Written by Philip Moll
One hundred and nine, one hundred and ten, one hundred and eleven… I finally managed to count all the bar-tailed godwit roosting on a shell bank at high tide at Shoal Bay. They had recently flown almost 11.000kms from Alaska to rest and feed up for the summer before another epic journey back to Alaska next March to breed.
There was also one Variable oystercatcher nearby also resting. Suddenly it was up in the air like a fighter plane, making a lot of noise and strangely heading in my direction. I lost it through my scope and wondered how it had spotted me because I was such a long way off and I was looking down from a high point.
As it approached I could make out a second bird that it was pursuing and then realised that this was a hawk, an Australasian harrier also known as a swamp harrier. Both flew over my head and out of sight through the trees. Meanwhile the godwits, alarmed by this commotion had taken off and circled three times before deciding not to re-land but to head East away from danger to a quieter spot to rest up during the high tide period.
When an oystercatcher is that determined it usually means that it is seriously defending something. Eggs or chicks, I wondered. I had seen oystercatchers mating near the same spot during October and decided to return on a favourable tide day to check out the location. I pinpointed the site by noting some driftwood nearby.
Walking extremely slowly and carefully I approached walking below the high tide line to avoid accidently destroying a nest. Two variable oystercatchers were nearby at the waters edge. Although they made no alarm calls on my approach they did quicken their pace with backs hunched. I soon spotted the reason for them chasing the hawk away. Three olive-grey eggs with black streaks laid directly on the shells and extremely vulnerable to a sharp eyed hawk. A quick photograph and a GPS reading of the location and then I was backing away to leave them to their nest.
During Christmas 2013 oystercatcher had three chicks at this site (see banner photo above) but one was quite poorly and didn’t survive. In 2014 they had two chicks at this same spot. This was the first time I had seen their nest with eggs and realised just how vulnerable they are to being trampled by unsuspecting walkers or the parent birds being distracted by dogs and then the eggs being vulnerable to that hawk or the predatory black-backed gulls. These gulls are always opportunist when it comes to eggs or chicks or anything else in the way of food.
The Council has been contacted to get temporary signage and to fence off the nest with posts and orange tape. The new dog review bylaws now prohibit dogs from these shell and sand banks in the estuary to protect wildlife however the new signs may not be here in time for this nesting season.
Walking below the high tide line is the way that walkers can reduce the risk of trampling over nests. Both bird parents will help with incubating the eggs for about a month then the vulnerable chicks will be out following their parents for food and learning how to fend for themselves for around seven weeks before they fledge. It’s an anxious time.
Not just for them but me too.