Eyes on Nature

Critically endangered Curlews sighted after 12 years

25 Feb 2021

It is the largest migratory shorebird in the world.

It can fly the distance between the Earth and the moon in its 20 year lifespan, so it’s sometimes called the ‘moonbird’.

It is the Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis, and we have lost 80% of its population in 30 years. Apart from its other titles, it now also bears the unenviable title as a critically endangered species listed under federal legislation.

The Eastern Curlew breeds in Russia and north-eastern China, and travels south to their overwintering grounds each year, stopping in many countries on the way. Some overwinter in south-east Asia and Papua New Guinea, but the majority (~75%) overwinter in Australia.

It’s hard to imagine the toll of travelling more than 12,000 km for a bird that’s about 65cm long and weighs 900g. They deplete their fat reserves and muscles, and some of their organs shrivel during migration to reduce weight. Therefore, every stopover/overwintering area on sheltered coasts – such as intertidal mudflats or sandflats, estuaries, harbours, bays and lagoons – is important to their survival. Here, these birds forage for worms, crabs and shellfish to replenish their fat reserves with their impressive, down-curved bill, that average 18.5cm!

It was the distinctive bill that allowed Authority staff and bird survey volunteers from Cumberland Bird Observers’ Club to identify a pair of Curlews that visited one of the Park’s wetlands. The Eastern Curlew was last seen in Sydney Olympic Park in 2009, and the sighting was met with incredulity, and joy at such a rare sighting in the middle of Sydney.

Normally wary and easily disturbed, the curlews were able to feed and roost without fear of people or dogs in the protected area. These birds are facing a cocktail of threats, from extensive coastal development along their flyway including in Australia, water and light pollution, hunting, disturbance when feeding and roosting, and climate change. The Authority protects them by keeping dogs out of select areas of the Park, undertaking fox and cat control, and implementing measures to prevent water pollution.

We invite you to learn more about the Eastern Curlew and other migratory shorebirds, appreciate their unique way of life, and to be mindful of them when enjoying the Park’s wetland areas. You may just see one if you’re lucky!

Eastern Curlew with food_Leonard Arnolda 

The critically endangered Eastern Curlew has a distinctive down-curved beak © Leonard Arnolda

The Eastern Curlew population has declined by 80% in 30 years. The graph shows the percentage of standardised surveys in Australia that contain the species (years with less than 30 surveys are excluded). Eastern Curlew feeding © Leonard Arnolda