(Adapted from Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight’s, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia)

Most of Australia lacks the harsh winters of the northern hemisphere. There are also few land barriers such as really high mountain rangers. We also have irregular rainfall and periodic drought. These factors make bird migration here somewhat different from that in Eurasia and North America. Like these landmasses though we do have traditional, regular and long distance migrants. However, in addition many Australian species make short summer/winter migration journeys. There is also much irregular nomadism.

Every summer, Australia enjoys the presence of many varieties of traditional, regular and long distance migrants. There are some 80 petrels, jaegers, gulls, terns, snipe, sandpipers, waterfowl, plovers and others that breed mostly in the Artic circle, Siberia, Alaska and the North Pacific, and then spend their non-breeding months here. About two million shorebirds are estimated to make this type of migration. Some of these travellers are amazing in the distance they travel. Perhaps the prize for the most amazing feat of migration must go to the little sparrow sized Red-necked Stint. Think about this little bird and the energy required for it to fly in our spring from its breeding ground in the Artic above Russia down to south eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania and then return in the same year. It is a journey of some 24,000 kilometres! In their lifetime of up to 20 years these birds may cover a distance that is equivalent to a return journey to the moon! They are fearfully and wonderfully made.

During our winter we also receive traditional, regular and long distance migrants. These come from the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. They come to Australia to escape the dark, cold of the winters in that region, and spend the southern winter months around the southern Australian continental shelf. There are about 50 species of penguins, albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, prions, storm-petrels and skuas that breed in the far south in summer, but live here in winter. It is possible to regularly see something in Australia that is rarely ever seen in other lands. That is, one can see for example birds from the Antarctic and the Artic on the same beach.

There are also the local migrants. Most of these species of birds breed in southern mainland Australia and/or Tasmania in spring and summer but winter further north. Most go to either inland Australia or our tropical north, and some to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Among these birds are the Swift Parrot and Orange-bellied Parrot from Tasmania, various of the Cuckoos, such as the Pallid and Brush Cuckoo, Dollarbirds, Rainbow Bee-eaters and various honeyeaters such as the Yellow-faced and Lewin’s.

Some birds breed in summer in the high forests of our Great Dividing Range stretching from western Victoria to northeast Queensland but move to lower altitudes in autumn/winter. They often make a noticeable winter presence in sub-inland or coastal towns and on farms. Such birds include Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, Gang-gang Cockatoos, Australian King Parrots, Noisy Pittas, Flame, Scarlet, Pink and Rose Robins, Golden Whistlers, Grey Fantails, Pied Currawongs, Regent and Satin Bowerbirds and Bassian Thrushes.

Then there are the opportunist migratory birds that move, often great distances within Australia in response to rain, flooding or drought. Such birds include our Quail, Ducks, various raptors such as Kites, Harriers and Hawks, Crakes and Rails, Button-quail, various Parrots, Cuckoos, Honeyeaters, Chats, Woodswallows and Finches. Near Cohuna in northern Victoria we have the beautiful Crimson and Orange Chats come into the area in good seasons, as have Black and Pied Honeyeaters. You may also remember not so long ago, thousands of Banded Stilts flocking to the irregularly flooded Lake Eyre to breed, and then as the lakes dried, to disperse to many parts of southern Australia.

What a diversity and wonder of life and its behaviour we find around us. To observe it and to appreciate it is to enrich our lives. It above all ought to give us a greater sense of, and love to, our Creator, who has made all creatures great and small.

This article was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, April 2001