Chris Watson

Birding Central Australia #89 - Wood Sandpiper

Chris Watson

Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola

This week has seen the wrap-up of all things Olympic over in London, so it is fitting that our bird is also a long-distance champion of sorts. The Alice Springs Field Naturalists' quarterly wader count at the sewage ponds went ahead on Sunday, and found three early-returning migrants.

The Wood Sandpiper is a tiny bird which manages an annual migration from its breeding grounds in northern Asia, all the way to Australia, and then back again for the northern spring. They make this extraordinary journey in just a few hops with some birds completing continuous flights of over 4,500 kilometres. To accomplish this, their bodies undergo astonishing changes, the mechanisms of which are still poorly understood by scientists. They shrink their internal organs, including the brain, by considerable percentages to allow space for extra stores of fat - fuel for the long flight. They then carefully time their departure to take advantage of cooler night time temperatures, tail-winds, and good weather. During their flight, their bodies will be operating right on the upper threshold of metabolism - the equivalent of a human being running Roger Bannister's famous four-minute mile pace, for hours on end. The annual migration of this, and many similar species of waders, is justifiably touted as the greatest feat of physical endurance in the vertebrate world.

Chestnut Teals continue to be seen at the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds, and a Nankeen Night-heron has been spotted by a few sharp-eyed birdos up the track at Renner Springs. Now that the migrants seem to be passing through, we can expect a few more interesting species to be turning up over the summer months; in Broome they have already had some stunning exotics in the form of Common Redshank and Asian Dowitchers.

Happy birding!