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‘Plastic Birds: Lord Howe Island, Australia’

My ethnographic research is concerned with understanding the human-environment encounters on Lord Howe Island, Australia. Part of my research studies environmental scientists engaged in studying the effects of plastic pollution on migratory seabirds in Australia. Adrift Lab’s research focuses on using wild seabird species as environmental ‘sentinels’ – indicators of physical plastic pollution and its chemical effects on marine environments. My research seeks to understand the issue of ‘eco-grief’ as it emerges out of the group’s research and engagement with a specific, yet pervasive issue within the Anthropocene – marine plastic pollution. My research seeks to understand how bearing witness to, and scientifically documenting the death and species decline of these seabirds might contribute to experiences of eco-grief and how these experiences in turn might influence the work, lives, relationships, and research of those who study the death of these seabirds.


‘First Flight’

Under a sprawling banyan tree, The Adrift Lab scientists set up camp every night of their fieldwork. They return here, every year, a migration that matches that of the birds they study – the Flesh-footed Shearwaters. They sit in the sandy soil among the Shearwater’s nesting colony. At dusk, for the first time, fledgling seabirds emerge from the burrows they have been born in. Unassuming, they are easily picked up by the scientists, who check their stomachs for plastic that has been fed to them by their parents. It is easily felt – ‘crunchy’ – the scientists announce, after a gentle prod of the downy feathers of the juvenile birds. Many of these plastic-impacted birds will not make it through their first attempt to fly – rather, we will find them the next morning, strewn – dead – on the beaches.


‘A Mosaic of Death’

We begin the morning with a sunrise beach walk. We are looking for death. Fledgling Flesh-footed Shearwaters – too badly impacted by the plastic they have been fed by unknowing parents to fly – are strewn on the sand. We collect them, bringing them back. The scientists dissect these dead birds – revealing their stomachs to be filled with plastic. Some of the pieces are so large, so sharp, it is hard to imagine how they ever made it down the bird’s necks – digested and regurgitated by the adults and fed to the fledglings. The scientists sort the pieces of plastic in a disturbing mosaic of death. They lay them out, identifying plastic forks, clothesline pegs, and balloons. In one single baby bird, we find 202 pieces of plastic. This is not the record.


‘Feeding Hope’

Environmental-grief and anxiety was desperately felt by the Adrift Lab scientists as they faced the deaths of seabirds daily and the overwhelming issue of marine plastic pollution.  Among the tears, feelings of abjection and anxiety, there were moments where they tried to feed hope – at least for the possibility of saving individual fledglings. Here, Dr Jennifer Lavers feeds a recovering fledgling a ‘squid smoothie’. She hopes it will give it strength before she returns it to the beach in the evening, where it will hopefully take its first – successful – flight.