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Red Knots
in America
in Peril

in Delaware and New Jersey in the US,
where they stage, 
in northern Canada where they nest, 
and in Chile and Argentina
where they spend a second summer

A Narrative written by Armas Hill

Followed by Some Notes about a Shorebird
that is now Beyond Peril,
the Eskimo Curlew.

It's Gone.

A Red Knot in non-breeding plumage
(photo by Howard Eskin)

The following text is from a special feature, as it was given on the "Birdline" by Armas Hill 
on the internet on June 13, 2005, 
relating to RED 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. 
Those KNOTS having flown there from Patagonia in South America.  

Some of this feature was on the Birdline on the Radio on June 15 & 22, 2005.
Other text of this Birdline feature, given on the internet only, on June 22, is also given here.

The feature that follows relates to the connection in the birdlife throughout the Americas,
in places that geographically are so far apart,
with the KNOTS staging in eastern North America before 
nesting in Arctic Canada and then migrating to far-southern South America, year after year.   

In 2015, an excellent book, loaded with information, was published,
about the Red Knot and the Horseshoe Crab, 
entitled "The Narrow Edge, a Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey",
well written by Deborah Cramer.

A Red Knot in breeding plumage
(Photo by Howard Eskin)


Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in:  North America    Argentina & Chile

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Lists & Photo Galleries of Birds of:  
Delaware, Maryland, Virginia (Delmarva Peninsula)    North America    Argentina

in Delaware and New Jersey in the US, 
in northern Canada,
and in Chile and Argentina 

a narrative written by Armas Hill

Thousands of miles away from us here in North America, in far-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.

Commerson's Dolphin

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, but on a beach, there's a flock of shorebirds that only recently arrived from somewhere else. 
It's November. When it's spring, going into summer, at the Strait of Magellan, back in the Northern Hemisphere, from where the shorebirds came, it's fall, going into winter. 
All of the other wildlife just mentioned resides 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 is 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 coast, 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 big, 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, again, 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 kilometers, 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! (Yes, that's a pun.) 
What has also been there is another songster, the Yellow Cardinal. (Instead of being red & black as is the Cardinal in North America, it's yellow and black.)

The Yellow Cardinal in South America

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. 
During our tours, we have stayed at that same hotel.
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. 

About a week before I wrote this essay (back on Sunday, June 5, in 2005), in Delaware USA, people with 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.

Above: a mass of Horseshoe Crabs on a tidal shoreline of eastern North America 
Below: a single Horseshoe Crab
(upper photo by Howard Eskin; lower photo by Rise Hill)


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 those studies, this Red Knot population has declined more than 90%.

Surveys in the Delaware Bay area have fluctuated from about
16,000 Red Knots 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.

The Red Knot, in the Americas, may now be said to be the most endangered shorebird population in the world.    

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 grouping of 11 organizations have 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 of the evidence that there is of a "death spiral" for the Red Knot.

The 11 organizations are these: 
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 foraging shorebirds.

Truly time is of the essence for helping the Red Knot, to be as it has been in the Americas. Without such help, again, there simply may not be that many more "mananas" for the bird, on the beaches not that from from Senor Manana's farm.   

Now, some more information regarding the history of shorebirds including the Red Knot along the Delaware Bay, as given by Armas Hill in the Birdline Feature on the internet, on Birdline Delaware and the Philadelphia Birdline, on June 22, 2005, as a continuation of the June 13 feature that preceded it:

It was noted that in 2004, survey-work indicated that the late-spring staging population of the Red Knot along the Delaware Bayshore was about 13,000 birds. 
And it was noted that was considerably less than what the population was a couple decades previously.

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.

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, in the spring, 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 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 Ruddy 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 (from 1982 to 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 that 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 Delaware 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 is 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 that part of the coast of eastern North America. 
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 is 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 New Jersey, 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 (was then called the Hudsonian Curlew)
10 -  RED KNOT
11 -  Dunlin (was called then the Red-backed Sandpiper)
12 -  Lesser Yellowlegs
13 -  Western Sandpiper

A Dunlin surrounded by Semipalmated Sandpipers.
The Dunlin has been called the "Red-backed Sandpiper".
(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, Sedmipalmated Plover, Sanderling, Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlwgs.
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 existed by the thousands, can in time disappear.

The ESKIMO CURLEW is referred to later in this narrative.  

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.
Another one is: "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.

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 the 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!


A Now Extinct Bird Species in the Americas 

Referring to the Eskimo Curlew, which occurred in the past in both eastern North America and Argentina 

The last sighting (unconfirmed) of the Eskimo Curlew in North America was in the 1980s. 
The last sighting in South America was in 1939.

The last specimen of an Eskimo Curlew was a bird shot in Barbados, in the West Indies, in 1964. 
By the 1970's, it was assumed that the species was gone, but there was a sighting (only) of a flock of 23 birds in Texas in 1981.

In the area of the Caribbean, the Eskimo Curlew was perhaps a rare migrant from late August to early November, except on the island of Barbados where it occurred regularly in American Golden Plover flocks during their southbound migration.

Formerly, the Eskimo Curlew was an abundant breeder in northwestern Canada, and it undertook a long migration south to central Argentina and back each year. 
It was hunted by the thousands for food and sport on the western plains of the United States (during its northbound, spring migration), primarily from 1870 to 1900. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the bird had become relatively scarce. 

Another, longer narrative about the Eskimo Curlew follows, beneath the illustration below.

A painting of an Eskimo Curlew by Archibald Thorbum

Another name for the Eskimo Curlew was the "Doe-bird", sometimes spelled "Dough-bird". That name was due to the bird's acquiring of fatness for its long journey south.  

As North America was being settled by the Europeans, the Eskimo Curlew was one of the most abundant birds on the continent.
It bred on the Barren Grounds of northern Canada. It wintered in far-southern South America. It migrated in between.
It was said, during its southbound migration, to have visited Newfoundland "in millions" darkening the sky.
John James Audubon, Elliot Coues, and other ornithologists of the early 1800s told of immense flights.
In the Prairie States, the numbers of Eskimo Curlews so resembled the tremendous flights of Passenger Pigeons that they were called "Prairie Pigeons".
A single flock alighting in Nebraska was said to have covered 40 to 50 acres of ground.

The Eskimo Curlew migrated south in August southeast to Labrador and Newfoundland, where they fed on "curlew berries" (Empetrum nigrum) and snails, gaining the weight needed for their long journey out over the sea to South America.
Easterly storms, such as hurricanes that time of year, sometimes brought them onto the coasts of New England and Long Island, New York. They often touched down on Lesser Antillean islands, such as Barbados, before continuing on to to the coast of Brazil, and then further to Argentina.

During their northbound spring route, after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, they arrived in March in southern Texas, and then continued up the western Mississippi Valley, and thence further north to where they would nest.

But from being abundant, the status of the Eskimo Curlew in the 19th Century certainly changed.

Incredibly, the Eskimo Curlew was not seen anywhere at its known breeding grounds for years after 1865. 
Just over a century later, in 1987, a small nesting colony was said to be found in the Canadian Arctic, that was maybe the last.
The last breeding grounds of the Eskimo Curlew in northern Canada are said to have been in either Ungava or Franklin.  
The last Eskimo Curlews were either seen or shot at these places as follows:
in Illinois in 1872
in Ontario in 1873
in Ohio in 1878
in Arkansas and Michigan in 1883
in South Dakota and Oklahoma in 1884
in Minnesota in 1885
in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Newfoundland in 1889
in Indiana in 1890
in Iowa in 1893
in Prince Edward Island in 1901
in Kansas, Missouri, and Nova Scotia in 1902
in Quebec in 1906  (fair-sized flocks in the fall were in Quebec until 1891)
in Wisconsin in 1912
in Maryland, and Bermuda in 1913  (fair-sized flocks were in Bermuda until 1874)
in Massachusetts in 1916  (fair-sized flocks were in Massachusetts until 1883)
in Nebraska in 1926  (there was a more-recent report in Nebraska in 1987)    
in Maine in 1929  (fair-sized flocks were in Maine until 1879)
in Labrador and Long Island, New York in 1932 (fair-sized flocks in the fall were in Labrador until 1892) 
in South Carolina in 1956
in New Jersey in 1959
in the Bahamas in 1963
in Barbados in the Lesser Antilles in 1964, when one was shot.

No spring migrant was seen anywhere other than Texas since 1926. 
Along the Gulf coast of Texas, the last confirmed sighting, with a photograph, was at Galveston in 1962. A flock of 23 birds was reported there in 1981.    

There were additional, but unconfirmed records of Eskimo Curlews:
in Texas and Canada in 1987 (the Canadian "breeding site" noted above), in Nova Scotia in 2006, and in Argentina in 1990.  

The last Eskimo Curlews seen and confirmed at wintering grounds in South America, were in Argentina back in n 1939.   

With prevailing westerlies or strong storms, Eskimo Curlews were at times seen across the Atlantic Ocean:
Sighted or shot:
in England in 1852 (2 birds) and 1887.
in Scotland in 1855, 1878, 1880.
in Ireland in 1870.