with the phrase sewing machine in terms of the probing action. However, that could be applied generically to most waders. The Asian Dowitcher has a metronomic, methodical, almost mechanically repeatable action – it seems to probe from once to thrice, then walk a step or two, and repeat. It’s almost as if it’s operating in the uncanny valley of an AI-coded automaton that hasn’t quite figured out how to look ‘real’.

I recently came across another striking juvenile wader that could be classed as fairly straightforward to identify unless you throw into the mix the fact that it is almost identical to another bird: the only saving grace being this other wader is an exceptionally rare vagrant. I’m talking about Pacific Golden Plovers and American Golden Plovers.

Pacific Golden Plover, juvenile, Cairns Esplanade, October 2022.

In northern Queensland the Pacific Golden Plovers frequent local salt marshes, the Cairns Esplanade and other known locations such as France Road turf farm. Their foraging style is shared amongst the plovers and is a stop-run-stop-probe affair. The definitive identification paper on separating the Pacific from the American Golden Plovers in the field (Johnson et al., 2004) was written based on data collected from first year and adult birds in breeding plumage simply because that was the only way the researchers knew which species was which. Even though there is minor variation in bill and tibia length, there is considerable cross-over in these measurements, so the most reliable feature is that in Pacific Golden Plovers only two to three primaries extend beyond the tertials, but in the American Golden Plovers it is four to five primaries. However, as no juveniles were used in the study, this may not be a reliable marker in the field for the younger birds. They noted that any extralimital records of these plovers may be “impossible to identify with certainty”. The juvenile that I saw at the north end of the Cairns Esplanade had three primary projections and the tibia and bill did seem to be on the long side. However, really good close photographs are necessary to spend time on post-observational analysis of these features. So I’m not saying that this is a don’t even try kind of wader, as the trying is where most of the fun is.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the superstar of north Queensland waders, the Nordmann’s Greenshank, which we are all hoping will return for the 2022/2023 summer. However, I will have a paper published in Stilt (the Australian Wader Study Group’s journal) in December 2022 that will delve into the details of my observations over two seasons, so please check that out.

After finishing this article at 4pm on 30 October 2022, I went birding at Dunne Road Swamp, near Cattana Wetlands in Cairns and, incredibly, discovered a very rare Ruff. It’s the first time I’ve seen the species in Australia!

Story and photos by Adrian Walsh.


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