Imagine dusk on the 19th of September, darkness settling over the tundra somewhere in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. The sky here is immense. The waning crescent moon hovers near the horizon in the north. The wind comes from the north too, and temperatures are falling well below freezing.
Here on the tundra, High Arctic relatives of familiar temperate plants like daisies, willows, and rhododendrons survive by miniaturizing themselves to the extreme among the grasses and the sedges and the lichens, a colorful ecosystem just inches tall in June and July when Savannah Sparrows sing. Arctic foxes, Snowy Owls, and Long-tailed Jaegers hunt small birds and mammals; caribou and muskox herd. Mosquitos rule over all.
But snow is coming, and deep, deep darkness, so in this dusk, a pale brown bird close in size to a European Starling leaps from the ground, beating its wings with powerful pectoral contractions and climbing into the frigid sky.
As Earth’s North Pole leans farther away from the sun, billions of birds stream south, seeking the sun’s continued blessings, like torrents of multi-colored glass beads tumbling down the surface of a sphere that’s been tipped over; of course though, it’s not gravity pulling the birds along, but their own muscles and genes and brains.
So we follow this one bird among billions: It will speed across the Northwest Passages, across small human outposts and once-endless wilderness where gray wolves still roam until the spindly, bristly spruce trees start poking out of the tundra, slightly farther north each year. It will fly through the night and into the morning. It will cross the vast sweet-scented coniferous boreal forest belt where Canada Jays and red squirrels are caching food against the looming winter.
Our bird will keep flying, into a second night, past the Great Lakes, over the maple, beech, birch, and hemlock forests of the northeastern United States and finally toward a blinding galaxy of lights at the edge of the sea, where, somehow, it will find an expanse of clipped green grass and come to rest at last.
It has traveled more than 2,400 miles in a single flight. Now, on Randalls Island, nestled between Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, within sight of frenetic LaGuardia Airport and shameful Rikers Island, this Buff-breasted Sandpiper will be discovered on September 21st by a New York City birder named Junko Suzuki—a discovery that will set off events that this bird will witness in part but which it will not comprehend.
This is the first Buff-breasted Sandpiper ever recorded from New York County, New York, which means the apps and the social networks and the mobile phones light up all at once: BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER ON RANDALLS ISLAND, FIELD 42.
I entered the sandpiper’s presence near 6 p.m. after an itchy day of watching rare bird alerts from the office. (How many times?) Lacking wings, I hiked through Hell’s Kitchen, waited for the E train, waited for the 6 train, and crossed the East River via pedestrian bridge.
I despaired as I arrived: After-school ball games had turned the island’s northeast quadrant into a shrieking, striving, joyful tumult of activity—surely, the bird had fled?
No, it had not. Long camera lenses make good semaphores on rare bird hunts, and they steered me to the spot.
The bird is beautiful in the way that prairies are beautiful in late autumn and marshes are beautiful in early spring: exquisite tangles of deep shadows, straw and white-blond fringes, speckles and scallops, and smooth tawny tans. Its breast is wide—the better to power its flight—and its head small, dove-like. The long primary wing feathers that create lift as it flies are crossed primly, sticking out beyond its tail. Yellow-gold legs stay in constant motion across the dark green fescue as the bird gobbles protein-packed invertebrates relentlessly, there, a giant crane fly.
What none of us, 8 or 10 gathered now, dozens more throughout the day, can quite believe is just how closely this free child of the Arctic is willing to approach us. We are sitting on the grass, lying down sometimes, and the bird comes toward us head on as it hunts, running within just feet of us, we and it of completely different worlds, but lucky enough to share this moment in time and space.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers fly more than 20,000 miles each year to mate and lay their eggs on the northernmost fringes of the North American continent above the Arctic Circle: on Canadian tundra and on Alaska’s North Slope. A few even cross the Bering Sea to breed in Siberia, like Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Sandhill Cranes, American members of a summertime trans-Beringian exchange of breeding birds between the two hemispheres (Arctic Warblers and Bluethroats in Alaska are among the Eurasian participants in this swap).
Most Buff-breasted Sandpipers migrate south the same way they came north, through the Great Plains, but a few come down the East Coast each autumn too, bound for wintering grounds primarily in the coastal grasslands of Uruguay and neighboring parts of Argentina and Brazil.
A 2016 study showed that Buffies can make nonstop flights of at least 5 days and several thousand miles, but only three individual birds were tracked in that study, none of which went to Siberia or New York, leaving much of their lives still open to study and conjecture.
Any attempt to interpret the Manhattan bird’s personal history, then, will be informed speculation. Did it come from as far as Eurasia, instead of the relatively closer Canadian High Arctic? Did it land in New York after a nonstop flight from some Arctic point of origin as we imagined a few moments ago? Or did it spend three days refueling in Nova Scotia or the Finger Lakes on its way to us?
I returned to the bird as evening fell and birders came and went. Athletes emptied out of the fields, too. The breeze was erratic, clammy, cool. The sun set before 7:00 p.m., which caught me by surprise, but the autumn equinox would be the next day, and the year is quickly aging.
I thought I might see the bird take off into the evening sky, headed south and away. It kept feeding for another 35 minutes as I watched. A lackluster sunset receded in the west, and a Killdeer flew in, shouting. Just as it got too dark for me to see, the sandpiper settled into a grassy spot and began to preen its feathers with its bill.
This bird is a survivor from a long lineage of survivors. The entire world population of Buff-breasted Sandpipers is a few tens of thousands at most, reduced from hundreds of thousands or even more just 150 years ago. They were severely over-hunted like many other North American birds in the late 1800s and early 1900s before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and although they escaped the Passenger Pigeon’s fate, their populations have never recovered to anywhere near their historic levels, apparently due to habitat loss in the Great Plains and South America.
But for all the troubles human beings have caused these birds (including, now, a warming Arctic), they depend on our activities today as well: The short-grass habitats they require during much of their lives are maintained in North America largely through agricultural activities, sod farming, and expanses of turf for human recreation. In South America, cattle grazing regimes maintain open wintering habitat for the Buffies, and so, we are all intertwined.
The Randalls Island bird did not depart the night I sat with it; it stayed for two more days through thunderstorms and a first-day-of-fall cold front, packing on fat for the next leg of its journey and delighting many more birders who had never before seen a member of its species, or at least had never seen one here. The night it disappeared, strong north winds offered good conditions for departure. Birds wisely maximize the physics of their flights by waiting for the right winds. Mary Poppins birds.
If it made out of New York City safely, the bird might have gone all the way to northern South America in a single flight, or it might have stopped on a golf course in the Caribbean or a coastal pasture in Texas. Once it reaches South America, it will rely on the wetlands and savannas of the Orinoco and Amazon basins—also home to jaguars, macaws, caimans, and tapirs—stopping for two or three weeks each at different sites in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia before finally flying on to its winter destination, where it will spend 3-4 months in—we can only hope—peace and prosperity.
Next April, something ancient will begin to stir in its body, and it will turn to the north again.