Review: Flight Lines by Andrew Darby

Flight Lines is one of the most beautiful and moving nature books I’ve read in a while. Following the epic migrations of shorebirds, it has all the ups and downs of a great novel, but grounded in rigorous science. I read it with my heart often in my mouth.

Shorebirds, at least in their non-breeding getup while they’re in Australia, are fairly unassuming, grey birds. “You have to look twice to distinguish them from mud or seaweed,” Darby writes. In particular, this book is about the Grey Plover, “the greyest of these”, which Darby rather unflatteringly describes as “the one with the sweaty armpits” for its distinctive black underwing feathers.

But despite their retiring colouration, these birds conduct some of the most remarkable journeys of any creatures, largely out of sight and out of mind for most of us. In autumn, they depart Australia, crossing the north west coast and Indonesia, passing through the Yellow Sea and Siberia, before landing in the Arctic summer to breed. It is a passage known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, and through it fly 50 million birds each year.

Our guides to this flyway are two Grey Plover tagged in South Australia (according to this book the plural of “plover” is also “plover”). Darby follows their journey, both virtually via their satellite signals, and physically by visiting the birds’ stopovers. On their first leg of the journey, both casually fly 7,000 km nonstop. Other birds in the flyway make even more astonishing flights. Bar-tailed Godwits from New Zealand, having made their way up the Asian coast to Alaska, fly back directly across the Pacific, a nonstop flight flight of nearly 12,000 km.

How they navigate these journeys is remarkable, using cells in their eyes that can sense the Earth’s magnetic field. They time their journeys for favourable winds. One of Darby’s Grey Plover even successfully navigates a super-typhoon.

Along his journey Darby meets the people who have dedicated their lives to understanding, and ultimately conserving these birds. Many study shorebirds for the thrill of the chase, they are “sublimated hunters”. Over the past 50 years or so, these people have unravelled the flight lines of these birds. It’s a surprisingly new science. The Yellow Sea was only recognised as the most important staging ground for EAAF shorebirds in the 1990s.

But, because this is a book written in the 21st century about the environment, this is also unfortunately a warning tale. Shorebird populations are declining worldwide. In Australia, four species have lost more than 80% of their population. They face numerous threats along the flyway, including hunting, but the greatest is what is euphemistically termed “land reclamation”. “Sea theft” is how Darby describes it, the act of hardening the coast with concrete, destroying mudflats, and building factories and houses. Most tragically, a 33 km sea wall built in South Korea eliminated a population of 90,000 Great Knot at a stroke. All of these changes have occurred in the past 30 years, and accelerated dramatically in the last decade with China’s economic boom.

Surprisingly, this story ends on a note of hope. Against all the odds, China has pushed to have its Yellow Sea wetlands recognised as World Heritage, although whether this will improve the fortunes of shorebirds remains to be seen. More powerfully, conservationists working with communities in Myanmar have had enormous success in shifting hunting practices. Although climate change, rapidly occurring in the Arctic breeding grounds, may render some of these solutions redundant.

Migratory shorebirds would seem to be fertile thematic ground. In the dedication of birders in their gathering of data, Darby sees the excellence and power of science, which he experiences personally when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Darby throughout acknowledges Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of the birds, from the Arctic to Australia. These birds are present in the lives of many different people.

It is in this that the birds take on their most subversive possibilities. In a world where most conservation happens at a national level, the birds’ crossing of national boundaries poses a huge challenge. But shorebird conservationists seem to pass through these bureaucratic barriers like water, building hidden networks of groups dedicated to saving birds. “They think,” Darby writes, “Like the birds they follow, that borders only exist as things to be crossed”. In one astonishing passage, Darby described the successful efforts of a group of New Zealand conservationists to convince the North Korean government to allow them in to survey shorebirds. In a time when nationalism and protectionism are on the rise, shorebirds offer the promise of a globalism that might work for all of us, people and planet.

Darby’s writing is rigorous and careful, with a journalist’s reluctance to overstate. But he also captures something of the essence of these birds. On capturing a Grey Plover, he notes its “passivity” but also the “intelligence” in its watchful eyes. In another passage he describes the light of the already set sun catching flying shorebirds, “A glint, way above… Tiny sparks.” This is a book that is very real about the conservation challenges we face, but I left with a tiny spark of hope.

Gay rating: not gay

Flight Lines is published by Allen and Unwin.

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