How a little bird's big flight gave me a new reason for living

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'Andrew, you have an incurable disease,' the respiratory physician told me, as he showed the scan to me and my wife, Sally. 'Statistically, you have 12 to 18 months,' he said. 'But no one is a statistic. Andrew, can you hear me? Can you hear me?'

Shorebirds migrating to their Arctic breeding grounds from southern Australia converge to their critical halt in the Yellow Sea with birds flowing in from a flyway that stretches between India and the Philippines. They are like iron filings, all drawn to the magnet of abundant food.

CYA turns north-east over the taiga near the Sea of Okhotsk. Flying on for several days, she crosses CYB’s path as their flocks thread the 3000-metre Verkhoyansk and Chersky mountain ranges, ramparts of the Russian Far East. The birds of a hot Australian summer coast now overfly unmelted snow cover on these mountains for hundreds of kilometres.

Across Kolyma Gulf at Ambarchik stands a ghostly relic of the 20th century. In the aeons of migratory bird history it is a mere wing flick, a transient curiosity. It’s the decaying remains of a Soviet Gulag-era forced labour transit camp, a coastal port for prisoners before they were transported inland up the Kolyma.

Perhaps the summer air signal back on the Siberian shore was decisive. Maybe the birds have the confidence of evolution, of countless failures before success, implying an ingrained genetic judgement. Or are they programmed to dice with survival? In any case, this tracked journey is the first direct evidence of any bird from Australia ever flying to Wrangel, and powerfully shows the breakthrough that satellite telemetry gives to migratory bird science.


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