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Shorebirds, also referred to as waders, are a grouping comprised of a variety of birds from the order Charadriiformes[1] that commonly wade in water in search of food. Some species of shorebirds are resident and stay in Australia all year round, but many others have distinctive lifestyles that typically involve trans-equatorial migrations. Migratory shorebirds generally breed in the northern hemisphere during the northern summer and travel to Australia and other southern hemisphere locales during the austral summer.

Queensland shorebird species - Bird wetland indicator species and profiles

Shorebirds (whimbrels & godwits) Photo by Roger Jaensch

Quick facts

Shorebird species
differ greatly in size and shape of the body and bill, and in the length of their legs and neck. Their morphology is closely linked to how and what they fed on. These differences are useful for field identification, especially during the non-breeding season when many migratory species are predominantly grey or brown in colour.
Common sandpiper Photo by Andrew McDougall

Shorebirds in Queensland are protected under various State and Commonwealth law and a number of species are listed as threatened. There are also a range of international conventions agreements and partnerships that relate to the protection and management of shorebirds and their habitats.

Of the over 50 shorebird species that regularly occur in Australia, around a third are resident species, meaning they breed in Australia and do not migrate outside of Australia. One other species, the Australian pratincole, breeds on semi-arid plains of central and northern Australia and migrates to south east Borneo, Java and New Guinea.

Some resident shorebirds such as the Australian pied oystercatcher, sooty oystercatcher, beach stone-curlew, red-capped plover Pied Oystercatcher Photo by Micha V. Jacksonand black-winged stilt breed on the upper beach,foredune close to the water’s edge or on slightly raised sites in shallow water. Others, such as the Australian painted snipe, breed on inland ephemeral freshwater wetlands. Some birds including the inland dotterel, plains-wanderer and bush stone-curlew have been referred to as inland resident shorebirds, but these species do not use wetlands as primary habitat or for breeding.

Australia's migratory shorebird species form part of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. This flyway route extends from breeding grounds in the Alaskan and East Siberian tundras and forests, and the steppes and deserts of Mongolia and extreme Northern China, to non-breeding areas in South-east Asia, Australasia and New Zealand. Migratory shorebirds spend the majority of their time in their non-breeding environments. Distributions for many species along the Queensland coast can be viewed here.

Great knot Photo by Ken JonesBecause of their annual migration, migratory shorebirds experience mostly long days and warm conditions year-round, which normally equates to a plentiful food supply. However, migratory shorebirds must use widely separated and dissimilar environments at each end of their journey and also during their migration as stopover sites to rest and regain weight. Their survival depends on the presence of suitable habitat and the ability to utilise habitats in locations that are many thousands of kilometres apart. One of the best-studied species and the world's largest migratory shorebird, the eastern curlew, dramatically builds up its body weight just before migration. During its flight from Siberia to Australia, it will burn off 40 per cent of this weight to fuel its 13,000 km journey.

While migratory shorebirds travel huge distances each year, resident Australian species may move long distances between suitable wetland habitat depending upon changes in local conditions and time of year. Extreme and unpredictable, or regular changes between wet and dry conditions are usually the cause of movements of many resident shorebirds. Migratory species that use freshwater wetlands are similarly at the behest of changes of varying conditions in Australian wetlands.

Of the regularly occurring shorebird species in Australia, several occur in quite low numbers and are seldom seen in Queensland. They include the red-necked phalarope, little ringed plover, long-toed stint, common redshank and pin-tailed and swinhoe’s snipes. Furthermore, two of the resident species, banded stilt and hooded plover, have distributions that centre on southern inland regions or southern coastal regions respectively, and are not typical of the Queensland shorebird community.

Additional information

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  1. ^ Geering, ADW, Agnew, L & Harding, S (2007), Shorebirds of Australia. [online], CSIRO Pub., Victoria, Australia. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2020].

Last updated: 2 February 2021

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, Queensland (2021) Shorebirds, WetlandInfo website, accessed 18 March 2024. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment, Science and Innovation