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"Red Knots in Peril, in Patagonia, and Other Places"

Armas Hill has presented the "Birdline", originally from Philadelphia, on the phone and internet for over 3 decades, and on the radio in Delaware for about 10 years.


A List & Photo Gallery of North American Birds, in 6 Parts

A List & Photo Gallery of Argentina Birds, in 2 Parts

A List & Photo Gallery of Chile Birds, in 2 Parts

The Birdline for June 13, 2005 & again July 27, 2006:

The following is special Birdline/FONT feature, as it was given on the Birdline on the internet on June 13, 2005, relating to KNOTS and other shorebirds that have staged annually over the years, in the late-spring, along the shores of the Delaware Bay in the USA. That phenomenon may not continue, in the future, to be what it has been.

Excerpts from the following feature were on the Birdline on the Radio on June 15 & 22, 2005 on radio station AM 1450 WILM in Wilmington, Delaware, where the Birdline was heard on Wednesdays before 6am, 9am, and 7pm (Eastern Time). The Birdline on the Radio was heard anywhere on the web. 
The text of an additional Birdline Feature, given on the Birdlines on the internet, on June 22, is also included before the end of the following text.

Red Knot
(Photo by Howard Eskin)

in Chile, Argentina, Delaware & New Jersey, and northern Canada
written by Armas Hill

Thousands of miles away, in southern South America, there's a ferry that carries mostly trucks and a few cars across the Strait of Magellan. Even though it's at the eastern end of the strait, not far from the Atlantic, it's in Chile.

In the water, by the boat, there are COMMERSON'S DOLPHINS (with their beautiful black and white pattern).
Also in the water, MAGELLANIC PENGUINS fish. 
In the sky, KING CORMORANTS fly (with black-and-white coloration, like the dolphins and the penguins). 
In the air, above the feeding penguins, there are SOUTH AMERICAN TERNS emitting their raucous calls as they fly about. 
SOUTHERN GIANT-PETRELS fly by, ready to scavenge. 
At a distance, over the sea, BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSSES continuously glide up and down in arcs. 

Also at a distance, on the beach, there's a flock of SHOREBIRDS that only recently arrived from somewhere else. 
It's November. When it's spring, going into summer, there, back here in the Northern Hemisphere, from where the shorebirds came, it's fall, going into winter. 
All of the other wildlife just mentioned reside year-round in the Southern Hemisphere. But the shorebirds have gone from one summer to another to feed on the beach there, in the intertidal zone of mollusks and crustaceans. 
The SHOREBIRDS in a flock are RED KNOTS, the subspecies CALIDRIS CANUTUS RUFA, that inhabits the Americas.

In that area of Chile, just referred to, nearly no people live. There are no towns or cities. Even the ferry operators live in small settlements some distance away. There's no pollution, and virtually no noise (other than what's natural). 
If one were to walk along the coast with the KNOTS, just a short distance from the sound of the ferry, only surf and natural sounds such as the raucous calls of the TERNS would be heard.   

Also in southern Argentina, but a thousand miles to the north, along the Atlantic, there are long and clean beaches that extend for miles. Again, many of those miles are without people, pollution, and unnatural noise.

Along some stretches of that coast, in Patagonia, there are SEALS and SEA-LIONS, KILLER WHALES and DOLPHINS, in and beyond the surf, and SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES in some of the bays. 
Various GULLS and TERNS are throughout. 
Also along parts of that Argentine coast, there can be thousands of MANX SHEARWATERS (in November, having come from the European side of the North Atlantic), and groups of colorful BURROWING PARROTS that reside in the sandy coastal bluffs by the ocean. 
Along the sandy beaches below the bluffs and beyond for many miles, there are flocks of SHOREBIRDS. Again, during the Austral spring and summer, they are RED KNOTS. Birds in these flocks until recently numbered in the thousands.

Inland, just a few miles, from one of those coastal locations in Argentina, there's a large farm property with many acres of natural shrubby vegetation. 
There's a lot of (natural) sound there, as the terrain is filled with MOCKINGBIRDS of two species that are very vocal. 
There are a number of interesting landbirds, including one endemic to Argentina, the CARBONATED FINCH (a sparkling bird!)
What has also been there is another songster, the YELLOW CARDINAL (instead of being red & black as ours is, it's yellow and black).

The farm just described is owned by a man named Senor (or Mr.) Manana
Yes, it's true, "Senor Manana". 
As the YELLOW CARDINAL that's been on his property is prized as a cage bird, due to its beautiful song and striking appearance, people sometimes come there to capture it. 
With too much of that unfortunate activity recently, that species has now been classified by Birdlife International as "endangered", the second level after "critically threatened". With too much of that activity, that species won't have too many more "mananas" (or "tomorrows", in Spanish).

Down the highway a bit from Sr. Manana's farm, there's a hotel, where young ornithologists have periodically stayed, the last few years, from October onwards, as they have been banding the RED KNOTS on the nearby beaches. 
In conversations there at the hotel, even just a decade ago, it was not anticipated that those SHOREBIRDS there would be declining as drastically as the pretty songster, the YELLOW CARDINAL, down the road. 
It now appears that the American subspecies of the RED KNOT, Calidris canutus rufa, also, may not have too many more "mananas".

About a week before I wrote this essay (back on Sunday, June 5, 2005), in Delaware USA, people from the division of fish & wildlife of that state, were continuing their efforts to monitor the SHOREBIRDS along the Delaware Bayshore, as they had been doing every year since 1997. 
Along the coast that day, near South Bowers Beach, there was a lingering group of SHOREBIRDS that contained about 600 KNOTS, 600 SANDERLINGS, 1,500 RUDDY TURNSTONES, and 1,500 SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS. 
During 6 hours with the birds that day, the researchers found about 50 marked, or banded, birds. About half of them were RED KNOTS, marked during the previous three years (2002-2004), with some lime flags. At least 1 was flagged in Chile (maybe by the beach by the Strait of Magellan), and 3 of the KNOTS were flagged in Argentina (probably on the Atlantic beach in northern Patagonia, near Senor Manana's farm). 

Every year, the RED KNOTS, Calidris canutus rufa, make a nearly 18,000-mile round-trip journey between Argentina & Chile and far-northern North America (Arctic Canada), where they nest. 
The first stage of their northbound migration includes, as it has for a long, long time, a 3 to 4 thousand mile flight (usually non-stop) to the Delaware Bay shores. Upon their arrival, the hungry birds must feed on the HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS, laid on the beach at that time of year, in the late-spring. That feeding is necessary for the birds to continue, with the needed energy, on the rest of their migration, with yet another long flight to northern Canada. The RED KNOT depends almost exclusively on the HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS to successfully complete the migration to their nesting grounds.

The RED KNOT population, visiting the Delaware Bay shores in the spring, has numbered more than 150,000 birds
Recent surveys, however, have shown that number has dropped dramatically to an estimated 15,000 birds.
In the last 10 years, according to these studies, this RED KNOT population has declined more than 90%.

Surveys in the Delaware Bay area have fluctuated from about 16,000 in 2003 down to about 13,000 in 2004, then up to about 15,000 in 2005.

Added to this is a sad statistic relating to a recent survey in South America. In 2005, there, only 17,600 KNOTS were counted, a decline of 40% from the previous year.

If some real action is not taken, and taken soon, to change this situation, the species here may well be extinct in just years, by the end of the current decade. That action needs to be taken to prevent that outcome. 
The RED KNOT, in the Americas, may now be said to be the most endangered SHOREBIRD POPULATION in the world.    

The Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, in an interview around the time when I wrote this essay last year, said that examination was underway regarding some quick action for the listing of the KNOT as a federally Threatened Species. That would have bypassed some usual procedures for such a listing, which can take as much as 20 years. (The RED KNOT simply does not have that much time - that many "mananas".) 
In this instance, federal officials estimated that they could make the decision within 18 months, as to the listing of the bird as federally "Threatened". (Does anyone know what happened in this regard?)   

Not just the RED KNOT, but 5 other species of SHOREBIRDS, are dependent upon the HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS along the Delaware Bayshore.

In 2005, according to New Jersey's chief endangered species biologist, surveys of HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS in New Jersey and Delaware indicated, where as normally 4,000 eggs are laid per meter, the count was about 1,500. That was not good.        

Also, in both New Jersey and Delaware, HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS have been harvested, with annual harvests being about 150,000. 
Thus, in certain years, there have been 300,000 less HORSESHOE CRABS, depleting further the food supply needed by the RED KNOT and 5 other species of SHOREBIRDS.

A group of 11 organizations (in 2005) joined together to petition the state governments of New Jersey and Delaware, with a proposal of 4 specific actions urgently needed to save the situation, due to all the evidence that there is of a "death spiral" for the RED KNOT.

The 11 organizations: the American Bird Conservancy, the American Littoral Society, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Defenders of Wildlife, the Delaware Audubon Society, the Delaware Riverkeeper, the National Audubon Society, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, the NJ Public Interest Research Group, and the Sierra Club.

The 4 actions:
1) institution of a moratorium on HORSESHOE CRAB harvesting
2) support efforts in surrounding states to enact such a moratorium and measures to conserve the shared resource
3) support efforts to federally list the RED KNOT, Calidris canutus rufa, under the Endangered Species Act
4) continue bay-wide efforts to reduce human harassment (of all kinds) of forging SHOREBIRDS

Our time here is now up. Let's hope that soon it won't be for the RED KNOT, as it has been in the Americas. But it may already be too late. It's time may soon be up, and it may not have too many more "mananas".

There's more information regarding the history of SHOREBIRDS along the Delaware Bay, in the following Birdline Feature that was given on the internet, on Birdline Delaware and the Philadelphia Birdline, on June 22, 2005, as continuation of the preceding June 13th feature:

Last time, during our feature referring to the RED KNOT, it was noted that in 2004, survey-work indicated that the late-spring staging population along the Delaware Bayshore was about 13,000 birds. That's considerably less than what the population was a couple decades ago.

It was also noted last time that the RED KNOT is just one of about a half-dozen species of SHOREBIRDS that stage in the late-spring along the shores of the Delaware Bay.

Now, let's go back to 2 decades ago to look at what numbers of SHOREBIRDS along the Delaware Bay were at THAT TIME. This look is to give a better perspective. 
The information that follows is from an essay in the book, "Birds of Delaware" by Gene Hess, Richard West, Maurice Barnhill, and Lorraine Fleming. The essay, entitled "Spring Shorebirds on Delaware Bay" was by Howard Brokaw. Of course, we can only cover here part of what's in that essay.

Over 90 per cent of the SHOREBIRDS that flock in the late-spring along the Delaware Bay are of 4 species: SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, RUDDY TURNSTONE, RED KNOT, and SANDERLING.

On May 29, 2006, this flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers
was along the Delaware Bay at Port Mahon, in Delaware.
(Photograph  by Howard Eskin)    

Smaller numbers of SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHERS and DUNLIN also occur. That makes 6 species of SHOREBIRDS in addition to LAUGHING GULLS that feed on the HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS on the beach. Also, about a dozen other species of SHOREBIRDS occur in the area in the spring.

Semipalmated Sandpipers
(photo by Howard Eskin)

During the years 1982 to 1995, as many as 272,000 SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS were counted on both shores (Delaware & New Jersey) of the Delaware Bay. 
The high-day of the year, during that period, averaged 112,000
After 1988, no day-count exceeded 100,000.

These SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS fly non-stop 2,700 miles from Surinam, in northern South America, to the Delaware Bay shores. It is an astonishing journey, really, for those small birds - smaller yet, weighing less than an ounce when they arrive. 
Once by the Bay, they fuel up on the HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS, as they must, to continue their migration north. This feeding is also necessary, in the same way, for the same reason, for the other shorebird species about to mentioned.         

During the years just referred to, the annual high-day for RUDDY TURNSTONES averaged 70,000. It was as high as 108,000 in 1989. 
The TURNSTONES by the Delaware Bay in May probably represent about three-quarters of the eastern North American population. These birds winter from South Carolina south to southern South America, along the Atlantic Coast.
With their sturdy bills, TURNSTONES not only turn stones, they also dig holes in the sand to expose more HORSESHOE CRAB EGGS. They thus provide what could be called a FORAGING SERVICE for other shorebirds.

Regarding RED KNOTS, most of which migrate to the Delaware Bay from as far south as Tierra del Fuego (in far-southern South America), nearly as many as 100,000 have been counted during one day (96,000). The average high-day for the species during the survey period (1982-1995) was 48,000.

Many of the SANDERLINGS that stage by the Delaware Bay in May come mostly from wintering-quarters in Brazil. But some also come from the sandy coasts of Peru and Chile on the Pacific side of South America. A few winter further north, in for example, Florida. 
The maximum high-count for SANDERLINGS by the Delaware Bay in May started to decline in the early 1980's. From 56,000 in 1982, it dropped steadily to a level of 10,000 in 1993, 1994, & 1995. 
That decline followed a substantial decrease of perhaps 80 per cent of the SANDERLING population along the East Coast of the USA from 1972 to 1982, continuing the downward spiral. 
Generally, over the years, in the Delaware Bay area, SANDERLINGS have been more to the south, closer to the mouth of the Bay.

To continue our look back at SHOREBIRDS by the Delaware Bay, and to continue our effort to get a good perspective of what has been, we'll go now to the writings, done back in 1937, by one of the foremost ornithologists of the region in those days, Witmer Stone. His work, published that year, was entitled "Bird Studies at Old Cape May".

What Witmer Stone did NOT refer to in that work were LARGE FLOCKS of SHOREBIRDS as just mentioned, being by the Bay on the New Jersey side, at places such as Reed's Beach, where since then such large flocks have been. 
One could assume, wrongly perhaps, that those flocks of KNOTS and TURNSTONES and the like were there, but that Mr. Stone did not know about them. However, when reading through his book, it's apparent that ornithologists of that day did know what was about, and so another assumption can be made that such large flocks simply weren't there.

What Witmer Stone did refer to was the rampant shooting of SHOREBIRDS that formerly took place along the coast. 
The RED KNOT, he said, was known to the gunners as the "ROBIN SNIPE" or "RED-BREASTED SNIPE". 
It, along with the DOWITCHER (in those days a single species), before the shooting was abolished, were among the most desirable of the SHOREBIRDS from the gunner's standpoint, as they both decoyed easily. Thus, they both, according to Stone, "nearly approached extermination".
The accounts in Stone's 1937 book refer to KNOTS occurring in southern New Jersey, in the early part of the 20th Century, in small groups of 150 or so, or in "low numbers" of less than a hundred. He relates that a gunner, for instance, in late-May 1907, shot 29 of them in Cape May County.     

Something very important in relation to SHOREBIRDS happened in 1913. That year, the Federal Migratory Bird Law went into effect and the season was CLOSED on ALL shorebirds except the WOODCOCK, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, GOLDEN PLOVER, and SNIPE (known then as the WILSON'S SNIPE, as it's now known again today), and the two species of YELLOWLEGS.
In 1926, the two species of PLOVERS were put on the protected list, and in 1927 the YELLOWLEGS followed them.
The season on WOODCOCK and SNIPE, the only two "shorebirds" remaining on the game list, was subsequently reduced to one month with a bag limit.

Populations of the SHOREBIRDS of coastal New Jersey were monitored in the late 1920's and early 1930's. During that period, let's pick a year - 1931
For that year, here's a ranking of SHOREBIRD SPECIES in NJ, during their northward spring migration in May, listing the most common first, and then those less so in descending order:
 1) Semipalmated Sandpiper
 2) Ruddy Turnstone
 3) Black-bellied Plover
 4) Semipalmated Plover
 5) Greater Yellowlegs
 6) Sanderling
 7) Least Sandpiper
 8) Dowitcher (nearly all Short-billed of course, but in those days as noted, it was a single species)
 9) Whimbrel (then called Hudsonian Curlew)
10) (Red) Knot
11) Dunlin (called Red-backed Sandpiper)
12) Lesser Yellowlegs
13) Western Sandpiper

A Dunlin surrounded by Semipalmated Sandpipers
(photo by Howard Eskin)

The following SHOREBIRDS, overall during the period 1929-1934, were classified in New Jersey as "abundant" or "very common": SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, SANDERLING, DOWITCHER, LEAST SANDPIPER, GREATER YELLOWLEGS.

Notice, now, that the RED KNOT was in the second category, those classified as "common"
In that grouping, there were these species: BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, KILLDEER, RUDDY TURNSTONE, DUNLIN, RED KNOT, WESTERN SANDPIPER, LESSER YELLOWLEGS (less common during the northbound migration than during the southbound), WHIMBREL, PECTORAL SANDPIPER, SPOTTED SANDPIPER.

The author Peter Matthiessen wrote a fine book about SHOREBIRDS, published in 1967, and entitled "The Wind Birds"
In it, he also alluded to the widespread shooting of shorebirds that was referred to by Witmer Stone. That shooting was very prevalent in the late 1800's. It also continued in the early 1900's, even as some species started to show significant declines. 
Matthiessen wrote that "under the circumstances, it's a wonder that any SHOREBIRDS survived into the 20th Century". They were shot in numbers, and they were trapped. There was even a practice of "fire-lightning", that was commonly done, for example on Long Island NY, when after dark resting flocks of shorebirds, blinded by a bright beam, stood by while men stepped out from punts and wrung their necks.

Among the gunners of that era, KNOTS and DOWITCHERS, as noted earlier, were favorites. So were GOLDEN PLOVERS and ESKIMO CURLEWS, not only because of their fine taste and great numbers (yes, even so for the CURLEW), but also because they were unsuspicious to a fault. The ESKIMO CURLEW would circle back over the guns, calling out to its fallen companions. That was a habit shared by the DUNLIN, DOWITCHER, and other species. The DUNLIN was called "the simpleton" by Long Island hunters, reflecting the low esteem in which its brain was held.  

After the legal protection for SHOREBIRDS came to be, as noted in 1913, for a number of species, through the 20th Century, things improved. For the ESKIMO CURLEW, it was too late.
Yes, SHOREBIRDS that at one time exist by the thousands, can in time disappear.

The following is a passage from Alexander Wilson's "American Ornithology", written in the early 19th Century:

"Everyone who has been on the shore, on a day gleaming and cloudy, may have seen MASSES of these birds at a distance, appearing like a dark and swiftly moving cloud, suddenly vanishing, but then in a second, appearing at some distance, glowing with a silvery light almost too intense to gaze upon. These are the consequences of the simultaneous motions of the flock, at once changing their position, showing the dark gray of their backs, or the pure white of their underparts."  

With these words, Alexander Wilson was writing about the KNOT (in its winter plumage). In his day, the bird was called the "ASH-COLORED SANDPIPER".
The scientific name, "CALIDRIS CANUTUS", refers to King Canute, who loved to eat it (the species does have a European population).

4 books, written over the years, have already been noted in this essay. 
Here's another one: "The Flight of the Red Knot" by Brian Harrington and Charles Flowers, published in 1996. If you can get it, it's interesting, and with good background about the KNOT.

Now (in July), the SHOREBIRDS that migrated north to the Arctic to nest, including the RED KNOT, are on their way south.

FONT (Focus On Nature Tours) goes to southern South America, to Argentina & Chile. Although people don't normally travel to the opposite end of the world to see birds that migrate from their homelands, it is a nice experience to see the places where these birds go. And it's fascinating in a way to share the long migration of the KNOTS and other SHOREBIRDS.

Places to be visited in southern South America referred to in this bulletin include:

PATAGONIAN ARGENTINA: the coastal region with the miles of beaches, and Senor Manana's farm (with the YELLOW CARDINAL), north of the Valdez Peninsula, and TIERRA DEL FUEGO, in far-southern ARGENTINA.

During FONT Argentina tours, in addition to the YELLOW CARDINAL and RED KNOT, other birds and wildlife in preceding text have been seen, including: MAGELLANIC PENGUIN (including a colony with a million), SOUTHERN GIANT-PETREL, BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS, MANX SHEARWATER, SOUTH AMERICAN TERN, BURROWING PARROT, CARBONATED FINCH, and SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE, KILLER WHALE (or ORCA), and SEALS and SEA-LIONS. And that's just some of the nature that we've observed!  

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