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Beach stone-curlew

Beach stone-curlew, Picnic Island, Great Sandy Straits  Photo: D Stewart (EHP)

Beach stone-curlew, Picnic Island, Great Sandy Straits Photo: D Stewart (EHP)

Common names: beach stone-curlew or beach thick-knee

Scientific name: Esacus magnirostris

Family: Burhinidae

Conservation status: The beach stone-curlew is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and it is ranked as a high priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Back on Track species prioritisation framework.

Description: The beach stone-curlew is a very large thick-set wader that is readily distinguished from all other waders by its large size, massive bill with yellow patches at the base, and bold black and white pattern on the head.

Adult beach stone-curlews have a large head, slightly uptilted bill, hunched profile, stout legs and thick 'knees' (ankles). The upper body, forehead, crown and nape are grey-brown with a distinctive black and white pattern on its face, shoulders and secondary wings. The shoulder is grey-brown and bordered by white, separating it from the remainder of the wing which is grey. The throat and breast are a paler grey-brown and the belly is white.

The bill is predominantly black with a yellow base and the eyes and legs are yellow. In flight, the flight feathers are mostly black with a large white patch on the back of the flight feathers.

Young beach stone-curlews are similar to the adults, except the yellow at the base of the bill is dull and the eye-brow stripe is broken by black above the eye and the grey-brown feathers on the back are edged with white.

Habitat and distribution

The beach stone-curlew is usually found on open, undisturbed beaches, islands, reefs, and estuarine intertidal sand and mudflats, preferring beaches with estuaries or mangroves nearby. However, this species also frequents river mouths, offshore sandbars associated with coral atolls, reefs and rock platforms, and coastal lagoons.

The beach stone-curlew has been observed around the north coast of Australia and associated islands from Derby in Western Australia to the Manning River in New South Wales. The species has largely disappeared from the south-eastern part of its former range, and is now rarely recorded on ocean beaches in New South Wales. In Queensland, beach stone-curlews are uncommon on beaches in the south of the state but numbers gradually increase northward.

Life history and behaviour

Beach stone-curlews are largely sedentary, with young birds not moving very far from the parental territory. Beach stone-curlews are usually solitarily or in pairs, although occasionally small groups of up to five birds can be observed. The activity of beach stone-curlews is largely dictated by tides. At high tide, they can be found roosting in the shade of trees or at fringes of mangroves. When resting they are often seen standing on one leg or squatting with their feet forward under their body, similar to other waders. At low tide they move out onto the exposed intertidal mudflats, sandflats, sandbanks and sandpits to feed on crabs and other marine invertebrates.

Beach stone-curlews breed from September to February. Their nests can often be located on sandbanks, sandpits, or islands in estuaries, coral ridges, among mangroves or in the sand surrounded by short grass and scattered casuarinas (she-oaks). Typically one egg is laid per season but a second may be laid if the first is lost. Both parents care for the hatchling who remains dependant on them for 7 to 12 months.

During the night, breeding beach stone-curlews use a harsh, wailing territorial call which is higher pitched, harsher and less fluty than that of the bush stone-curlew. When alarmed, the species may vocalise with a weal yapping.

Threatening processes

The stronghold for this species in Queensland is on the Great Barrier Reef, where threatening processes for these birds are very few (Milton 1998). On the mainland, threatening processes for beach stone-curlews include pollution due to residential and industrial development. Feral cats, dogs and pigs are also a threat due to predation of adults, chicks and eggs. Human disturbance from activities such as walking dogs off their leashes, boating, off-road vehicles and beach-combing can also severely impact on the natural behaviour of these birds.

Recovery actions

  • Protect important habitat areas from urban and industrial development, and pollution.
  • Restrict or control access to beaches where these birds are resident, particularly during the breeding season.
  • Increase public awareness about the effects of beach/sand dune driving.
  • Educate dog owners to restrain their animals in habitat areas.
  • Implement control measures for feral animals.
  • Monitor populations to determine long-term trends.

What can you do to help this species?

You can help this species by:

  • avoiding driving or operating all forms of vehicles and recreational devices on beaches and mudflats.
  • keeping dogs under control and well away from feeding, roosting and nesting sites.
  • preventing pollution - remember that rubbish and pollutants discarded on the land often end up in waterways.

Related information

Australian Museum and Birds Australia 2013, Bird Finder - Beach Stone-curlew. Curtis, LK, Dennis, AJ, McDonald, KR, Kyne, PM and Debus, SJS (eds) 2012, Queensland’s Threatened Animals, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC). 2012. Esacus magnirostris Beach stone-curlew in the Species and Threats Database. DSEWPaC, Canberra.

Freeman, AND 2003, The distribution of Beach stone-curlews and their response to disturbance on far north Queensland's Wet Tropical Coast, Emu 103,,369-372.

Garnett, S 1992, Threatened and extinct birds of Australia, Royal Australian Ornithologists Union and Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Canberra.

Marchant, S and Higgins PJ (eds) 1993, Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds Volume 2: Raptors to Lapwings, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Milton, D 1998, Distribution and abundance of Beach Stone-curlew on northern Great Barrier Reef Island, Sunbird 28 (2), 31-38.

Last updated
2 May 2013