Bird Watching

With an estimated 175 species, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boasts an incredible collection of birdlife. Some birds are year round residents, while thousands of others use the Marine Park as a much needed pit stop during their exhausting annual migration.

Many of the Marine Park’s islands and cays are internationally significant breeding and nesting sites and offer an amazing wildlife experience. The birds, however, are particularly vulnerable during nesting and it’s vital that special care is taken not to disturb them. Slight disturbances may scare the adult bird off the nest and it can take only minutes for unattended eggs to be ruined or for chicks to be eaten by predatory birds. Indications that birds are nervous include sudden bursts of flapping while perched, head bobbing and sudden quietness in the colony.

As someone who may take visitors bird watching in the Marine Park, you play a significant role in teaching them to respect these special sites and in ultimately helping to protect and conserve the Marine Park’s unique birdlife.

Responsible Reef Practices

In general

  • Land and launch boats well away from any roosting or nesting seabirds or shorebirds.
  • Ensure your vessel remains at least 200 metres from a nesting and roosting site when transiting nearby.
  • Do not pull dinghies up the beach into nesting areas.
  • Coordinate the timing of your visit to a bird site with other operators, minimising how many people are there at one time and how often a site is visited.
  • Always try to not disturb any birds.
  • Stay well clear of nesting and roosting shorebirds and seabirds. Remain low by crouching, keeping quiet, moving slowly and using existing cover.
  • Watch your step to avoid crushing camouflaged eggs and chicks.
  • Never try to touch birds, chicks or eggs.
  • Take particular care at the following sensitive times:
    • Late afternoon and early evening
    • The hottest part of the day 
    • Wet and/or cold weather 
    • Moonlit nights 
    • When eggs, or naked/downy chicks are in their nests.
  • If seabirds or shorebirds exhibit stressful behaviour (for example, raucous calling, swooping, dive bombing or fleeing the nest) back away and leave the area immediately.
  • When around nesting or roosting seabirds and shorebirds:
    • Do not conduct activities that may disturb birds (for example, kite surfing, kite flying, volleyball, beach rugby, beach cricket)
    • Do not use objects that flap or make noise (such as umbrellas or tarpaulins)
    • Do not sound horns, claxons, sirens or loudspeakers, and muffle the sound of your anchor chain.
  • Advise other visitors to keep dogs and other domestic pets well away from seabirds and shorebirds.

When guiding clients

  • Ensure you have appropriately trained or experienced staff to conduct the briefings.
  • Brief your clients on best practices, appropriate behaviour, rules and regulations.
  • Conduct species-specific interpretation for all passengers.
  • Keep group sizes small – less than 20 people per guide.
  • Do not shine torches or bright lights directly on roosting or nesting seabirds – angle the lights to the side, and cover bulbs with red cellophane or filters.
  • Ensure a staff member is monitoring the behaviour of the birds.

Marine Parks Legal Requirements

  • You must not 'take' birds or their eggs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park unless you have a Marine Parks permit.
    Note: ‘Take’ includes removing, gathering, killing or interfering with, or attempting to take. There may be special arrangements for Traditional Owners.
  • You must abide by access and speed restrictions at Sensitive Locations in the Cairns Planning Area, at significant bird sites in the Hinchinbrook Planning Area and at significant bird sites in the Whitsunday Planning Area.
  • Check your Marine Parks permit for seasonal seabird closures.
  • You must not bring any animals (including dogs) to National Parks and most islands and cays.
  • You must notify the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities within seven days of becoming aware that an activity you undertook without a permit resulted in an unintentional death, injury, trading, taking, keeping or moving of a species specified in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
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