Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Josie Hewitt's North West Australia wader and tern banding expedition

February is not normally the most exciting month to be a birder or ringer - the calls of Siskin are starting to get on your nerves and you're yearning for Spring to hurry up and bring with it all the typical migrants, plus a few bonus species. However, my February this year was rather different and instead of trudging round my local patch, listening to the seeping of Redwings and chakking of Fieldfare, I was dripping with sweat and getting familiar with the shorebirds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway in one of the wader capitals of the worlds: Roebuck Bay, WA.

Roebuck Bay by Josie Hewitt
Yep, WA as in Western Australia! And the reason for me being 13,800km (8,500miles) away from home? Why, the North West Australia Wader & Tern Banding (that's ringing to us Brits) Expedition of course...3 weeks of cannon netting shorebirds, having a laugh with 30 other birdos (birders) and trying not to get sunburnt/heatstroke...sounds awesome right? Well that's because it was!

The 80 Mile Team

For the first part of the expedition we were based at Anna Plains Station, a cattle station located about 250km south of Broome. Here we were making catches on 80 Mile Beach, a Ramsar Site designated because of the high numbers of migratory shorebirds that it supports. On a typical catching day at 80 Mile Beach we were up early (around 4.30am) for breakfast and ready to go for 5.30/6am. The team would then head to the catching site on the beach, about a 30 minute drive from the station, where we would set 2 cannon nets, a hide and some shade to protect the birds and people from the sun during processing. Once everything was set we'd split into two teams of 3 vehicles, one to head North and one to head South.

The two teams would then drive about 2km or so away from the nets in their respective directions, wait for a while until the birds had come off the plains onto the beach and the tide was up to a suitable height (about maybe 30m from the catching areas of the nets) and then the two teams would begin 'twinkling'. This is where the vehicles move along the beach very slowly in order to push the birds up towards the nets to concentrate them and increase the chances of making a successful catch.

Whilst 'twinkling' the vehicles can communicate with each other via radios and can stop if the birds are looking nervous or flighty. There is, however, nothing you can do about birds of prey! The numerous raptors did flush a lot of birds but this didn't bother us too much, and we got some super views of the raptors themselves, as well as the thousands of shorebirds that they flushed! It wasn't just the raptors that made the shorebirds uneasy though, large birds such as the Lesser Frigatebirds and Australian Pelicans had a similar effect!

White-bellied Sea Eagle by Josie Hewitt

Lesser Frigatebird by Josie Hewitt

For the whole expedition we managed to have a 100% success rate, catching birds every time we fired the nets, which is pretty impressive considering all the variables involved! At 80 Mile Beach we were catching in areas with higher densities of birds rather than targeting specific species (like at Roebuck Bay, but I will get onto that in a minute). One of our biggest catches was actually on our very first catching day with 535 birds of 7 species processed. This included 27 re-traps with 3 from China and 1 from Japan which just shows how important ringing and ring re-sighting data is!

Terek Sandpiper by Josie Hewitt

We spent 11 days at Anna Plains with 9 catching days. My favourite species that I saw at 80 Mile Beach were Terek Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Little Curlew because they all undertake long migrations between their breeding and wintering sites and, as with lots of migratory birds, face numerous threats along the way. Seeing an estimated 300,000 Oriental Pratincoles on the beach at once was certainly an experience I'll never forget. Take a look for yourself (every black spec is a Pratincole...yeah, really!):

Oriental Pratincoles by Josie Hewitt

More Oriental Pratincoles by Josie Hewitt

Broad-billed Sandpiper by Josie Hewitt

On the 18th February we said our farewells to the folks at the station and made the journey back north to Broome. Our base for the remainder of the expedition was the lovely Broome Bird Observatory (BBO). We were made to feel very welcome by the Wardens and Assistant Wardens and after sorting all the gear out after our journey from Anna Plains, we had that afternoon and the next day off to go birding, shopping or whatever. The 20th February was the first of 8 catching days at Broome and for this we were setting our nets on the shores of the stunning Roebuck Bay.

At Roebuck Bay the catching was much more a case of quality over quantity compared with 80 Mile Beach and so we targeted some pretty special species, such as Grey Plover, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Far Eastern Curlew! Despite the more targeted catching, we still managed to keep up our 100% catching rate which was brilliant.

Eastern Curlew by Josie Hewitt

Catching at Roebuck Bay was slightly different to 80 Mile Beach because of the tides and the different geography of the area. We were still up early most mornings to get the net and shade set up, but unlike 80 Mile we didn't usually build a hide, nor did we all stay at the site between setting & catching. Instead we'd finish setting by about 8am and would head back to the Observatory for a second breakfast and early lunch. People often went for a quick bit of birding in this time, or just helped out around the place with the cooking & data entry or they just chilled for a bit before heading back out around 10am (though this depended on the tides).

Arriving back at the catching site, we'd sit in the brush waiting for the birds and tide to come in. After about 2 hours it would be near firing time and everyone would start to get ready (have some water, sweets for a sugar rush, etc) and the adrenaline would start to kick in! The countdown would come over the radio from the guys in the hide and once we'd heard the net fire, everyone would sprint down to the net as fast as they could. One or two people were designated box carriers so there was something to put the birds in once they'd been extracted from the net.

The majority of the team then helped to make sure the net and birds were out of danger from the incoming tide, before extraction began. Once the carrying boxes were full ('full' meaning different numbers depending upon which species were in each box) they were carried to the shade and then put into keeping cages which were nice and cool to prevent the birds from getting heat stressed. Once all the birds were extracted from the net and safely in the keeping cages, the cannon net gear was sorted out and moved to a safe spot on the beach.

The team was then split into smaller processing teams and assigned a species to work on. Different measurements were taken for different species. Once all the birds were processed, we packed all the gear back into the vehicles and trailers ready for the next day. Usually, the rest of the day was spent birding at the Broome Sewage Works (we birders go to all the best places eh!), out on the Plains or around the Observatory itself.

Yellow Chat by Josie Hewitt

Crested Pigeon by Josie Hewitt

While we were at BBO we were also able to put up some mist nets around the water baths where the birds come down to drink and bathe. These proved very successful and we caught quite a variety of species, including Brown Honeyeater, Rufous-throated Honeyeater, Double-barred Finch, Rainbow Bee-eater, Peaceful Dove and Little Friarbird. It was great to be able to get experience of banding some of the bush birds in addition to all the waders we were cannon netting!

Rainbow Bee-eater by Josie Hewitt

Bar-shouldered Dove by Josie Hewitt

Greater Sand Plover by Josie Hewitt

All in all it was a super expedition and one that I would highly recommend. If finances and time allow, I fully intend to return next year for more sun, sea and shorebirds!!

Josie Hewitt, @josiethebirder

1 comment: