Brandon Keim writes: I met my first semipalmated sandpiper in a crook of Jamaica Bay, an overlooked shore strewn with broken bottles and religious offerings at the edge of New York City. I didn’t know what it was called, this small, dun-and-white bird running the flats like a wind-up toy, stopping to peck mud and racing to join another bird like itself, and then more. Soon a flock formed, several hundred fast-trotting feeders that at some secret signal took flight, wheeling with the flashing synchronisation that researchers observing starlings have mathematically likened to avalanche formation and liquids turning to gas.
Entranced, I spent the afternoon watching them. The birds were too wary to approach, but if I stayed in one spot they would eventually come to me. They followed the tideline, retreating when waves arrived, and rushing forward as they receded, a strangely affecting parade. When they came very close, their soft, peeping vocalisations enveloped me. That night I looked at photographs I’d taken, marvelling as the birds’ beauty emerged from stillness and enlargement, each tiny feather on their backs a masterpiece of browns. I looked up their scientific classification, Calidris pusilla, conversationally known as the semipalmated sandpiper — a name derived from a combination of their piping signal calls and the partially webbed feet that keep them from sinking in the tidal sand flats of their habitat, where they eat molluscs, insect larvae and diatom algae growing in shallow, sun-heated seawater.
I learned that semipalmated sandpipers are the most common shorebird in North America, with an estimated population around 1.9 million. My copy of Lives of North American Birds (1996) described them as ‘small and plain in appearance’, which seemed unappreciative, especially in light of their migratory habits. Small enough to fit in my hand, they breed in the Arctic and winter on South America’s northern coasts, flying several thousand miles each spring and fall, stopping just once or twice. The flock I’d watched was a thread in a string of globe-encircling energy and life, fragile yet ancient, linking my afternoon to Suriname and the tundra. At that fact, I felt the sense of wonder and connection that all migratory birds inspire. Yet not once did I wonder what they thought and felt along the way. How did they experience their own lives, not just as members of a species, but as individuals? [Continue reading…]