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‘An epic journey soaring on the wings of feather-scraps.

Wendy Harmer, writer and broadcaster

‘Beautifully observed, this magnificent and personal account of

the world we share with migratory shorebirds is rich in history
and tender with human and avian stories. It demands we reflect
on the imminent extinction of species—including our own.’ 
Heather Rose, author of award-winning Museum of Modern
Love and of Bruny

‘A tender account of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of

Australia’s shorebirds in their extraordinary pursuit of eternal
spring, and the scientists who fight to preserve their flyways.’
Penny Olsen, author of Night Parrot

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LINES Across the globe on a journey
with the astonishing ultramarathon birds


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First published in 2020
Copyright © Andrew Darby 2020
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever
is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.
Page vii: Line from ‘The Schooner Flight’ by Derek Walcott reproduced by
permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page 60: Lines from ‘Shore Birds’
by W.S. Merwin reproduced by permission of the Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.
Page 274: Lines from ‘The Death of the Bird’ by A.D. Hope reproduced by
arrangement with the licensor, The A.D. Hope Estate c/-Curtis Brown (Aust)
Pty Ltd
Allen & Unwin
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Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

A catalogue record for this

book is available from the
National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 76029 655 1

Maps by Mika Tabata
Set in 11.5/17 pt Sabon by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press, part of Ovato
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The paper in this book is FSC® certified.

FSC® promotes environmentally responsible,
socially beneficial and economically viable
management of the world’s forests.

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‘For the song-men are the oral map-makers of
the tribe, and the wanderings of the culture
heroes are the roads across the land.’
Bill Harney, ‘Roads and Trade’

‘I had no nation now but the imagination.’

Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight’

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List of mapsxi
One Hunting on a no-good shore 1
Two Three letters will do 16
Three Tiny sparks 38
Four The undertone 56
Five The treasure map 69
Six The treasure house 82
Seven Perfectly suited 101
Eight The white bear bird 110
Nine Beringia 136
Ten A portion of their secrets 150
Eleven Now south 165
Twelve A flick of the dragon’s tail 182
Thirteen Lost flocks 203
Fourteen A spoonful of hope 222
Fifteen Navigating the possible 242
Sixteen In harmony with the sun 268
Author’s note 276
Notes 278
Index 316

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List of maps

Southern Australia to Taiwan and Fujian East 67

East Asian–Australasian flyway
The Yellow Sea 86
Arctic and Beringia 115
Arctic southward to Australia 266

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Hunting on a no-good shore

Huff, huff. I’m running. Pretending I am agile, stomping on

mounds of wet seagrass, trying to keep my feet. Huff, huff.
Forty metres has never seemed so far. Alongside me another
runner, a young woman, trips and pitches into the seaweed.
I keep running. For two hours I’ve waited with an instruction
burning in my head: ‘When the cannon fires, run as fast as you
can to the front of the net.’
Huff, huff. I reach the net. The young woman, Emilia Lai, is
there before me. She’s already on her knees at the tideline. How
did that happen?
‘Move the net up the beach, but don’t lift it. The birds might
So—with experienced catchers, local coastal workers, stray
birders and hangers-on like me—I kneel and ease the net up out
of the salt-water-and-seagrass soup.
Under the net are a few sodden grey-and-white rags of
birds. So meagre. A bunch of wet tissues. Their swamped
heads rise far enough for them to see us crowding around.

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The birds do not struggle or cry out. Their amazed eyes speak
for them.
Escape? There is no escape. People around them are jubilant,
high-fiving each other.
I take a breath and watch as the catchers begin to disen­
tangle the birds from the net. Lai is head down in concentration,
her right hand holds a bird and her nimble left fingers work the
net away from it, feather by feather. It is popped into a linen bag
and disappears before I can properly look at it.
But I know it is a Grey Plover and this, of all birds, is the one
I have come to see.
When it’s over, I ask Lai, reserved and slight, why she has
come all the way from Taiwan to do this.
‘I fell in love with shorebirds from the first time,’ she says.
‘Because they are so tiny, and so strong.’ She pumps her fist.

I’ve come to Thompson Beach, north of Adelaide in South

Australia, to see these birds that are part of a group called
‘migratory shorebirds’. I am looking for the little-known and
I had half a memory of something I may have seen when
young; of a strange curve-billed bird standing on a sand-spit
across the other side of a lagoon mouth. It has stayed on the rim
of my mind ever since.
In talk with friends I keep disentangling them from other
birds. They’re not seabirds; they’re shorebirds. People also call
them waders. They don’t feed at sea, or rest on the water like
gulls or shearwaters. Many don’t even float. Shorebirds scurry
along tidelines of ocean beaches, they’re the spindly stalkers of

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Hunting on a no-good shore 3

mudflats, the still and watchful birds of wetlands. Birds of an

ephemeral, marginal world.
Their daily rhythm is driven by the tide. They are constant
in their connection to it—for the food it exposes, or conceals.
Many shorebirds are resident on coasts and wetlands. Migratory
shorebirds are fleeting visitors, and often have a global domain.
Some are born in the far Arctic north, and they migrate each
year to escape impossible cold, bound to return there to breed.
They routinely cross hemispheres.
We might expect glamour in such birds. Mostly they do it
humbly. You have to look twice to distinguish them from mud
or seaweed, and they are often ‘out there’, away from people.
‘Waders typically are the “grey birds” that live far from the
spectacle of human cause, human glory and human misery,’ said
the Dutch ornithologist, Theunis Piersma.
The greyest of these is the Grey Plover—a dovish wallflower
at the shorebird dance. It spreads thinly around the world’s
margins and is often overlooked, not just by people who don’t
know shorebirds, but by those who do. For many it’s a second-
choice bird, and for that reason it interests me. In life there are
many surprises to be found among the overlooked.
As well as the bird, I am out to discover shorebird study
itself. I think it might stand as a beacon of the grind that makes
good science; the kind to power biodiversity protection. This,
at a time when it’s often easier for the frightened to deny what
science plainly tells us about our earth. So I am freighting this
small, unknown bird with hope.
The first Grey Plover I glimpse on the shore of Thompson
Beach stands taller among a group of sandpipers, and it has seen
me. I get a quick look at a short-billed head, different in profile
from the little long-bills around it. Even as I begin to emerge

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from the scrub it’s gone. So fast! I keep track of it to a landing

away in the distance, off the edge of a sandbar. It stands in
water up to its knees, alone and dismissive, like Peter Pan on
Marooners’ Rock. I am intrigued.
Until recently the word ‘plover’ has mainly meant to me
a noisy, common bird that is not very bright: a lapwing. The
Masked Lapwing and its many relatives around the world have
adapted well to living with people. On grass near my home,
dozens gather to stand and study the ground, as if they are
looking for the same lost car key. Pairs sometimes try to nest
in our garden, and all of them willingly rasp out a grating
alarm call.
Masked Lapwings do not push migratory boundaries. They
might move from drying inlands to wetter coasts, but most live
near where they were born, spreading out to claim nesting terri-
tories. I have seen lapwings collect in a protest vigil on a piece
of new highway that was previously their ground. I’ve watched
heart-in-mouth as newborn chicks try to follow their calling
parents off a city traffic island. And I admit to waving a rake to
discourage them from setting up their territory in mine. They
are odd birds, but really, they are not so much plovers. Think of
the lapwing as the gateway bird.
Lapwings are related to the Grey Plover the way that great
apes are related to us. Truly but, we like to think, distantly. Both
birds are from the family Charadriidae (waders or shorebirds);
but the 25 global lapwings live in the sub-family Vanellinae,
while the Grey Plover is in the parallel sub-family Charadriinae,
and is one of just four species that make up the genus Pluvialis,
the ‘rainbirds’.
The Grey Plover is Pluvialis squatarola, the snub-faced
rainbird—another claim against it. Its three closest relatives—the

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Hunting on a no-good shore 5

Eurasian, Pacific and American Goldens—form with it an exclu-

sive group called the tundra plovers.
To birders, a Grey Plover can quickly be distinguished in
flight among a mixed flock of shorebirds because it’s the one
with the sweaty armpits. These are its black-feathered ‘wing-
pits’, visible in flight. In Americas—defiantly from the rest of the
world—it is called the Black-bellied Plover.
For a second-choice bird it is held in curious regard. It’s
one of a handful of birds on the cover of the global standard
text, Shorebirds: An identification guide. It turns up as the
single bird chosen for wader study groups’ own logos. It has a
strong, historic place among the bird-hunting fraternity of the
American south. At an auction in 2006, a world-record price
of US$830,000, was paid for a wooden carved hunting decoy
described as ‘Black-bellied Plover in Spring Plumage’. The work
is a flowing sculptural miniature, like something the great Henry
Moore might have shaped as a maquette. The bird bends over
and looks down to persuade others flying past that there’s food
below, within range of a shooter.
Standoffish even from other shorebirds, Grey Plover in
Australia are elusive, usually far out of human sight, and reach.
Except at times like this, at a beach in a corner of Gulf St Vincent,
South Australia, where a net has just exploded over them.

On the first morning of the catching expedition I join the

birders on early reconnaissance, and walk the dawning shore.
Here, where the gulf’s head pushes into the heart of the conti-
nent, the meadows are of seagrass. The Australian surf is
away down south. There is no swell. The tide rises soundlessly

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from somewhere beyond the horizon, flooding over sand and

seagrass piles, through mangrove clumps, up creek lines and
into the marshland bogs. A flock of Australian Pelicans ease
themselves off a seagrass bank into the water with their eyes
on us. We startle a feral Red Fox nosing the weed. When we
turn to retrace our steps, we find that, without notice, an
empty creek has become thigh-deep. Later this water will leak
back out.
Briny rot rises out of seagrass washed onshore. A squall
rages in from the land behind and belts across the flats, lifting
marine white caps. The wind subsides, mosquitoes and sandflies
swarm in to bite, and bushflies drive me to arm-waving distrac-
tion. This is shorebird domain. It is a fertile tidal flat millions of
years in the making.
The gash in southern Australia that is the St Vincent Basin
emerged as the Australo-Antarctic Gulf expanded after the
break-up of the Gondwanan super-continent around 50 million
years ago. The shallow gulf alternately dried out and flooded as
glacial maximums froze the water into ice, and then inter-glacial
periods let it down. In the last maximum, about 20,000 years
ago, this was a plain with a central salty lake.
Surrounded by semi-arid lowland, the northern gulf where
we are is not river-fed. The only watercourse with that name,
the Wakefield, is ephemeral with the seasons. The gulf is a rare
‘inverse estuary’. Salinity is greater and the water temperature
higher at its head than at its mouth.
Without river flow, marine life is nourished by ocean currents
carrying in sediments to settle on the gulf floor. These currents
deal with a tidal regime so restricted that in South Australia one
set of tides has its own name: ‘The Dodger’. This tide has almost
no rise or fall.

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Hunting on a no-good shore 7

Sediments drift up to settle as the foundation for the seagrass

that covers more than half of the gulf’s 4098-square-kilometre
bed. In the northern gulf, 6000 years’ worth of seagrass washed
onshore has decayed to extend the shoreline several kilometres
out into the water. A scattered mangrove woodland, more
expected in tropical Australia, pokes out through this tidal zone.
What makes this habitat attractive for shorebirds is less
appealing for most of us. Beaches of seagrass sponge, muddy
sand to infinity, biting insects, bright hot sun flaring off the flat
water. Stink.
Stores of shorebird food are hidden here—in the sediments,
seagrass, shoreline and nearby inland. Worms, small shellfish,
cockles and marine snails percolate through the sandy mud.
Prawns and small fish hug mangroves. Birds probe the wet
edge of the tideline and roost on floating islands of coagulated
seagrass. They work up the creek lines and into the saltmarsh,
or feed on algal mats in ephemeral clay pans behind the shore.
Further down the gulf, towards Adelaide, there is bounty in
brine life held in commercial salt fields.
There are stories of the Kaurna Aboriginal people using this
waterway they call Wongajerla. Clans of the Kaurna people
extended north along the eastern shore of Gulf St Vincent to its
head, hunting waterfowl and fishing with reed nets. Archaeo­
logical scrutiny of Kaurna stone implements shows they lived
here since well before the last Ice Age.
The gulf’s first cautious European explorers tacked their
way up in the 1802–3 Anglo–French race to explore Australia’s
coastline. The Englishman Matthew Flinders took the rowing
cutter from his ship Investigator ‘up to the head of this inlet to
examine its termination’ in April 1802. Even working around
channels, they could not get the cutter closer than 800 metres to

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the shore. Squelching through the mud, Flinders’ party made it

to land: they walked up a ridge and confirmed they had reached
the northern point.
Flinders, the mapmaker, named the waters after a British
Admiral, the Earl of St Vincent, and barely noted the wildlife.
‘Numbers of stingrays came round the boat whilst upon the flat,
but being un-provided, we were not able to succeed in getting
any.’ His expedition naturalist, Robert Brown, said that on the
excursion Flinders shot a hawk: ‘Several kinds of small birds
were seen but none shot.’ They were there at shorebird migration
time, but left no account of them.
Just twelve days afterwards, Nicolas Baudin, aboard the
Geographe, surveyed the same coast for Napoleon’s France.
Pushed up the gulf by a south-easterly gale—a migration wind—
the explorers became confused by shoals and Baudin had to keep
all hands on deck through the night while they worked their
way out. ‘I gave this gulf the name of Golfe de la Mauvais [The
Bad Gulf] because of the fatigue that it caused the whole crew.’
As white settlement expanded, farmers moved north from
Adelaide onto the plains, using the gulf’s waters for transport.
They loaded their wheat onto boats at ‘ports’ that were nothing
more than the end of a track where a flat-bottomed ketch was
beached at low tide so bagged grain could be carted alongside.
Over time, commercial fishers began to work the northern gulf,
but to the government its greatest use came by default. A century
ago, it began to operate an army proof range. This ‘empty’ shore
was perfect for testing artillery fire and thought to be absolutely
no good for anything else. Guns and ammunition could be
tested for reliability by firing from a point of land, southward
over a 25-kilometre length of sandy flat. Soldiers shot shells,
sometimes hundreds of rounds each day, out over the birds.

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Hunting on a no-good shore 9

At low tide, retrieval parties used horse and cart, and later
vehicles, to drive out onto the flat, study a warhead’s impact,
and perhaps pick up remains.
Use of the proof range brought the first government
acknowledgement of the existence of shorebirds in the upper
gulf, though an official hand waved away any effects on their
survival. Plans to enlarge the range for bigger and better explo-
sions forced an environmental assessment. It was guessed that
wildlife was not affected, and anyway: ‘in time it is thought
that the birds would adjust to the noise’. I am left to imagine
how many birds learned to recognise the incoming whistle of
bombardment and flee the danger, or instead disappeared in a
sudden explosion of shrapnel, sand and water.
The range is still sometimes used for weapons testing but an
expansion of its impact zone that would have razed 189 houses
in coastal holiday-shack enclaves was rejected. That same
decision gave a green light to a new subdivision at a place called
Thompson Beach.
Hunched on a low dune between samphire marshland and
wind-breaking scrub, Thompson Beach’s houses raise them-
selves just high enough to cool down, and for people to be able
to look through their living-room windows across the tidal flat
and into the gulf.
To Australians used to ocean and surf, this is not the greatest
coastal real estate. But generations have taken refuge or holidays
in these off-track communities, and the hardscrabble shore has
its enthusiasts. ‘Thompson Beach. The Place To Be Beside The
Sea. Because It’s On The Coast That Has The Most’ says a
T-shirt. Sunsets across the gulf really do blaze the wide sky in
dramatic reds and purples; otherwise there seems to be little to
back this happy belief.

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Without much water clear enough for swimming or deep

enough for an outboard motor, choices of recreation are limited
to a local tide-bound ritual. As it ebbs, people wearing wader
overalls appear on shore. Their heads and faces are hidden from
the glare in hats and bandanas. Keeping to the same prospectors’
rhythm as the shorebirds, they go crabbing for Blue Swimmers.
The crabbers fossick the seagrass with rakes that entangle the
Swimmers’ claws. They flip them into floating plastic boxes
towed behind from the waist. Out on the wide flat, these spectral
foragers trudge in slow motion to the horizon.

Such a modest coast for high ambition. The shorebird expedi-

tion came there wanting to chart new tracks in global migration:
to the far north, and perhaps back again. The catching group
were students of a retired Melbourne metallurgist; they were
drawn there by a South Australian environmental bureaucrat
and led by a former bookkeeper. Without these three, the
South Australian Grey Plover’s epic flights would never have
been unlocked.
Clive Minton, a metallurgist who became a senior human
resources executive, is the father of wader studies, a global figure
in the field. He is also, in Australia, its general. Inside his square
frame is a mind honed at Cambridge University in the 1950s,
and he is still restless in his eighties.
‘Yes, I have a thirst for knowledge,’ Minton tells me. ‘If there’s
a way not known of finding something out, then I’m challenged
to do it. But I’m also a hunter by nature. I think all of us have
probably got a little bit of it in us. I’ve got a lot of the hunter.
I think that’s one reason my unrest has been lifelong, 110 per cent.

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Hunting on a no-good shore 11

I’m much more single-mindedly birds and shorebirds than anyone

else I know.’
More often than many might admit, bird people are sub­
limated hunters, separated only by degrees of passion or science.
At the least-intense end of the spectrum are the watchers, who
might spend a casual hour sauntering a pathway to squint
through binoculars. There are ‘listers’, who seek out new birds
and compile lists of different species sighted—over a single year
or over a lifetime, with an eye on rivals. Listing can be a part of
life, or it can take over: ruthless competition between extreme
American listers is the stuff of birding folklore. People at that
end, particularly in Britain, might be called ‘twitchers’; they are
driven birders whose lives are directed, sometimes consumed,
by the need to see new and rare birds. Among these is a sub-
species called ‘togs’; heavers of massive camo-covered lenses,
they are the photography army.
Then there are the banders, known in the old countries as
ringers. These small groups of amateur and professional orni-
thologists are drawn together to catch and band birds for
research. They use hunting methods turned around for living
science. For them, the prize is won when a freed bird tells a story
of life and movement through its mark.
Cheshire-born Minton has been clipping metal bands on
birds’ legs since 1947, when he was twelve years old. He has
led the Victorian Wader Study Group (VWSG) since he came to
Australia in 1978. At last count, this small group of volunteers
had caught and marked over a quarter of a million shorebirds—
the great majority of them international migrants. Catching them
around south-eastern Australia, and in north-western Australia
jointly with the Australasian Wader Studies Group, this is the
world’s single largest banding operation.

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As leader of the Victorian group, Minton reached actual

mythic stature. A Sydney performance artist, Barbara Campbell,
turned her imaginative eye on him as he orchestrated a catch at a
favoured haunt—Melbourne’s vast, bird-rich sewerage farm, the
Western Treatment Plant. She likened him to an augur, the classi-
cal Roman figure who divined the will of the gods from the flight
of birds. And in a real, scientific way, Minton does just that.
So when an Adelaide coastal conservation manager, Tony
Flaherty, was looking for better protection for Gulf St Vincent’s
birds, he knew he would do well to involve Minton. Flaherty, who
has spent a working lifetime on marine and coastal conservation
in South Australia, practises politics as the art of the possible.
‘I use shorebirds as a tool,’ Flaherty says. ‘Just another tool in
the toolbox for trying to get people to change their thinking
about stinking coast and mudflat.’
Shorebird counts had been underway in the gulf since 2008.
They regularly notched up thousands of resident birds, like the
dainty Banded Stilt, but also a dozen migratory species, includ-
ing two of the best-known globally: the Bar-tailed Godwit
and Red Knot. The soldierly godwit, with its long, thin bill,
is a classic probing shorebird. The dumpy Red Knot scurries
along tidelines, and is a global favourite to track. In 2012, when
the Australasian Wader Studies Conference came to Adelaide,
Flaherty thought it might be a chance to catch knot in the gulf.
Minton and his team hauled the Victorian group’s catching
equipment trailer over from Melbourne with them. The trailer
carries the emblem of the VWSG: a Grey Plover in flight. I ask
Minton: Why the choice of this particular bird? To him the
reason is lost in the mists of time, so he calls: ‘Pat? Pat?’ His
wife and inseparable intelligence appears. Pat suggests: ‘Because
it was a bird to aim for. It was so hard to get.’

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Hunting on a no-good shore 13

On their first trip to Gulf St Vincent, Minton’s folk were

joined by Maureen Christie, who would eventually direct the
Grey Plover catch. With her pale-blue eyes sharp under a floppy
hat, Christie is a child of Victoria’s western Mallee country. She
went to university in Melbourne at a time ‘when girls from the
country who wanted a career were either teachers or nurses, and
I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse’.
She studied for an Arts degree in the early 1960s at the new
and vibrant Monash University, discovered student activism
and dropped out. She then lived an island life in Bass Strait
for a while, married and became a bookkeeper, spending years
counting figures. Retired and living near the ocean coast of
South Australia at Carpenter Rocks, Christie came to the wader
world when she noticed little birds running along the local shore.
‘I knew birds as a child. I was a Brownie, and a Guide, and a
member of the Field Naturalists. And I could identify this bird
on the shore as a turnstone.’
With a local bird group, she watched the spring return of
migratory Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling, and their depar-
ture in autumn. Tough little scraps of mottled brown and white,
turnstones fossick the rocky shore and seaweed as their name
determines. The smaller Sanderlings use the same coast, but
probe the beach sands.
When a Chinese-owned company proposed to take 10,000
tonnes of storm-tossed seaweed from the local coast each year
using heavy machinery, Christie and her Friends of Shorebirds
South-East (FoSSE) group took up the fight. ‘We used science,
networking and persistence,’ she recalls.
State and federal approvals were appealed against and, after a
two-year campaign, FoSSE won. Half the coast was closed, heavy
machinery was banned and the seaweed harvesting company

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was told by a tribunal it had to live with much lower limits. Ulti-
mately, according to Christie, the group’s twenty-year shorebird
record was vital in achieving this protection by the tribunal.
Number-counting won, and this gave me my first lesson of shore-
bird research. As Christie says: ‘It requires good data to succeed.’
When the catching team first came to Gulf St Vincent they
spent long days working the shore, chasing Red Knot and then
godwit. ‘It’s the hardest place I’ve ever tried in the world to catch
and band shorebirds,’ Minton says. ‘We could not catch more
than one Red Knot, having tried for three years. We could not
catch more than ten or twelve Bar-tailed Godwits.
‘That was partly because the birds are extremely ephemeral.
Here today and gone tomorrow. But the thing is, most of our
catching is usually done when the birds are flooded off the flats by
a spring tide and settle on a beach above the high-tide mark. What
you’ve got in the gulf is great “wodges” of seagrass, hundreds of
metres in diameter, which the birds can use as islands. So you
can’t do your normal process of setting a net to catch them.’
Accustomed to catching hundreds of birds on a single day,
Minton’s team came up with just 134 birds in four years of
Thompson Beach expeditions.
Flaherty’s aim was to have an international bird sanctuary
proclaimed along the coast north of Adelaide; but to achieve
this politically, he needed the team to identify an actual inter-
national bird. Then a godwit marked at Thompson Beach in
November 2012 was photographed at Nanpu, China, in April
2013, and back at Thompson Beach in 2014. Flaherty had his
catch, his ‘story bird’.
‘That clicked with a lot of local people, to be able to see this
bird that had just come from their beach,’ Flaherty says. ‘You
can go on until the cows come home about migratory shorebirds

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Hunting on a no-good shore 15

and how far they travel. But to get a plot of a local bird up to
China and onwards, for me that’s awareness.’
Buoyed by this, the group hatched a much greater ambition:
to use satellite tags to track some gulf shorebirds in near real
time as they migrated. If this worked, it would give people a
chance to travel ‘with’ the birds.
This is a great compulsion for people who band migratory
birds: to bring tracks to life. They discover the birds’ powers
on odysseys that may traverse hemispheres over months; how
they endure the physical costs of long distance flight, and avoid
predators; what lies behind this other-worldly miracle of a single
bird making its way through waypoints, ‘home’ to a breeding
ground to renew its line and then back to where it started. If it
all works, they are drawing lines of global ecology, ‘flight lines’
across the earth.

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