What the trials of migratory birds say about Asia’s development

KATHERINE LEUNG was hunting for birds—black-tailed godwits to be precise. Armed with a wide net, she stood at dusk amid the Mai Po Marshes, a wide expanse of mudflats, mangroves and shrimp ponds on Hong Kong’s border with mainland China, trying to nab a couple of birds as they came to roost after feeding. In her pocket were two tiny and expensive radio transmitters. An employee of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which manages Mai Po, she was hoping to affix them to the backs of two godwits heading north for the summer. By the time she gave up, at midnight, she had not caught any godwits, but she had snared three gorgeous greater painted snipe. She had also spotted an eagle owl out hunting and a leopard cat prowling nearby. She will be hunting herself again soon, as the godwits’ twice-yearly transit reaches its peak.

Astonishingly little is known about the godwits that arrive at Mai Po in full breeding plumage at this time of year—neither where exactly in the warmer parts of Asia they have wintered nor where, in the far north, they will breed. Most of the world’s migratory waterbirds barrel up and down one of eight big north-south “flyways”. The East Asian-Australasian...

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