Chelsea Haisman and her son view migrating shorebirds during high tide at Hartney Bay on Sunday, May 5, 2024. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

Art is just as important as science is to uncover lost knowledge, this year’s Copper River Shorebird Festival keynote speaker told the audience. Flying at heights of 15,000 feet and on every place on Earth, much can be learned about the tiny yet impactful shorebird. They are everywhere if you are willing to look for them. A takeaway from the keynote address: Shorebird festivals around the world matter, because we are connecting art and culture. 

Celebrating its 34th year, the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival aims to invite travelers, birders and community members to engage with the local, seasonal and ever-changing environment in Cordova. On May 3, keynote speaker Subhankar Banerjee delved into the history of shorebird festivals and the essential question: Why do shorebird festivals matter? “Most people know little about shorebirds, let alone the problems they face,” he said. 

The Copper River Delta braided river system is dynamic. There is an unlikely string of barrier islands that hold space in the Gulf of Alaska, surrounded by Copper River silt, hosting diverse and abundant shorebirds who feed and roost. These barrier islands host beach peas, wild rye, drift grasses and various other vegetation that propel birds to visit annually, local Wildlife Biologist Erin Cooper noted during this year’s festival. Over 1,000 snow geese were spotted this spring on the Delta. Greater Yellowlegs, Trumpeter Swans, Aleutian Terns and “Dusky” Canadian Geese were also observed. 

Cooper identified Wilson Snipes and remarked on their cool sounds, claiming them to be the “sound of the Copper River Delta.” Cooper stated birds are “like a sewing machine, pecking for invertebrates, drawn to the ecology and their diet.”  

Banerjee claims not to be a birder, stating that he usually misidentifies species. However, Banerjee is a visual studies scholar and a conservationist, and he said that through the lens of science, arts and humanity, shorebirds can be a mirror to modern culture.  

Shorebird numbers have been down for the last 40 years, with more than a 70% loss since the 1980s, according to Banerjee’s presentation. It is not just about the loss of the birds, but also about how to bring them back. Survival, resilience and biodiversity are key components to these intriguing shorebirds that inhabit local beaches, wetlands and forests. Many places are not protected, unlike the Copper River Delta. A huge number of “buffys,” or sandpipers, were documented at a sod farm in Texas — 2,600 in fact, Banerjee said. It was later discovered they were in fact drinking pesticide water. This, he said, is only one example of urban areas affecting migrating birds and their once local habitat.  

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Banerjee referenced an extreme massacre of shorebirds that took place from 1870-1890. Little was known or spoken of because what was documented and highlighted were the bison that had died in huge numbers on open prairie land. Documentation of modern times has linked history, and thus shed light on what is now known about some of the most shorebirds of today. 

Banerjee has traveled the world doing archival, field research and photography on shorebirds. Banerjee spent almost two years, during all four seasons, in the Arctic region on a shoot documenting the ecological diversity and Native cultures of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — revitalizing Indigenous communities of Alaska while also bringing awareness of the links to the natural world. He is working toward a three-volume book and an accompanying exhibition, which will aim to include three entangled histories — art, material and visual culture, conservation, and science — and bring the story forward to the present day to honor and bring attention to the imperiled shorebirds of our time.  

Banerjee advocated for the “consumption of care rather than the mindless consumption of modern culture.” He said always try to buy local art, or bring something back. Banerjee’s current work is “Shorebirds in Modern Times,” a major exhibition to be held in The Anchorage Museum.  

This story originally ran in the May 10 issue of The Cordova Times.

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