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