Aussie endangered list swells as eight bird species vanish from skies

'Kids being born today will see nature as beautiful, but it’s a lot less remarkable than it was just a couple of generations ago.'

Eight species of shorebird that have found refuge on Australia’s beaches for generations have quietly been added to the government’s growing inventory of wildlife threatened with extinction.

While many of the birds are similar in appearance and unfamiliar, Jess Abrahams from Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) laments the ongoing disappearance of diverse species is slowly making the country a less interesting place. Instead, we are seeing a homogenisation of the landscape as species that can adapt to habitat loss, pollution and climate change dominate the landscape.

“There’s a biodiversity that we’ve taken for granted. Each bird has different length of beak, or length of leg, a particular feeding habit, or unique ecological niche that they exploit and we’re losing them before our very eyes,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“There are birds that have gone straight to the endangered list. The greenshank has declined up to 60 per cent in three generations, and the black-tailed godwit 52 to 77 per cent. That’s a huge loss over a short period of time.”

Left - large numbers of black-tailed godwit flying over water. Right - a single black-tailed godwit flying
The black-tailed godwit has declined by up to 77 per cent in three generations due to commercial development; agriculture, pollution, dammed rivers and sea level rise. Source: Getty (File)

Even once common species like koalas and greater gliders are now threatened with extinction, and Abraham's concerns about Australia's loss of biodiversity are becoming increasingly common among conservationists.

In September, ecologist Professor Tim Flannery called for Australia's national threatened species laws to be urgently overhauled by the Albanese government. “Just think back to the last time you saw thousands of Bogong moths around your suburb, or hundreds of Christmas beetles,” he said.

Government hinted at migratory bird listing a month ago

While there was no formal announcement by the government, indications the shorebird species were about to be listed came in December when Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek issued a press release about another issue — the government’s fight against the illegal wildlife trade.

She mentioned 27 species would be given “increased protections” by the Commonwealth, including the Daintree rainbowfish which was only discovered in 2018 and is now critically endangered.

While several of these species made the list in December, her office has indicated the paperwork required to list the new shorebird additions took more time.

Kids no longer experiencing diverse nature

When Abrahams first started watching the list a decade ago, the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act had around 1400 animals, plants and ecological communities listed as threatened. The number now stands at 2,212 and he’s dismayed at how regularly species face declines that require them to be added.

“Kids being born today will see nature as beautiful, but it’s a lot less remarkable than it was just a couple of generations ago,” he said.

A common myna in close up on the grass.
Australia's rich biodiversity is being homogenised by creatures which can adapt to change like the common myna. Source: Getty (File)

The birds added to the list are the black-tailed godwit and the common greenshank (both endangered), ruddy turnstone, sharp-tailed sandpiper, Latham’s snipe, Asian dowitcher, grey plover and Terek sandpiper (vulnerable). Separately, the Alaskan bar-tailed godwit was moved from vulnerable to extinction to endangered.

The species are all migratory and fly thousands of kilometres from the other side of the world to feed in Australia’s shallow, muddy waters of intertidal zones.

Pressures on the eight birds are global. They have several essential feeding stops along their annual journey, and destruction of habitat in Australia and overseas has impacted their survival rates.

But it wasn't all bad news for Australia's migratory species, with the Northern Siberian bar-tailed godwit, great knot and red knot all down-listed.

Plibersek asked to protect other migratory species from developer

This week, Minister Plibersek blocked the Victorian government’s plan to build offshore wind farms in the RAMSAR-listed Western Port Wetlands due to concerns it would cause “irreversible damage to the habitat of waterbirds and migratory birds, and marine invertebrates and fish” that live there.

ACF CEO Kelly O’Shanassy congratulated the minister for her decision and said she hoped a developer’s controversial proposal to build apartments on another RAMSAR wetland in Queensland's Moreton Bay would also be rejected.

Walker Corporation, which is also planning developments in Sydney's southwest, has proposed draining parts of Toondah Harbour where the critically endangered eastern curlew migrates each year.

“To stem the accelerating extinction crisis, the government must urgently strengthen our national environment law,” O’Shannassy said.

“Just as Minister Plibersek has made a sound decision on the Western Port wetlands, we urge her to reject Walker Corporation’s proposal for a marina and high-rise apartment complex on the Ramsar wetland at Toondah Harbour.”

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