National Geographic : 2018 Mar
42 national geographic • march 2018 The tide was coming in, submerging the mud- flats where the birds had been feeding, sticking their long bills into the soft earth to dig up worms and crabs. As the water advanced, they stopped foraging and waded ashore, inelegantly carrying their plump, butterball bodies on stilt-like legs. A bit homely and ungainly, with drab plumage, godwits appear quite ordinary. As the sky turned orange, they settled down to roost. Resting for hours on end, they can seem rather sedentary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Six months earlier, these birds had made an epic journey to get here, flying all the way from Alas- ka. Astonishingly, they didn’t stop along the way. For eight or nine days straight, they flew, beating their wings the entire way: about 7,000 miles, more than a quarter of the way around the world. When the godwits arrived, they were bedrag- gled and emaciated. They had fattened up now for As the sun was setting over the Firth of Thames in New Zealand, dozens of bar-tailed godwits shuffled about lazily on the edge of the bay, the wind fluffing their feathers. their migration back to Alaska, where they breed during the summer. They were going to fly about 6,000 miles, to the Yellow Sea. There they would spend about six weeks along a coastline split be- tween China, North Korea, and South Korea, feed- ing and resting before flying 4,000 more miles. Bar-tailed godwits have made this migration for thousands of years, but a clear picture of their travels has emerged only in the past few decades. Although migrations by birds have been a source of wonder for centuries, new scientific findings are helping to demystify them while adding to our appreciation of these incredible feats. At the same time, scientists are discovering how human activity and climate change are disrupting and possibly imperiling these ancient journeys. The disappearance of godwits from New Zea- land during the months when they breed led the Maori to view godwits—which they call kuaka— as birds of mystery. The sentiment is reflected in a Maori saying about the unobtainable: “Who has ever held the egg of the kuaka?” By the 1970s BY YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN WILKES CELEBRATING THE YEAR OF THE BIRD n Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helped fund this project.