Shorebirds and Seabirds

What is the difference between a shorebird, a seabird and a water bird?

Shorebirds, also known as 'waders' are distinguished from seabirds in that they inhabit and feed in shallow water, or around the edges such as mudflats, estuaries, wetlands, and beaches. They do not have webbed feet like a seabird and have long legs relative to their body size. They feed on insects, worms, small crabs, crustaceans and molluscs; some even feed on small fish and locate their prey by using their beaks to reach into the sand or mud.

Many Shorebirds nest on the ground in burrows, or shallow depressions in the ground (scrapes) rather than in nests high above the ground, migratory birds breed and nest in the Northern Hemisphere and migrate to our shores to feed.

Shorebirds include: Curlews, godwits, plovers, stilts, oystercatchers, and sandpipers.

Seabirds, on the other hand, rely on the sea for their food source, including fish and other species like squid. Most seabirds have webbed feet allowing them to swim, however larger raptors such as the osprey and sea eagle have talons and swoop down to catch their prey in the water. They come ashore to nest, in a variety of places, including nests in trees and other structures (such as osprey and sea-eagle), on the beach, on cliffs, rocky headlands and shorelines and old coral reefs. Many seabirds breed in large colonies such as wedge-tailed shearwaters, and terns. Nearly two million seabirds nest at the Houtman Abrolhos Islands 

Seabirds include: Ospreys, White-bellied sea eagle, shearwaters, gulls and terns

Waterbirds, also known as waterfowl, are birds that frequent any body of water including oceans, rivers and inland waters such as wetlands, lagoons and lakes. They also have webbed feet, ducking down into the water to catch prey such as fish or invertebrates (e.g. pelicans, darters and cormorants, ducks) feeding on the shoreline using their long bills (e.g. ibis), or wading in shallow water to catch fish and invertebrates (e.g. herons, egrets and spoonbills).

Waterbirds include: pelicans, swans, ducks, geese, herons, cormorants, spoonbills.

Migratory bird species

Many of the shorebirds that inhabit the Geraldton area migrate long distances, travelling up to 12,000km from their Artic breeding grounds, along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). See here for more information.  

These migratory species visit our shores during the summer season, (October to March) during their non-breeding season, to rest and feed ready for their return journey to the northern hemisphere.  After arriving at our coast, the birds feed along the intertidal zone, on mudflats, river estuaries, sandbanks and amongst the beach sea wrack. Migratory shorebirds need to accumulate sufficient fat and muscle to enable them to increase their boy mass by up to 70%, ready for their return journey north in the southern Autumn.  Any disturbance to their feeding can impact migratory birds as they may not be able to build up sufficient energy reserves necessary to undertake such a huge journey. See also threats below.

What migratory birds species can I find in the Geraldton region?

Up to 22 migratory birds have been recorded across the Geraldton regions, this includes species such as:

  • Grey Plover
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Common Greenshank
  • Red-necked stint
  • Whimbrel
  • Bar tailed Godwit
  • Eastern Curlew
  • Ruddy Turnstone

Interesting facts about Migratory birds

  • Migratory shorebirds must feed on coastal mudflats and other wetlands in Australia to increase their body mass by up to 70% to gain sufficient energy to sustain them on their migration to the Northern hemisphere
  • Some migratory shorebirds have seen population declines of up to 80% over the last 30 years
  • 37 species of migratory shorebirds regularly visit Australia, with all except one spending up to 6 months of each year here
  • The Bar-tailed Godwit has been recorded flying non-stop from Alaska to Australia, a total distance of 13,560km

Threats to our migratory birds

Many of the bird species that visit our shores are listed under national and international conventions and agreement to protect migratory species.  These include the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), Ramsar Convention on wetlands, Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention), various Bilateral migratory Bird Agreements and The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP). 

Resident Shorebirds

Resident shorebirds live all year round along the shore of Australia, and do not migrate. They breed in spring and summer, with many of these species nesting directly on the beach, coral outcrops and rocky shorelines. Their nesting behaviour makes them very vulnerable to external impacts, such as predators, disturbance from humans and dogs, and vehicles on beaches. Other natural impacts that can affect breading success are extreme weather events such as storms and high tides which can wash the nests away. Ten Australian resident shorebirds are found along our coastline.

Beach nesting bird species in the Geraldton region include:

  • Pied Oyster catcher
  • Sooty oystercatcher
  • Hooded plover (Hoody for short!)
  • Red capped plover
  • Terns including the Caspian tern, Crested tern, Roseate tern, Fairy tern, Gull billed tern, whiskered tern.

Threats to beach nesting bird species

Beach nesting birds are vulnerable to changes in their habitat and disturbance, some of the issues they face are predation (by other birds and introduced species such as dogs, cats and foxes), habitat destruction/removal and human impacts such as disturbance from beach users, use of off-road vehicles and off-leash dogs. Some impacts of disturbance include:

  • Trampling or crushing of eggs or chicks
  • Eggs washed away by high tides or storms
  • Predation of eggs, chicks and juveniles, and breeding adults 
  • Death of birds through entanglement with marine debris
  • Loss of suitable habitat and breeding territories leading to territory disputes
  • Modification of habitat such as dune removal/damage resulting in birds nesting in sub-optimal areas
  • Disturbance of nests during the incubation period from human interference, dogs, vehicles etc. resulting in the parents abandoning the nest temporarily or permanently.

Where can I see them?

Shorebirds rest and feed in estuaries, coastal dunes, rocky headlines, exposed reefs and on beaches.

  • Greenough River Mouth at Cape Burney
  • Point Moore, Greys Beach and Pages Beach
  • Houtman Abrolhos Islands

See the Guide to Birdwatching in the Geraldton region here

What can I do to help our shorebirds?

  • Visit Birdlife Australia for more information here on how you can help our birds
  • Join our local Geraldton-Midwest Birdlife group to find out more about our local birds, take part in activities such as guided walks, field trips, talks and much more. Visit their Facebook page or email
  • Keep your dog on a leash while at the beach if shorebirds are around: Check out our off-lead and dog parks here


Further information

Birdlife Australia.