By the time we got to St Ives my father and I were ready to take a break. We’d been walking for three days along the coast of Cornwall, twenty kilometres each day. We were sunburned, we were exhausted from walking into the wind the whole way, we were elated to be at our destination but we didn’t want to go any further.
We had only a brief time to make the most of St Ives: one afternoon, one night, and one morning – just enough to get a feel for the town. It was the end of April, not yet the peak season when thousands of summer tourists would flock to this town of only around ten thousand people, so we had space to do all the tourist things: visit the Tate Gallery; take in the Barbara Hepworth Museum. We ate Cornish pasties. We took photos of the waterfront and of the narrow streets. We watched Terns (Sternidae) dive just beyond the rocks at the edge of the harbour. And at lunchtime the day after we arrived, in the lazy hours before our train departed for London, we took our lunch by the sea-wall along with the other early-season tourists. The sun was out and the shoreline was humming. We sat down amid the crowd and listened to the surf and to the Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and admired the slope of the town and its whitewashed buildings. We were trying not to think of the end of our brief holiday, of our flight back to Australia in only a few days’ time.
Then, as we ate, we noticed scurrying amid the seaweed and sand at the foot of the sea-wall scores of small birds. They were busy and plump like Quails (Galliformes), and painted like them too, splotched with harlequin make-up in black and white and brown: they ran in loose and shifting congregations over the wet rocks, probing under stones, flipping objects over to reveal what was underneath. By that behaviour they were unmistakable: they were Turnstones, known in Australia as Ruddy Turnstones.
I’ve long been fascinated by migratory waders. Whenever I go to the coast in spring or summer I always keep an eye out for them. They come in their millions to Australia each summer: they gather in great flocks on the continent’s beaches and tidal mudflats, making their way down south, spreading out across the whole long coastline. Australia is their winter home, or more properly their out-of-season home: for these birds never see winter, but live a life of perpetual summer. They breed across the Arctic from May through to July, then when the days begin to shorten towards the end of each year they fly en masse to the southern hemisphere to sit out the non-breeding season and avoid the harsh northern winter.
The migratory waders – the Charadriiformes – are a morphologically diverse group of birds. The largest of them is the Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), weighing around a kilogram and with a wingspan of over a metre; its appearance is dominated by a curved beak sixty centimetres long which it plunges deep into the sand in search of food. The Snipes (Scolopacidae) have beaks as long and as straight as swords; the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) has a beak which curves ever-so-slightly upwards. Several species of bird have been observed to use tools; but a bird’s beak is its greatest tool of all, and it is a tool which each species wields dextrously and to a particular end. The Turnstone uses its sturdy, dagger-like beak to get underneath rocks along the shoreline and flip them over, revealing the invertebrates living underneath.
The Turnstone is not the smallest of the migratory waders – that title goes to the Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) – but it is at the smaller end of the spectrum. It typically weighs around 100 grams. It has a wingspan of only fifty centimetres – impressively long, nonetheless, for a bird that measures barely more than twenty centimetres from beak to tail. You could hold a Turnstone in your cupped hands. Yet twice each year every individual of this species, estimated to be as many as 800,000 animals, undertakes a flight from one end of the world to the other, a flight notable not just for its distance but for its extraordinary speed: a study completed in 2011 of four Turnstones found that on the northward migration, to Siberia, the birds flew the seven and a half thousand kilometres from Australia to Taiwan in just six days – and that was only part of the journey: from Taiwan to Siberia, where the birds breed, is another five thousand kilometres or so, though this leg – up the eastern coast of China, feeding on tidal mudflats as they went – was taken at a comparatively leisurely pace, over the course of a month. The Turnstones were recorded as leaving their Australian wintering grounds on the 27th of April; they arrived in Yakutia, Siberia, on the 4th of June. All told, these diminutive birds had completed their migration of twelve-and-a-half thousand kilometres in only 39 days, an average of around 320 kilometres every day. To put that in human terms: that’s the equivalent of around seven and a half marathons a day, every day, for nearly a month and a half.
As my father and I finished our lunch we turned our attention more fully to the Turnstones. They were working the mudflat thoroughly, busily investigating every loose rock or strand of seaweed they encountered, devouring everything they could. They were refuelling: Turnstones don’t breed in Britain, but stop there either on their way to their breeding grounds or on their way back. That the birds in St Ives were in their heavily patterned breeding plumage suggested that they were on their way north, passing through on their way to Greenland or Canada, to join their fellow migrants in huge congregations, millions strong, along the shorelines of those countries.
Despite all the people just metres from them them, despite all the noise of tourists and sight-seers, the Turnstones seemed barely to notice us. Flying from country to country, feeding on beaches and in tidal inlets, migratory waders more than most birds must be used to the presence of humans: the East-Asian-Australasian Flyway, which sees the passage of some four million birds twice each year, encompasses twenty-two countries. Not all of those countries have signed up to the Ramsar Convention protecting wetlands of international importance; yet each country, each stop-over in the Flyway, is a link in a chain. Migratory birds – and there are many species, not just waders – follow their instinct; what would happen if the Turnstones, or any other species, found one year that one of their feeding grounds had been drained, or built over? In fact this habitat loss is already happening. So far the migration hasn’t ceased: the earth is vast, and appears to offer an abundance of habitation options for humans and non-humans alike.
Yet the earth is not infinite. In 2011 thousands of Black-necked Grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), flying in bad weather, crashed and died in the vast carpark of a Wal-Mart in Utah, which they had apparently mistaken for a lake. When they landed they found not water but tarmac. In November 2012 fisherman off the coast of England reported the nightmarish sight of thousands of migratory songbirds drowned in the North Sea: having left Scandinavia in clear conditions, the birds had apparently hit a storm of fog and wind and had been unable to make land. There are photos of some of them perched on boats, or even on the shoulders of fishermen; one captain reported that “On the way home we just saw dead songbirds in the water.” Migratory birds of all kinds face threats, both old and knew, but the waders in particular seem vulnerable. Climate change is the latest danger to them, bringing with it rising sea-levels and as a consequence further loss of coastal feeding grounds. It seems all too easy to imagine one year migratory waders falling by their millions from the sky out of sheer exhaustion – though they’d like die at sea, in which case how long would it take us to notice their absence? In which country would we notice it first?
The Turnstones in St Ives were working one stretch of the mud below the sea-wall particularly eagerly; looking along it my father and I saw that a man was sitting on the rough concrete steps that led down to the water, scattering seeds for the birds: they flocked to his benevolence, ignoring him but hopping up onto the lower steps beneath where he sat. In contrast to the birds’ breeding finery the man was dressed in ragged clothes; his face was lined and tanned by the sun; he looked destitute, earthen and heavy. Soon the small birds he was feeding would open their wings and fly further north, thousands of kilometres beyond this small part of the coast. Soon, too, my father and I would leave: we finished lunch, and went to catch our train, and not many days afterwards we were back at Heathrow, boarding our aeroplane for a twenty-four hour flight over half the world back home, belching exhaust fumes into the atmosphere the whole way. Not a migration, not quite; but not so far removed, either.
I’m trying to draw a parallel here, to find a link – but the metaphor collapses: the Turnstones we saw in St Ives would never be seen in Australia, for there are two populations of the species in the world, those that migrate between North America through Europe to Africa, and those that migrate through East Asia from Siberia to Australia. The world is more complicated than we want it to be. The Turnstones in St Ives passed through our lives only fleetingly, as we through theirs; yet of the two sides of the encounter, our imprint on their life was heavier by far.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org