The astonishing lives of migrating shorebirds

Andrew Darby’s investigations of these toughest of birds takes some unexpected turns

Godwit. Curlew. Whimbrel. Redshank. Greenshank. Dowitcher. Turnstone. Knot. Sandpiper. Stint. Plover. These shorebirds and the people who study and care for them have much to say about us and the state of our planet, says Hobart author Andrew Darby.

Darby’s new book, Flight Lines (Allen & Unwin, 2020), is about these long-distance migratory shorebirds and the scientists who study their extraordinary lives.

When they’re not breeding over the short Arctic summer, these birds can be found on every continent but Antarctica, including Australia (and New Zealand, and Tasmania). Their travel route (“flight lines”) between the far north and here, with staging points in Japan, the Korean Peninsula and China, is called the East Asian-Australasian flyway.

Tracking their lives takes real dedication. It involves long hours at remote nesting sites and at coastal mudflats where the birds rest, where nosey foreigners with long lenses are not always welcome.

Andrew Darby did all of that, in company with dedicated local bird enthusiasts and an elite band of bird scientists. The people he writes of put in extraordinary effort to protect these vulnerable creatures from the depredations of human industry and coastal development.

One or two of the birds he writes about are biggish, but most of modest size and some are quite tiny. Careful, watchful and skittish, they are easily overlooked by humans. Yet they are miracles of evolution, able to find their way over thousands of kilometres with pinpoint accuracy, negotiating storms and trackless oceans, guided by their ability to detect Earth’s north-south magnetic field.

The species that especially caught Darby’s attention is the Grey Plover, which in our warmer months can be seen mostly alone or in small numbers on tidal flats from Australia’s northwest across to the south and east coasts, including Tasmania.

Darby’s main focus was two particular Grey Plovers trapped by a cannon-fired net on the shore of South Australia’s Gulf St Vincent, under a hot sun in November 2015. They were fitted with bands tagged with unique identifying codes, CYA and CYB, which is what they were called thereafter.

Each of these female birds also scored a tracker, a tiny bit of electronic wizardry used by biologists the world over. Fixed to the backs of the two Grey Plovers, the device transmitted location data via satellite that enabled the scientists, and Darby, to track the birds’ movements in real time.

Flight Lines could have been just another birder’s journal, but it is much more than that. This account of one man’s connection to another species says volumes about how the rest of our own species lives in and relates to our natural world.

Much of this story is not pretty. The birds’ migratory route takes in heavily populated Yellow Sea coasts in South and North Korea and China, where they must feed to regain the strength they need to reach Southeast Asia or far-distant Australia and New Zealand.

China has for many years been turning sea into land for residential, industrial or military use. In recent years, birders’ pleas have led to some government restrictions on coastal development, and international protection is in prospect, but landfill remains a big threat.

Looming even larger in the future of these birds, as it does for us, is the threat from climate change. Like us, birds adapt quickly to changing circumstances, but earlier springs and reduced insect abundance at breeding sites – happening now – are among a host of changes negatively affecting shorebirds’ breeding and feeding success. Rising seawaters pose a longer term threat.

Darby catalogues all this dispassionately and objectively, but his story also conveys something much deeper and more personal, involving the flight lines of the satellite-tracked Grey Plovers.

We follow the fortunes of these two birds as they separately find their way to their respective breeding grounds and then begin their return journeys. CYA disappears from the radar in Siberia, but CYB makes it all the way to Australia’s Arnhem Land coast.

Visiting the place where her tracker stopped transmitting, during his own recovery from cancer, Darby finds himself thinking of big things: “of life’s fragility and the often profound injustice of its loss… the demure Grey Plover, their uplifting journeys, and the wish we have in our hearts for completion, for neat resolution. I thought of the untimely end of things.”

If you want a deeper understanding of these intrepid, gifted, utterly wonderful birds, or of the outstanding scientists and birders who speak for them, or if you just like fine writing and a great yarn – read this book.

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