‘The Eastern Curlew’ by Harry Saddler


2018,  212 p.

What’s the life of a shorebird like? What’s it like to live a life of contact activity, when even your moments of rest are full of wakefulness? To gorge yourself on food twice yearly, and become obese, and burn all that fat off, year after year? To fly wing-to-wing with dozens or hundreds or thousands of your fellow creatures, for days at a time? To find upon your arrival, starving and exhausted, that your feeding grounds have been destroyed? (p. 203)

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an ABC Background Briefing podcast called The Bird and the Businessman. It’s about Toondah Harbour outside Brisbane, where developer Lang Walker wants to build a residential enclave. It’s situated within Ramsar-listed wetlands, but money is talking here. It’s also one of the feeding grounds for the Eastern Curlew, one of the migratory shorebirds that travels each year from Australia to China and Korea to the Arctic to breed, and then flies back again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a program that made me so angry: listen to it.


Panthus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Curlew is written by a keen birdwatcher, who traces the path of the Eastern Curlew, much as Ann Jones did in her excellent OffTrack series of programs Flying for Your Life.

The book is divided into three sections: Seeing, Moving, Being. The first section, Seeing traces his own growing awareness and fascination with the curlew, then moves on to the misnaming of the Eastern Curlew as Numenius madagascariensis, even though it doesn’t go anywhere near Madagascar.  The chapter ‘The Sea Curlew’ celebrates the indigenous response to curlews, particularly around Roebuck Bay near Broome, where they congregate before heading off to Asia.

Part II, Moving, starts with a chapter about bird tracking. The author then takes us to Dandong, China which he has mistaken as his destination instead of the similarly-sounding Donggang. It is a critical ecosystem for curlews: it is also one of China’s major ports. Netting, channelling, draining and road and seawall construction are all threatening the location. After leaving China, he goes to the mudflats of Ganghwa and the developing city of Gunsan, where the South Korean Government hopes to build a ‘dream hub’, surrounded by the 33-kilometre long Saemangeum seawall. Although the Korean government spouts their environmentally-friendly construction practices, all is not as it seems.

In attempting to justify the intentional destruction of the tidal mudflats at Saemangeum, the South Korean government stated that the birds would simply fly elsewhere. But the birds were never going to relocate. One of the reasons there are so many species of shorebird in the world is that each species has adapted to take advantage of a subtly different niche within tidal mudflasts. Different rivers, flowing to the sea through different geologies, create a wide variety of mudflat ecologies- and, as in any environment, variety in mudflat habitat leads to variety in the species found in that habitat. (p. 151)

Part III, Being, takes us to the Arctic and Lemmenjoki National Park in Finland, and the frantic mating and hatching before the birds leave for the Southern Hemisphere again. The chicks are left to fend for themselves. Then, we head back to the local wetlands in Cheetham in Victoria, where again developers are circling. The final chapter takes us to the Melbourne museum where he inspects the collection of curlew carcasses, collected mainly in 1990 at the Werribee Sewerage Treatment Plant, including object B.17906, a female which was collected nearly forty years earlier. As he closes the drawer,

…it occurs to me that the drawer contains the densest concentration of eastern curlews that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. (p. 198)

This is a beautifully written book. The proof-reader seemed to go a.w.o.l. for a couple of pages, and it jarred so painfully because the rest of the book is so careful and lyrical. The book meanders and goes off onto tangents, but what comes through clearly is the love of watching, the sorrow and anguish at our impotence against larger economic forces, and the feeble beating of a spark of hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

When it comes to the conservation of migratory shorebirds, moments of hope are too few and too far between. Yet the very exuberance of these birds’ life cycle, the unfathomable vastness of their exertions, itself is a kind of hope: there are few animals in the world so full of life. And if there’s one fundamental truth about life, it’s that it wants to persist. If we can give it enough of a chance to do so, it’ll take that chance. (p.207)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

The East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)

BirdLife Australia


One response to “‘The Eastern Curlew’ by Harry Saddler

  1. Our accommodation of predatory land developers – and aren’t they all – shames us and points in only one direction, developer “donations” to politicians.

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