A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey


The Red Knots Cultural Cartography is a project by
artist Janet Essley in collaboration with biologist Lee Tibbitts


Maps locate us in time and space

Red Knots (Calidris canutus), a species of sandpiper that lives most of the year along the coastlines of the Southern Hemisphere but breed in the Arctic, carry in their bodies a map of places that supply food and shelter on both sides of the globe. Each new generation of Red Knots, born in the Arctic, finds its way to the Southern Hemisphere following, not adult birds, but the map encoded in its body.

Being migratory birds, Red Knots depend on coastal mudflats in widely separated locations, returning to the same spots for food and nesting year after year. These mudflats supply invertebrate food sources – clams, crabs, and insects – that fuel globe-spanning journeys, ensure successful breeding, and sustain birds during the non-breeding interval.  As critical food sources or mudflat habitats disappear, so will the Red Knots.

Biologists use abstract language and numbers

Latitude and longitude, elevation, and kilometers per hour are some of the terms used to pinpoint locations and dates where birds have been observed and to quantify their behavior. With information collected from dataloggers (tiny computers), radio transmitters, and observations of banded birds, scientists can trace the movements of Red Knots. As the birds move around the globe, scientists record physiological changes resulting from energy expended during their travels.

Artists create visual maps of physical spaces

Through creative images and design artists also map the spiritual, cultural, and philosophical dimensions of both human and non-human life forms. This project – A Cultural Cartography – maps the Red Knot annual migrations, from Southern to Northern Hemispheres and back, via the artwork of the human communities with which the shorebirds have intersected for thousands of years. The Cartography incorporates art styles of the Southern Hemisphere to illustrate aspects of Red Knot behavior during the months spent in their non-breeding range (October–March). Arctic art styles reference behavior during the time they spend in their breeding range. Styles of art common in areas where birds make brief but necessary stopovers are used for their spring and fall migrations.

Those who have studied sandpipers have been awed by their epic migration flights and the extraordinary physiological adaptations that allow them to transport themselves such vast distances. By saving coastal habitats for migrating shorebirds, we protect ourselves from learning, through their absence, that without them our lives have been diminished. It is our hope that seeing Red Knots through the lens of art may inspire viewers to learn more of the biology of these migratory shorebirds, and of the urgent need to protect critical migration stopover habitats.

To watch the dance of sandpipers
running at the edge of ever changing waves
lapping the sand
is to be mesmerized and delighted by their ballet.
— Janet Essley