A review by Rick Wright
Epic Journeys, by Shawn Carey
Migration Productions, 2012
34 minutes, $20.00—DVD
The wildest of birds are the shorebirds, long-winged spirits of marsh and beach and prairie. For tens of thousands of years, the lives of migrant waders and the lives of North America’s human inhabitants intersected only briefly and casually: Even the devastating slaughters of the nineteenth century, when gunners shipped carloads of plovers, godwits, and tiny short-billed curlews to eastern cities, were limited to those few days a year when the migrants, some of them coming from as far as Tierra del Fuego, paused on their way to the boreal forests and the Arctic.
Dying at the hands of the market hunters was bad enough, of course, but living with us here in the early twenty-first century is no picnic on the beach, either. Dunes and mudflats, once “wastelands” left to the birds, the crabs, and the goldenrod, are now real estate, and human fishermen even compete for shorebird food in the waters of Delaware Bay.
Shawn Carey, whose Migration Productions has also given us the fine Looking Skyward, explores these problems in a new and visually spectacular short film, Epic Journeys. Focusing on three signature species of the east coast of the US and Canada, the video asks how we can learn to share the shoreline with its wild inhabitants—and offers some encouragingly hopeful answers.
The current poster bird for shorebird conservation is the Red Knot, whose west Atlantic population has declined precipitously in just a short generation, victim of a bizarre and human-induced food shortage in Delaware Bay, where most of the birds stage on the northbound flight each May. For millennia, Red Knots, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Laughing Gulls feasted every spring on the billions and billions of eggs laid by horseshoe crabs, waxing fat for the breeding season ahead. Those same “crabs”—actually more closely related to arachnids than to the familiar fiddlers and ghosts—are also, wouldn’t you know it, a convenient source of bait for the eel fishery, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the human harvest began to depress the population, resulting in fewer horseshoe crab eggs, resulting in skinnier shorebirds, resulting in less recruitment, resulting in the loss of up to 90% of the world’s population of rufa Red Knots.
The film rehearses this sad story in short interviews with prominent ornithologists and bird conservationists, many of them well known to ABA birders. Dire as the situation seems, the experts remain hopeful: As more and more people learn about these birds, more and more care about their plight. And the recent strict regulation of crab harvesting, including a moratorium in several states, seems to have had a positive effect already, with this week’s counts on the Delaware Bayshore showing notable gains over those from last year.
Piping Plovers nesting on the coast of eastern Massachusetts face a different challenge. “Pale as a beach flea,” these unassuming little shorebirds breed and feed on the same white-sand beaches where people love to play. Ornithologists, conservationists, and hordes of volunteers have dedicated untold days to convincing the taste-like-chicken crowd that there is room for both birds and recreation, and the symbolic fencing and tireless talking have worked. By the late 1980s, careless picknickers, dogwalkers, and beach drivers had reduced the state’s entire breeding population to just 126 pairs. Now, thirty-five years later, nearly 1200 birds lay eggs on Massachusetts beaches, proof that people and plovers can indeed co-exist on these narrow strips of sand.
Anyone who has read a newspaper in the past twenty years has heard of knots and plovers. The Semipalmated Sandpiper, on the other hand, is a true birder’s bird. Still one of the most abundant shorebirds in the world, this species stages in awesome numbers on the mudflats of the Bay of Fundy, where flocks of up to 300,000—some 75% of the bird’s global population—fly to roost in vast rolling waves, then spread out to feed on the wide mudflats exposed by the receding tide. Like the springtime knots of Delaware Bay, the southbound sandpipers are laying on fuel for the long days ahead, which will take them from eastern Canada to the wintering grounds in South America in a single flight.
The sheer size of these dazzling flocks makes it hard to imagine a world without Semipalmated Sandpipers, but we’ve learned the hard way that mere abundance is no guarantee of survival. New Brunswick conservationists have constructed viewing platforms and visitor centers to educate birders and the curious public about the sandpipers’ needs and the harm that even the most innocent disturbance can cause; thanks to their efforts, we can hope to pass one of North America’s most captivating wildlife spectacles on to the next generation.
One of the young Canadian biologists in the film explains why we should care about the annual gathering in the Bay of Fundy:
This is a community. Corophium and the snails and the birds and the Peregrine Falcons that come and feed on the birds all live together and they all require each other to survive. If there are no sandpipers, the Peregrine Falcons don’t have food. If there’s no corophium, the sandpipers can’t come and forage here. So any development that takes place that can affect these habitats, anything people do, whether it’s going down and disturbing the birds or developing an area and putting in houses, all of these things can affect this habitat, and it’s important in the grand scheme of things because it’s a whole community.
The great good news in Carey’s film is that a little thought and a little caring can make us, too, part of that community. We can learn to co-exist with these wildest and most vulnerable of birds, and our beaches, our mudflats, and our lives can be the richer for it.
Wright, R. 2013. Living With Shorebirds [a review of Epic Journeys, by Shawn Carey]. Birding 45(4):68.