The Mud Islands are so low to the water that even from the upper deck of the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry on a clear summer day, you can’t see them. At the southern end of Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, just a few kilometres inside the Rip at the mouth of the bay and almost equidistant between the Mornington Peninsula to the east and the Bellarine Peninsula to the west, the Mud Islands are an extrusion of the vast Great Sands sand bank that makes Port Phillip Bay, which has an area of almost two thousand square kilometres, only thirteen metres deep on average.
The Mud Islands are constantly shifting as the tide and coastal weather work at the sand that forms them, but they retain their fundamental shape: a ring of three islands, totalling about five kilometres in diameter, each separated from the other by narrow channels, with a shallow lagoon in the middle. Imagine a tropical atoll, shrunk and relocated to temperate southern Australia.
Around the Mud Islands the water is less than a foot deep, and the boat in which I and a couple of dozen other tourists were sitting when I went to the islands slowed to a crawl as it approached, the captain feeling his way forward. For the last half hour we’d cut and slapped our way from Queenscliff Harbour across the small waves of the Bay, stopping to admire seals and gannets, sea-water spraying our face, our hands, our binoculars. Unless you own a boat the only way to get to the Mud Islands is by guided tour, and we’d each paid $95 for the trip. It was the 16th of February 2014, high summer, and the weather was perfect.
I’d first read about the Mud Islands in a newspaper article. It hadn’t sounded promising: the name is off-putting, the way so many Australian place-names are: desultory, despairing, disappointed. But the article had talked about the Mud Islands as an undiscovered gem among greater Melbourne’s ecological attractions, an unknown paradise – a habitat of international significance, no less, listed under the Ramsar wetlands convention. As I and my fellow passengers had donned our life-jackets and boarded the small boat in Queenscliff Harbour there’d been a murmur of excitement, and camaraderie; the kind of murmur one hears among people who are indulging their passions, and are pleased at the unexpected opportunity to do so.
Every summer, starting in September or October, some four dozen species of shorebird, or wader as they’re also known, in the huge taxonomic order Ciconiiformes, migrate from their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere, across the Yellow Sea, through east Asia, across the Timor Sea, into northern Australia, and from there disperse around the Australian coast. Millions of birds make this migration, and they spend the southern summer in Australia, feeding constantly, before migrating back to breed in the northern hemisphere. They begin to leave Australia in March or April, some already starting to moult into their breeding plumage. They fly tens of thousands of kilometres every year just to ensure that they never see winter. They are not waterbirds: they cannot swim, and their feathers are not waterproof. If they become exhausted and fall into the ocean, they die. Everything in their life depends upon them successfully completing their migration.
The migratory shorebirds are one of the most ancient of bird lineages: as a group they’ve been following their migration paths, flying from breeding grounds to feeding grounds and back again, for millions of years. To fuel this extraordinary lifestyle they need to feed voraciously; and with so much at stake they can’t leave anything to chance. They know where food is to be found, and they favour the same feeding grounds year after year.
In Victoria, one of the places they favour most is the Mud Islands. This was why I and my fellow passengers had paid almost a hundred dollars each to spend a Sunday afternoon wading through shallow water, walking around a ring of islands with no shade and no plants taller than a shrub. The shrubs – saltmarsh, dune vegetation – form a kind of a hedge around the central lagoon, and though many birds – terns in particular, and hundreds of black swans feeding on the seagrass beds that surround the Mud Islands – can be seen from the outer perimeter, it’s only upon entering the lagoon in the islands’ centre that you see what makes the Mud Islands so special. The lagoon is where the great majority of the shorebirds feed.
When we rounded the edge of the first island it was around one o’clock in the afternoon. We sat down on the edge of the saltmarsh overlooking the lagoon and had lunch: a picnic, of sorts, on a tiny scrap of sand in the middle of a vast bay with the towers of Melbourne’s CBD in the dim distance to the north. A dozen or so sharp-tailed sandpipers foraged in the shallow ponds scattered amidst the saltmarsh, twitching warily at our presence, focussed on the necessity of their feeding but throwing sharp glances at us too with their dark eyes.
Despite their wariness, though, they didn’t flee – and indeed I discovered that day that shorebirds can be reluctant to do so: after lunch we crossed the lagoon, wading through the shallow water and holding our assorted cameras and telescopes and binoculars carefully up in the air, and our route took us straight towards the assorted godwits and knots and stints in the lagoon’s centre. They saw us coming as soon as we set off but they fled from us at the last possible moment, much later than I’d expected them to based on other bird encounters I’ve had. Every wing-beat a shorebird makes over summer robs energy from the coming migration; within the limited capacity of a bird to understand the intentions of a human walking towards it, fleeing must be treated as a last resort.
We reached the other side of the lagoon and continued our circumnavigation of the islands. We returned to the beach upon which we’d landed; our guide radioed the boat. We’d been on the Mud Islands for about three hours. We’d seen hundreds of individual shorebirds, in nine species, and sundry other birds as well. We thought that the day was over; but then, as our boat returned to Queenscliff, its presence disturbed a group of four eastern curlews on a beach near the harbour. Opening their great wings each bird, about the size of a chicken and the largest migratory shorebird in the world, with a long downcurved beak like that of an ibis, took flight away from us, calling as they went in voices that occupied an uncertain zone between honk and wail. As they disappeared our guide, who throughout the tour had been knowledgeable and happy to see any bird but had projected an air of having seen them all many times before, turned to us, all ecstatic as we were at this unexpected boon to the day’s birding. “Weren’t they spectacular!” she grinned.
That was the first time I ever saw eastern curlews in real life. The first time I ever saw their likeness, my very first exposure to the species, was in the pages of the first bird book I ever owned, Simpson & Day’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. I was in my early teens and I’d bought the book with my pocket-money after my parents bought from friends a holiday house in a block of bush about half an hour’s drive inland from Bermagui, on the far south coast of New South Wales. Although the beach was easily accessible we never went there: the coast and fish and chips and the Pacific Ocean felt like another world from the steep forested hillside on which the house rested, and the Brogo River at the bottom of the hill just visible through the trees, and the mountains of the Wadbilliga National Park taking up the whole horizon across the valley. The house was three hours’ drive south-east of Canberra, where we lived and where I was born and raised, and the birdlife around it represented a continuity: though occasional white-bellied sea-eagles or whistling kites flew high overhead, suggesting the proximity of the ocean, the birds of Brogo – as we came to call the place – were the forest birds with which I was familiar from home: Pied currawongs. Crimson rosellas. Grey fantails. Superb fairy-wrens. Red-browed finches. Looking for them through my father’s binoculars I came to be fascinated by them, and fascination turned to the kind of obsession in which children specialise: I started to list the birds I identified. Eventually that list grew to nearly one-hundred species.
Making a list necessitated buying a bird-book, and when I brought the Simpson & Day field guide home from Collins Booksellers in the Canberra Centre and turned the pages a whole world of birds was suddenly presented to me – or at least a whole continent: tropical parrots; oceanic petrels; desert pigeons. Often I’d open the field guide to browse birds, the way one might browse photos of clothes in a magazine, or guitars, or any other object of obsession. I’d examine the distribution map for each species, read its habitat preference, determine which species I might or ought to see in the wet sclerophyll forest and rainforest gullies that surrounded the Brogo house. But I’d also daydream about those birds I wished to see, or hoped that I might one day see if I lived somewhere else. I wanted to see all of them – but all the same, so many of them were bush birds, birds of forests and woodlands, and as such they felt somehow familiar to me. My home city was rightly called “the bush capital”, and I’d gone on more bushwalks with my parents than I could count. I knew the bush – not in the sense of bushcraft, but in the sense of having a bred-amongst-it familiarity with its shapes and textures and moods. I loved it, I felt something like at home in it; but I was captivated by its opposite.
Growing up in Canberra, ringed by the mountains of the Brindabellas, accustomed to a hills climate of hot summers and icy winters and air as dry as kindling, I never grew to love the ocean. My family – father from Adelaide, mother from England – were not swimmers by inclination, though we took to the slow pleasures of lakes and rivers readily; and I, by an accident of physiology or brain chemistry or maybe just bloody-mindedness in the face of a typically uninsulated Australian house, grew up loving winter, and the cold. I was never tempted by a summer beach, never drawn to immerse myself in the sea – but I became fascinated by beholding the coast.
The coast, and the animals that depended upon it: on trips to the beach I loved nothing more than exploring rock-pools, looking for wildlife. A crab was cause for jubilation; a fish was almost beyond belief. I tip-toed barefoot over periwinkles and the sharp, unforgiving rock of the south-east Australian coast. I watched warily as waves hurled themselves against the rocks. Most of all, I desperately wanted to see migratory shorebirds.
Beach holidays were rare for my family, though, and coastal scenery passed quickly: from the back seat of my parents’ car I used to stare longingly at lowtide mudflats, trying to convince myself that the dots out in the shallows weren’t gulls. If we ever stopped at a beach I might sometimes spot an oystercatcher, or even a red-capped plover – but these resident shorebirds, these sedentary species, lacked the awe of their migratory counterparts. On page after page of my Simpson & Day field guide the migratory shorebirds crowded, tight-knit as their flocks are in real life, and the representation in the book of that multitude gave a sense more tantalising than any TV show or movie that life contained whole other worlds, that the entirety of it was vast but also accessible if only one knew where to look. That Australia, and southern Australian in particular where I lived, was hosting one of the great influxes of wildlife in the animal world every year, that this was normal, and that it was completely hidden from me by nothing more remarkable than simple geography, astonished me. The world was full of wonder.
The advent of DNA analysis in recent decades has revolutionised biology, and not least taxonomy: the evolutionary history and interrelationships of organisms are clearer now than they ever have been before. Yet the shorebirds remain a confusing group, enormous and diverse. They include among them the plovers and their allies, Family Charadriidae, but mention the words “wader” or “shorebird” to most birdwatchers and the taxonomic Family they will immediately envision will almost certainly be the Scolopacidae: “Curlews, Godwits, Snipe, Sandpipers and allies” as Simpson & Day put it. In Simpson & Day’s field guide the Scolopacidae found in Australia run to 6 illustrated plates: species after species, the smallest being the stints, three species in the genus Calidris each barely larger than a sparrow, and the largest being the eastern curlew. Worldwide, there are almost one-hundred species of migratory shorebird; eight of these are curlews, genus Numenius.
In between the extremes of stint and curlew are a baffling array of like bodies and near-identical plumages: in the non-breeding plumage that they wear in Australia the migratory shorebirds are all brown and grey, with often just the tiniest subtleties of speciation which can take experienced birdwatchers years to master.
In breeding plumage the shorebirds are much easier to tell apart. As the middle of the year approaches they become radiant, deep russet or jet black or shining bronze. The ruff, as its name indicates, grows an extraordinary necklace of feathers and becomes in appearance unlike any other bird. But with rare and partial exceptions the breeding plumage of shorebirds is never seen in Australia: the astonishing migratory behaviour that these birds have evolved ensures that.
Bird migration occurs across the world. Birds – not just shorebirds but many groups – migrate from North to South America; from Europe to Africa; from Asia to Australasia. And back: no bird migration is one-way but must be completed in each direction, every year. Although routes vary between species, and the route taken by a species or by an individual bird may even be different in each direction, there are nonetheless clearly delineated migration corridors – like highways with multiple lanes. These bird highways are called flyways, and the flyway in which Australia is located is called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.
There are nine recognised flyways in the world, and although each is distinct they overlap like circles in a Venn diagram. Additionally, migratory birds of all kinds are vulnerable to inclement weather, so it’s not unknown for stray individuals to be blown thousands of kilometres off course. In the spring and summer of 2014 Australia recorded its first ever long-billed dowitcher when a single bird was seen at Lake Tutchewop in central Victoria. The long-billed dowitcher is a North American species, more at home on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States than in inland south-eastern Australia. Other shorebird species have occasionally turned up in Australia as vagrants, including the Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata) – and indeed, shorebirds and other migratory species that are common sightings in Australia will occasionally find themselves in places where their like has never been seen before.
For these reasons, and also because they fly such great distances, when you go looking for migratory shorebirds you can never be certain what you’ll find. You can go somewhere knowing that it’s likely shorebird habitat – they’re animals which return to the same places year after year, after all – but even more so than with other birds, when you go to a known habitat at the right time of year, it’s still potluck which species of shorebird you’ll find and in what numbers you’ll find them.
The second time I saw eastern curlews, just under a year after I saw them on my return from the Mud Islands, was on another island in Victoria – French Island. French Island is in the incongruously named Western Port (actually due east of the more famous Port Phillip, but at the time that European explorers first laid eyes on it the westernmost port to be mapped in Australia), and is immediately north of Phillip Island – but it’s as undeveloped as Phillip Island is popular. Despite having an area of more than one-hundred square kilometres French Island has a permanent population of only around one-hundred people; it’s unconnected to mains electricity or water. The only cars on the island belong to the island’s residents: cars can be taken across by ferry but the price is prohibitive.
Yet French Island is easy to get to from Melbourne, particularly by public transport: from Flinders Street Station in the city’s CBD the travel time is only two hours, by metropolitan train to Frankston, then connecting train to Stony Point, then passenger ferry to Tankerville on the island.
At the time of writing this I’ve been to French Island three times, and the reason for each of my visits was simple: most of the island and much of the waters off its coast are national park, and the national park exists because of the great quantity of animal life the island supports. The island is ringed by tidal mudflats. When the tide’s out you can walk along the beach and look out onto swans, ibises, spoonbills, ducks, geese (the island is a stronghold for Cape Barren geese, an Australian endemic species of severely limited distribution which breeds only on offshore islands) – but most of all, if you go there in summer you’ll see migratory shorebirds.
Like the Mud Islands, French Island is a Ramsar-listed environment, and when I visited it for the second time in January 2015 I went with the hope of seeing shorebirds. Approaching the beach from the coastal road that runs north from the Tankerville jetty where the ferry docks I ventured out onto the mudflats. They were wide – a couple of hundred metres, perhaps – and the tide was all the way out, and I wanted to see what I could see.
What I saw was eastern curlews. Not many of them, but only them – to the exclusion of all other shorebirds. The previous year, on my first visit to the island, the only migratory shorebirds I’d seen had been tiny red-necked stints, feeding busily as they do in the late days of April with their migration imminent. I’d expected in January to see many more species, and to be honest I was a little disappointed that I didn’t – but that disappointment was tempered by the curlews.
I was captivated by them. More than any other shorebird, the eastern curlew is the species I’d always wanted to see when I was growing up – and that desire had made them seem particularly elusive; so when I saw them on French Island, I walked after them. I shouldn’t have, but I did. I didn’t realise at the time that eastern curlews have a reputation for being more wary, more given to flight, than other shorebirds. I wanted to get a photo of them but they saw me coming, as I approached they opened their wings and departed down the coast. With the sea to my left and the island to my right I started to wander, I felt myself straying further out onto the mudflats. It was difficult to judge how far out I was, the mudflats offered no landmarks. Not quite on a beach, not quite at sea, it seemed as if I was in an in-between world.
Nature writing, as with any genre, has its buzzwords – and perhaps the most clichéd of these is “liminal”. It’s supposed to convey a kind of deep thinking about place, a kind of subtle consideration that can locate a particular landscape in two places or two traditions at once. It’s become a way for people to reward themselves for their imagination. Urban fringes are liminal; plantations are liminal; tidal mudflats are always liminal.
But to refer to a place, particularly a natural landscape, as “liminal”, demonstrates not imagination but a catastrophic failure of imagination: it is to refuse or to be unwilling to see a place for what it really is, which is above all else of itself. When I walked out onto the broad mudflats of French Island, naïvely trying to approach the curlews, I was not in some no-man’s-land between two landscapes, the beach and the treeline to my right and the abrupt surf of Port Phillip Bay to my left: I was in the midst of a landscape, and a habitat, fully imbued with its own richness, and ecology, and biodiversity. At some point, after another curlew and then another had flown and realising that I was losing my bearings and creeping ever closer to the sea, I stopped, and looked around me. The mud was specked with tiny dark dots. Spreading across the whole expanse as far as I could see in every direction they were unremarkable, part of the background pattern of the world. When I stopped walking and looked at them, though, I realised that they were crabs: light-blue soldier crabs, Mictyris longicarpus, each and every dot. Thousands and thousands of them, all around me, fleeing into their burrows. It was these crabs, and whatever other small animals were hidden beneath the mud, that the curlews had been feeding on.
We don’t value mud, and we don’t value mudflats. We view them as wastelands to be filled in. To the curlew, though, and to all its shorebird kin, and to the great variety of invertebrates on which the shorebirds feast to fuel their migrations, the mudflats are everything.
Shorebird migration is an act of extraordinary stamina. Although migration is a common occurrence among birds – a group of animals particularly given to movement, after all – no bird migration is more challenging or more taxing than that undertaken by the shorebirds. Songbirds migrating between Africa and Europe may fly a long way; but much of their flight will be over land, and if they become exhausted or hit bad weather they can stop, and recuperate. The Arctic tern is famed for its long flights over oceans – but it’s a seabird, and if necessary can rest upon the water. Not having this advantage, but migrating across the sea all the same, shorebirds must simply fly, and fly to astonishing extents. At the most extreme end is the bar-tailed godwit, which has been recorded as flying more than 11,000 kilometres from New Zealand to Siberia non-stop over a period of little more than a week. Though other shorebird species may not match that, flights of thousands of kilometres at a time are routine.
The metabolic cost of such migration is high. Shorebirds are well-adapted to extreme migration: they have long, pointed wings for fast and direct flight. Internal organs not essential for migration shrink in the weeks before the flight begins, the better to reduce weight and increase room for the fat which will fuel the migration – and shorebirds are able to put on as much as 5% of their own bodyweight in fat a day. They’re more efficient metabolically than other birds, burning off 0.41% of their body fat per hour – but nonetheless, a shorebird at the end of its migration may weigh only 60% of what it weighed at the start.
In the weeks before migration shorebirds can be seen feeding frantically. Before migration a shorebird may have increased its body mass by 80%. When you consider that millions of birds from dozens of species perform this act twice annually, and that this huge amount of consumption takes place largely on intertidal mudflats, you can begin to appreciate just how rich in life those mudflats must be.
Shorebirds are carnivorous. This is not unusual: most birds, in fact, subsist wholly or partly on the bodies of other animals. When we think of carnivorous birds we invariably think of eagles, or falcons, or owls: birds which eat other birds; reptiles; fish; mammals – in short, vertebrates killing and eating other vertebrates. This is what we take “carnivorous” to mean. But the greatest variety and density of animal life by far is to be found among the invertebrates: insects; crustaceans; worms; many others. Of all the animals that biologists have so far described, invertebrates outnumber vertebrates by twenty to one – and it’s generally accepted that there are likely to be an enormous number of invertebrates yet to be discovered by science. Invertebrates are essential to life on earth, and not least because they are eaten by so many other animals.
A detailed study of Roebuck Bay, adjacent to Broome in north-west Western Australia, found that there were at least three-hundred and possibly as many as five-hundred species of invertebrate in the Bay’s intertidal mudflats. The vast majority of these – approximately ten thousand out of seventeen thousand individual animals collected – were polychaete worms, a large and diverse group of worms found in a variety of marine and coastal habitats; but crustaceans, bivalves, gastropods, and many other taxa were also found. It’s no coincidence that Roebuck Bay is a major habitat for migratory shorebirds: more than three-quarters of a million shorebirds from 29 different species visit the area each year. The arrival of shorebirds, wherever it takes place in the world, is an extraordinary annual phenomenon, a great blossoming of life – but the shorebirds are in fact just the most obvious manifestation of an ecosystem which is as rich as it is unheeded. Just as I walked for a kilometre or more on the mudflats of French Island before I noticed the soldier crabs that thronged around me, literally at my feet, when we look at a mudflat we’re seeing a habitat which is saturated with wildlife – and we don’t realise it.
A study of the stomach contents of eastern curlews found that they feed on a variety of crustaceans, molluscs – and grasshoppers, presumably gleaned from the saltmarshes where shorebirds often rest while the mudflats are submerged beneath the tide. The diets of all shorebirds are similar – but their foraging techniques show considerable variation, and indeed shorebirds are often held as an example of adaptive evolution leading to speciation. Some birds – parrots, corvids – have been observed to use tools, but a bird’s most important tool is its beak, and it’s a tool which, from species to species, can be put to a wide range of uses.
Nowhere is this more evident than among the shorebirds. Often the easiest way to tell one shorebird species from another is to look at their beaks, which come in a range of shapes and sizes. These different beaks betray a variety of feeding techniques, and the large number of shorebird species is possible at least in part because they have evolved to exploit different niches within which to feed. The sheer quantity of invertebrate life on intertidal mudflats allows for the presence of thousands of individual birds in any one place at any one time; but the several dozen different species to which those birds belong can co-exist because each species is feeding on a slightly different selection of the mudflat’s microfauna.
A great deal of food can be found on the ground, and that’s as true of mudflats as it is of anywhere else – but a shorebird which takes food only from the surface is feeding in only two dimensions. If a bird breaks the surface of the mud, suddenly it is feeding in a third dimension – and this fact greatly increases the range and quantity of prey available. Accordingly, shorebirds which feed – wholly or in part – by probing into the mud in search of food show a much greater variety of beak shapes than do shorebirds which are predominantly surface feeders: their beaks can be straight or curved, short or long – and the longest of all belongs to the eastern curlew.
When I walked across the mudflats of French Island the crabs which fled from me were all running to their burrows. There they’d be safe from me, and safe from most predators – but the curlew, with its long, slender, curving beak, is able to reach into the burrows of crabs and other invertebrates and grasp the animal which lives at the end. When the eastern curlew probes a burrow it does so with its beak slightly open – the better to close it around its prey, of course, but also because doing so doubles the likelihood of finding that prey. If you or I dropped, say, a pin on a shag carpet, we’d be twice as likely to find that pin by feeling in the carpet with two fingers, instead of one. On such simple calculations do the lives of migratory shorebirds, with their immense food requirements, depend.
With their spectacularly long beaks – five times the length of their head – eastern curlews are able to reach further beneath the mud than are any other shorebird. So ingrained in our understanding of evolution is the phrase “survival of the fittest” that we can forget that evolution is not only a destructive force but also a creative one, and that while it can create organisms which can outcompete each-other, it can also just as effectively create organisms which avoid competing with each-other. That there are more than ninety species of migratory shorebird across the world, all living remarkably similar lives in for the most part the same habitat type, is in itself a powerful demonstration of how rich that habitat – intertidal mudflats – is: an environment rich enough in prey to drive the evolution of nearly one-hundred species of bird is not an environment that should or logically can be considered marginal. The world’s mudflats sustain some of the largest and most energy-intensive mass migrations of animals in the world – and in order to keep sustaining those migrations they must be preserved; and in order to be preserved they must be valued; and in order to be valued they must be loved, not for how they stand in relation to other environments, not for the imaginative musings they allow us to indulge in, but simply for what they are. We tend not to value things that we do not love; and we tend not to protect things that we do not value.
Migratory shorebirds are valued, and loved, by those who know about them; but most people are unaware of their existence. Lacking the insistent charisma of parrots, the upfront majesty of raptors, the self-evident beauty of songbirds, shorebirds live among us fleetingly, and often anonymously. This is despite their ubiquity: shorebirds are found, at one time of the year or another, in every continent on earth except Antarctica.
It’s tempting to think of the migratory shorebirds – or even just those species that share a particular flyway – as a whole, and to an extent this makes sense: the many species are closely related; they share a lifestyle which is essentially the same from species to species; they arrive together and depart together, they flock together and feed together. Yet some species fare better than others: while many are declining, and some are endangered, and too many are extinct or believed to be so, others are – to use the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s succinct phrase – of the least concern.
One of these lucky species is the turnstone, and the IUCN explains why: it’s starting from a large base. The population consists of a great many individuals, and, crucially, they are spread across the world.
When I went to the Mud Islands the first shorebird species that my fellow tourists and I saw was the turnstone. Turnstones are habitués of rocky shores, and there were several of them on an old defensive installation in Port Phillip Bay called Pope’s Eye. Small and stout, turnstones are unusual among migratory shorebirds for their harlequin plumage, and this plumage – boldly patterned even outside the breeding season – makes them instantly and unmistakably recognisable; a blessing for birdwatchers given headaches by the often infinitesimal differences between the various migratory shorebird species.
Less than a year before I saw the turnstones on Pope’s Eye I had seen turnstones for the first time – identical as far as my undiscerning eye could tell – on the other side of the world: north of the equator, in the Western Hemisphere. My father and I had been walking for three days along the coast of Cornwall and on the day after the walk ended, while waiting for our afternoon train back to London and then our flight from Heathrow back to Australia a few days later, we’d been eating lunch on the waterfront of St Ives. It was the northern spring of 2013, a late spring which had finally burst – swallows and all – upon England with the abruptness and haste with which life seizes its chances at extreme latitudes. (This same sudden intensity of growth – nudged up a few notches – explains in part why migratory shorebirds fly all the way to the Arctic to breed every northern summer: the window of opportunity there in which conditions are good for life to grow and feed and breed is so brief that during summer life in all its variety rushes with full-tilt extravagance and fecundity towards completion; thus, there is a lot of food.) Peering over the seawall of St Ives Harbour to the low-tide-exposed shoreline a metre or two below, my father and I saw first one, then three, then a dozen or more small birds, each the size of an overfed finch, darting over the seaweed and damp debris. They were black and white and chestnut-brown and they were ever-moving: probing beneath objects, pecking at surfaces; hungrily grabbing the crumbs of bread a destitute man sitting on the steps from the promenade threw to them. These few turnstones were the first migratory shorebirds I’d ever seen up close. They were on their way north, I think – though there in England I lacked the certainty that I had the following year when I saw turnstones in Port Phillip Bay: in Australia in February I knew that the birds were at the terminus of their migration. In England, though, they could be going in either direction, and in that midway zone, in an unfamiliar hemisphere with topsy-turvy seasons, I couldn’t be sure if they were on their way north or south.
Though in a way that’s the enigma of migratory shorebirds: as they appear to us they are never going; they are only ever here, or gone. For us they do not exist in in-between states: their extraordinary flights are not witnessed, except by radio trackers and satellites. They seem to us to blink into existence, and then blink out again, as if teleported from one stopping place to another. Their migrations are extraordinary, to our human mind inconceivable; but perhaps the sheer numbers – of kilometres, of individuals – involved in these migrations are only part of the reason for this: we cannot imagine an animal that we could cup in our hands flying across hemispheres for a week without stopping, the sheer physical fact of it makes no sense to us; and nor can we quite understand a thing which we do not see. When we carelessly scare a flock of shorebirds from the area in which they are feeding, and they fly across the mudflat to the next expanse of shore, how can we quantify that flight against the flight from country to country? If we as a species, with our enormous imagination, have one great flaw, it is our frequent inability to fully appreciate a thing that we have not ourselves witnessed.
Nor can we readily imagine an animal’s entire global population, whatever its size. The IUCN admits that there is a general downward trend in the number of the turnstones worldwide; but the rate of this decline is not great enough to cause concern at this stage. The eastern curlew, by contrast, is currently listed as vulnerable. The IUCN’s explanation for this is direct and unequivocal:
This species is listed as Vulnerable as it is undergoing a rapid population decline which is suspected to have been primarily driven by habitat loss and deterioration. Further proposed reclamation projects are predicted to cause additional declines in the future.
Despite the declines in both species there is one simple reason for the contrast between the turnstone’s relative population security, and the eastern curlew’s vulnerability: unlike the turnstone, the eastern curlew is found in only one of the world’s flyways. When I saw the turnstones in St Ives, and then when I saw turnstones again in Port Phillip Bay, I saw representatives of two populations of the species that would never meet.
The birds in Cornwall were passing through the East Atlantic Flyway. Following this flyway, birds migrate along the west coast of Africa, through western and northern Europe, to the Arctic – and back. It overlaps in the north with the Black Sea/Mediterranean Flyway and the Atlantic Americas Flyway, and in the south with the West Asian-East African Flyway; and in its most north-eastern tip in Russia it overlaps very slightly with the East Asian-Australasian Flyway within the bounds of which the turnstones I saw on Pope’s Eye were living – yet despite this minimal overlap for all intents and purposes the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and the East Atlantic Flyway are separate migratory routes, and the vast majority of birds moving through one flyway will never encounter birds in the other. Accordingly although each Flyway shares some species, each also has species which are related yet distinct: species which complement each-other in their corresponding flyways, filling the same ecological niches in different parts of the world. The most obvious example is the curlews: the Eurasian curlew in the East Atlantic Flyway, and the eastern curlew in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. These two species would once have been one; they share a common ancestor. Millions of years of separation have led to speciation.
The turnstone is likely headed in the same direction; but it isn’t there yet. Yet there’s something odd, something exciting, about having seen representatives from two discrete populations of the same species on opposite sides of the world from each-other: if we can’t properly conceive of the distances covered by migratory shorebirds, of the sheer breadth of the planet covered by their flights, perhaps seeing them in one country, and then flying for twenty-four hours and waiting six months and seeing them on the other side of the world, and then further realising that those two sightings don’t even inhabit the same sphere, gives some idea. Perhaps I’m not explaining what I mean very well. Perhaps I don’t even really understand what I mean. Perhaps the migratory shorebirds are simply beyond our understanding.
But that’s a cop-out. We must make the effort to understand them. Evolution is a strange thing, it hits upon a solution and then follows it to the bitter end. The great weakness of the life strategy that the migratory shorebirds have evolved is precisely that it takes them across so many different countries – or, more pertinently, more poignantly, the great weakness of the migratory shorebirds is that they exist in the same world that we do, and yet in another world entirely. In the Arctic, in the far north of Russia where so many migratory shorebird species breed and in neighbouring European countries, the indigenous Sami people have been trying for countless generations to follow their traditional lives, ranging across vast distances as they herd the reindeer with which they have always intimately shared their lives. Nowadays they must find a way to live across national borders; to be simultaneously of a particular country and outside that country. Even in the early twenty-first century we don’t deal well with lives that transcend borders – whether those lives are human or non-human. In 1971 the Convention on Wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran. The intention of this international treaty was – and still is – to preserve and oversee the responsible management of wetlands of international importance – such as those intertidal mudflats on which migratory shorebirds depend – and yet degradation and destruction of those habitats continues. On the 14th of March 2015 the Taipei Times reported on severe damage to the Jhiben Wetlands, a major stop-over point for migrating shorebirds:
Migratory birds have deserted the area, while fish and shrimp have died in the wetlands after parts of it were drained by what appeared to be heavy machinery, [birdwatcher Peng Ching-chien] said, adding that he noticed the destruction during a visit to the wetlands on Feb. 22.
Earthen embankments between the wetlands and the sea have been leveled, causing the drainage of some areas, said Peng, who has been engaged in birdwatching for more than 20 years.
Other birdwatchers said that they found tracks apparently left by excavators and jeeps across the wetlands, which are recognized by BirdLife International as a vital bird habitat.
Jhiben Wetlands are in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, through which fly the eastern curlew and all the other shorebirds which spend the southern summer in Australia. Besides Australia this flyway takes in Bangladesh; Brunei; Cambodia; China; Indonesia; Japan; Laos; Malaysia; Mongolia; Myanmar; New Zealand; North Korea; Papua New Guinea; South Korea; Russia; Singapore; Thailand; the Philippines; Timor-Leste; the USA (through Alaska); and Vietnam. Some of these countries are touched only lightly by the shorebirds; but some – most notably China – are visited heavily: geographically China takes up a vast swathe of East Asia, and accordingly it is a country which makes up the great majority of the migratory shorebirds’ flight-path on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. It’s also a country which in the early years of the twenty-first century is undergoing an extraordinary boom in growth and prosperity – and booms in human growth rarely work out well for non-human animals. The Yellow Sea in particular – a body of water encircled by China and Korea – is a vital staging post for shorebirds on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway; and at the beginning of the 21st Century the coast around the Yellow Sea was home to over 300 million people, including more than half a dozen cities of over two million people each.
As humans encroach upon coastal habitats, shorebird numbers decrease. We don’t need to strain our imaginations to think of precursors to the contemporary decline of migratory shorebirds. The passenger pigeon’s extinction is a familiar story: it’s one of the most iconic, if that is the appropriate term, of all extinct birds; among birds perhaps only the extermination of the dodo surpasses it in infamy. Its extinction is famous because it was so spectacular: from flocks of millions upon millions of birds, flocks that seemed to change day to night as they passed, to nothing at all. It’s tempting to reach for a neat circle, to say that the bird’s very abundance was its downfall – that so great were its numbers that it was hunted with impunity – but while that’s true as far as it goes, it also neatly sidelines the agent of that extinction: the hunter; the humans. To say that the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction – to put it in such passive terms – is to attempt, delicately, to let ourselves off the hook. The passenger pigeon did not go extinct; extinction must not be regarded as an adjective. It must be a verb. We “extincted” the passenger pigeon. (An ugly verb, yes, for an ugly truth.)
So famous is our extermination of the passenger pigeon that the last known bird had a name: Martha. She died in Cincinnati Zoo on the 1st of September 1914. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is often held up as a cautionary tale – but of course to say that the extinction of a particular species is a famous example of extinction reveals the sad truth: extinction due to human action is an all-too-common phenomenon.
Only two years after Martha died a ban was enacted on hunting a variety of migratory shorebirds. Like the passenger pigeon, shorebirds move in flocks of sometimes startling numbers; like the passenger pigeon, they can seem limitless, not so much an animal as a phenomenon like a sandstorm in a desert. One such phenomenal bird was the Eskimo curlew, a close relative of the eastern curlew: as it flew on in its spring migration from South America through the United States to its breeding sites in the North American Arctic it was shot in incalculable numbers. Perhaps hunters who had once shot the passenger pigeon were grateful to be able to switch to the Eskimo curlew instead. Rich with fat for its long migration, the Eskimo curlew was reputedly an excellent bird to eat. Hunters shot them in an almost casual manner: so abundant were the birds that they were scarcely valued, except for the quality of their meat. In his book Birds and People Mark Cocker describes how Eskimo curlews were blasted from the sky in numbers greater even than hunters could carry; abundance begat profligacy.
But an animal once great in number leaves a great absence when it is gone. When hunters told their children of the vast flocks of Eskimo curlews, and of passenger pigeons before them, the stories must have been no easier for those children to believe than it is for us, now. We live in the shadow of such spectacular extinctions: our wildlife now is furtive, and diminished; most of us can scarcely conceive of birds so numerous that they blacken the sky when they flock – any more than most of us can imagine gathering in our hundreds to shoot such flocks wholesale out of the sky.
It would be wrong, though, to mistake a lack of opportunity for a lesson learned. After the hunting ban was enacted in 1916, the Eskimo curlew population did not recover. Hunting is an obvious cause of species decline – and it’s a relatively easy one to ban, too; though hunters may decry attempts to curb their activities, the morality of banning hunting is simple, and sits comfortably in our minds: when the act of killing an animal is direct, and overt, and clearly attributable to an individual and his or her actions, banning that act is not so difficult to envisage.
But hunting is often the surface injury; the true damage is hidden. As it migrated through North America the Eskimo curlew depended on prairies for its food. Like all seemingly monotonous landscapes, grasslands are not valued by people in the modern industrialised world: when we look upon them we see a blankness waiting to be filled. As the vast prairies of North America were turned into farms for human use, growing food for human sustenance, there was nowhere left for the Eskimo curlew to feed. Those birds that were not shot likely starved to death.
There is no Martha for the Eskimo curlew, though. We cannot put a pin on a timeline and say: this is when the last Eskimo curlew died. We cannot be sure that the last Eskimo curlew has died. We can say that we believe that it is very likely that there are no more in the world – but it’s impossible for us to be certain. This is the conundrum of migratory shorebirds: if a bird flies across half a dozen countries in only a few weeks; if it flies in flocks of similar species so great in number that individuals are lost amidst the throng; if it migrates in its lifetime the equivalent of the distance from the earth to the moon; if it vanishes so completely into the great remoteness of the Arctic tundra that even to this day we do not know exactly where many migratory shorebirds breed – how can we be certain that it has vanished from the earth? How can we be certain that there does not exist somewhere some tiny remnant population, passing among us unseen, taking the few scraps we have left for it amidst its former habitat?
The IUCN equivocates on the Eskimo curlew for precisely this reason: until every last possible remote habitat can be searched conclusively the species’ status is “Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)”. Birds such as the eastern curlew that are definitely still with us can be counted year to year, it can be determined with concrete certainty that such species are declining rapidly; but the end point cannot always be identified with such clarity. Thus the Eskimo curlew exists in our minds, even if not in the world – it is a ghost bird, a figment of thought or hope.
In the Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert writes of how the Maori, hunting the moas of New Zealand to extinction, probably didn’t even realise what they were doing: that even as the population of the giant birds decreased decade by decade, each human generation saw that population only in snapshot: seen from a position of temporal stillness, the population seemed to be constant, until one generation it was gone. Our connectivity across time is greater now than it has ever been; but still we as a species are disposed to roll with the punches. As our pet puppies and kittens grow into dogs and cats we struggle to remember that they were ever small enough for us to hold in our hands. As animal populations dwindle around us we perceive them as constant, year to year, unless the decline is very dramatic indeed. What chance, then, animals such as migratory shorebirds which are invisible from our lives for all but a few days or weeks or months of each year? Researchers may tell us that shorebirds are dying out; but we will always hold out hope that they may simply be elsewhere.
Those species of migratory shorebird which use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are declining in numbers. Hunting accounts for the some of this decline – just as it did for the Eskimo curlew; just as it did for the passenger pigeon – but as for the Eskimo curlew the greater cause by far is habitat loss. Most obviously, the mudflats of the Yellow Sea on which the shorebirds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway depend are being rapidly developed for human use. “Reclaimed” is the term: a word which neatly encapsulates our entire attitude to habitats which do not in themselves serve human needs. We see ourselves not in a partnership with nature, and certainly not as a part of nature, but in contest with it: we recapture land from the world as a conquering army takes land from the vanquished. We re-claim it: it rightfully belongs to us; we are taking it back.
The myth of natural harmony is exactly that: animals do not make room for each-other, they live among each-other almost incidentally, and they will not tolerate competition for scarce resources. They live together, fit into an ecosystem, only because they have evolved to fill the niches left behind by each-other. Nor is evolution set in stone but is a constant, long-term process: shorebirds have evolved means by which to prey upon the invertebrates of intertidal mudflats; among those invertebrates evolution will continue to throw up at random possible solutions to this problem; and so on, back and forth, back and forth. Each species exploits the opportunities it has been given, and humans are no different in this regard; yet we are capable as no other species is of being aware of the consequences of our actions, and of what we could do to curb those consequences. Does that awareness bring with it a moral imperative to act?
The ways in which we impact upon the lives of other animals are so multitudinous as to be almost paralysing. In order to sustain itself the human population around the Yellow Sea draws water from the river systems that feed into the sea; as flow is reduced in those rivers the nutrients that they carry from inland and which renew the ecosystems of the intertidal mudflats on the sea’s shore are likewise reduced, and the mudflats become less able to support life. Meanwhile human waste, both domestic and industrial, is washed into the sea, polluting the water and everything touched by the water, killing marine invertebrates and resulting in less food for the animals that prey upon those invertebrates. Finally, those few marine animals left are reduced in number even more by increasing human consumption.
Yet when we reflect upon birds such as the Eskimo curlew and the passenger pigeon; when as an Australian I think of the dozens of vertebrate species that have gone extinct in the two-hundred years since European arrival or which are now critically endangered; I find myself asking: who am I to expect the nations with which Australia shares the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, or any other nation, to curb its excesses? I am unable to answer this question. As a lucky resident of an Anglosphere country it feels impossible to say to a citizen of China, or Korea, that they should not also take their recently acquired chance to enjoy untrammelled growth and prosperity. It is a cruel thing to have to demand; but if we hold the non-human world to be of any value at all it is a necessary demand to make.
The flyways are still full of birds, for now. The shorebirds, eastern curlews and so many others, wheel and descend upon the world’s beaches and mudflats in flocks that look like dust-storms, cracking the air with the clap of their wing-beats as they turn. To watch, as I have, even a small flock of shorebirds – only a few hundred – take flight as one and spin above the land is to be transported entirely out of one’s self. Perhaps this is why bird-lovers are so seized by migratory shorebirds: in their sudden eruptions they give us a glimpse of the spectacular, the phenomenal, which generations of wildlife documentaries have led us to believe is always happening elsewhere, on a distant plain. That, and they allow us to indulge in the comfortable belief that, as Ted Hughes wrote of swifts (perhaps the only group of birds to outdo the sustained audacity of the shorebirds’ flight):
The globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed
But Hughes was no pastoralist, and his poem Swifts is full of doom. The word “scream” appears five times in the poem – nominally as a description (and an accurate one) of the common swift’s famous shrieking, whistling call, which rings out above the rooftops of Europe when the birds arrive from Africa each northern summer; but each scream in the poem brings the birds closer to
The inevitable balsa death.
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —
The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.
Thus the poem ends. Earlier, at the poem’s midpoint, Hughes rejoices as all European bird lovers do in the swift’s arrival – but also laments that they are
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings
Whether swift or shorebird, stork or songbird, the migrations continue. The birds come; the world is still turning. But it is crumbling away, nest by nest. Shorebirds still navigate the world’s flyways, set in their ways; they still throng upon arrival, they still feed frantically to pack on the weight which will sustain them on their great migrations. But what if, one day, they cease to arrive? Is it even a question of “if”? A bird which has long-distance flight so deeply and essentially ingrained in the very fabric of its existence cannot be held in a zoo. Its numbers cannot be sustained or supplemented by captive breeding programs. Migratory shorebirds will survive in the wild or not at all.
Invariably, people respond to the phenomenon of shorebird migration with awe. You may, perhaps, have paused while reading the descriptions I’ve written in this chapter of migratory flights, and stared at the words in disbelief; nothing is so easy as to amaze a reader with simple repetition of the facts of the natural world. Yet awe’s constant companion is complacency: a natural phenomenon such as shorebird migration that is so powerful as to be breathtaking must surely in that power also be robust; it must be safe from interference. This is how we tend to think, and it’s thoughts like this that allow extinctions such as were meted out to the passenger pigeon, and the Eskimo curlew.
For all our bloodthirstiness towards those two species, and too many other species besides, they were while they were with us an integral part of our lives: we killed them because we desired them, and had made ourselves familiar with them. But it would be a mistake, and a disservice to humanity’s virtues, to suggest that such familiarity always breeds contempt. Awe at an animal species’ innate attributes can also lead to an intense desire to protect those species: think of even the everyday awe, subdued yet wonderstruck, with which we greet birdsong; think then of the awful prospect of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and how just one memorable image at the very start of that book of a village suddenly without birdsong shifted almost the entire world’s way of thinking. Apex predators such as the peregrine falcon were not so long ago at risk of extinction thanks to DDT; now the peregrine, as cosmopolitan a bird as the turnstone, is secure, and few people who see one are left unawed.
More than any other group of animals, birds have the ability to awe us. They achieve this by nothing more remarkable than doing what they do: while we are anchored to the earth, birds are free from it. No birds demonstrate this freedom in quite such a remarkable way as the migratory shorebirds.
This book will be about shorebirds; but it will be more specifically about the eastern curlew. The eastern curlew is neither any less, nor any more extraordinary than any other shorebird; but animals which are distinctive are charismatic, and the eastern curlew – the largest migratory shorebird in the world, unmistakable within its home range – is as distinctive as an animal can get. This is not a book that I intended to write until mere days before I started writing it, and its conception began with a question. That question – and it’s one that has intrigued me since I saw the eastern curlews unfold their long, pointed wings and fly away from me down the western shore of French Island – is this: how has this bird, distinctive as it is in both appearance and habit, which has been around for as long as humans have and much longer besides, imprinted itself upon the cultures of the countries through which it migrates? To this it is necessary to add a second question, namely: how are the people of those countries now imposing themselves upon the curlew?
I don’t claim that the eastern curlew has any kind of primacy in any nation’s culture. I don’t pretend that it is central to anybody’s or any people’s understanding of the world. I don’t pretend that the challenges it faces are unique, or can be separated from the challenges facing a great many other migratory shorebird species. It is simply an animal, one of many, which fascinates me, and I hope and believe that it has and does fascinate other people, too. So I would like to explore that fascination, and how it may – or may not – have manifested itself in some of the nations which share among them the eastern curlew and its shorebird kin. And I’d like to find out what those nations are doing to ensure that the curlew still flies, north and south every year, north and south every year. Curlews and people, people and curlews: that’s what this book will be about.