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Stitching the Pieces Together, One Wing at a Time

by Scott Weidensaul
Heart of Winter 2003

Despite interstates and jet travel, bullet trains and space shuttles, we remain a species awed by distance. Perhaps that's why we find so remarkable the idea of migration – the realization that wild creatures vault the globe on muscle power and instinct, and render distance itself nearly meaningless.

For migratory birds, travel is a nearly continuous state, and the miles that unreel behind them stagger us – all the more so when the traveler is just a wisp of a thing like the white-rumped sandpiper, a bird weighing barely an ounce and a half that makes one of the longest migrations in the Western Hemisphere.

Each year, tens of thousands of these small, sandy-brown shorebirds trade between the highest latitudes of Arctic Canada and Alaska's North Slope, where they breed, and the southernmost tip of South America. The simple fact that a tiny bird will travel 18,000 miles in a single year is remarkable enough, but the white-rumped sandpiper accomplishes this feat in a handful of nonstop leaps that each span thousands of miles.

From the Arctic the birds gather along the Canadian Maritime coast, then fly 3,000 miles down the western Atlantic to the northeastern coast of South America, to Venezuela and its smaller neighbors – a transit of three or four days, flying in the oxygen-poor air 15,000 feet up. From here they continue to push south across the Amazon Basin to the vast tidal flats of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, where for several months they enjoy the long days and abundant food of the austral summer.

A few months later, though, the shortening days of a waning summer prod the sandpipers into the air again. They leapfrog first to southern Brazil, where they feed voraciously on tiny invertebrates and lay on great stores of fat - filling their tanks, as it were, for the ordeal ahead. Several days of continuous flight carry them across the wide bulge of the continent. They quickly refuel on the coast of Venezuela or Surinam, then cross the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to the Great Plains, again without pausing along the way to feed, drink or rest. Finally, from their staging grounds on the fecund prairie marshes of Kansas, they make one last, 2,000-mile surge north, returning to the Arctic in late May while the tundra is still a frigid patchwork of snow and ice.

I can think of no more perfect symbol of the interconnectedness of wildlands across the Western Hemisphere – and the pressing need to bind up that fraying patchwork–than this small sandpiper. Each year by its movements, it ties together the lagoons of Tierra del Fuego with the shortgrass prairies of the Buffalo Commons, the cold, damp tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the steamy, mangrove-lined coast of Surinam. Like all migrants, shifting across the globe like the seasons themselves, they are the very definition of connection.

About the Author
Naturalist Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. His latest book, The Ghost with Trembling Wings, is about the search for species that may or may not be extinct.