Contact Call | Volume 10 Number 1 | March 2021
In 1835 Alexander von Nordmann, the Finnish biologist, described an interesting wader that breeds in Eastern Russia. It is now known as Tringa guttifer with an English common name of Spotted Greenshank or Nordmann's Greenshank. It is considered critically endangered with less than 1,000 individuals left. Normally its non-breeding range is south and southeast Asia – along the Asian coast (Korea, China, Thailand) and along the Malaysian Peninsula into western Indonesia, the closest records to Australia being the south coast of the island of Java. An additional 1600 km of flying would get a Greenshank to Roebuck Bay and 80 Mile Beach where there have previously been a few sightings.
There are a few eBird records at 80 Mile Beach from late 2020. However, there has been no previous record of Nordmann’s Greenshank in Queensland, or any eastern state. But early on New Year’s morning 2021 that all changed when local birder Adrian Walsh sighting one on the Cairns Esplanade at 7:00 am. This sighting is a further 4,000 km from the nearest Indonesian record and an additional 2500 km from 80 Mile Beach in the northwest of WA. Whichever way this bird travelled, it’s a long overflight!
This photograph of Nordmann’s Greenshank in breeding plumage showing the distinctive spots that give it the alternative English common name. Image: Taken in Schaste Bay, Russia by Vladimir Pronkevich, from the BirdLife Macaulay Library ML253637011.
What’s special about Nordmann’s Greenshank one might ask? First it is a severely threatened species. According to the IUCN in 2016 this species is listed as Endangered “because it has a very small population which is declining as a result of the development of coastal wetlands throughout its range, principally for industry, infrastructure projects and aquaculture.”
Preliminary analyses of survey data collected at its breeding sites in Russia have provided evidence that the species' population is indeed undergoing a very rapid decline; clarification of these results may lead to a review of its threat status in the near future. The estimate of population size is between 600 and 1300 mature adults (as of 2016) and declining. Over-grazing by reindeer in its breeding grounds is an issue (more protected areas are needed in the Russian breeding grounds). But local hunting for food is also an issue, both in the breeding grounds and in the flyway sites (in Korea and China) critical for feeding on the way south and north.
The oil industry in Russia and industrial development along the flyway (reclamation) adds significant threats to the species. All the known threats are ongoing and
there is no recovery plan in place. Its close relative, the Common Greenshank, is of least concern for conservation and has an estimated global population of between 440,000 and 1.5 million; a very different scenario.
Adrian Walsh with the camera that helped him identify the Nordmann’s Greenshank. Image: Adrian Walsh.
But even in non-breeding plumage it is relatively easy to separate the two species, providing they can be seen next to each other. Seen in isolation it is not easy to recognise, and it is clear that many people would have overlooked the bird on the Cairns mudflats had it not been for the excellent identification and reporting by local BirdLife member Adrian Walsh. Many people owe Adrian a big shout out, first for his accurate identification of the Nordmann’s Greenshank on the first of January, and then for posting the sighting immediately on eBird so that others quickly became aware of its presence on the Cairns mudflats.
The birder networks being what they are, by early afternoon on New Year’s Day there were lots of birders along the Cairns Esplanade scanning the mudflats.
Over the next few days the sightings continued and the Nordmann’s Greenshank was frequently seen in company with a Common Greenshank, a particularly useful association as it enabled clarity to be developed about the features that distinguished each. In conversations with Adrian Walsh it became clear that although he knew the bird was “different” it was when a Common Greenshank moved close to the Nordmann’s that his tentative identification could be confirmed. This scenario raises an interesting question … how many people may have seen this bird but mistakenly dismissed it as a Common Greenshank, or even another species of wader rather than the “mega" it is? And perhaps, whether there have been other Nordmann’s that turned up on our northern shores without being identified. It highlights the great value of birders who regularly survey their patches and pay careful attention to details.
In the comparison photo below the key differences in non-breeding plumage stand out. Nordmann’s lacks the dark streaks on the head, has a thicker bill that is bicoloured with a slight upturn, has shorter legs with a yellowish hue, and lacks the tiny black dots in the white edges to its wing feathers. The Common Greenshank shows clear black streaks on its head, has a straight and finer bill, longer more greenish legs and shows tiny black dots in the white edges of the wing feathers. Not shown here, but in flight the underside of Nordmann’s wing is white where the Common Greenshank has dark streaked underwing plumage. It is wonderful to report that many members of BirdLife Northern Queensland branch were able to see this vagrant, indeed on more than one occasion there was almost a quorum for a Committee meeting! Other birders travelled from an even greater distance to appreciate this rare opportunity.
The Nordmann’s Greenshank (left) and the Common Greenshank (right) on the Cairns mudflats. Image: Peter Valentine.
On reflection, this amazing and ongoing event further highlights the significance of the Cairns foreshore and mudflats for international birds and also for enabling people to get good views of normally flighty waders. The Branch has been working with Council to make sure these values are well understood and reinforced by Council actions.
Thanks to Branch member Paul Fisk and his team for the good efforts aimed at protecting these brilliant mudflats and the wonderful birds to be found there.
When we wave goodbye to the waders in April 2021, I wonder whether Nordy will be one of them, and whether it will return next year? Based on the evidence to date, it has been capturing plenty of food here so perhaps a return is possible.
Thanks to Adrian Walsh for discussions about his original sightings and for two photos.
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