26 April 2024

All at sea: Public asked to help wayward birds retake flight in cross-continental migration

| Claire Sams
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A wedge-tailed shearwater bird in a cat-carrier

Wedge-tailed shearwaters are undertaking their annual migration, but some will run into trouble along the way. Photos: Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue.

South Coast communities have had several surprise visitors in recent times: wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue volunteer Kristen Vickery said the visits happened when the birds lost their way during their annual migration.

“We’ve been getting a lot of them at Port Kembla and Narooma – those are the really big hotspots,” she said.

“We’ve even been getting a few near the Jervis Bay area.”

Ms Vickery is a volunteer with the organisation’s South Coast branch, which covers the area from southern Sydney down to Eden.

The wedge-tailed shearwater’s migration is set to last for several weeks as the birds head from their nesting spots, in places like Victoria, to the Philippines Sea.

“A lot of seabirds do have to embark on these really long migrations between where they nest and breed and their feeding grounds,” she said.

“Because they live their whole lives on the open ocean, they’re made for that and it’s just what they do.

“However, some do struggle and that’s when we pick them up.”

The birds can land in the rescuers’ care after being unable to complete the migration, perhaps because they are underweight or injured, or they become distracted.

“They follow the moon as part of their migration, and they can actually get disoriented from coastal lights,” Ms Vickery said.

“When that happens, they come towards the shore, crash-land and can’t take off again – they need significant wind as they normally take off on the ocean.”

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If a wedge-tailed shearwater is discovered in your backyard, Ms Vickery recommends wrapping it in a clean towel and putting it in a box.

“Our bare hands can actually contaminate their waterproofing [on their feathers] if we have any sort of oil, sunscreen, dirt or stuff like that on our hands,” she said.

“If that waterproof is damaged, they can’t be released straight away.

“If you call our hotline, we can pick them up and check their health before putting them into a pool.

“That’s pretty much all we have to do, if there’s no apparent injuries and they are a healthy body weight, before we can release them the following night.”

A wedge-tailed shearwater bird

Ms Vickery said the public should be careful when handling the seabirds, as contamination can damage the waterproofing on their feathers.

A strong clue when identifying seabirds, such as the wedge-tailed shearwater, is the presence of webbed feet.

“That’s the biggest indication that it is a seabird,” Ms Vickery said.

“They [wedge-tailed shearwater] have a curved beak with a little hook at the end, and they are about the size of a magpie.

“They’re also really hopeless on land because they’re built for the ocean – they won’t be able to fly, but they will wobble along a little bit on land.”

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People from across the south and southeast of the state should keep their eyes open for wedge-tailed shearwater birds over the next few weeks as their migration continues.

“In places like Eden, there’s no major light sources. The birds tend not to become disoriented and can continue on their way,” Ms Vickery said.

“They definitely will move through those areas, but we’re just not seeing the numbers like we do in Narooma or Port Kembla because the light isn’t as much of an issue.

“The public can still keep an eye out, however.”

The Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue’s South Coast branch can be reached on 0431 282 238.

Original Article published by Claire Sams on About Regional.

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