Australia, Bird Study, Expeditions and Travels, Science, Travel

Australia Road Trip – 80 Mile Beach 155 miles long

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Oriental Plovers (foreground) and Grey-tailed Tattlers on 80 Mile Beach

 

We left Broome, successful to the extent that we had caught over a 1,000 birds, with sufficient samples of a number of species and few mortalities. It was a remarkable feat considering the heat. Clive, Chris and Roz along with Pru and Maureen helped the team members increase their skills while also making bold and decisive actions to catch then and care for all the birds.

As usual, success depends on persistence. One could look upon the thousands of shorebirds at Roebuck Bay and conclude that dropping a net anywhere will yield thousands of birds. Unfortunately, it was not that easy, and our last catch at Broome was a case in point. Several times we were close to firing only to have the flock fly off under the threat of a roving avian predator, a Brahminy Kite, a White-bellied Sea-eagle, harriers, Brown Falcons. If new to the experience of trapping birds, you would conclude it was impossible. But persistence paid off and we ended with a significant catch of Godwits.

Clive Holding a juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit showing distinctive wear pattern of juvenile plumage (scalloped tertials)

 

 

 

The following day was spent packing and moving off to 80 Mile Beach. It is the second study site of the expedition, a site that is virtually unimaginable to a person used to summers at the Jersey shore. Clive, Mandy, Brian and I went off early to do reconnaissance for the next day’s catch. After arriving at Anna Plains Station, we quickly established our rooms and set off for the beach. A “station” is the Australian term for ranch – Anna Plains has 18,000 head of cattle. We snaked our way through the grazed, but otherwise untouched, flat eucalyptus forest (Pindan forest) and grass plain through the extensive dunes (about 1km in depth) then out to the most remarkable beach I have ever seen. Winding away in both directions out to the horizon and out of sight was a wide sandy shore that would put to shame any New Jersey beach. Standing on the dunes one could look out over a shell filled sandy beach of about 100 to 800 m or more and in the distance a turquoise sea blending into a brilliant blue sky unaffected by humidity. Why it is called 80 Mile Beach is anybody’s guess — it is actually nearly 155 miles long, more than the New Jersey shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May (exit 130 to exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway). And along that entire length stands not one house!


A map comparing NJ beachfront with 80 Mile Beach. NJ beach is 124 miles long, 80 Mile Beach, despite its name, is 155 miles

 

 

Our Landcruiser driving onto the beach

Red-necked Stints flying along side our moving vehicle

 

 

 

However, one would not want to lounge in this Indian
Ocean surf. Predators lurk in the in the water between the turquoise sea and the sand beach. Chris Hassell said that you don’t have to worry about salt water crocodiles at 80 Mile Beach because the sharks ate them all. We did see small sharks lazily patrolling the water close to the shore, although they were actually non-threatening shark skates. Then there are the jelly fish that can leave you in pain for days, or sea snakes, or sting rays and, despite Chris’s assertion, the occasional crocodile. Fortunately, a powerful sea breeze develops in the late morning that counters the mild prevailing easterly winds and cools the beach down to a languid 100 degrees F — on some days the easterly desert winds prevail and the temperature easily reaches 43 degrees C (about 110 Farenheit) accompanied by a plague of flies blown in from the interior
.

Larry sitting in the hide with gobs of flies on his back

 

Ghost Crab on 80 Mile Beach

 

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White-bellied Sea-eagle on 80 Mile Beach

 

We started our surveillance at about high tide (1:30 p.m.). Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Knots, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Greenshanks, Terek Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, Grey Plovers, Red-capped Plovers and more extending as far as the eye could see even after we had driven for more than 40 km along the shore. Chris, working with Allan Baker and Theunis Piersma, conducts surveys on the beach and regularly counts 490,000 shorebirds.

A foreshortened picture of shorebirds on 80 Mile Beach

 

 

A flight of Bar-tailed Godwits and Great Knots on 80 Mile Beach

 

 

After our survey, we went back to the station. Run by John Stoate and his son, the station is a picture of efficiency and function and at the same time a wonderfully elegant oasis of water, shade, and green in the otherwise austere Outback surrounding it. The Station nearly a 1,000,000 acres, 100 km along the beach and 40 km inland, supports only 18,000 head of cattle and small group of horses. The Stoate family operation raises cattle from birth, keeps them until one or two years old and then sells them to buyers in Malaysia for fattening and ultimately slaughter. The family runs the operation from beginning to end and by all appearances it is a profitable operation. Sitting on the veranda of our house, one of about 10 on the station, I can actually see the heat building in the grassy fields and Pindan forests surrounding us. Yet I am cool. We begin trapping today.

Anna Plains Station

Cattle and Brolgas on a wetland created and maintained by the Station for waterbirds