A Fine Example

The Semipalmated Sandpipers have departed the Bay of Fundy. They have gone and there are none left as I write this in late October, but before they left, they entertained the sea-goers and birdwatchers with their finely choregraphed flight. The sandpipers are the elite of all airshows, in flocks as large as 200,000 birds, swooping and diving, banking left and right without a single collision. It appears effortless, as if they met in private, in the dark of night to rehearse the pattern of their intended flash mob. It really is quite a sight.

This variety of sandpiper is sparrow-sized, weighing about the same as a large strawberry at twenty grams, who visit the upper Bay of Fundy on their way from summer nesting grounds in the Canadian sub-Arctic, heading to South America where they will spend the winter. The “semipalmated” part of their name refers to partially webbed feet.  They are only one of twelve species of shorebirds that visit the Fundy area, but 75% of those visiting birds are the semipalmated sandpiper. They have been a protected species since 1916. Two million of these birds, making up roughly 75% of the world’s population, dazzle Fundy onlookers on the birds’ last stop before they head out over the ocean.

The mud flats exposed at Fundy’s low tide is an all-you-can-eat-buffet for these little birds. They double their weight while feeding on Fundy shores to provide enough energy for their long flight. A square meter of mud may contain 60,000 mud shrimp, though that number is the extreme and the norm would be 10-20,000. The birds’ success at crossing the ocean to winter grounds is dependent upon the health and availability of mud shrimp and other creatures that dwell in the thick red mud.  

As they ready to depart, they engage in their maneuvers and it makes me think they have organized a pep rally, the leaders shouting for everyone to get off the ground. Having doubled their weight during their Fundy stay makes getting off the ground a challenge, but once airborne and in the mindset to go, they fly non-stop from Fundy to the Northeast coast of South America, completing the journey in seventy-two hours while attaining speeds, with the help of a tail wind, of 90 km/h.

Such feats and such certainty remind me of the wisdom of nature and how it works in a fine balance of cooperation, like an intricate design that fits together so precisely that the edges cannot be discerned, the picture complete and flawless when all its pieces fit together. But then we humans come along and disrupt so many of these fine balances in our ignorance and being blissfully unaware. Even in our enjoyment of the spectacle of these tiny shorebirds, so many onlookers will walk among them to scare them up to see them fly in their huge flocks of precision. But in doing so, we interrupt their feeding and if they don’t take on adequate nourishment, they will not succeed in their long flight to escape winter. We are curious but often without thought as to how our curiosity disturbs the fine balance of nature.

I wish it was readily visible to our eye the role we play and can play in keeping balance around us. Our addiction to consumerism does nothing to keep the balance for a healthy planet. We are all guilty. When I am feeling closed in and restless, I willingly drive my car for no real need other than perhaps to add to my inventory of pencils and paper, or in the infinite search for the perfect pen, while telling myself it is what I need. No truth exists in that endeavour.

I heard on the radio the other day a young woman talking about the growing movement for fixing rather than replacing, how some young people flock to second-hand stores in search of what they need and are patient instead of requiring an immediate solution. It’s a bit like the wee sandpiper vacuuming up mud shrimp before they start the next leg of their journey. I remember on a visit to Cuba years ago and witnessing how they fix absolutely everything. They have no access to new and shiny, but instead engage in the wonderful task of repair, repurposing, reusing. The Cubans I witnessed worked together, sharing tools and ideas and suggestions. There are manufacturers who build redundance right into their product. Quebec is taking a stand on combating such unacceptable production measures.

How does this all relate to the tiny sandpiper? Perhaps it doesn’t, but as I watched them fly in their amazing patterns, I couldn’t help thinking, as a brain equipped with ADD tends to do, of all the ways we humans fall short in creating such beauty, our individual needs being the greater than those of our neighbours.