Broome’s multicultural community is a positive reflection of the migration that has led to modern Australia. People migrated to Australia from all over the world. In Broome the migration was mainly Asian and provided labour for the pearling industry. In the late 1980’s it was a migration of epic proportion. There is another type of migration that has occurred in Broome for Millenia also involving Asia and also epic.
Migratory shore birds migrate in their hundreds of thousands. Leaving from the shores of Roebuck Bay they migrate from one hemisphere to another, south to north then back. Flapping their wings furiously once they have taken off, their feet won’t touch the ground for another 6,000km, until some 6 days later they land by the Yellow Sea in China. Their migration is four times the distance of the great migration of African animals between the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. What the shorebirds lack in size they make up in spirit, determination and awe factor. Broome is the only place in Australia you can witness the great shorebird migration on such a scale. Roebuck Bay is the last stop for many Australian migratory species heading north.
Researchers at the Broome Bird Observatory have been observing and recording them for over thirty years and have noticed some curious behaviours. They point out that you can identify which group is about to leave by scanning the mudflats. While the scene may look chaotic with the hundreds of thousands of birds moving, feeding and calling you may notice a neat line of birds form, running east to west. They are standing and waiting for what researchers still haven’t quite figured out, is the starters gun. Just like the Wilderbeest have several false starts crossing the first river of their migration, the shorebirds often take off only to return to their line several minutes later. They may have several practices runs before the group is comfortable with the task ahead.
They depart in groups from five to three hundred in number. Forming specular V formations, they depart each afternoon until mid-May. Using the stars and the earth’s magnet fields to navigate, they are undertaking one of the world’s greatest migrations.
Each year around 100,000 migratory shorebirds leave the mudflats of the Ramsar listed Roebuck Bay and head to their breeding grounds in the Northern Hemisphere. After finding mates, nesting and raising chicks they return to Broome a few months later. For many of these birds, this migration is a 20,000 km round journey. They undertake this amazing migration every year of their adult lives.
Roebuck Bay was designated a “Wetland of International Importance” under the Ramsar Convention in June 1990. The Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) is an intergovernmental multilateral treaty on the wise use of wetlands generally and, specifically, the conservation of designated Wetlands of International Importance. It is a National Heritage site and Yawuru Nagulagun Roebuck Bay Marine Park.
This year the migration will be celebrated with The Shorebird Quest, a spectacular, one-show-only event to be performed 4 May 2019, on the shores of Roebuck Bay. The Shorebird Quest will celebrate the migration with a fusion of musical theatre, puppetry and Yawuru Country knowledge. The final performance on 4 May, will feature giant illuminated puppets, storytelling, dance, and original music performed by local musicians and school choirs. It will be a major spectacular not-to-be-missed event for Broome.
Feature image by Kevin Smith Photography.