A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey

East Asian-Australasian Flyway Paintings

C.c. piersmai and C.c. rogersi


* Click on each painting image for a larger lightbox view

Males Defend Nesting Sites

Red Knots breed farther north than almost any other species of bird, reaching up to 75º North latitude on the New Siberian Islands off the northern coast of Russia. Males arrive on the breeding grounds before females and, since the Arctic summer is so short, immediately establish nesting territories and defend them with ‘raised-wing’ displays. Males make several nest cups, or scrapes, in the tundra lichens and dwarf plants within their territories. Females choose one scrape for the nest.

The Arctic peoples of Siberia masterfully created art with materials at hand, including fur, bone, and ivory. When new materials, such as wool and cloth, became available with colonization by Russian traders and missionaries, they were combined with traditional materials to create new crafts such as wall décor. Rendered in the style of Chukchi applique, two male Red Knots establish territorial boundaries with wing displays. In the painting, blue wool acts as the gray wing patterns and the circular scrapes, red wool is used for the red breeding plumage, and fur is used for the tundra lichens.

Watchful Parents

Relative to body size, sandpipers have the largest eggs of any birds. A young Red Knot grows from an egg into a feathered, accomplished flier in about six weeks. Both parents attend to the young for the first several days. Females then leave to replenish the energy reserves used in egg-laying, which may have consumed up to half their body weight. After female birds leave, males tend to the broods. Once juvenile birds are able to fly, they are left on their own to navigate south for the first time.

In this painting, the main stages in a young bird’s growth from egg to fledgling are depicted as a comb carved from fossilized ivory, which absorbs colors from minerals in the soil. The handle is shaped as a fanned out bird tail.

Flight Over Mountains

Prior to migration flights, Red Knots need food energy reserves for several different purposes. First, they must replenish energy used to get to the migration staging ground while also storing sufficient reserves to make the final long-distance flight to the breeding grounds. Upon arrival at the breeding grounds, they need to have sufficient resources to survive a late arrival of spring, to find and establish nests, and for females to produce eggs. After staging at Bohai Bay, Red Knots on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway pass over mountain ranges in northern China and eastern Russia to reach their breeding sites.

Chinese landscape painting has a long and evolving tradition, which includes a philosophical understanding of the human relationship to nature. Paintings are a portrayal of symbolic landscape, presenting an ideal rather than recording a particular landscape. Ink washes combined with loaded and dry brush layers create a sense of depth and texture, and artists were known by the individuality of their brushstrokes. Mimicking the work of earlier artists was a respected tradition, with each generation of artists learning from those who had preceded them. Here, a flock of Red Knots crosses a mountain range that rises up beyond a coastal city.

Stopover at Bohai Bay

Migrating waterbirds that pass through the Yellow Sea region have to use industrial landscapes as substitutes for shrinking natural resource areas. For migratory birds such as Red Knots, who rely on only one or two staging areas to fuel their journey and breeding, staging areas are the bottleneck in migration. When these essential sites are altered in ways that exclude them, the birds may not be able to complete their annual cycle. There are, however, altered landscapes where bird and human needs can coexist. For example, salt evaporation ponds can provide congregation points for large populations of migrating birds.

Ink and watercolor paintings of plants and animals are a traditional genre of Chinese painting. These include close-up views of single birds and animals, as well as groups of creatures in a natural setting. Although the animals in traditional paintings were chosen for their symbolic associations, the forms were rendered with great care for anatomical correctness. In the painting above, Red Knots in fresh breeding plumage wade at the salt pond’s edge.


Very little is known about the routes taken by C.c. piersmai and C.c. rogersi as they migrate south. Based on limited observations, they appear to travel along the coast of Southeast Asia and then make a hop to Australia and New Zealand.

Chinese ceramic artists of the 15th century Ming Dynasty perfected the manufacture of porcelain with exquisite designs. Blue pigment was made from finely ground cobalt oxide mixed with water. Designs were painted onto unfired porcelain, followed by a glaze, and then fired. Stylized waves and clouds often formed the backgrounds for designs with birds and dragons, both of which were used for symbolic association with wisdom and longevity. Here, a southbound flock of Red Knots – symbolizing perseverance – flies above a stormy sea.

Molting and Mangroves

Red Knots begin to molt prior to leaving non-breeding ranges in Australia and New Zealand. As they continue along their northward route, the birds slowly but steadily shed old feathers to produce their characteristic red breeding plumage. The shallow water of mangroves that border intertidal mudflats of the tropics provide shelter and food for many species of birds and other animals. Mangroves of the Indonesian islands may provide migration stopover sites for C.c. rogersi.
In this painting, Red Knots are shown in the style of Indonesian batik. Wealth in traditional Indonesian culture was made and stored in forms of cloth, with batik reserved for the most important rulers. Created by skilled craftswomen, one batik cloth might have taken over a year to complete and was worn only for ceremonial purposes. Fine line designs were drawn with wax on raw cloth. Then the fabric was dyed with the first color. Subsequent ‘wax resists’ blocked the lighter colors so that they were not lost as darker colors were applied. Floral and avian designs were common motifs. One cloth might have a repeating pattern of birds and flowers, yet each bird or blossom will be unique.

Night Flight

C.c. piersmai and C.c. rogersi pass over Indonesia during both northern and southern migration. A direct flight along this route would be about 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers), from Australia to Bohai Bay, China, and would take approximately 6 days for a bird traveling at 30-35 miles per hour (50-55 km per hour). However, Red Knots likely stop at other sites along the way, judged by lag times between departure and arrival of banded individuals between Roebuck Bay and Bohai Bay.

Skilled weavers of the Indonesian Islands wove cloth of complex designs from resist-dyed wool yarn. These traditional Ikat cloths could be abstract or figurative. Individual cloths were given names and treated as respected members of the community. Weaving was done only by women of certain classes. Comparing this work to the honor, valor, and danger of warfare, these women were called “warriors of the loom”. On Flores Island in Indonesia, an additional layer of meaning was added to cloths with strings of beads and shells sewn onto the designs by male beaders. In this painting, the beadwork represents birds as seen from space. Below them the 'ikat weaving' shows a stylized pattern of islands within the dark blue of the sea.

Diversity of Life

Roebuck Bay is a conservation area of astounding faunal diversity in North West Australia. Shorebirds are prominent residents of Roebuck Bay and their numbers peak in the austral summer (October-March), as Arctic-breeding migrants spend the non-breeding season alongside resident waterbirds. Flocks of Red Knots, Godwits, Stilts, Whimbrels, and Oystercatchers share the mudflats with crabs, invertebrates, and Mudskippers (walking fish). Roebuck Bay is also a key observation site for scientists, who may record the leg flags, or small plastic rings, that identify individual birds at sites along the migration route. Knowing when and where birds gather throughout the year is key to understanding their current and future needs.

For millennia, Aboriginal peoples of Australia have used natural earth pigments (red and yellow ochers, white kaolin clay, black manganese, and charcoal), for painting on bark. Pigment sources were the responsibility of various clans and a trade item between groups. Brushes were made from hair and palm fibers. Contemporary bark paintings with narrative or pictorial themes were first made available to non-aboriginal people in the 1940's and are now a recognized style on the international art market. This painting shows Red Knots in a flock with other shorebird species in the Aboriginal bark painting style.

Mudflats Foraging

Foraging Red Knots follow the outgoing tide as it exposes the intertidal mudflats. Bivalves (small clams), are the primary food of non-breeding Red Knots; the clams are ingested whole and subsequently ground up in the gizzard. The birds also eat crustaceans such as small shrimp, worms, and other invertebrates.

In this painting, again rendered in the style of Aboriginal bark painting, the circular arrangement of the lines and shapes suggest the movement of groups of foraging birds at the edge of the waterline.

* How this painting was created.

Roosting at High Tide

Shorebirds gather to roost in large flocks of mixed species when high tide covers mudflats at coastal sites in both western and eastern Australia. Safe roosting areas are essential for survival and an important consideration for conservation planning. Vulnerable to predators while roosting, one or more birds remains vigilant, watching for birds of prey that hunt the edges of the Australian mangrove habitat.

Acrylic paint and hardboard were introduced to outback Aboriginal communities in the 1970's as materials for making paintings for sale. Individual artists have since created works of both decorative and highly philosophical nature. The color sensitivities of individual artists range across the spectrum; there is little adherence to naturalistic color. The highly patterned style derives from traditional drawings that were made directly on the ground and used as patterns for ritual dances.

* How this painting was created.

Embarking on a Full Moon

Red Knots are long-distance migrants and appear to make flights of 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers), from one rest stop to another. They prepare for these flights by reducing, or atrophying, their internal organs in order to maximize the amount of body fat they carry for fuel. Observations at Roebuck Bay, Australia, show that flocks tend to leave at high tide on full moons, illustrating the birds’ innate awareness of time.

Originating from Australian rock art traditions, the Aboriginal 'x-ray' style represents the internal anatomy of animals in a highly abstracted form. Here the style alludes to the remarkable adaptation of organ atrophy. In the painting, a northbound flock leaves land behind as the high tide floods into the mangrove channels on the right. The blue and white concentric circles on the left refer to the reflection of the moon and stars on the water.

* How this painting was created.

Bathing and Preening

C.c. rogersi spend the non-breeding season along the eastern coast of Australia and the bays and mangrove mudflats of New Zealand. Young birds spend their first year in New Zealand, waiting until their second year to make the migration to the Arctic breeding ranges. Consequently, there is a small year-round population of Red Knots in New Zealand. Birds clean their feathers regularly to remove dirt and parasites, and to maintain proper alignment of the feather structures.

Curvilinear line patterns appear in Maori wood carving and in the skin carving techniques of facial tattoos. Contemporary materials for sculpture, painting, and printmaking allow Maori artists to express cultural and aesthetic ideas in new forms and places, while modern dyes and tools create endless possibilities for body art using both traditional and contemporary design elements. Here, two Red Knots fling water droplets into the air as their bodies cast shadows upon the ripples of water created by their movements. In this painting, traditional Maori designs and motifs are presented as a modern airbrush style.

Synchronous Flight

New Zealand offers abundant shorebird habitat that is free of the avian predators, such as hawks and falcons, that are present on other land masses. Yet only two species of shorebirds, Red Knots (returning from breeding ranges in the Siberian Arctic), and Bar-tailed Godwit (returning from Alaska), have evolved migration strategies to take advantage of this situation. Non-breeding Red Knot populations move around in flocks of hundreds of individuals. Birds on the outer edges of the flock initiate changes in flight direction. Birds in the interior of the flock respond, creating waves of movement or ‘synchronous flight’.

The synchronous swirl of flight is depicted here as a contemporary airbrush painting with Maori-influenced patterns.

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