‘Sib Ir’, the sleeping land, as the Tatar people called it, holds in the taiga a rolling blanket of pine, spruce and fir and on a scale only matched on these birds’ flights by the stretches of Australian deserts. Each expanse is nearly desolate of towns and highways. They are natural landscapes, but hostile to shorebirds. Replenished on the rim of the industrialised world, the plover leave that imprint behind and fly into the wild. As they travel, daylight grows longer. Through whatever darkness they encounter, Polaris, the North Star, stands ever higher above them, as do the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Each is a navigation tool they recognise.
CYA turns north-east over the taiga near the Sea of Okhotsk. Flying on for several days, she crosses CYB’s path as their flocks thread the 3000-metre Verkhoyansk and Chersky mountain ranges, ramparts of the Russian Far East. The birds of a hot Australian summer coast now overfly unmelted snow cover on these mountains for hundreds of kilometres. They traverse deciduous larch forests, greening with the spring as the altitude lowers, and then fading away further north before the polar wind’s onslaught into treeless tundra. Dicing now with the thaw, the two birds halt near the coast of the Arctic Sea. Their flight lines, begun in far distant southern Australia, now sing of home.
CYA alights on a mosaic of spongy sphagnum bogs and pools divided by low ridges, inland and south of the Arctic Sea’s New Siberian Islands. The closest human habitation is the small village of Yukagir, 100 kilometres to the north-east on the frozen shore of the Laptev Sea.
The Yukaghir people, ancient Indigenous hunters and reindeer herders of the Kolyma River region, are animists. In their world, “persons” can take a variety of different animal forms, of which a human being is only one.
Now much reduced, the Yukaghir once lived across lowland tundra and into the forests across thousands of kilometres from the Lena River to the Pacific coast. Those still living traditionally hunt birds like the hen-sized ptarmigan, ducks, geese and swans. Probably the greater danger to the shorebirds lies in Yukaghir reindeer herds. Browsing the tundra moss, these may step on nests and will relish a snack of an egg or unfledged chick.
CYB, having taken a more easterly bearing after crossing the mountains, first comes to ground inland and south of CYA. After a pause, CYB flies off to low-shrub moss tundra near the mouth of the Kolyma River, which drains most of eastern Siberia.
Across Kolyma Gulf at Ambarchik stands a ghostly relic of the 20th century. In the aeons of migratory bird history it is a mere wing flick, a transient curiosity. It’s the decaying remains of a Soviet Gulag-era forced labour transit camp, a coastal port for prisoners before they were transported inland up the Kolyma. Today there’s an automatic meteorological station at Ambarchik and its records show that a day or two after CYB lands, warm air from the south brings a sunny 22 degrees Celsius day, doubling the temperatures of the previous week.
The two Greys, depleted though they must be, do not stay to nest on this coast. A westerly wind blows up and as the enthralled Australian researchers watch the satellite tracks, first CYA and then, about a day later, CYB take flight again. They head out over hundreds of kilometres of Arctic Ocean ice to the unpeopled last home of the extinct Woolly Mammoth. Wrangel Island is their final destination.
So these two Grey Plover are birds of extreme shores. Their paths have been parallel, and each stretches from exactly the same place in the far south of Australia to its counterpart far north in the Arctic. Just as there is the Southern Ocean below South Australia, there is no land between Wrangel and the North Pole. In this way does the web of ultra-marathon shorebird travel bind us.
For CYA, the long jump from the Yellow Sea across Russia has been a sapping 6140 kilometres. CYB hints that she is more efficient, with a more conservative 4835-kilometre flight. Satellite fixes of these dates are inexact, but probably each landed around June 5 to 6. After flying separately all that way from the weedy shores of Thompson Beach, which they left months before, the two birds likely fold their wings at Wrangel within a day of each other.
To my greater amazement, only a few days earlier the island is released from the grip of snow. NASA Worldview satellite records show the land turning brown. What knowledge can these birds have that their unseen breeding ground, still surrounded by sea ice, will be ready for them?
Perhaps the summer air signal back on the Siberian shore was decisive. Maybe the birds have the confidence of evolution, of countless failures before success, implying an ingrained genetic judgement. Or are they programmed to dice with survival? In any case, this tracked journey is the first direct evidence of any bird from Australia ever flying to Wrangel, and powerfully shows the breakthrough that satellite telemetry gives to migratory bird science.
“This was one of the most memorable days in 40 years of wader migration studies in Australia,” said Clive Minton, the inspiring leader of the Victorian Wader Studies Group for decades before his death late last year.
“Those Grey Plovers in South Australia, they were almost an accident,” Minton reflected. “It was a second-choice bird. But science is like that. You ask a question, you get an answer to it. So you ask another question. If you are flexible and pragmatic, you can read the signs, you know which way to follow.
“And they gave us a wonderful ride. They kept going and stopping, going and stopping, and finally at the northern Siberian coast you think, ‘Right, this is just where many others went.’ Then two or three days later, they tootle off to Wrangel Island! That, of course, is what lit this whole thing up.”
It also lit me up. A journey to a place as distant and as hard to reach as Wrangel spoke for itself. I resolved to try to see it.
I found a small tour company that runs a few voyages to Wrangel late each summer in an icebreaker out of the Chukotkan port of Anadyr. The tour company agreed to give me a berth in return for newspaper travel stories if I could reach Anadyr. I booked to fly via Moscow, where the Russian shorebird science patriarch, Pavel Tomkovich, would see me. The reading of runes from satellite plots and weather data might be overtaken: this way I could have a ground truth at the nest.
About the same time of year that the Grey Plover began their flight from the Yellow Sea to Wrangel, just after I came back from China, I went to my city hospital’s emergency department. The back pain I had put down to travelling on uncomfortable bus seats had intensified to take hold of my chest on the left side. I was cleared of heart attack and began taking antibiotics. Perhaps I might have a respiratory disease picked up in China.
A series of follow-up tests ruled out respiratory problems, and a blood clot, but led to the discovery of a small primary cancer at the top of my right lung. Then a truly terrifying positron emission tomography (PET) scan showed many secondaries. The largest was eating its way into my spine, sending nerve pain around my chest. They collectively shone inside my torso from groin to collarbone like baubles on a spectral Christmas tree. I was at stage four of lung cancer.
“Andrew, you have an incurable disease,” the respiratory physician told me, as he showed the scan to me and my wife, Sally. “Statistically, you have 12 to 18 months,” he said. “But no one is a statistic. Andrew, can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
I descended into a dark winter, falling for months into a haze of mortal pain and painkillers. If there was any time that I needed science to work for me, for hard-won life-giving data to be joined together, this was it.
I kept my sanity, thanks to Sally’s love and the close kindness of many, while science began to answer my call. I thanked my luck to be living in a country of freely available first-class health care; near a city just big enough to have the best, but not so big as to have lost the collegial eye of personal medical networks. I was encouraged by medical friends to break a taboo and went straight to palliative care. Here my pain was managed with scientific diligence, finely balancing my needs with drugs. I anxiously waited for treatment against the cancer.
“Think about your birds,” Sally said. And so for solace I sought them out. Through wakeful, fearful nights, I lay remembering the mesmerising flocks in the Yellow Sea. I reconstructed the flights I had seen; their living freedom. I rewound the ritual of their excited departures from Australia, calling to each other to gain shared strength, as they took off on 7000-kilometre flights north. Further back I went, to recall details of the catches at Thompson Beach, to the stillness in the human hand of the Grey Plover, those most wild, faraway birds.
I held onto my first sight of a Grey Plover, of a Peter Pan bird standing off from others in water near a sand bar at Thompson Beach, South Australia. There was always something in that moment of J.M. Barrie’s story that resonated for me. Peter is a careless, mischievous boy. His power of flight is lost to injury and he stands on Marooners’ Rock as it submerges on a rising tide. With the water lapping around him, he is defiant, ambivalent; but decides: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Then he is rescued by the Never Bird.
I looked to the profound migratory power of my bird, the Grey Plover, to inspire my survival.