Arctic, Expeditions and Travels, Tierra Del Fuego

Our Expeditions to the Arctic and Chile in search of red knots – 2000-2004: An introduction written 17 years later

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Following are a series of blogs I wrote 15 years ago while leading expeditions to the Arctic tundra and the pampas of  Tierra del Fuego (TDF).. We were following the wandering life of the red knot, a shorebird that migrates 20,000 miles every year from one end of the earth to the other, just to survive.  On it’s return from wintering sites like Tierra del Fuego, Brazil’s Maranhao, or Florida’s Gulf coast, most red knots stop for a few weeks on Delaware Bay.  You’ll see blogs in this site that describe this amazing wildlife spectacle shorebirds hosing down horseshoe crabs eggs, getting fat beyond all that is reasonable and using it as fuel for the final leg of the journey to their Arctic home. 

 

A fat and thin knot caught on Delaware Bay. The knot on the right weighs over 200 grams, the one on the left 110 grams. The fat bird will survive the flight to the Arctic breeding areas, the skinny may not.

 

With the help of Theo Deihl, I’ve taken these blogs buried deep in Division of Fish and Wildlife’s website and moved them to this site with restored pictures   The original pictures were severely degraded because we were transmitting them at a very low resolution on an early satellite phone that costs $2.50 a minute at dial-up speeds. 

The blogs represent the hard work of a team of scientists, some paid other volunteering their time, to figure out what could be causing the rapid decline of knots seen in Delaware Bay in the mid-1990’s.  At the time everyone did their best to look away from an unprecedented harvest of horseshoe crabs that ultimately reached 2.5 million/year. Crabs don’t breed until 10 years old, so the harvest decimated them quickly and completely.  It is truly bizarre, that one cannot stop an unwise fishery harvest without evidence of an impact, and so this destruction of a valuable resource continued until shorebird biologists could collect data to prove the impact.  

 

An Unforgiving Harvest

And so our work in Delaware Bay needed to expand to the Arctic and TDF  to prove simply these places were not the cause of the decline in shorebirds.  Now 15 years later the answer is obvious.  Crabs have still not recovered, shorebird declines are still underway and most of the profitable fisheries of Delaware Bay are lost, at least to the fishermen who live on the bay.   But then the answer was not clear.

 

Few harvested Horseshoe crabs until 1996. Once it got going millions were lost before any agency even attempted to control it.  When the dust settled nearly 3/4’s of the population was lost.  The population remains unrecovered.

 

Our first expeditions took place in 1999 before these blogs because the technology to report online was beyond our reach.  At the time no one had even seen a nesting red knot let alone study them.  To overcome this hurdle, we attached radio transmitters to knots while stopping over on Delaware Bay then followed them to the Arctic to find them.  While flying the frigid sky of Southampton Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay, we located eight birds with transmitters in an area the size of New England. 

The blogs that follow described our work the next year.  We found them from the air the previous year but afterwards we needed to locate them on the ground.  From  June 27, and July 15,  we combed the Arctic tundra and filed updates and photographs as we went along.

 

Old Posts Restored

Following this series of Arctic 2000 posts, I will post those originally sent from Tierra del Fuego.   There we studied the Chilean wintering site at Bahia Lomas.  When we started our work there we saw over 50,000 knots.  By 2004, the last series of posts the population have dropped by half.  Ultimately it would fall to 15,000. After these initial blogs, the reader will find blogs covering the work conducted over the next three years.

The goal of the work, in summary, was to determine the cause of shorebird declines, but 15 years ago before anyone accepted the cause as the overharvest of horseshoe crabs.   I post these mostly for the people who took part.  We endured world class hardship to answer that simple question in the hope that one day the problem would be resolved and the world could once again see the majesty of an ecological system working in good order.  Abundant horseshoe crabs fueling a natural economy of plenty,  for both birds and people.  The dream remains unfulfilled but the promise lives on.

 

A brooding red knot.

 

Thank You

 

The expedition has been made possible by the following organizations and agencies:

We are especially grateful to Linda Tesauro (CWF), Bill Weber, Stacey Lowe (WCS), Lisa Garrison (Dodge), Mary Ann Young, Cliff Day, Annette Scherer, Steve Atzert, Greg Breese (USFWS), Allan Baker (ROM), John Bognar (CRSSA), Ron Porter (engineer), Ed Swayda (pilot) and Ramshorn Hoochie Girl (Knot pointer).