Short-Tailed Shearwaters Face a Tragic End

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By Rowena Mynott

There is an old saying “The only sure things in life are death and taxes”.  For some death is expected, others as I discovered recently, will have a more tragic demise.

It was business as usual for tourists that visited the beaches of Northern New South Wales over the weekend. I was at the beach with my family on our regular weekend outing but when I arrived I could instantly see that something about the picture laid out before me was wrong. The tourists were there as usual but they were sunbathing, swimming and playing ball games amongst the scattered bodies of hundreds of dead short tailed shearwaters.

Beach goers sit and play amongst the carcasses of short-tailed shearwaters

The short-tailed shearwater is a medium sized seabird with a wingspan of one metre. Each year during spring, thousands of birds embark on an incredible 32,000km migration, one of the longest of any bird, as they return from the Bering Sea in the Arctic to their homes in the Bass Strait, Australia.  Such a grueling flight takes it toll physically, and a bird can lose up to half its body weight by the time it reaches home, leaving it physically exhausted and depleted. WIRES estimate that up to 150,000 to 280,000 birds die each year during this migration, many from exhaustion but some from starvation and others are caught in gillnet fishing lines.

An unfortunate shearwater and the ocean over which it flew

Often known as a mutton-bird, it is one of the few seabirds in Australia to be commercially harvested, with around 200-300,000 chicks taken from their burrows each year by commercial operators in Tasmania. The meat is used for food; its red colouration when cooked gives it a similar appearance to mutton, which is how the shearwater also became known as mutton-bird. Other parts of the bird are also used. Their down and feathers are used for pillows and bedding, and oil from their stomach is taken for pharmaceutical use.

Whilst they are the most common sea bird in Australia, with around 23 million individuals, harvesting, gillnet fisheries, erosion of burrows, plastic ingestion and attack from feral animals are taking their toll on population numbers. In 1798, it is reported that Matthew Flinders recalled having seen approximately 100 million birds in a single flock in Bass Strait.

The popular beaches of Byron Bay littered with dead short-tailed shearwaters

It is not uncommon to occasionally see carcasses of these birds on the shoreline, it is after all part of nature, but it is quite unusual to see them in these numbers. The strong winds that have been present on the east coast of Australia of late (some gusts up to 120km/h) have been the catalyst that tipped so many already exhausted birds over the line from life into death.

Large numbers of dead birds have also been seen further south around Sydney beaches and along the southern coast of New South Wales. It is common for exhausted individuals to also be found along the coasts of Japan and North America.

If you find any of these birds alive, please call WIRES on 1300 094 737 or take the animal to your local vet.

An unfortunate short tailed shearwater that died from exhaustion during its annual migration.
An unfortunate short tailed shearwater that died from exhaustion during its annual migration.
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