Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I Can-Knot Help Myself

I can't. I just love Red Knots.

Red Knots in flight at Fort de Soto Park, Florida
I’m not really sure what got me excited initially about Red Knots, I just know that if I had to pick a favorite species, they would definitely be a finalist. The first photos I have of Knots are “B.D.” – before digital – so it probably began in 2002. It was about this time I heard stories of nearly 100,000 of them gathering on the shores of Delaware Bay every May, and before their precipitous decline in population. I also became fascinated with bird migration after learning that Calidris canutus rufa flew about 20,000 miles (32,000 km) round-trip every year. Pretty amazing for a medium-sized sandpiper about the size of an American Robin.

Juvenile on the run - Daytona Beach area
The following year I took even more Red Knot images (A.D. or “After Digital) and the photo you see above was a favorite that I printed very large (24x36”) to use as a display when exhibiting at birding festivals. A few months after I took it I was at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival and had the print displayed in my booth. Upon returning from a presentation I’d given, I found three gentlemen discussing the photo. One of the three was ornithologist and Red Knot expert Brian Harrington, now retired but at the time working at Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Massachusetts. Particularly amazing was they were discussing the age of that bird based upon plumage wear. He even suggested to me, once I got in on the chat, that I probably took the photo of that juvenile Red Knot the last week of September. I didn't have a computer with me access to the camera data, but promised to look it up when I got home that evening. September 27. That is a man who knows the species! (The next year he purchased that same print from me to frame and hang in his office. . . he really loved it.)

In flight, non-breeding plumage - Daytona Beach area
What prompted me to write about Red Knots this month was learning about one known as B95 - another reason to be fascinated with these birds. If you have not heard his story, he’s the oldest known member of his species. He was an adult when captured and banded back in 1995, and probably two years old at the time. Most estimates say he is at least 20, and observers found him at Delaware Bay again this May, the yellow flag (the color used by banders in Argentina) with black letters “B95” clearly visible. On his way, once again, to an island in the Canadian Arctic for yet another breeding season.

Breeding plumage - Fort de Soto Park, FL
In reading about him online, I discovered a book called Moonbird: A Year on the Wind With the Great Survivor B95 (Moonbird is his other “name”); just about a week ago I finished listening to the audiobook version. When you do the math, he’s flown some 400,000 miles in his lifetime – equal to a trip to the Moon and most of the way back, hence the name.

I  think these are an immature on the left and non-breeding adult on the right - Daytona Beach area
In the book we learn about the “plight of the Red Knot”: how the over harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs on Delaware Bay nearly drove both species to extinction (at least locally for the crabs), as well as what is known about B95. Those huge populations of Knots visiting the bay had plummeted to only about 12-15,000 by 2009 and, thankfully, bans and limitations on the harvesting of the crabs have led to gains for both species. The Red Knots rely on the crab's eggs for the fat reserves needed to make the final flight to their breeding grounds, as well as survival until there are enough insects available for feeding and rearing young in the Arctic. The news is I have heard recently is that the population estimates for Red Knots this May were up to about 26,000 at Delaware Bay - very good news, indeed.

Breeding plumage - Fort de Soto, FL 
What a THRILL it must be for the scientists studying these birds to see him again each year - knowing full well that he’s survived multiple flights across the Atlantic of over 3,000 miles non-stop, attacks by falcons, foxes, and other predators, and the sad, unnecessary decline in his species. I’d probably be doing back flips if I had the opportunity to see him. To learn more about B95 just search for "B95 Red Knot" on the web or get a copy of Moonbird (author Phillip Hoose). To learn more about Red Knots in general, see if you can find a copy somewhere of Harrington's Flight of the Red Knot (it is out of print, but there are used copies available online, or check your library). In addition, you might be able to catch a repeat of PBS Nature’s Crash: A Tale of Two Species on your local channel (available on DVD, too). If I could find a DVD of NOVA’s Flight of the Red Knot tv program, produced at the time the book was published, I’d pick up one of those for myself . . .

Good birding and see you next month – Rufous Hummingbirds are just beginning to migrate through Utah!


  1. Superb photos and absolutely amazing migration stats for such a small wader.

  2. Great story and beautiful shots! We get a few come through here in central Florida at Fort Desoto but not many.

  3. Fascinating post, exceptional photographs!