In Part 4 of her seas birds series, Ginni Callahan describes the enlightenment that comes in observing an unidentified-to-her shorebird while sailing and kayaking amongst the Makemo, Fakarava and Tahanea atolls in the South Pacific.
“Koewee!” That’s how the bent-nosed reef poker announces himself. He swoops down to land on the crunchy landscape of old reef, then struts to the edge of the water and looks about for something to poke with his downturned beak. He wears racing stripes on his head and horizontal bands on his tail.
The downturned bill and general coloration remind me of a curlew, but I have no references on what shorebirds live here. It could be curlew, or curlew’s cousin, or someone who happens to look like curlew.
The one bird book we have on board is Seabirds: An Identification Guide by Peter Harrison. It doesn’t cover shorebirds, but for seabirds, it’s an excellent reference for determining the name of a bird, where it lives, and how it looks. I feel the lack of a shorebird identification guide but am not terribly disappointed. Even if I did know the name, I don’t really know anything about the creature I’ve just seen, other than what it’s called. Naming and classifying things is a noble cause. The structure of science. The basis for sharing and furthering knowledge.
But identifying is not knowing. Matching pictures with what one has seen gives a small thrill of common language, but it is no substitute for experience with the creature itself. Observing. Listening. Spending time.
Observing gives time to think, and thinking reveals ones ignorance. Often the thing I learn when observing is how little I really know. I’m not out for science; I don’t know the complete body of our understanding of the bent-nosed reef poker, or what questions to ask to further that knowledge. This frees me to just observe. To be in the moment, in the presence of the poker, or of whatever noddy, tern, or crab happens by. It’s more of a meditation than a scientific endeavor.
Every behavior I observe is new to me. Is fresh. Renews that reverence for nature, that feeling of discovery. Connects me with the great body of life and spirit that is beyond human construct.
Photography is both a distraction and a tool. I’m looking for the perfect lighting, angle, and composition, instead of just taking in the moment. But it also gives me an excuse to be there, to wait, to watch. It’s a way to look closer than my eye can see. A way to share something of the experience with others later.
I stand in the shadows of palm trees and take some photos of the bent-nosed reef poker. He, too, is in the shadows, and the bright sea is behind. I bend down for a different angle, and he looks curiously in my direction. The sunlight slowly creeps towards us both. I lie down on my back on the hard, bumpy moonscape of old reef, and lift my head with the camera to watch my feathered subject.
He exhibits great curiosity, stretching his neck and tilting his striped head. He wanders my way obliquely, pausing and looking. His strut is comical, extending a long leg in front before planting it and shifting weight to it. Curiosity meets caution some 5 meters away, and he wanders back towards the water’s edge to poke about for food in the sunlight.
Days later I hear the call coming over the water again, “Keowee!”. I look out, and there is the familiar figure of the bent-nosed reef poker winging his way towards the palms of another island.
Editor’s Note: Ginni later found out that her “bent-nosed reef poker” is actually the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). It breeds in Alaska and winters on tropical Pacific islands. It was first described scientifically during Captain James Cook’s visits to Tahiti in the 18th century. They feed on a wide variety of vegetation, such as flowers and berries, and on insects, sea life, and other bird’s eggs, which they break open with rocks—the only tool use among shorebirds.