Three years ago, I began learning how to fly a microlight so I could follow our shorebirds on migration from Australia to Siberia.
I. Was. So. Green…
Hello, my name is Amellia Formby.
I’m originally from Gippsland in Victoria and my background is in the arts and behavioural ecology.
I’ve always loved birds and became fascinated by shorebirds when I began volunteering with the Victorian Wader Studies Group banding and flagging shorebirds around the Victorian coast.
Later, my passion grew to include being a part of expeditions to cannon net shorebirds in northwest Australia along 80 Mile Beach and Broome’s Roebuck Bay.
I have now been volunteering in shorebird conservation for 5 years, including a short-lived role as BirdLife Australia’s Shorebirds 2020 WA coordinator.
Shorebirds taught me that we are all connected through land & sea & sky...
Shorebirds are the world’s most endangered group of bird species and are commonly referred to as waders because they are most often seen wading around wetlands, mudflats and intertidal areas to feed.
In Australia, there are more than 50 species of shorebirds and most of them are migratory.
Every year, instinct drives millions of shorebirds on an epic flight of 12,000 kilometres from Australia to breeding grounds on the insect-rich, mossy plains of the Arctic Tundra.
They follow a bird migration highway known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. There are 8 global Flyways in the world and the EAAF is the most species-rich and abundant with 6 million waders estimated to use the route annually.
The smallest shorebird species to undertake this journey, the Red-necked Stint, weighs only as much as a Tim Tam – about 25g – and can fly up to 5000 kilometres in one go.
Equally impressive, is the Bar-tailed Godwit, which holds the world record for the longest non-stop flight ever recorded for any bird species.
One female godwit was tracked crossing the Pacific Ocean on migration from Alaska to NZ on a continuous flight that stretched 12,000kms over 9 days.
Shorebirds are long-lived and a by the time a Bar-tailed Godwit is 15 years of age, it will have flown the equivalent distance
from the earth to the moon
on migration alone.
When one hears of such feats of endurance, it is hard not to be inspired.
And inspired I was...
I had never flown a plane before and had no childhood dreams of becoming a pilot. The idea to follow the shorebirds in a microlight came to me after a conversation about flying microlights with a friend.
The next day the idea just popped into my head – I could learn to fly a microlight and follow the migration path of our shorebirds to Siberia.
So in April 2016, I began training with flight instructor, Gordon Marshall, at Sky Sports Flying School in York, Western Australia – about 200kms east of Perth.
I went solo a year later
and am now a qualified recreational pilot with passenger and cross-country endorsements thanks to an Amelia Earhart Fly Now Scholarship through the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots, which covered the costs of my flight training.
RAAus Recreational Pilot Certificate
Weight-shift aircraft | HF NW R PAX X
Amelia Earhart Fly Now Scholarship
The Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots
Master of Science | Zoology
Bachelor of Science | Zoology
The University of Melbourne
Bachelor of Visual Arts
At the start of 2018, I was sponsored by microlight manufacturers Airborne Australia, who let me fly their aircraft around the Hunter Valley and Central Coast, New South Wales in exchange for work assembling aircraft in their factory.
In May, I was sponsored by the Peel-Harvey Catchment Council and pooled with money from a crowdfunding campaign and Dick Smith,
I was able to afford my own aircraft - an Airborne M4 Sport microlight that I got to help build myself.
Why am I doing this?
Over half of the migratory shorebird species that visit Australia are experiencing massive population declines.
The main cause?
Environmental degradation and habitat loss caused by humans at key sites where the birds stop to rest and refuel on migration.
These stopover sites throughout the Flyway are like a chain with links in it.
If any one of those links fails, the whole chain loses its integrity.
But the problem goes much deeper than this.
When we hear statistics and large scale environmental disasters such as these, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless.
Constant doom and gloom stories about the environment are depressing and have created a culture of learned helplessness and burnout.
If you’re like me, they can leave you feeling as though any effort to change things is futile. After a while, you just want to stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.
But there are so many good news stories out there not being told. Thankfully, because we are the problem, we are also the solution.
When we hear the inspiring stories of other people working to make a difference, we want to be a part of it, and feel energised and inspired to find our own creative solutions to the big environmental challenges facing us.
If we’re going to turn things around for ourselves and species like shorebirds, these are the positive environmental stories I believe we need to create and tell.
On the path of creating my own story, I am first planning to test my wings here at home.
In 2021, I will circumnaviagate Australia, departing Broome in March when the shorebirds begin their northward migration.
Travelling anti-clockwise, I will see if I can do a lap of Australia in the same amount of time it takes a group of shorebirds fitted with satellite transmitters to fly to the Arctic and back.
Our team will post regular updates online of my progress around the country compared to the shorebirds on migration over a 6 month period.
The entire flight is about 20,000 kms
– a similar distance to the shorebirds’ migratory flight – and has been broken into
90 stages of between 60-200 nautical miles
Stopping at major shorebird sites along the coast, I will:
Visit schools to introduce students to migratory shorebirds in collaboration with BirdLife Australia
Connect students living in the Flyway through The Flock Oz as part of an international sister schools program
Create a series of short films to tell the positive stories of people working in shorebird conservation with Remember The Wild
The Flock Oz is a fun, creative community project to spread the word about the threats facing migratory shorebirds.
Wing Threads is also working with Remember the Wild to produce a series of short films to tell the positive stories about people working in shorebird conservation and a feature-length documentary.
While not everyone cares for stories about shorebirds, most people are inspired by adventure and the stories of other people. We see this approach as having the power to engage a wide audience unfamiliar with shorebirds and to value the natural world.
I see migratory shorebirds as the living expression of how we're all connected through a global, ecological network.
As they wing their way on migration, their path is a thread that links over
From the shorebird's perspective, my backyard is equal to your backyard.
When we understand how our local habitats have a place within this global context, we begin to understand the importance of protecting those habitats, not just for the birds, but for us too because we rely on the same ecosystems for our own health and well-being.
In this way, shorebirds teach us that conservation is a way of caring for all life that includes people.
It is my dream that through Wing Threads, shorebirds like the Red-necked Stint and Bar-tailed Godwit become as well known as the panda, orangutan and blue whale and deemed as worthy of protection.
But at the moment, Wing Threads is still a dream in the making.
To become a reality,
Wing Threads need your help to take-off.
Our goal is to raise
Website hosting & maintenance
4WD vehicle + fuel & maintenance
Aircraft running & maintenance costs
In-flight navigation & safety equipment
Travel expenses for a 4-person ground crew
Production of a feature-length documentary & short films
Every kilometre counts!
The flight around Australia is 20,000km – that works out to be $10 per kilometre to reach our funding goal of $200K.
$10 = 1 kilometre
Are you ready to be part of the adventure?
Sooooo.... a microlight.
That's a lawnmower with wings, right?
Kind of… A microlight is a type of powered hang-glider. It consists of a three-wheeled ‘trike’ base suspended underneath a hang-glider wing.
Control of the plane is by weight-shift. By shifting the triangular control bar attached to the wing, the pilot varies pitch (nose up or down) and roll (bank left or right).
How far/fast can you go in that thing anyway?
The range and speed of the aircraft varies with the type of wing, wind conditions and the amount of weight on board. My aircraft is the latest model Airborne M4 Sport with an XRK wing:
M4 Sport - XRK Wing
Rotax 912 80HP
4-stroke - 1211cc
up to 739 km
50-64 knots at trim
Max. TAKE-OFF WEIGHT
Not much compared to other aircraft:
Take-off distance = min. 300m
Landing distance = min. 200m
As a recreational pilot, I am limited to an altitude of 10,000ft. However, most of the time I fly below 5000ft.
Yes. There is room for one passenger in the seat behind me.
If the engine stops, then the aircraft will glide to the ground. It is up to the pilot to follow emergency procedures and find a safe place to land. Microlights are fitted with tyres that are ideal for landing on rough, soft and muddy ground, providing more options such as paddocks and beaches.
No, it’s not like ‘Fly Away Home’. I’ll be flying around the coast of Australia and stopping as close as possible to sites significant for shorebirds.