Guwayi shorebird tracked through science and culture

Yawuru Language teacher Maxine Charlie with her recently published book, Guwayi The Bar-tailed Godwit. Image: Kandy Curran

Yawuru Language teacher Maxine Charlie with her recently published book, Guwayi The Bar-tailed Godwit. Image: Kandy Curran

YAWURU language teacher, Maxine Charlie, remembers as a child seeing large flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits flying over the foreshore of Roebuck Bay when camping with her family.

What she didn’t know at the time was that these birds carry out remarkable feats of migration between Siberia and Roebuck Bay travelling more than 10,000 kilometres each way. With a keen interest in keeping Yawuru language alive and strong in Broome, Maxine decided to write a book about these amazing global travellers that have a special Yawuru name.

“I wanted to write a little documentary so children can learn about this beautiful bird with the special Yawuru name Guwayi and its incredible flights across the world each year,” Maxine Charlie says.

The result is a children’s book that shows Guwayi’s migration, plumage, nesting habits and food sources on the mudflats of Roebuck Bay and the thawing arctic tundra. Chris Hassell, a passionate shorebird researcher for 17 years with the Global Flyway Network (GFN) and Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) in Broome, is impressed with the children’s book— recently launched at the Broome Bird Observatory.

“It’s not just a book about the Bar-tailed Godwit in its cultural context, and it’s not just a book about it in its scientific context,” he says. “It is really a beautiful blend of the two and you don’t often see that, and to see the blend done so beautifully was a great joy to me and to be involved in a very small way was a privilege.”

The Bar-tailed Godwit is one of the easier species to identify because of its size, and is a target species to research for ornithology groups. The research is providing valuable information on the bird’s migration pattern and its survival, to better understand its biology and assist in its conservation.

“They really are champion migrants. When they leave Roebuck Bay they fly 6,500 kilometres non-stop for four days, no eating, no sleeping, no drinking, just one single direct flight to the Yellow Sea on the Chinese coast,” he says.

The ornithology researchers have been capturing and releasing godwits along Roebuck Bay for many years to collect biological data and attach individually marked metal and plastic leg bands. The leg bands provide migration data as the birds are identified along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Modern technology has also been deployed, as Chris explains, “we have also put satellite transmitters inside the birds using a surgical operation, then released the birds back into the wild where they were tracked by satellite on their migration.”

“The timing of the northward migration is critical and we saw that their flights were very direct to the Yellow Sea and very direct into the Yakutia region of eastern Siberia, but on their return, a few came back directly, a few stopped off at the Philippines, and a few at Indonesia and Borneo.” “They sort of dribbled back as the time constraints are not as great as on their return to the non-breeding grounds. All that information has come about, from putting a metal band on the birds or using modern cutting edge technology with satellites.”

The research by the ornithologists is ongoing, with godwits and other migratory shorebirds being caught, measured, banded and then released in an effort to better understand the migration patterns, and survival rates of these birds. Interesting data from the GFN and AWSG is at hand from the colour banding project that shows a Bar-tailed Godwit when it matures has an 86 per cent chance of survival to the following year. The knowledge from this research is vitally important to the future survival of these incredible migrants, and to Yawuru people like Maxine, helped satisfy the curiosity she has had about these birds since her early childhood.

This is a community contribution by Kandy Curran of the Roebuck Bay Working Group.

Source: ScienceNetwork Western Australia

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