The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey

The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey

by Deborah Cramer


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In a volume as urgent and eloquent as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, this book—winner of the Southern Environmental Law Center's 2016 Reed Environmental Writing Award in the book category—reveals how the health and well-being of a tiny bird and an ancient crab mirrors our own

Winner of the 2016 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award given by the Society of Environmental Journalists
Each year, red knots, sandpipers weighing no more than a coffee cup, fly a near-miraculous 19,000 miles from the tip of South America to their nesting grounds in the Arctic and back. Along the way, they double their weight by gorging on millions of tiny horseshoe crab eggs. Horseshoe crabs, ancient animals that come ashore but once a year, are vital to humans, too: their blue blood safeguards our health. Now, the rufa red knot, newly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will likely face extinction in the foreseeable future across its entire range, 40 states and 27 countries. The first United States bird listed because global warming imperils its existence, it will not be the last: the red knot is the twenty-first century’s “canary in the coal mine.” Logging thousands of miles following the knots, shivering with the birds out on the snowy tundra, tracking them down in bug-infested marshes, Cramer vividly portrays what’s at stake for millions of shorebirds and hundreds of millions of people living at the sea edge. The Narrow Edge offers an uplifting portrait of the tenacity of tiny birds and of the many people who, on the sea edge we all share, keep knots flying and offer them safe harbor.
Winner of the 2016 National Academies Communications Award for best book that honors the best in science communications. Sponsored by the Keck Futures Initiative—a program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with the support of the W.M. Keck Foundation

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300185195
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Deborah Cramer is the author of Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage and Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World. She lives in Gloucester, MA.

Read an Excerpt

The Narrow Edge

A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab & an Epic Journey

By Deborah Cramer, Michael DiGiorgio


Copyright © 2015 Deborah Cramer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21371-3



Scientists Carmen Espoz and Ricardo Matus and their team load the ATV along with extra tanks of gasoline onto their truck. I follow them out of town. The newly paved highway quickly yields to a gravel road that becomes increasingly narrow, rutted, and dusty. I am thankful that before coming to Chile, I'd heeded last-minute advice to upgrade the rental car to an all-wheel drive with new tires. After 30 minutes on the road, we take an unmarked drive over small rolling hills and around a pond where flamingoes wade. A gaucho mends a fence while his horse, saddled in thick white sheepskin, grazes in the dry grass. In the distance a house belonging to Boris Cvitanic, owner of the estancia, nestles against a hill, amid the only trees to be seen. Cvitanic drives out to meet us. We manage to turn our vehicles in the tiny lane without digging up adjoining pasture. We then follow Cvitanic back onto the main road, down a sharp incline, and onto another unmarked lane, this one blocked by a fence. Cvitanic is a handsome man with a kind and gentle face. His jaunty beret, sweater, and sports jacket are all of fine wool. He chats with Espoz and Matus while he unlocks a giant padlock, and then gestures over the hill.

We push open the rickety gate and resume driving on the faint track, lurching over sharp rocks and through deep ruts. Grazing sheep dally in the road. We wait. The track winds around more low hills for a few miles and then straightens out along another fence. At a spot seemingly no different from anywhere else, we stop, unload the ATV, turn aside the fencing, and go through, beginning a hair-raising high-speed ride across one of the world's widest tidal flats. I can't tell where we are going or how we'll know when we've arrived. When Matus finally slows, we are far from shore. He leaves me on the mud and roars off to pick up the others. The empty mudflat reaches all the way to the horizon: the incoming tide is nowhere to be seen. As would happen so many times during this trip, and during the year that follows, I find myself in a remote place with landmarks I can't read, my companions people I barely know.

Time after time they would welcome me, these strangers working to protect the red knot—a small sandpiper about the size of a robin and weighing about as much as a coffee cup. The red in red knot is obvious enough: when they molt into breeding plumage their breast feathers turn rusty red. The origin and meaning of knot is more curious and obscure. Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton linked the knot to the eleventh-century Viking king Canute, writing that the knot "was Canutus' bird of old." Popular English dictionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bolstered this idea, one describing knots as "a small delicious sort of small Fowl well known in some Parts of England, and so call'd from Canutus the Danish king, by whom they were highly esteemed."

Other accounts loosely incorporate the tendency of feeding knots to follow the tide. These tell of King Canute placing his throne at the edge of the sea and ordering the tide to ebb, disproving his acolytes' belief in his omnipotence. The Oxford English Dictionary finds these mythic connections "without historical or even traditional basis" and declares the origin of the bird's name unknown. The Chileans call the knot playero artico, Arctic shorebird. Of all the names I would hear, this one is the most evocative.

For five months, red knots live on the beaches of Tierra del Fuego, feeding in the long sunlit days of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. As autumn approaches, they begin a long journey, 9,500 miles north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, one of the longer avian migrations on record. They make the lengthy trip and its return every year. I have come to see them on this remote beach where they spend so much of their year and follow them along the edge of the sea from one end of the Earth to the other.

I am waiting on a stretch of isolated beach on Bahia Lomas, a broad bay at the Atlantic entrance to the Strait of Magellan, along the coast of Tierra del Fuego, one of Chile's most sparsely populated provinces. Icy fjords, steep mountains, and a 200-mile-long glacier, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, cut this region off from the rest of the country. Getting here requires travel by air, sea, or taking a long drive through Argentina. Lucas Bridges, born in 1874 and raised on Tierra del Fuego by missionary parents, titled his classic memoir about the island he loved and the native peoples he lived among Uttermost Part of the Earth. More than 125 years later, the description still fits.

On this January afternoon, and probably most afternoons and mornings and evenings as well, the beach and road are empty: no cars driving by, no planes overhead, no tankers or boats in sight. No sound except for the steadily blowing wind. A cinnamon-colored guanaco leaps the fence and runs along the beach. Nothing breaks the broad reach of sand, open sky, and vast mudflat, whose tide had slipped more than four miles from shore. Espoz, dean of the Faculty of Science from the Universidad Santo Tomás in Santiago, Matus, a naturalist who has participated in research in Bahía Lomas for more than 10 years, and Laura Tellez, a field assistant from Punta Arenas, are awaiting the return of the water and of the shorebirds who feed at its edge.

My eyes tear in the wind. I'm squinting to shut out the sting. Espoz and Matus are wearing goggles. Maybe I won't even see, let alone hear, the birds. As the tide flows in, they could be anywhere along these 43 miles of privately held beach. Cvitanic, whose estancia we crossed, had seen a flock yesterday around 4:00 p.m. Cvitanic was born in Chile, but his father, a Croatian, had traveled far to make a home here. In the 1930s he'd crossed the sea to visit fellow Croatians who'd settled in Chile, fell in love with Tierra del Fuego, and stayed. "There was work," Cvitanic told me, and, "it was tranquillo, quiet."

His father went into sheep ranching and purchased an estancia further inland, next to a river, near what is now the international road to Argentina. Cvitanic took it over, sold it to his brother, and in 1994 bought a second estancia on Bahía Lomas. On 173,000 acres, he raises 5,000 sheep for meat and wool. Cvitanic remembers when he first saw the knots. "They'd come, suddenly, in the summer—enormous flocks, big clouds of birds—and then come winter, they'd disappear. They're not easy to find. I can't see them from the house, and the beach is so long. I'd see them come and go, and never realized they were coming from so far, never realized their special significance until the investigators asked permission to cross my land."

Northern Hemisphere ornithologists, on the other hand, knew where the birds came from but for years only vaguely understood where they might be going. Knots eluded naturalists who'd come here for the express purpose of studying and cataloging wildlife. Between 1831 and 1836, Charles Darwin served as naturalist to Captain FitzRoy of HMS Beagle, who'd been commissioned to survey waters along the South American coast. Darwin's extensive record of birds he observed and caught on Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia mentions plovers and other sandpipers, but not, from what I could find, knots. Between 1886 and 1889, Robert Oliver Cunningham, naturalist on HMS Nassau, commissioned by the British Admiralty to survey the Strait of Magellan, observed, shot, or attempted to shoot many birds, but red knots do not appear to be among them.

In 1904, Captain Richard Crawshay lived on Tierra del Fuego observing and collecting birds for the British Museum. He worked from estancia Caleta Josefina, on the west coast of the island, and estancia San Sebastian, on the east coast, the first sheep farm established by La Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego (SETF). Owned and operated by the region's most powerful family, SETF would become the nation's largest and wealthiest ranching enterprise, eventually comprising 7 million acres. Like Cunningham, Crawshay shot many beach birds and wrote about them. Among other birds, Crawshay catalogued three species of plover, two species of oystercatcher, godwits, and white-rumped sandpipers—but no red knots. In all likelihood they were there, but despite careful observation, he missed them. He wouldn't be the only one.

Early twentieth-century records mentioned knots but were frustratingly vague. Robert Ridgway, curator of birds for the Smithsonian, and Alexander Wetmore, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary, traveled in South America to study birds. Both noted that the red knot's range extends as far south as Tierra del Fuego. Wetmore concludes that except in the vicinity of Buenos Aires, "the winter range of the knot has been little investigated, so that not much is known of the occurrence of this species." A. W. Johnson's 1965 The Birds of Chile says the knot is "among the rarest of visiting waders," and Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, in his 1966 Birds of South America, adds additional countries—Brazil and Uruguay—but doesn't specify where along this long shoreline the birds may be found. North America hosts 52 species of breeding shorebirds. When summer daylight begins to fade, more than half fly to South America. Not knowing their routes and destinations, scientists would be stymied if birds failed to return or if their numbers diminished. They felt called to unravel the mystery.

In November 1979, with support from the World Wildlife Fund, Guy Morrison from the Canadian Wildlife Service and Brian Harrington from the former Manomet Bird Observatory, now the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, set out to fill this nearly empty slate, undertaking a long drive from Buenos Aires down the east coast of South America. Prices were soaring: a two-seater Citroën was all they could afford. It caused trouble immediately. They hadn't left Buenos Aires when they heard a loud bang. Gunshot, Morrison thought. Everything turned gray. Morrison, whose sense of humor tends dry, briefly wondered whether he'd died. The latches on the front hood had snapped, causing the hood, which Harrington politely describes as being made of tin foil, to flip and wrap around the windshield. Their visibility completely obstructed, they were still on the road, still driving, Harrington at the wheel. Morrison, leaning out the window, frantically guided him away from oncoming trucks.

They pulled over, bent back the hood, tied it down, and drove on to Punta Rasa, a muddy tidal flat where the Rio de la Plata empties into the Atlantic. They'd been told there'd be thousands of knots. Six stops at Punta Rasa yielded 10, not an auspicious start. They were undeterred: a new, tantalizing paper by Belgian ornithologists Pierre Devillers and J. Terschuren described large numbers of knots at Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego, 2,000 miles from Buenos Aires.

Their hopes high, they continued on, a blank map, knotwise, before them. After 1,000 miles and 15 stops, they'd seen only 20 red knots. Promising sites, like the Peninsula Valdes, disappointed. Today, this promontory jutting out into the Atlantic and its 250 miles of coastline is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each year 80,000 people come to see an equal number of nesting penguins, breeding (and endangered) right whales, and colonies of elephant seals and sea lions, but in 1979, when access was more limited, they couldn't even see the beach for most of the drive. Further, Harrington told me, "The birds clump tightly together, so it's hit or miss." For the men, it was pretty much miss. Years later, when they knew more people there, they'd learn which tracks went down to the beach and whose land they could cross, but now, not wishing to trespass, they drove on.

Farther south, near Bahia Bustamante, the road followed a rise overlooking the distant sea before suddenly and fortunately dropping toward the coast. Two-thirds of the way down, a peregrine falcon soared. One of Earth's fastest animals, peregrines swoop down on their prey, usually a bird, at speeds of over 200 miles an hour. With eyesight two to three times as acute as ours, the falcon saw what Harrington and Morrison initially could not. With the peregrine sighting, their luck turned. On a broad, sandy tidal flat they found 400 knots, their first big flock. Walking slowly, they drew near 100 birds and saw 15 with oil-smeared chests and bellies. Though Bahia Bustamante is quiet—60 years ago a man from Buenos Aires settled there to harvest seaweed and raise sheep—at the time, Comodoro Rivadavia—about 600 miles to the south—was a hub of Argentina's offshore oil production. Seeing so many oiled birds was disturbing. They drove on. Over the next 600 miles, they stopped 20 times and saw only 88 knots. Birding requires patience and perseverance. They had both. Spirits unflagging, they continued, buoyed by the expectation that around the next bend, at the next beach, they'd find something big. Looking back, Harrington admits that perhaps they were somewhat naïve.

The roads were awful, and the car was falling apart. They crossed the Strait of Magellan into Tierra del Fuego and arrived in Bahía San Sebastian. Crawshay had spent two months there, including October, when knots would be arriving, but didn't see any, while Harrington and Morrison whipped in for an hour to gaze at 250 knots and 640 Hudsonian godwits. Then they hurried on, and the next day reached Río Grande. Tourists visit Río Grande for world-class fly-fishing. Harrington and Morrison, hooked on birds, had no interest. After nine days and at least 2,000 miles of driving, their dream was fulfilled. Morrison recalls looking out the window from his hotel room and seeing a large flock of knots flying across the bay. Even though they'd visited 53 sites and found knots at only 11, the sighting at Río Grande was huge—over 5,000 knots feeding on the beach at low tide. They'd confirmed that large numbers of knots concentrate in a few areas, and that Río Grande was a major wintering site. They were satisfied. Unknowingly, however, they'd driven right by the mother lode.

After the inaugural road trip Harrington and he made through Argentina, Morrison, his appetite whetted, persuaded the Canadian government to fund a survey of the entire coast of South America, the South American Shorebird Atlas Project. This time, he and a colleague, Ken Ross, conducted aerial surveys, catching nooks and crannies and remote stretches along the shore Morrison had missed earlier. They flew almost the entire edge of the continent, looking anywhere they might find birds. They omitted Chile's southern tip, where the steep Andes abruptly rise from a labyrinth of dark fjords and densely forested islands. They skipped over Bahía Inutil—a bay on the western side of Tierra del Fuego explored in 1828 by Captain Phillip Parker King. King wrote that, entering the bay, he and his crew "flattered ourselves with the expectation of finding" an outlet leading to the Pacific. Instead, they discovered a dead end with "neither anchorage nor shelter," from which they "lost no time in retreating" and which they called Useless Bay. The name stuck. Bahía Inutil, lacking adequate shoreline for roosting birds, was also useless to Morrison and Ross.

Between 1982 and 1986, they flew 17,000 miles of coast, counting birds from helicopters or single-engine planes. To ensure consistency, they conducted the surveys together. Flying at high tide, 150 feet above the ground, at 100 to 150 miles per hour, they caught birds roosting at the water's edge. They were aloft anywhere between 8:00 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon. They taped their observations. The results were staggering. They found 2.9 million shorebirds, a far cry from the 6,200 Morrison and Harrington had seen on the road. The majority—2.5 million—were smaller sandpipers, "peeps," in Suriname and French Guiana. Knots prefer to winter farther south, in the "uttermost part of the earth." Almost every year, Morrison returns to count them.

He's scheduled a flight before I'm to meet Espoz and generously agrees to take me with him. We will leave from the northern side of the strait, from Compamento Posesión ENAP, a collection of houses, dormitories, and offices belonging to Empresa Nacional del Petróleo (ENAP), Chile's national oil company. The camp is set in a parched landscape of dry scrub where guanaco and flightless, ostrichlike rheas, locally called ñandú, roam in the dust. Foxes wander through the parking lot. An ashy-headed goose and her goslings graze in the grass. I join Morrison in the communal dining room for onces, a holdover from the English tea, served late in the afternoon. Over tuna sandwiches garnished with limp parsley and served with mayonnaise on soft white bread with the crusts cut off, Morrison reviews tomorrow's plans—to survey Bahía Lomas during the morning high tide. ENAP pilots, who ferry workers out to the rigs in one of the company's helicopters, will take us.


Excerpted from The Narrow Edge by Deborah Cramer, Michael DiGiorgio. Copyright © 2015 Deborah Cramer. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Beginnings 1

1 The "Uttermost Part of the Earth": Tierra del Fuego 7

2 When Is the Beginning of the End? 23

3 The Urban Bird and the Resort: Río Gallegos and Las Grutas 36

4 Bay of Plenty: Delaware Bay 53

5 Tenacity 71

6 Blue Bloods 87

7 Counting 103

8 Lowcountry: South Carolina and Other Tidelands 120

9 Ghost Trail: The Laguna Madre and the Central Flyway 140

10 Does Losing One More Bird Matter? 158

11 The Longest Day: The Arctic 176

12 Returning South: James Bay, the Mingan Islands, and the Guianas 201

Epilogue Heading Home 218

Notes 225

Bibliography 243

Acknowledgments 277

Index 281

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