Links between Gulf rivers and food for migratory shorebirds

Migratory shorebirds are present in vast numbers along the Gulf of Carpentaria’s south-east coastline, especially from ​September to April. These shallow and productive tidal environments are important resting and feeding areas, as well as staging areas for birds that fly north or south. The critically endangered Great Knot and Far Eastern Curlew are among the many migratory bird species using the Gulf coast, and food and rest are vital to their continued survival. The south-east Gulf’s significance for shorebirds has been recognised through its inclusion as a site in the international East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site Network.

Rivers flowing into the Gulf deliver freshwater, sediments and nutrients to estuaries and nearby coastal areas, nourishing the mudflats where shorebirds rest and forage for shellfish, crustaceans and worms. Developments that use significant water or changes in climate that alter river flows may therefore impact the survival of the shorebirds.

This project aims to quantify and compare the shorebird food resources produced by three Gulf river systems that flow alteration may affect – the Flinders, Gilbert and Mitchell Rivers. It is identifying the ​relative importance of the estuaries and adjacent mudflats ​in terms of food resources for shorebirds. This information is informing future water planning, environmental impact assessments, and migratory shorebird habitat protection and management.

This project is:

  • improving our understanding of the role of freshwater, associated nutrient loads and benthic animals in providing sufficient food of the right quality and quantity to support shorebird species
  • informing water resource planning especially in the Flinders, Gilbert and Mitchell Rivers, and the environmental assessment of development proposals in the region
  • improving shorebird habitat protection and management, for example through contributions to priority actions in the Australian Government’s Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds, to actions for the Far Eastern Curlew in the Threatened Species Strategy, and to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site Network
  • helping inform management of other relevant Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act-listed species and Ramsar wetlands.

Project activities

  • Examine previous reports on shorebird distribution, abundance and diversity in the region
  • Sample the benthic organisms that provide food for shorebirds in the Flinders, Gilbert and Mitchell Rivers, in both the wet and dry seasons, to examine densities and diversity
  • Assess key shorebird species’ food preferences, the kinds of food available relative to their needs, and what kind of developments are most likely to impact on shorebirds
  • Analyse field and experimental data to determine how different flows affect densities of benthic organisms, and the implications for different shorebird species, eg. those with longer bills or shorter bills feeding at different depths in the substrate
  • Compare the results to those from other studies in comparable locations.

Anticipated outputs

  • Conceptual models of flow regime, food webs and shorebird use of intertidal habitats
  • Decision tree or guide outlining the implications of the findings for decision making
  • Referral guidelines and conservation advice to improve species management in the Gulf of Carpentaria
  • Report, scientific papers and factsheets summarising key research findings.
March 2021

River flows in the Gulf of Carpentaria are critical for ensuring that food is available for migratory shorebirds on their way into and out of Australia. Professor Michele Burford has been leading collaborative research between Griffith University, the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and the Queensland Wader Study Group that has investigated the links between river flows and food for shorebirds.

August 2020

Did you know Gulf of Carpentaria coasts are critically important habitat for migratory shorebirds? These birds fly to Australia from as far away as Alaska every year, and rely on the worms, crabs, clams and other food of the Gulf mudflats and sandflats to fatten up for their journey. This collaboration between Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Griffith University is showing just how important the Gulf is for these long-distance fliers.

January 2019

Mike Venarsky presents at the December 2018 DES (Qld) Workshop about the community-level migration patterns of fish in the Mitchell River and some of its tributaries.

January 2019

David Crook discusses how otolith chemistry can help explain and document fish life history.

January 2019

Glenn McGregor presents on how environmental assessments contribute to the evaluation of Water Plans in Queensland at a DES Workshop from December 2018.

January 2019

Jonathan Marshall explains how paleo-ecological tracers can help understand past ecosystem variability to predict and manage now and into the future.

This project is being led by Professor Michele Burford at Griffith University. Professor Burford is being assisted by researchers from Griffith University and the Queensland Department of Environment and Science.

This project is due for completion in June 2021.

Michele Burford, Griffith University
[email protected]
(07) 3735 6723

Griffith logo      Qld govt logo

  • The Great Knot is critically endangered but finds refuge and food along the south-east Gulf coast, FLPA/Alamy stock photo.
  • Shorebirds that migrate from Australia to the other side of the globe depend on food sources available in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo: Stephen Faggotter.
  • Research on the Flinders River mouth in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo: Stephen Faggotter.
  • A floodplain that provides food for migratory shorebirds. Photo: Michele Burford.
  • Flinders River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo: Stephen Faggotter.