Taking bird conservation to new heights

While many of us enjoy spending Sundays tucked in bed with a cup of Earl Grey and Netflix playing on our iPads, Amellia Formby steps into her micro light aircraft for a training flight, prepping for the biggest adventure of her life.

The 36-year-old zoologist-turned-pilot is planning to fly from Broome to Siberia to follow the migration path of a bird the size of a Tim-Tam.

Amellia Formby

The Red-necked Stint is a little bird that frequents Perth’s wetlands. And it’s one of the thousands of migratory shorebird species that migrate from Australia to Siberia and back every year.

“To think a tiny bird like the Red-necked Stint that only weighs 20 to 30g flies 25,00kms every year is mind boggling,” Amellia says.

She is training for the journey set for 2020.

“I’ve been learning to fly a micro-light aircraft with the intention to raise awareness and promote action for shorebirds,” she says.

She admits she’s had mixed reactions about the risky mission. She says that people have commented: “You must be tapped in the head to do something like this”.

Amellia is expecting to travel 500kms per day meeting a support crew at each stopover.

She has set up a crowd funding page to raise $70,000 to buy the aircraft.

Shorebirds are facing habitat loss along their flight path. Consequently some are facing extinction. This is what Amellia hopes her mission will highlight.

The trek is not for the faint hearted. She emulates the bravery possessed by her partial namesake, aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart.

Amellia Formby will cover 12,500kms along the East Asian Australasian Flyaway with 125 to 150 hours of flight time.

The East Asian Australasian Flyaway is the path taken by shorebirds in their annual migration from Australia to Siberia to breed, stretching across 23 nations.

Amellia will fly with the company of a GoPro camera to document her journey.

And Earhart 2.0 insists people are capable of achieving anything with determination.

“Anyone can do it if they put their mind to it,” she says with a grin.

Her passion for shorebird conservation began when she was living in Melbourne working as a tapestry weaver in 2010. A fellow artist painted a mural with a shorebird migration theme.

Before this, she had never heard of stints, sandpipers or curlews or of the journey they made.

Beeliar Wetlands, in suburban Perth

“I was awed by it …,” she says.

“I was also saddened to hear of the massive conservation issues they were facing due to habitat loss.”

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyaway.

In Western Australia, wetlands have faced increasing threats from urban development.

“Wetlands have been depleted in WA,” Amellia says.

“It’s like ‘death by a thousand cuts.

“They do a bit of development and leave some wetland.

“Then they come back in a few years and do more development.”

The Environmental Protection Authority reported in 2007 that 80 per cent of wetlands had been filled or drained on the Swan Coastal Plain over which metropolitan Perth sprawls. The plain is an area used by migratory shorebirds.

In 2015, recently ousted Environment Minister Albert Jacob revoked the protection policy for the wetlands on the plain. Now the only protection available for them are the requirements of the approval process for land clearing.

Amellia says the revocation will see the numbers of shorebirds drop.

“We have policies like that go through,” she says.

“Slowly it encroaches on shorebirds’ habitat and we see a decline in population.”

The Academic Chair of Environmental Science, Management and Sustainability at Murdoch University, Jane Chambers, says there is not enough being done to protect wetlands in Western Australia.

“The wetlands that are left are not in good condition,” Dr Chambers says.

“We could incorporate these systems into our urban development but this isn’t happening, instead there is a ‘oh, we’ll just clear it’ mentality.”

Bibra Lake, a major part of the Beeliar wetlands

Dr Chambers says it is important for people to be educated about the importance of wetlands.

“We require natural wetlands for our health,” she says.

“They have been proven over and again to improve our health by having access to these areas.”

Amellia says shorebirds rely on a chain of habitats stretching from Australia to Siberia.

“It’s a global ecological network,” she says.

“I think it’s easy for people to forget that we also belong to these global ecosystems.

“We see ourselves as being separate from our environments … but if these birds are having population declines, it should be an alarm bell.”

Amellia hopes her mission will show the link between our impacts on other species and our environment.

Categories: Environment, Science

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