13 August 2013


I knew the fact — how a bird that weighs only about the same as a can of beer flies further without stopping than any other bird (about 11,000 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand). I knew them since my childhood and adolescence, knew them where I grew up next to the Avon-Heathcote estuary in Christchurch. Decades later I’d seen them at Foxton, helped sample the mudflats for the food that sustained them on those tremendous flights. I'd even written about them. But I’d never seen them take to the air and leave on the 9000 kilometre flight to the Yellow Sea and eventually back to Alaska. Then, on the last weekend of March this year I finally saw seven bar-tailed godwits rise into the evening and fly fast away from Foxton, the small flock sticking together as if supporting each other, their silhouettes diminishing until even through the binoculars they became little more than dark dots in a pale sky. Then nothing.

Only then did I understand what this meant — the enormity of it, the astonishing accomplishment, the sheer incomprehensibility of what it means to suddenly take to the air and set off on a non-stop flight over the ocean to a place 9000 km away. The usual explanations for why they fly in small groups rather than singly — drafting, like cyclists in a race, or perhaps some kind of wisdom of the flock that ensures any error in navigation will be corrected by the other birds — seemed secondary, even unimportant. The real reason godwits fly in small flocks, I understood, must surely be because flying alone on a journey like that is just too scary.

That’s almost certainly rubbish, of course. In all likelihood, godwits just leave because they feel compelled: some urge gets too strong, one bird takes flight and that’s the trigger; everyone in the group goes too, possibly with a sense of relief and some vague feeling that this is what they need to be doing right now — flying in a certain direction with no intention of landing until some other urge tells them this is the place to land.

For me, though, the sight of those small birds speeding through the sky, getting smaller, seemed inconsolably lonely, like watching a plane carry away a loved one on a journey with no return date. Perhaps the feeling’s universal, or maybe it runs in the family: my mother eventually couldn’t wait around at airports — it’s always hardest for the person left behind, she said, and she was right. The traveller looks ahead at least as much as he looks back, but those who farewell the traveller are denied the consolation of that distraction; for them, the absence is paramount.

So I watched through the binoculars until I lost sight of the small silhouettes heading away, and if I’d had wings I’d have flown after them, not knowing whether I was flying away from a known life or towards the exquisite promise of something unknown. What we know can be a joy, but the unknown will always offer that additional hope: the possibility of what might be.

I have an image in my mind, an image of small birds speeding over the deep ocean, far out there in the darkness, passing over the occasional lights of a ship, weaving between clouds, light from the waning gibbous moon on their wings.

Fare well, my friends.

Photograph: Flight over the Himalaya, 2007
Photographs and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Maybe it's just the thrill of the flight, an itch to get moving.

Relatively Retiring said...

Every year I try to watch the actual departure of the swallows and martins, and just once I have seen the mass take-off and watched as they soared off into the cloud base.
It's an unbelievable annual event, as moving as the departure of beloved people.

Anonymous said...

What struck me most was this line: "What we know can be a joy, but the unknown will always offer that additional hope: the possibility of what might be. " Beautiful. And leave it to the birds to show us the way. Maureen

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, that sounds like it.

RR, that must have been a remarkable sight, and again at least partly because of the knowledge of what they're undertaking.

Maureen, you're right. Birds can teach us so much if we're willing to learn.

Lisa Emerson said...

Pete, today we were walking by a creek and we heard a huge chattering of birds in a nearby field - it went on for about 10 minutes. The noise was quite overwhelming and we couldn't see who was making it. Then suddenly we heard a sound like a hundred wings fluttering at once, and a host of Canada geese rose overhead, formed into a triangle, and took off to the south. It was remarkable.

And I imagined that all the noise beforehand was them squabbling "You come next to me!" "No, you went with him last time!" Surely nonsense to think such a thing - but what were they communicating to one another?

pohanginapete said...

Lisa, wouldn't it be wonderful to understand what they were saying? Oh, wait — maybe they're commenting on us? Perhaps it's best we don't know ;^)

Glad your migration's going so well.

robin andrea said...

We watch the Sandhill Cranes migrate over our house twice a year-- north and south. We go outside to watch them. They sing or chatter or wail. We don't know. We love their sound, and the way they fly in circles riding unseen currents. Destination like messages written in their cells.

pohanginapete said...

Robin: Ah, cranes! The birds of heaven. I haven't heard the Sandhills, but do remember lying awake in the early morning in my tent in Mongolia, listening to demoiselle cranes flying overhead. Listening to the Sandhills must be an absolute joy.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

i'm a bit late to read this as i have been absent from blogging for a while, but its nice to see your writing, as poetic ase ever.

There's a spot about 10-15 miles from where we live where you can walk through a park that goes right under the flight path of a major airport and if the planes are coming in the right direction it will come straight over your head - not the same kind of flying i know, but your post made me think of that place

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, I guess it's possible to enjoy a walk in that park despite the roar of the planes overhead; perhaps even to enjoy it more because it's a reminder that the qualities of parks (a degree of 'naturalness' or even wildness) can still exist in a world increasingly dominated by our species.

A lot of blogs have gone quiet lately (mine included), but I trust they haven't faded away completely (again, mine included). Is it burn-out? Is it other pressures, like work? Is it a feeling of having nothing left to say, or of feeling unable to say it well enough?