Ecology Watch: Harry Saddler, the Eastern Curlew, and Mudflats

Far_Eastern_Curlew_cairns_RWD2(Photo from wikipedia)

Recently, I posted a blog entry that was basically about the ways we look past the natural world, past the terrain that’s all around us, and want it to reveal fantastical marvels that it itself contains if we only stop looking elsewhere. From the response to that piece, I’ve decided to periodically post “Ecology Watch” entries, incorporating or sharing information and comments from people I come into contact with who care about the environment–whether professional or amateurs.

One such is Harry Saddler, whose comment on my prior post is shared below, along with some information from email correspondence. Thanks to the writer James Bradley for making me aware of Saddler.

Saddler’s working on a book about the Eastern Curlew–you can read the first chapter here. The book will primarily be available in Australia, when finished, but I’m hopeful it’ll find wider distribution, given the richness and usefulness of even the first chapter.

Such specific documentation and writing about a species is very important as more and more of our biodiversity becomes threatened. It’s also important for clarity on the entire life cycle of an organism, and in the case of birds what migration patterns mean to species survival–specifically, what happens when safe spots wind up being destroyed by human intervention. – Jeff V


Saddler on Not Giving Up

Just last week I was chatting to a bookseller in Melbourne, formerly a biologist, who was forthright in his opinion that we should just abandon some species. Spoon-billed sandpiper? It’s a goner. Orange-bellied parrot? Hopeless case. Put the resources being spent on such species towards more viable conservation projects, he said. While I can see the rationale behind such thinking, and though it’s invariably presented as hard-nosed pragmatism (when it’s actually despair), what I’ve seen again and again – not just in researching my book, but in all my years of watching the natural world – is that nature will take what we give it. Red-billed choughs went locally extinct in Cornwall during that county’s tin mining boom – and then re-introduced themselves 15 years ago. They now nest in the remains of the old mines. Some of the best places to see migratory shorebirds in the vicinity of Melbourne, where I live, are old salt works – and the single best location is the Western Treatment Plant, which is still the city’s major sewerage processing facility. Just two days ago I was at Yalujiang Nature Reserve, which is one of the key staging points for shorebird migration in the Yellow Sea – and the land immediately adjacent to it is almost entirely agricultural.

I’m not trying to say by these examples that everything’s fine and people are worried about nothing, far from it. We are deep into an ecological calamity of our own making which we can barely even begin to understand. But at least some of the world we’re destroying is recoverable, if we make the effort to give it space to recover. Life wants to persist, that’s the single fundamental fact of the natural world. The whole thing exists because life wants to persist. So that begs the question: do we also want life to persist? I wish I could say that the answer to that was a clear and resounding Yes!, because it seems like that should be the obvious and automatic answer, but I know that when I think that way I’m thinking from within my own bias. Yalujiang when I was there was full of tourists, but none of them seemed to be particularly interested in the birds which is the reserve’s entire reason for existence. It was a very strange scene and I’m still trying to make sense of it. But for now I know at least one thing for sure, and it’s that I’d rather have a world in which we do everything we can to save the spoon-billed sandpiper than a world in which we throw up our hands and declare that there’s no point trying to change our ways.

Saddler on His Current Visit to South Korea

I’m in South Korea now, on the island of Ganghwa which studies have indicated is the second most important staging area for eastern curlews in the Yellow Sea after Yalujiang. I went for a long walk (over 20 kilometres) around the southern shoreline yesterday and saw numerous curlews, and I was particularly delighted when at one point a flock of fifteen of them flew across the mudflats and landed in front of me. I was excited because it was the largest number of eastern curlews I’ve ever seen at once – but almost immediately I had to curb my excitement, because there are historical eye-witness accounts from near Melbourne of flocks of hundreds or even thousands of eastern curlews, and that’s at the southern terminus of their migration when they’re dispersed all around the Australian coastline. Populations of some shorebird species in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are declining by as much as 8% a year – including the eastern curlew, which is endemic to this Flyway. Next week I’m travelling to Saemangeum, which used to be the single most important site for migratory shorebirds in the Yellow Sea – until it was sealed off and destroyed by a 33-kilometre-long seawall built by the South Korean government.

I’ve only been in South Korea for a few days but it’s notable that there is not a single vista that is not dominated by signs of human habitation. The mudflats in the Yellow Sea have to be seen to be believed – the mud is metres thick and extend for kilometres offshore. The processes that created them, through sediment deposits from the Yalu River and other rivers in China and through annual dust-storms, have been going on for millions of years – but all it takes is a few years of human construction to destroy them. We really need to make people care about mudflats, because as ecosystems go they’re as rich and as productive as any ocean or rainforest – but mud and crabs and worms and drab brown birds just aren’t sexy. I really believe that if more people knew about the lifecycle of migratory shorebirds, and the role that mudflats play in sustaining that lifecycle, more people would start to care. I’m astonished that migratory shorebirds aren’t one of the most famous and celebrated groups of birds in the world. But the history of conservation is dotted with examples of previously obscure animals gaining mass popularity and cultural awareness (the “Easter bilby” campaign in Australia is one example that springs immediately to mind) so change is possible. If I didn’t believe that I think I’d have to just give up!

IMG_7690(Mudflats: not sexy, but incredibly important ecosystems. Photo by Saddler, South Korea.)

2 comments on “Ecology Watch: Harry Saddler, the Eastern Curlew, and Mudflats

  1. Nature surely is strange and erotic, in the sense of drawing us in, though I suppose it requires sustained attention. Maybe such attention would reveal, without making explicit, everything we need to know . . . and the first problem with technology is that it competes with nature for our attention.
    (P. S. These mudflats may not be “sexy,” but they’re quite sexy, no?)

  2. Jane Rawson says:

    Great initiative, Jeff; I will read with interest.

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