Most people may have never heard of the Bar-tailed Godwit, yet it is a far superior flying machine than any man-made aircraft. Holding the world record for the longest non-stop flight at 11 000 kilometres, this tiny brown bird during it’s lifetime will have flown the distance to the moon!
Every year, around 5 million migratory shorebirds travel the East Asian – Australasian flyway, a monumental journey from the Arctic tundra to Australasia. Stopping over in 22 countries, the birds encounter a myriad of threats which are sadly contributing to their rapidly declining numbers. Citizen scientists, like Dan Weller of Birdlife Australia’s Shorebirds 2020 Project, are assisting researchers to conduct worldwide monitoring of migratory shorebirds and help raise awareness of their critical plight in order to protect them. [1, 8, 2, 3]
Ocean and lake shorelines are tidal ecosystems that perform vital ecological functions by providing feeding, breeding and resting areas for migratory shore birds. During each stop-over, the birds sift through the sediment which is rich in the macro-invertebrates such as tiny crustaceans, worms and bi-valves, that they love to eat. In preparation for their marathon long distance flights, the birds gorge themselves, sometimes doubling their body mass in a matter of days. These high intensity feeding sessions fuel their extraordinary feats of endurance, with non-stop flights lasting up to 8 days! [2, 4]
Human activities pose the greatest threat to migratory shorebirds, particularly developments that impose on or remove the shoreline habitat that is essential to the birds’ feeding, breeding and roosting activities. Other threats include pollution, invasive species, recreational activities, hydrological changes, marine harvesting and climate change. Four-wheel drives, horses and even taking your dog for a walk off leash along a shoreline can disrupt shorebirds and have a direct impact on their survival. [5, 9]
Australia’s coastal and freshwater wetlands are vital feeding grounds supporting 54 species of shorebirds, 35 of which are international travellers arriving after a long flight from their Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds. As a signatory or party to several international agreements that commit us to the protection of important shorebird habitat, Australia has a vital role to play in the conservation of shorebirds. However, it would seem that more effort and awareness is required as the impact of shoreline development has continued, as has the decline in shorebird populations. Unfortunately these declines are in some cases quite significant, such as the Curlew Sandpiper whose numbers have plummeted by 80% since the 1980s. 
Thankfully, the efforts of organisations like Birdlife Australia and their supporters significantly contribute to the conservation of birdlife in our country. Their work helps to prompt important actions such as the Australian Federal Government’s new draft Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds (WCP), which was released in August of 2014. 
Each and every one of us can help to support shorebird conservation by volunteering as citizen scientists. As a volunteer you can help monitor shorebird populations by counting shorebirds and entering that data for analysis by trained researchers. This valuable data helps scientists to better understand threats and develop conservation efforts for our shorebirds. More volunteers are needed for the “Shorebirds 2020 Project” to reach the target of regular monitoring at 150 key shorebird areas in Australia. Take a look at the link here to get involved [6, 7]
So, the next time you are flying high in a plane and tempted to complain about the lack of leg room, spare a thought for the migratory shorebirds and the astonishing distances they fly without the luxury of in-flight service. Consider supporting shorebird conservation efforts as a citizen scientist. By visiting a shoreline at low tide (without your 4WD, horse or dog), you may be lucky enough to witness these precious shorebirds preparing to take the flight of their lives.
This article was written by Emma Tait, who was inspired after listening to the Radio National “Off Track” episode “Flying for your life: The journey begins” featuring Birdlife Australia’s researcher Dan Weller and presented by Dr Ann Jones.