Exciting times! Great Knots and Bar-tailed Godwits have started to leave their non-breeding grounds in Northwest Australia to migrate north to their Asian staging areas. Six of the Bar-tailed Godwits (two from Broome, four from 80 Mile Beach) are in the air, with one already at Tiaozini, Jiangsu, China!
Lee Tibbitts was the first to remotely see the migration starting. On 6 April she messaged after looking in the satellite data: “Great Knot 833 was flying along Taiwan about 10 hours ago. Maybe you will see an influx of birds soon”.
Indeed on April 9 Ginny Chan reported that Great Knot 833 has just arrived at Jinjiang, Fujian, China. Ginny Chan and team are currently at the China coast for field work, and they have actually seen this satellite-tagged bird at Jinjiang! It’s in a group of 79 Great Knots and looking good. According to Chris Hassell at its last three resights in Roebuck Bay, Broome, it had been scored as 75% breeding plumage already! Chris saw it last at Richard’s Point in Roebuck Bay on 29 March 2018, and now a mere ten day later it is at Jinjiang.
Ginny further reports there are other Northwest Australia Great Knots in the flock. She photographed the yellow flagged 1XA (the AWSG scheme) and satellite tagged Great Knot 833 who is colour-ringed with 6LYBY (the GFN scheme).
A bitter taste
Of course, we are excited that migration has started, but this year it has a bitter taste. To prepare for their long flight to Arctic breeding areas up to 70,000–80,000 Great Knots (of the total population of 290,000) refuel at the most northern staging site in the Yellow Sea, Yalu Jiang National Nature reserve in Liaoning, China. But something is wrong there. David Melville (research scientist involved with China shorebirds for a few decades) says: “Word is spreading that there is no food at Yalu Jiang and that they would be better off staying at Broome!?”. What if Great Knot 833 goes there?
The most important food source for the thousands of shorebirds staging in this reserve, small clams, has crashed. This means that Great Knots, after a long-distance flight in which they will lose nearly half their body weight, will find insufficient food at this major northern Yellow Sea stopover. This strongly reduced food supply means there is going to be a lot of competition and likely a die-off.
You may know that IUCN lists Great Knot as ‘Endangered’, while the Australian Government consider it to be ‘Critically Endangered’. In other words, Great Knots have a hard time already, and losing more birds is a risk we cannot take.