Observing Shorebird Migration

Kim_McNett Member Posts: 2
edited December 2023 in ADVOCACY

The Alaska State Ferry docked in Cordova after midnight. We chose the slow and wonderfully scenic way to travel to this remote Alaskan town in the Prince William Sound. Bleary-eyed, Bjorn and I disembark with our rafts, bikes, and packs, grateful that the typical rain showers of this region have lifted as we went to find a place to set up our camp in the dark. In my pack I carry a pair of binoculars and my nature journal. We made this trip with a different type of goal than usual…rather than traversing the landscape or paddling around an island, we had come for the birds. 

Each year during early spring I observe the shorebird migration. That is, I take the time to witness it, but I also mean to use this term observe in the same way that it is used to refer to a holiday or a spiritual practice. In the weeks leading up to the big event, I make special arrangements that revolve around the promised influx of thousands of traveling birds and how to stand the best chance of seeing them. 

Of course, it’s not just me. People worldwide recognize this phenomenon, and they flock to strategic locations for it. In this way, it is a holiday that is rooted in a community of shared appreciation, values, and beliefs. Coming to see the birds is a type of pilgrimage, an observance. 

For a fleeting few weeks these shorebirds are on their way from their overwintering grounds to their nesting areas further north in the sub-Arctic and Arctic wilderness.  If you don’t take the time to pay them a visit, they quickly pass, along with your chance to see them. Most of the individual birds stay only for a quick rest and feed before carrying on to the next checkpoint. As a wilderness traveler, I can relate to that. Their adventures are something worth celebrating, worth observing. 

The morning sunlight strikes our shelter, and we awaken to the soothing calls and songs of birds, many of whom had also recently arrived. After the long dormancy of winter, these joyous sounds revive my anticipating heart. The three-toned pitch of the golden-crowned sparrow, the undulated song of the pacific wren, the belting announcements of trumpeter swans, and the very soft, yet abundant peeps of a whirling flock of sandpipers down on the mudflat below. I can even hear the wind sifting through their feathers in flight. In a world with so much noise (both literal and metaphorical), how grateful I am to be in a place where these sounds take the center stage. 

“Your attention is your greatest gift to the world,” said artist and naturalist John (Jack) Muir Laws during his nature journaling workshop later that morning. I had also come to Cordova to meet Jack, who has had a major influence on my artistic practice and sense of awareness in nature. By keeping a nature journal, I have dedicated immeasurable attention to the beauty, curiosities and wonders that surround me, from right outside my cabin door to the wildest places. The process causes me to slow down, to seek the unexpected, and to organize my mind into relationships that make sense to me. The nature journal has changed my behavior and the ways that I engage with my surroundings. It has inspired me to fall deeply in love. 

“Ok,” Jack said, “how many sandpipers do you think are in this flock? Think of your answer but don’t change it when you hear what other people say.” Answers range from 200 to 2,000. He scribbles the numbers down on his small white board and makes a bell curve. Clearly, our capability to observe has its limits. There are simply too many little birds out there for our puny human brains to comprehend. We simply have to say it’s just a lot.

Even more challenging to comprehend is the extent of shorebird decline. Like beads on a necklace, migratory birds require continuous linkages of intact habitats and seasonal harmony along their long routes. They are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and climate disruption. Many populations have declined by over 50% in recent decades. That’s too many for me to picture. I’ll add this to the running list of incomprehensible facts about the dismal global outlook for biodiversity and natural systems. 

I turn a new page of my journal. In front of me, a handful of sandpipers are busy rushing around the little water channel nearby. Jack encourages us to notice as many behaviors as we can and make a quick sketch of each. I dwell in this moment, the warm sun soaking through my layers of clothes, the unadulterated sea air that fills my lungs, the sounds of the hardworking sandpipers who are resilient to the many adversities particular to their lot in this world. Despite being strangers, I feel a sense of kinship to the people surrounding me.

One of the pipers wades up to its belly and starts to take a bath, feathers ruffling and water drops flying. For all the ones that didn’t make it, this one did. For all the uncertainty, loss, and confusion, at least I can trust this moment. I can pay closer attention, record it, appreciate, and remember it. 

As I continue to sketch and take notes, the part of my brain that keeps track of time and worries goes quiet. The tide drops and the air fills with the scent of rich microbial life. I listen to the flocks of birds ebb and flow as they work their way down to the mudflats to pluck at the newly exposed feeding surface. People begin to leave. 

I try to hold onto my flow-state as Bjorn and I get back on our bikes to head towards camp. It will last a while, then it will wear off as human-centric tasks, agendas and news move in. People call this “going back to the real world” but I think it’s the opposite. For someone who has fallen deeply in love with nature, the grief can be paralyzing. I could argue that this misunderstanding of what is “real” is exactly why we have found ourselves (and the whole biosphere) in this terrible predicament. 

When asking what we can do to help, answers are never clear, easy, or guaranteed. I’ll struggle with them for a while. Then, before too long, I grab my nature journal and go out on the land to gather the real news. So long as there is beauty, complexity, and surviving life, I will be here to pay it attention. I can promise to always observe it. 

Words and Drawings by Kim McNett

Photos by Bjorn Olson

Areas traveled during this story are significant to Eyak, Chugach Region People, Tlingit, and Athabaskan peoples.