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Byron Shire
March 23, 2023

Bush stone-curlews in Byron Shire

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Bush stone-curlews in Brunswick Heads. Photo Reid Waters, [email protected]

The first time I noticed a bush stone-curlew in Brunswick Heads it was waiting at the pedestrian crossing, on its way to the pub, across the other side of the road. A review of the records show that prior to 2018 only the occasional one or two birds were reported in Byron Shire; either at the Belongil Estuary, or near the Court House in Byron, or at St Finbarr’s Primary School.

Brunswick Heads now has a population of six bush stone-curlews that we know of, up from zero prior to 2019. Residents are seeing them hanging around the shops looking at themselves in the windows, in their backyards, in the schoolyards and in the parks and reserves. They are also hearing their unforgettable eerie wailing wee-loo or ‘screaming women’ calls at night. Police sometimes receive frantic calls from citizens reporting someone being attacked.

As a result of active monitoring and management in Tweed Shire north of us, the Council has established that there were approximately 50 breeding pairs in 2020 from just one known breeding pair in 2012. Records suggest that urban birds started to move south from Queensland and began to colonise the Tweed Coast during the late 1990s and early 2000s. A total of 65 chicks fledged during the 2019–20 breeding season. Over this time most of the birds have established their breeding sites in either caravan parks or local parks and gardens. As breeding pairs find it difficult to find a suitable nest site, we are predicting they will continue to move south and we may well see an increasing presence of these birds in the Byron Shire.

Bush stone-curlew. Photo Reid Waters, [email protected]

Endangered species

Like many Australian birds it has been given a variety of names – bush thick-knee, southern stone-curlew, weelo, and willaroo being among the most familiar. They occur throughout Australia, but numbers have declined in the southern states. In NSW, they are listed in the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 as an endangered species. Once upon a time these birds were reported in flocks of 50 to 100, but now it is rare to see even one pair.

This decline has occurred over the last 30 years and can be attributed to the degradation of habitat, mostly through grazing, logging, frequent fires, farming and urban development. Owing to the clearing of logs from forest understory, hiding places they once used are scarce now allowing them to be easily hunted by foxes and domestic animals.

Bush stone-curlews are very inconspicuous during the day. They stand quite still with their eyes half-closed. Being light grey to light brown in colour and marked with black blotches and streaks, they are well camouflaged. A black band runs from near its eye down its neck, and the eyes are large and bright yellow.

It has a hunch-shouldered stance and long spindly legs. When it is disturbed it lies flat on the ground, with its head and neck outstretched. In this position, they are easily stepped on as they are very difficult to see. They hide behind logs where available and rather than fly away they freeze when approached. While on a walk in the Tyagarah Nature Reserve last year, a blink of its eye was the only thing that warned me that I was just about to step on one laid stretched out in the leaf-litter.

Bush stone-curlew couple. Photo Reid Waters, [email protected]

Night birds

The large eyes are well adapted for seeing in dim light and so they start to become active at dusk and through the night. As night-feeders, they feed on a wide variety of food including insects, molluscs, lizards, seeds, and small mammals. Once they find a partner they bond for life, producing one to two eggs each season.

They breed throughout the spring and summer months, when they are extremely vulnerable to attacks from predators like dogs, cats, and foxes. After putting on an elaborate courtship dance involving standing with their wings outstretched, stamping their feet up and down and keeping their tail upright, one or two well-camouflaged eggs are usually laid in a scrape on the ground. Both adults share the parenting responsibilities and can be aggressive and protective when danger approaches the nest.

Like most ground-dwelling birds, once the chicks are hatched, they are immediately moved away from the nest and are expected to find their own food. When parents are providing guarding duties, they may raise their wings high and wide in an impressive threat posture while emitting a loud hoarse hissing sound.

Have you seen any?

Besides habitat disturbance and loss other risks include vehicle strike and disturbance of nest sites by people, domestic dogs and cats that may cause birds to abandon their eggs or chicks. Predation by foxes, dogs, and cats can be fatal.

At this time, Byron Bird Buddies are unsure of how many breeding pairs are in Brunswick Heads and have started tracking their numbers. We would appreciate receiving reports of any nesting activity, however, we remind everyone to please keep their distance and not disturb the bird. By working with Byron Shire Council and National Parks we may be able to undertake some protection work at the nest site using temporary fencing and signage and if necessary some fox and feral cat control. Please report nest sightings to [email protected].

Be assured that it is normal for these birds to be hanging around urban areas, and with your help and care they may again be wandering carefree around our parks and gardens.

If you see an injured bush stone-curlew or any injured bird please call Wires Northern Rivers 0409 170 062.

To view the video visit tweed.nsw.gov.au/bush-stone-curlews.

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