First we – or at least our ‘sportsmen’ – shot most of the migrating shorebirds along the US east coast.
They are mostly small birds, but they are famous for their annual, energetically costly flights between Arctic feeding and breeding grounds in the northern summer to coastal mudflats in far southern latitudes in the southern summer, sometimes 9000 km or more away. Two of the major flyways they use as they migrate follow the eastern coasts of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.
They need to stop on occasion on these flights to feed on the coastal mudflats and sandy shores of eastern North America and of the Yellow Sea on the coast of China, and some of these areas attract – or used to attract – vast numbers of the migrants.
And that’s the problem.
In the 1800s, and lasting until the early 1900s, ‘sportsmen’ gathered at the extensive mud flats and sandy shores along the US east coast during migration season where the migrating birds gathered to feed, and they shot them by the many thousands, year after year, until not many were left, and the hunt was finally terminated, as usual far too late.
Cleveland Bent, a famous ornithologist of the turn of the century (he lived from 1866 to 1950), wrote Life Histories of American Shorebirds, filled with fascinating detail you don’t see in modern field guides. He also shot a lot the birds he wrote about, and then lamented their decline.
He wrote that the birds were “like a huge cloud of thick smoke, a very grand and interesting appearance. As the showers of their compatriots fell, the whole flock took flight, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction”.
And: “Those were glorious days we used to spend on Cape Cod in the good old days. There were shorebirds to shoot, and we were allowed to shoot them. It is a pity that the delightful days of bay-bird shooting had to be restricted. Ruthless slaughter has squandered our previous wealth of wildlife.”
Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, Yellow Legs, Dowitchers , Wilson’s Snipes – the list goes on and on. Shorebirds were hunted close to extinction, some for meat but mainly for sport. Not unlike Passenger Pigeons and American Buffalo of the same era.
Yet only limited recovery of the shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway has since occurred.
Having more or less survived the hunt, migrating shorebirds on the Atlantic Flyway have been further stressed by the loss of coastal wetlands and feeding habitats over the past century. For shorebirds migrating along the coasts of east Asia from Siberia to Australia, following the Australasian Flyway, conditions are becoming far worse.
The problem once again is loss of food-rich coastal staging areas, particularly around the Yellow Sea, to agricultural and industrial development. China’s new Great Wall, sealing off the sea along much of its coastline, is eliminating most of the remaining mudflats, and eliminating the shorebirds as a result.
So we hunted many species close to extinction. We have damaged or destroyed the coastal wetlands they depend on for food. And now sea levels are rising, faster in many places than remaining coastal wetlands and mudflats can keep up.
A bleak scenario, once again. We could dream of not only agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C but also to recover the coastlines, to back our development away from the wetlands, mudflats and beaches, to eliminate sea walls instead of building them to hide behind, and to free rivers of their dams.
Since all that is not going to happen, let us at least agree to protect the coastal wetlands not just for the absorbing barrier they provide us against encroaching seas, but also for the food they supply for the migrants in critical areas like Delaware Bay and the Yellow Sea.
And let’s try, if we can, to slow the rising of the seas.