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The death of a Redknot

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POSTED: March 18, 2009 1:00 a.m.

There is a bird called the Redknot but it is not red. It comes in two sizes, skinny sparrow and fat robin. When it comes to distance traveled and obstacles to overcome, this amazing creature is a poster bird for other migratory birds. There are lessons to be learned from observing the Redknot. This little creature, weighing less than five ounces, provides us with another example of the fact that all of nature is ‘connected’.

If you hear someone mention the word "peeps" or "sandpiper" they are referring to the Redknot family. If you are an avid birder you go deeper than that, but for the rest of us casual observers it is sufficient to say that the Redknot is one of the "peeps" that visits our shores twice a year along with a number of other first cousins in the sandpiper family. The reference to them as peeps comes from the sounds they make.

The Redknot makes its home in Tierra del Fuego in southern South America, a stone’s throw from Antarctica. Every year they set their course for the Arctic, almost ten thousand miles away! One leg of their journey is non-stop over four thousand miles of open water.

Areas where birds traditionally land to rest, feed and regain their strength for the next leg of their migration are called ‘staging areas’. The Altamaha River Basin in Georgia is one of those areas. In the early spring you can see the Redknots all along the Georgia coast but the Altamaha area supports huge flocks of them feeding and accumulating fat, a source of energy for the next leg of their journey.

Now if I may digress for a sentence or two, we are all used to seeing sea gulls. You see one gull you have seen them all. Right? Wrong. There are actually many species of seagulls. When you observe them feeding on the shoreline there can be a variety of seagulls as well as other species of shorebirds in various stages of migration or nesting mixed in with them. The common presence of seagulls on the beach, particularly at lunch time, makes them a target for kids and dogs to chase.

 

This presents a problem, particularly for the migratory birds that are busy surviving. They have a very limited time period in which to consume certain amounts of food to gain specific amounts of body mass to convert to energy to stay airborne for hundreds of miles to their next staging area. Failure to do so can result in death by starvation or predation when they become too weak to fly. Some shore birds nest along Coastal Georgia in the sand dunes. The adults feed at the edge of the surf and carry food back to the chicks hidden in the tall sea oats. Humans and animals interrupt their feeding and travel from the surf to the nest. Too many of these interruptions and the adult bird might very well abandon the nest and leave the chicks to starvation or predators.

 

There is reason for the rule "no dogs on the beach". That applies tenfold to the Barrier Islands. Nobody has it in for your dog. It’s just that nesting or feeding birds already have to contend with human traffic, and the usual predators such as feral cats, raccoons, wild pigs and even other birds. Unfortunately nesting and feeding activity peaks during our summer months when the beaches on the barrier islands are occupied by people. We need to be a little more aware of our surroundings and conduct ourselves accordingly. On the barrier islands you are not allowed further inland than the high-water mark by LAW. If you don’t know what the high water mark is then you shouldn’t be riding around in a boat. If you are beach walking and approach a flock of feeding birds, give them a wide berth or allow them time to transit from the shore edge to the grass area. They are probably carrying food to their young. There are islands that are completely off limits during bird nesting season. Call the DNR and the NFWS for information.

 

Now back to the Redknot. A few weeks ago I wrote an article about horseshoe crabs and their contribution to humanity. The Delaware Bay area, where the horseshoe crab is so prevalent and coveted by scientists for its blood and it’s shell to be used in medical applications along with other areas of research, is also the most important staging area for the Redknot on its journey north. Horseshoe crabs lay billions of eggs of which a certain number become crabs and far more become part of the ocean’s food chain. Those eggs are also the main staple of the Redknot at a most critical point in their migration. These eggs are only laid at specific times of the year and are only accessible for a matter of days.

 

Redknots arrive by the thousands at exactly the right time and begin to consume millions of horseshoe crab eggs. How is that for a connection! ...Antarctic members of the Sandpiper family surviving on horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay. They depart Antarctica at exactly the right time and travel thousands of miles just in time to harvest the eggs. When the birds arrive they are starved. Their flight has reduced them to the size of sparrows. They are worn-out, skinny, little birds that have actually started burning muscle in a desperate reach for the shores of the Delaware Bay. When they start off weighing less than five ounces, they can’t afford to lose much.

 

Let me inject here that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the scientific community for their efforts to understand our natural environment with the resulting improvement to the quality of our own lives. Research scientists must have a wealth of patience. Their work requires it. In the case of the Redknot they know exactly how many crab eggs a Redknot must eat in a given period of time to gain back the weight that puts them in the "fat robin" class. The Redknot is on a tight schedule dictated by Mother Nature.

 

When the Redknots lift off from the Delaware Bay area they begin a non-stop flight all the way to the Arctic. They have turned from a grey mottled coat to flashy reddish tones in preparation for attracting mates. Upon arrival in the Arctic they will mate, nest, have their young and on Mother Nature’s signal begin their return trip to the Antarctica with their young accompanying them. Traveling nineteen thousand miles doesn’t put the Redknot in first place for distance traveled during migration. The Pectoral Sandpiper, with a round trip covering close to twenty-four thousand miles, holds the longest migration record. That’s another story for another day.

 

The main diet for migratory birds is insects. The Redknot loves flies and fly larva when in the Arctic. Ask anyone who has been into the upper reaches of Alaska, the Klondike, or the Northwest Territory about the fly population and the insect population in general.

 

Unfortunately Redknot numbers are declining as are many of the shore birds with the exception of the common gull. The most obvious reason is destruction of habitat. There is depletion of food supply by over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs. That is being worked on. There is interference with nesting and feeding. All species of shore birds, with the exception of the common gull, are rapidly decreasing in number and many are on the endangered list. Humans interrupt the birds’ natural processes and the ever present danger of pollution is killing sea birds in record numbers. Plastic is a major offender. Plastic bottles, etc, break down into 1/4-inch pellets called "nurdles" that probably look like fish eggs and food to birds. Sea birds are ingesting the plastic and trash found along our shores and floating in the oceans. They feed it to their young and die of starvation. Let’s see, how many of those reasons are human related? ALL of them!

 

Nature is all connected. We need to do a better job of learning where the connections are and how to become part of the solution to the damage we are doing to our natural environment and stop being part of the problem.

 

 

 

 

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