Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fly me to the Moon, but stop in New Jersey on the way: the incredible migrating Red Knot

Reports are that Moonbird has once again landed in New Jersey to enjoy a hearty meal on the beach in Cape May County.

Ivan gets a good look at Moonbird, the larger-than-life Red Knot
(photo was not taken in New Jersey, but I couldn't resist.)
Lest you think an extraterrestrial avian creature was discovered on the Delaware Bayshore, let me explain. Moonbird is one of a dwindling number of Red Knots, robin-sized shorebirds that visit us enroute from their winter havens in coastal Argentina and Chile up to their summer nesting spots in Arctic reaches of Canada. Estimates are that as few as 25,000 individuals remain, and scientists have been studying them for several years, tagging several of the birds to track their routes. Carrying the number B95 on his leg band, Moonbird got his nickname for the mind-boggling distance he's flown so far in his life. Over the 19 years since he was banded near Tierra del Fuego, he's traveled a distance equaling the trip from the Earth to the moon, and halfway back.

Ivan and I headed to Reed's Beach last Saturday in the hopes of finding a few Red Knots and maybe Moonbird himself. It's about the right time for them to land along the bayshore, about two-thirds of the way into a 9300 mile trek that's among the longest for any migrating species. During that kind of trip, they need a good refueling stop, and nature's ingenious scheduling accommodates well. As I mentioned in my last post, it's horseshoe crab mating season, and Red Knots are prodigious eaters of the eggs the helmeted arthropods lay on our beaches. By the time they leave for the Arctic, they'll have doubled their weight.

The endangered shorebird area at Reed's Beach.
Note light development to the left of the sign.
Reed's Beach is a smallish community, with maybe two dozen bungalows and a marina that serves recreational fishing boats up to 36 feet. Once you hit the end of the road, a walk along the jetty brings you to the bayshore. The beach is currently marked off with string and signs warning beach walkers not to stroll any farther during migratory shorebird feeding season, which is May 7 through June 7 in 2014.

Relegated to a small area, our view of the birds wasn't all that great. Though Laughing Gulls were in abundance nearby, only a few Sanderlings were visible by naked eye. Several horseshoe crabs were stranded on the beach, overturned by waves and helpless, but we couldn't cross the line to help them, not without harassing the birds.

After Ivan got the viewing scope, sighting became a bit easier, but still not optimal. A cluster of Red Knots was feeding far down the beach with a few Ruddy Turnstones, but we were really hoping for a much better look. This was my first exposure to real, live Red Knots, and I definitely wanted the chance to appreciate them in more detail. After having heard so much about the spectacle of their migration, I wasn't going to let one small sighting stand as my introduction.

Our luck was a bit better at Cook's Beach, just to the south of Reed's, where we found a small gathering of birders fixated at a spot a couple hundred yards up the shoreline. A sizeable cluster of Red Knots was enjoying their sand-bound feast, their brick-colored necks and breasts differentiating them from the Turnstones milling about with them. Ivan got the scope out for a closer look and estimated that a couple hundred of them were mixed in with the other species pecking away for their lunches. To this uneducated eye, they looked healthy and as eager to eat as ravenous passengers at an all-you-can-eat cruise ship buffet.

The Delaware Bayshore, as seen from Cook's Beach.
Houses on Reed's Beach are barely visible to the left of center.
We agreed: anything else we'd see for the rest of the day would be a bonus. New Jersey was doing its part, at least for these little guys, in sustaining and hopefully encouraging the growth in Red Knot numbers. What percentage of the total population was represented by the large group we'd seen? Small, we hoped, but the numbers aren't likely to be known for a while.

When you stand on the beach of the Delaware Bayshore, you can't help but appreciate the difference between it and, say, Long Beach Island. Sparse development along the beach leaves sufficient room for nature to exist, grow and thrive, whether it's migrating shorebirds, spawning crabs, or the gulls that wheel and laugh as they navigate the winds. Dunes are covered in grass, backed up by marshes that obscure all manners and shapes of life. And it's important for people, too: a quiet beach is a wonderful place to get reacquainted with the natural rhythms of life, and to just be. It shows us what's possible when we leave a portion of our shoreline to evolve on its own, rather than focusing on developing every last inch for human use.

After all, Red Knots travel thousands of miles to get to our undeveloped beaches. Could they know something we don't?

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