Bar-tailed godwits in flight, eye level
Bar-tailed godwits pack on extra fat reserves for the long flight north. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Dam Busters and waders challenge the odds

Watching a recent re-run of the 1950s movie The Dam Busters, I couldn’t help wondering how the current shorebird migration from south to north was going.

Strange, I know, but there is a connection …

Picture, if you will, a flight of Lancaster bombers, lit by a full moon, labouring along at just 20m above the surface of a dam upstream from Nazi Germany’s Ruhr industrial area – flying directly into a hail of deadly flak.

The bravery of those pilots and their crews as they delivered their payload of a single ‘bouncing bomb’ at precisely the right angle and speed to skip across the water, hit the dam wall and drop 10 m below the surface before exploding, was astonishing.

Massive flooding

Two of the dams were destroyed and the subsequent massive flooding down-river killed 1300 people and crippled much of Hitler’s industrial heartland.

For the Dam Busters and the bomb’s determined inventor, Barnes Wallace, their will to succeed against almost impossible odds is the stuff of legend. Fifty-three of the 133 Allied aircrew involved in the mission and eight of their 19 bombers never returned …

Similar odds

Migrating shorebirds that leave the likes of Australia and New Zealand in March/April each year to fly north around 10,000 km to various breeding grounds probably face similar odds of a safe return.

Like the Dam Busters, the godwits, knots, curlews, sandpipers, turnstones etc run the gauntlet – because they have to.

In the film, the bombers approached their targets low and in groups of three. But as they flew directly at the camera, I wasn’t seeing the Lancasters. In my mind’s eye they were godwits – skinny and exhausted – the first few returning survivors of an annual dice with death driven by the simple need to procreate, and thus endure.

Migration-fit birds

This year, as I watched waders preparing to depart from various locations along Australia’s northeast coast, there seemed far fewer mature, migration-fit birds than even recent bad seasons have produced.

Migratory shorebird numbers on Australia’s west coast (and at the likes of Pukorokoro Miranda in New Zealand) remain strong, but on the eastern seaboard the decline appears substantial.

At my age, I don’t wish to hasten the passage of time, yet I can’t wait for September/October to see how many waders return. Hopefully their numbers will be stronger and there will be lots of first-timers.

©Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2019

Godwit having full immersion bath
Male bar-tailed godwit gives his magnificent rich-russet breeding plumage a clean. Photo: ©Tony Neilson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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