Every year around August, flocks of critically endangered eastern curlews arrive at the Australian coastline — including our own Mornington Peninsula — after a perilous 10,000km migration through 22 countries from their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
In his new book The Eastern Curlew – The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird, award-winning nature writer Harry Saddler explores how these birds have impressed themselves on the cultures of the countries they pass through, the threat to their survival posed by development, and the remarkable ways in which the eastern curlew and humankind may be entwined.
“My favourite place to see eastern curlews — and one of my favourite places in general — is French Island,” Harry says. “I once saw a flock of 70 fly past the ferry jetty at Tankerton, and with luck you might see eastern curlews at Hastings Foreshore Reserve.”
French Island is a great place to see all sorts of migratory shorebirds but you don’t have to get on a boat to enjoy them: nearly the whole of Western Port is listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, which means that the east coast of the Mornington Peninsula has great places to see many of the other migratory shorebirds that spend summer with us before flying back to the Arctic.
“The best time to see shorebirds varies depending on the tide. So much of their life revolves around stacking on fat for their epic migratory flights, so when the tide is out they’ll be feeding on the little animals that live on mudflats,” Harry says. “Sometimes that’s in the middle of the day, sometimes the middle of the night.”
The sad fact is that habitat loss along their migration route means each year there are fewer and fewer migratory shorebirds such as eastern curlews to be seen. Already they’ve disappeared from many places where they used to be annual visitors. In 1903, William Gillies wrote a book called Nature Studies in Australia in which he described hearing an eastern curlew calling near Dromana, but if you look on either eBird or the Atlas of Living Australia — the two most commonly used citizen science portals for birdwatchers — the most recent record of eastern curlews from anywhere near Dromana is from all the way back in 1999.
“What I love most about the Mornington Peninsula is that it’s so close to my home in Melbourne, but it feels so far away,” Harry says. “I love to visit Stony Point, where on a sunny summer’s day Western Port is so blue and calm and peaceful. You can feel all the stress and noise of the city just falling off your shoulders as soon as you set eyes on the water. It’s very special.”
The Eastern Curlew – The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird (Affirm Press; $29.99) is available now in bookstores and online, but for your chance to win a copy, keep an eye on our Facebook page @mornpenmag