October is the month that most migratory waders arrive in Sydney. Merries Reef is one of their favoured destinations and I was looking forward to see who had arrived for the summer.
Low tide is normally prime foraging time for waders and I expected to see groups of ‘little brown birds’ (LBB) sprinkled across the reef. No such luck, instead a tight cluster of LBB huddled on the extreme tip of the reef. Perhaps the howling southerly had the waders more interested in a snooze out of the wind than having a feed. I spent ten minutes slowly creeping into position behind a boulder about 5 metres from the flock.
One of the prompts for choosing Merries Reef for the morning’s walk was a report of Red Knots at the site, a wader I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. Peering around the boulder the closest LBBs were three Red Knots. One still had flecks of red breeding plumage on its belly. When it moved I could see that it was carrying a band and flag on its legs.
The Red Knots were sitting with Red Necked Stints, Golden Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones.
The tiny Red Necked Stints were the most abundant members of the mixed flock. I took a few photographs then glanced down to check the camera screen. There was a flash of movement and I looked up to see the flock in flight. My playing with the camera may have spooked them, but the more likely culprit was the 4WD that had just driven onto the reef.
The flock of waders flew along the 300m length of the reef and out over the sea They flew several wide circuits before landing at the opposite end of the reef. I started picking my way over slippery, algae covered reef towards the new roost. I only got halfway before another 4WD put the birds into flight again.
What followed was several rounds of LBB ping pong. The birds would settle, get disturbed by a new vehicle, walker or dog, fly a few circuits, land at a new roost site only to get disturbed and start the cycle again. I walking back and forth until they finally settled at the far southern tip of the reef. Their chosen site was so close to the surf zone that the Red Knots ending up landing in knee deep water.
The situation provided lots of ‘Birds in Flight’ opportunities as they whizzed past. The synchronisation within the fast flying flock was amazing. They twisted and turned in unison, twinkling between white and black as turned from belly to back.
All good from a photographic perspective, but pretty crook for the waders. They fly thousands of kilometres each year, but I couldn’t help wondering how all the activity might affect their recovery from the recent migration and preparations for the next. Migratory waders depend on habitats that are literally strung across the globe. It is sobering to think that the way we treat them at a Sydney beach might have just as much impact as much as the massive environmental changes that are taking place along their route through the Pacific, southeast Asia, China and Siberia.
Later that afternoon I walked around the ponds in Centennial Park. The park was bustling with visitors enjoying the warm sunshine. I wanted to see how the colony of Fairy Martins was faring. They were doing fine, a constant stream of martins flying in and out of the culvert that hides their nests.
Tall paperbarks can grow on the margins of several of the ponds. One of the larger stands is located opposite the rose garden, the most manicured and formal part of the gardens. The stand supports a nesting colony of Little Pied Cormorants and Darters. Both species are normally shy and intolerant of close approach by humans. These nests were only a few metres away from a busy pathways The cormorants and darters seemed entirely habituated to disturbance and carried on incubating eggs and feeding their chicks in full view.
Darters have long sinuous necks and a decidedly reptilian appearance. The scruffy downy chicks looked even more reptilian than the adults. I was left with trouble believing that birds come from a dinosaur lineage.
It was a day of strange contrasts. A morning of little brown birds that undertake transcontinental flights every six months but struggle to find a quiet moment to rest on a wind swept patch of rocky reef. An afternoon with waterbirds that asre normally wary of people but had chosen to nest in one of the busiest parks in the country. I suspect part of the difference was our attitude and behaviour at each site. Around the Centennial parklands people treat wildlife with care and respect, while out at Merries Reef the 4WDs and dogs conquer the wader’s rocky roost with little regard for its inhabitants. Understanding where, and why, urban wildlife survives is never straightforward!
Odds and sods of the week