Vir­tu­ally as one, the knots all lift from the mud­flat, call­ing out a ral­ly­ing song.

Australian Geographic - - Wild Australia -

ON THE OTHER SIDE of Aus­tralia, in Broome, a dif­fer­ent species of migratory shore­bird – the red knot – is pre­par­ing to mi­grate. Across the mud­flats, the knots stand in a line spread out east to west as if wait­ing for a bus. In­ter­nally though, they are any­thing but calm. Even their or­gans are get­ting ready. Their giz­zard and liver are con­tract­ing, and their heart is be­com­ing larger to deal with the phys­i­cal ex­er­tion to come.

Around them, mud­skip­pers flip along, fid­dler crabs wave their red claws at each other and other shore­birds scram­ble, prob­ing the mud. The red knots stand, legs slightly askew, ac­com­mo­dat­ing their newly formed bird-guts. They will use this creamy-yel­low, en­ergy-rich fat to fuel their flight to the other side of the world. Vir­tu­ally as one, the knots all lift from the mud­flat, call­ing out a ral­ly­ing song. They cir­cle, gain­ing al­ti­tude, and form a wide ech­e­lon.

Chris Has­sell, an ecol­o­gist with the Global Fly­way Net­work, perches on a stool and watches the birds through a tele­scope. “I’m look­ing at a red knot there, which is code three, blue lime/blue blue, 50 per cent breed­ing plumage,” Chris says, not­ing the de­tails on a clip­board. They flow over the red cliffs of Roe­buck Bay, their wings push­ing them slowly higher into the sky.

“I will prob­a­bly see that bird in China,” he says.

WHIMBRELS CIR­CLE IN the air. In the meadow be­low, sur­rounded by feath­ered de­coys, Jin Weiguo sits, his um­brella propped up be­hind him, a cut bam­boo whis­tle in his mouth. Weiguo blows the thumb-sized in­stru­ment, con­trol­ling the sound with his tongue and lips, pro­duc­ing the squeals and trills of shore­birds.

The 57-year-old waits pa­tiently as the birds lose al­ti­tude and touch down gin­gerly. Vi­o­lently, he pulls a thin rope at­tached to a long net.The net sails across the grass like a white wave. Caught by sur­prise, the birds flap and struggle, but can­not es­cape.

Weiguo, once a hunter, is now a trap­per. He learnt to whis­tle from his fa­ther when he was seven and has caught, by his own es­ti­mate, tens of thou­sands of shore­birds in his life­time. He used to sell them for food, or as pets for chil­dren. A piece of string would be tied about their necks and they would be fed rice, Weiguo says.

Now he cap­tures shore­birds on the is­land of Chong­ming, 50km from Shang­hai, so that re­searchers can weigh them, mea­sure them, and tag them. His tran­si­tion from poacher to con­ser­va­tion­ist could be taken to be em­blem­atic of an in­creas­ing con­cern about the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment in China. But the re­serve Weiguo works in sits sur­rounded not by green­ways, but by in­dus­try and deep sea­ports.

Af­ter a pe­riod in hand, the birds are re­leased with their coloured tags. Slightly dazed, they spill into the smog-filled sun­light over the Yangtze River. Hun­gry god­wits, plovers and whimbrels stop here briefly from al­most ev­ery­where along the fly­way: from Myan­mar, In­done­sia, In­dia or Aus­tralia.

The mud­flats here, fed by the Yangtze River, have pro­vided food for birds and lo­cals alike for thou­sands of years.The Yel­low Sea, between China and the Korean Penin­sula, pro­duces 20 per cent of the world’s fish­ery prod­ucts. It sup­ports en­dan­gered fin­less por­poises, Eurasian ot­ters, largha seals, and mil­lions of migratory shore­birds. Or at least, it used to.

One of the largest shore­birds in the world, the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered eastern curlew win­ters in the coastal wet­lands of Aus­tralia.

Global Fly­way Net­work ecol­o­gist Chris Has­sell on mi­gra­tion watch – for species such as the eastern curlew and red knot – at Roe­buck Bay in Broome, WA.

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