Siberia to the saltponds and back again

Dampier Salt partnering with the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway to protect the future of migratory shorebirds

Rio Tinto

Far eastern curlew © Riotinto Dampier salt

Millions of migratory birds take to the skies annually to escape cold temperatures and to reach new feeding grounds. These cyclical intercontinental trips are instinctive and the knowledge of the different geographic paths, known as flyways, has been passed from one bird generation to another.

Flyways consist of chains of important wetlands, usually coastal mudflats. These mudflats provide abundant food which the shorebirds must rapidly consume to gain strength for the next leg of their journey. The ability to find food quickly is vital as the birds cannot afford delays.

There are nine major flyways and the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) is one of the largest and habitats in this flyway are under more threat than any other region on Earth. It links three continents, two oceans, thousands of islands and 22 countries in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Although the shorebirds migrating along this vast flyway between Russian Siberia and Australia, a 20,000km round trip, are relatively secure in their Arctic breeding grounds and in their southern-hemisphere feeding refuges, they face dire threats at their “stopover” sites on the long journey in between.

Threats include the reclamation of coastal wetlands, estuaries and mudflats, pollution, overfishing, hunting, predation and the impact of climate change.

The search for ways to protect these birds led to the creation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership in 2006.

It resembles a regional United Nations for migratory bird conservation with country partners, non-government organisations and internationally-recognised conservation groups such as BirdLife International, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In 2013 Rio Tinto became the first corporate member of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.

Surveying shorebirds at the Dampier saltponds © Riotinto Dampier salt

Siberia to Australia

Dampier Salt, one of Rio Tinto’s subsidiaries in Western Australia is situated within the western section of the EAAF. Each year the migratory birds find their way from Siberia to Dampier where all three salt operations, Lake MacLeod, Dampier and Port Hedland, are identified as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and globally important habitat for shorebirds.

In total, an area of around 50,000ha (500km2) of land and water under Dampier Salt management serves as wetlands habitat for the birds. In this remote region the birds are safe and spend their summer staying warm and fattening themselves up for the return migration.

However, Tony Baker, manager, Health, Safety, Environment and Community at Dampier Salt, said that although Dampier Salt spends time protecting and managing the site and habitat for the birds, the EAAF partnership is essential to secure the future of the different species of migratory shorebirds.

“There’s no point simply ensuring the protection of birds at our sites if degradation of other bird habitats along the migration route means these species can’t make the round trip each year,” said Tony.

Dampier Salt has a biodiversity action plan that is designed to establish practices to protect the KBAs at its operations, and also, together with other stakeholders, to identify KBAs along the flyway, and ways to protect them.

Sharp tailed sandpiper © Riotinto Dampier salt

The plan supports investment in research at Perth’s Edith Cowan University into the ecological relationship between migratory shorebirds and Dampier Salt’s ponds.

“As a business, we have the capacity to bring resources and project management skills that focus on delivering long-term benefits to migratory bird species. By taking a lead in the corporate sector, we see ourselves as a catalyst for creating broader awareness of, and action on, migratory bird protection.

“Our long-term goal is to work with others along the flyway to secure the future of our seven priority bird species, collectively referred to as the Dampier 7,” said Tony.

“The Dampier 7”

  1. Far-eastern curlew
  2. Great knot
  3. Curlew sandpiper
  4. Red knot
  5. Red-necked stint
  6. Broad-billed sandpiper
  7. Sharp-tailed sandpiper

The site at Dampier hosts 50 different bird species of which 20 are identified as migratory shorebirds in addition to the Dampier 7.

The seven priority migratory species that visit Dampier Salt’s operations each year © Riotinto Dampier salt

Shorebirds are wading birds that feed on wetlands, tidal mudflats and beaches. They include sandpipers, stints, curlews, plovers and oystercatchers. Some of the shorebirds, when seen in Australia may not have bright plumage, but when they return to their Arctic breeding areas they develop bright colours to attract a mate.

Counting shorebirds

Red Knot © Riotinto Dampier salt

As part of its ongoing conservation work, Dampier Salt, in partnership with BirdLife Western Australia, also conducts annual surveys of the shorebirds at the Dampier saltponds. While the shorebirds are the highest priority, all waterbirds and raptors are counted and a list of all other bird species that visit is included in the survey.

“We’ve completed the 2017 counts. These surveys are very important for monitoring the populations of shorebirds, and the trans-equatorial migratory shorebirds in particular. The count is also important because the birds are part of the ecosystem of the saltponds,” said Tony.

There is a synchronicity between the saltponds and the birds. The saltponds provide a nutrient-rich feeding ground as there’s an abundance of marine life which contributes to the salt-forming process.

Maintenance of water levels and stable pond biology are critical factors for the production of high-quality salt. These same factors are important for the birds and, in return, the shorebirds are indicators of the environmental health of the ponds.

The shorebird data contributes to BirdLife Australia’s Shorebirds 2020 project. This project aims to reinvigorate and coordinate national shorebird population monitoring in Australia. The annual counts at more than 150 shorebird areas are important to detect national population trends.

The Shorebird 2020 Program is raising awareness of how incredible shorebirds are, and actively engaging the community to participate in gathering information needed to conserve shorebirds.

Migratory birds know no boundaries and will continue to fly their age-old routes from one continent to the next. The threats they face have been a catalyst for international collaboration in conservation and promoted thinking about areas beyond our own borders.

There are nine major flyways overlapping every continent except icebound Antarctica © Riotinto Dampier salt

Originally posted on 23 October 2017 by Rio Tinto

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