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Contact Call | Volume 9 Number 4 | December 2020

Sandra and I have been monitoring Beach Stone-curlew at Coquette Point and Glady Inlet as part of a BirdLife Threatened Coastal Birds Project led by Amanda Freeman, Paul Fisk and Sally Sheldon.

Coquette Point is part of the Johnstone River estuary, and accessibility by foot from a primitive boat ramp is tide dependant. The foreshore is constantly changing as are several mangrove lined creek mouths that must be crossed. We are always mindful of crocodiles and of getting cut off by rising water. There are no other walking tracks out and the area behind the foreshore contains mangrove lined tidal creeks. We know our tidal parameters well.

The vegetation behind the shoreline is predominantly mangroves, coastal shrubland / woodland and Melaleuca swamp/littoral rainforest and is part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The Johnstone River itself is an Estuarine Conservation Area within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, while the offshore area from Coquette Point to Glady Inlet is a General Use Area within the Marine Park.

When the tide goes really out, large areas of sand flats can be exposed, and while wader variety and numbers are generally low here, there always tends to be a couple of Pied Oystercatchers and our three Beach Stone-curlews. As part of the much broader Beach Stone-curlew project, we have been monitoring monthly for any signs of breeding behaviour, as it is not known if many are successfully breeding on the mainland. Because Coquette Point is not easily accessible to vehicles and people, we are hoping that the birds will find it safe to breed there.

Our survey in September illustrated how unprepared we were for the unexpected. It was a fine day and the tide low and going out. We found our birds, but their behaviour was very strange indeed. All three ran full pelt directly towards us like a scene out of Jurassic Park. They were only 20 metres or so away when they diverted towards the shoreline. There seemed to be jostling between the two larger birds as if trying to separate out the slightly smaller bird. There was even what appeared to be an attempted copulation. We were excited and hopeful that our birds were going to breed at Coquette Point, but there was something really odd about their behaviour too. They seemed distressed and one bird started limping. Luckily, Ceri had her camera and was able to get a close-up photo. It became clear one of the birds had a fishing hook and a clump of something fine wrapped around one leg. We tried but we couldn’t get close to the bird to do anything about it which was incredibly frustrating. In the end we decided to continue our survey as we still had a long stretch of beach to investigate while the tide was right.

On our return, the situation of our bird had changed dramatically. No longer able to get away, fishing line was wrapped around both legs. This time, we could do something about it. The bird would die from predation or starvation if we didn’t intervene. I took my shirt off to capture and completely cover the injured Beach Stone-curlew, mindful of its powerful bill. I’d seen them crack open sand crabs too many times to not respect the power that bill might have. Fortunately for us, the bird went still and barely struggled at all once captured. On examination, the fishing line and other debris was lightly knotted around one leg, then wrapped around both legs, and the hook was now lodged through the skin under the bird’s wing. Lucky for us, a fellow was passing by and came to assist. He had a pocketknife! So together we carefully cut the fishing line away, but we had to return to the fellow’s vehicle for pliers to cut the stainless steel hook and remove it from under the wing. There didn’t appear to be any serious damage to the bird’s legs or the wing itself, so we returned to the place where we had captured the bird and released it. The bird was a little stunned at first, but quickly recovered and ran a short distance away. We were so happy! And a little shaky. We headed home for a cup of tea!

Dwelling on the plight of our Beach Stone-curlew and the hazards associated with rubbish and fishing line, we spoke to our friends at the Johnstone Ecological Society (JES). The JES group has already organised to undertake a Clean-Up Australia event locally, but when we spoke to them about what happened to our Beach Stone-curlew, the site for the clean-up was moved to Coquette Point.

On top of that, when we told our families about our experience and not having the right tools to manage the situation ourselves, we were both gifted pocketknives and multitools.

So, about a week after our injured Beach Stone-curlew incident, a group comprised of BirdLife Northern Queensland and Johnstone Ecological Society members spent about two hours picking rubbish up and removing fishing line from a stretch of the shoreline between the boat ramp and the point. The pocketknives and multitools were put to good use.

We found many mangrove roots wrapped in fishing line, other fibres and rotting clothes. It was a challenge to cut them away. As well as the significant amount of fishing line, some with hooks and lures attached, we collected lots of plastic, rubber thongs, cigarette lighters, cans and bottles, decaying clothes, and almost a lounge suite amongst other trash. One of our group, Lorraine Lamothe is an artist. She plans to put some of the trash to good use in her art.

It’s amazing how you can think a beach looks relatively clean, but on close inspection you find an inordinate amount of trash.

The fishing line we gathered from a couple of hundred metres of river mouth and beach. The ruler is 40 x 60 cm.

I can’t tell you how happy we all felt about doing something positive. We were hot and filthy but smiling from ear to ear. And to top it off, our three Beach Stone-curlew seemed to all be present and accounted for, so our injured bird had made a complete recovery.

With our pocketknives handy, Sandra and I plan to repeat the activity and gradually work our way around the beach. While we can’t carry away large items of rubbish (we’d need a boat at high tide for that), we can reduce the smaller items and monitor for fishing line.

Special thanks to the Johnstone Ecological Society for organising the clean up of Coquette Point and in doing so, helping us to reduce at least one of the serious threats posed to our beach nesting shorebirds.


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