Migratory short-tailed shearwaters are Australia’s most numerous seabird, but washed-up carcasses, late arrivals and low numbers have conservationists worried
Sat 23 Nov 2019 19.00 GMTLast modified on Sat 23 Nov 2019 23.24 GMT
The carcasses began to arrive in July.
Residents around the Bristol Bay area of Alaska found thousands of dead short-tailed shearwaters washing up on remote beaches, and sent samples to Anchorage.
“We collected about 100 birds for testing and they didn’t test positive for any diseases or toxins,” says Dr Kathy Kuletz of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They were severely emaciated. The birds had starved.”
Two months later, observers in Australia began to register similar concerns. Every year the shearwaters – also known as mutton birds – make a remarkable 15,000km migration from the northern hemisphere to breeding sites in the Bass Strait and the south-east of the continent.
But this year they have arrived late, and in lower numbers than usual, leading at least one watcher in Victoria to warn that Australia’s most common seabird could suddenly become one of its rarest if numbers plummet drastically this year.
“I’m very, very concerned,” says Peter Barrand, the president of Birdlife Warrnambool.
Patchy and late return
The arrival of shearwaters at places such as Griffiths Island and Phillip Island in Victoria is well known not only for its scale, but also its precision timing.