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Bush Stone-curlew

Life in the air

“The warm and tropical night air surrounds us. We are sitting by the shore's edge at Trinity Beach, one of the beach side suburbs that make up Northern Cairns in Far North Queensland”.

Peter and Andrea Hylands

October 1, 2022

It is a busy night with tourists and locals heading for the restaurants that line the street that runs parallel to the beach. Andrea and I are watching a family of Bush Stone-curlews Burhinus grallarius, the parents with two chicks, as they navigate their way through the traffic and onto the beach where they will forage for food. They are tall and elegant shapes in the night, not shadows but whitish in the dark. Their skinny and long legs making them look like stilt walkers of the most delicate kind.

Exclusion and attitudes

On the footpath behind us we can hear a rather unpleasant young women extending her unpleasantness to her mother who was apparently visiting her from Sydney. After a bout of nastiness to her mother, she turns her attention to the family of Curlews.

"I hate those birds, that is all you ever hear up here."

What this woman was talking about were the cries, a kind of high pitched wailing made by Bush Stone-curlews, and particularly during the night when the birds are active. These cries are so much a part of the nature and landscape of this place and when you first hear them, they are certainly rather startling, but also beautiful, as are these elegant birds. But mostly far from noisy, the birds stilt walk silently through the night.

This enigmatic and long legged ground dweller is active during the night, spending the day standing quite still or squatting in the shade. The nest is on the ground. These things of course make this bird highly vulnerable in today’s Australia. The species is listed as vulnerable in South Australia and endangered in New South Wales and Victoria. The Queensland Government appears unconcerned about its plight, ranking its conservation as a low priority.

Past and present

Once reported in larger groups, today one typically finds two adults, and if they have them, their young. The young are particularly vulnerable. Adult birds, while capable of flight, spend most of their lives on the ground, where camouflage is no longer enough to protect the lives of these beautiful birds.

What is happening to Bush Stone-curlews in North Queensland is deeply distressing to observe. As more and more buildings clutter the shorelines, as garden fences go up locking out more habitat, as more cats and dogs are introduced, these birds find themselves increasingly living as fringe dwellers. Living by roadsides and on busy foreshores and endlessly running from cars, cats and dogs in these landscapes, now so full of danger.

Not alone

From our apartment in Clifton Beach to the north of Cairns we watch another little family of Bush Stone-curlews turn from two chicks to one. Sadly we had to leave to go on the road once more so we do not know the fate of that last chick.

Bush Stone-curlew family, Clifton Beach
Bush Stone-curlew family, Clifton Beach

The Bush Stone-curlew is not alone in its plight, Koalas, Flying Foxes, Kangaroos and a host of other Australian species are increasingly being locked out of their habitats, which are either destroyed completely, or fenced as gardens, where native species are the last thing many owners want, or even know or care about.

So for these animals it is a gradual grind down in numbers. There appear to be no long-term plans regarding how to manage the species that find themselves in the situation I describe here. If there are such plans there is certainly no evidence for them on the ground and that translates Australia wide.