Flight Lines: the heroic story of two migratory shorebirds – and the man who followed them

Andrew Stafford

Nearly 20 years ago, in pursuit of a different sort of life, I spent six months commuting between Brisbane and Robbins Island, a remote chunk of privately owned land just off the far north-west coast of Tasmania. My job at the time was identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed windfarm.

The uninhabited island is a tough place to get around, accessible only by four-wheel-drive across the mudflats, at low tide. But its wild west coast is a haven for many thousands of migratory shorebirds, around 25 species of which perform marathon, nearly non-stop flights from the Siberian tundra, where they breed, all the way to Australia and back, every year.

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Going through my notes from December 2002, a few numbers jump out: over 600 curlew sandpipers; 100 great knots; 180 grey plovers; more than 3,000 red-necked stints. One month later, these birds were joined by over 240 bar-tailed godwits. The numbers were impressive, but fairly typical at the time.

Now the windfarm proposal is back on, and Andrew Darby – a Hobart-based journalist and the author of a new book, Flight Lines – has been helping survey birds on the island again. In 2015–2016, the curlew sandpiper, great knot and the local subspecies of bar-tailed godwit were all listed as critically endangered. Last year’s counts turned up just one grey plover.

Wind turbines are not the cause of the birds’ decline. The overwhelming threat is habitat destruction, particularly the mudflats of the Yellow Sea in China – a critical layover where the exhausted birds replenish themselves – and around the Australian coastline, including Toondah harbour in south-east Queensland.

It all sounds familiarly grim. And yet Flight Lines, which was written either side of a life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer in 2018, is far from it. In dark times, Darby looked for inspiration in the resilience of shorebirds, in particular the stories of two satellite-tagged female grey plovers named CYA and CYB.

Until recently, Darby was no more interested in birds than the average person and shorebirds existed on the periphery of his consciousness – until he learned about their ultra-marathon travel schedule. “They are the birds ‘out there’, on the edge of the tideline, not really very noticeable creatures, and yet they have such extraordinary lives,” he says.

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He describes the grey plover as the “everybird” of our Siberian migrants: the greyest and drabbest of a group of birds which, in Australia, tend to be grey and drab, moulting into their brighter summer plumage on their breeding grounds. That interested Darby: “In life, there are many surprises to be found among the overlooked,” he writes.

Like Harry Saddler’s surprise hit from 2018, The Eastern Curlew (which follows the journey of another long-distance migrant), Flight Lines takes what appears to be a niche topic and turns it into an immense, heroic and surprisingly uplifting narrative of endurance and survival, with an obvious parallel to his own experience.

But whereas Saddler’s account is intimate and personal, Darby’s book, which was nearly curtailed by his illness, directly engages with, and celebrates, citizen science. The book opens with a tense account of a cannon-netting session at the head of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, that captured CYA and CYB.

Cannon netting, where birds massed on the shoreline are trapped via a net literally launched from a cannon, is a contentious method of study in some quarters. The hard truth is that birds, occasionally, are killed. But it has also greatly advanced our knowledge of shorebird movements and their conservation requirements.

Satellite tracking enabled close observation of the challenges CYA and CYB faced; CYB, for example, had to contend with a super-typhoon as she flew back to the Yellow Sea after breeding. Not surprisingly, Darby says, “I became very fond of them” and it was in science, as well as the pluck of the plovers, that he drew hope for himself.

There’s some lesson in that, particularly as science is being pilloried and politicised as never before. But there’s no politicising a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy, still a relatively new field, has Darby in better shape – though he says it would be wrong to say he’s cured. “Oncologists are learning about it as we go. It’s a new journey for all of us.”

The link to shorebirds, he says, is in the simple grunt work of gathering data. “It’s all about doing science for science’s sake – they didn’t start off looking for immunotherapy as an answer to cancer when they were investigating how it worked with the immune system; they were just looking at the immune system,” he says.

Similarly, he says, tracking shorebird migration didn’t begin with a particular goal in mind. The pioneer of shorebird study in Australia, the late Clive Minton, told Darby “we do it to answer a question, and that leads on to the next question”.

But the questions Minton asked helped provide the data pointing to the alarming decline of shorebirds worldwide.

That’s led in turn to some more hopeful outcomes. Last year, the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China was placed on the Unesco world heritage register, specifically aimed at protecting migratory shorebirds such as the tiny, charismatic and critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.

The spoon-billed sandpiper doesn’t occur in Australia, but it’s considered a flagship species, so inherently appealing that by saving it we might save much more besides. Listening to Darby describing his own encounter with one, it’s clear why: “It was like this cute little wind-up bird, I was sure he was going to fall over and [I was going] to see the key in his tummy.”

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After a summer in which so much of our own wildlife has been obliterated by fire, he has retained his optimism. “The capacity of these birds to persist is what I found astonishing, and to someone who lives a precarious life with cancer, like me, it’s a lesson. You know, I will come and go – these birds will roll on.”

• Flight Lines by Andrew Darby is out now through Allen and Unwin

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