Helping migratory shorebirds on their way

PROFILE: Dr Brad Woodworth, CBCS NSERC Postdoctoral Research Fellow

My research career was born from a passion for fly-fishing and a childhood of crawling around backwoods trout streams with my Dad in Atlantic Canada. When an opportunity emerged to take a summer field job in a pristine river valley east of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, I had to say yes. I was semi-interested in the birdy job description, but mostly I was lured in by a river chock full of Atlantic salmon! Little did I know that the vibrant reds, yellows, oranges and blues of North America's songbirds would hook me into a decade plus of migratory bird research.

A passion for migratory shorebirds

Nowadays my research focuses on a group of birds whose beauty might be described as more subtle. Migratory shorebirds, like the far eastern curlew (pictured), are long-legged, long-billed and brown, very much the colour of the mudflats they inhabit. You might have noticed them while walking Australia's beaches and esplanades. But it is equally or more likely that you missed them.

Far eastern curlews, like many migratory species, travel thousands of kilometres between breeding and non-breeding grounds each year. In many cases, migrations involve multi-day, non-stop flights across open ocean. When they get a chance to make landfall, they do so at stopover sites, which serve as critical links in the chain of habitats between breeding and non-breeding ranges. Breaking any link in the chain can spell disaster for populations of the birds. Using individual-borne tracking devices, population monitoring and demographic data, my research focuses on understanding the year-round drivers of population dynamics and trends in migratory species. By pinpointing where and when species are most sensitive to environmental variability and threats across their annual cycle, we can identify weak points in the chain, and focus conservation action on areas of highest vulnerability. 

Journeys in citizen science

When I made the trans-hemispheric migration to Australia, my eyes were quickly opened to the tremendous contributions of citizen science to research and conservation. Given the wide geographic ranges of migratory species, it is essential that each stop along the flyway does its part to keep the chain intact, and environmental NGOs in Australia certainly do their part. The Queensland Wader Study Group, for one, has been dedicated to shorebird monitoring and conservation for three decades and counting. Without groups like these and their armies of volunteers, much of the basic ecological knowledge that underpins conservation and management would be missing. Helping to facilitate flow of this valuable information and data into conservation planning and decision-making through marine park zoning plans, Ramsar wetland descriptions and EPBC decisions, to name a few, is a very rewarding part of my work.

While migratory shorebirds might blend into their muddy habitats, it is critical that they remain in plain view of conservation decision-makers. By encouraging information sharing and ecological understanding across the full annual cycle, I hope to help these species and their incredible journeys into the future.

Project members

Dr Bradley Woodworth

Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science
Fuller Lab