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83 Red Knots and A Study Begins
We caught 83 red knots today along the edge of the Straits of Magellan. We did this with a house-sized net propelled by powerful cannons loaded with black powder. It happened fast. I yelled “3,2,1 fire!”, and our team of 10 biologists scrambled to the edge of the cold wind-tortured southern sea. We spent tense minutes that seemed hours extracting the birds from the net before gently tucking them into their temporary but warm burlap keeping cages. After nearly a week of preparations and equipment failures, we could finally get down to our craft. We measured and sampled. We banded. Finally, we glued tiny transmitters on trimmed back-feathers, a temporary attachment lasting just long enough to track the knot’s epic 10,000-mile journey back to their Arctic home.
If all goes well, we will learn more about the birds then ever before. The instrumented knots will visit places like Bahia Lomas, Chile, San Antonia Este, Argentina, Lagoa de Piexe and Maranhao Brazil, Kiawah Island, South Carolina, Delaware Bay New Jersey, James Bay, Ontario and the final destination the Canadian Arctic archipelago of islands including Southampton Island, Nunavut.
These robin-sized birds, radiant energy, and determination. When resting calmly in your hand, these gentle creatures feel like coiled springs ready to release in any moment of distraction. Once freed they’ll spend another month here in Bahia Lomas and then begin a flight of nearly unimaginable endurance. In one leg they will fly for seven days continuously without rest. Three immutable evolutionary forces control their hopeful effort to maintain the species: the need for food, avoiding predators and an existential drive to nest and rear young. It defines their existence.
Travel, Rest and Rebuild and Travel Again – the Life of a Long Distance Migrant Red Knot
For most of the year, knots will travel, rest and rebuild. Their time in the Arctic is a brief two-month interruption in a year- long back and forth. They stay longer in this wintry Tierra del Fuegian bay longer than any other place but their journey back and forth lands them in many places. In every site,however they play by the same evolutionary rules. Gain weight to travel long distances to ultimately breed and raise young and lose weight to avoid predators. In any one place, it’s a tension – added weight brings security from starvation and fuel for the next flight, too much fat, makes them vulnerable to predators like Peregrine Falcons. In every place, it’s a delicate balance
Not long after we release the captured knots, they would soon be seized once again by the need to return home. Leaving Bahia Lomas, they’ll skirt the Patagonian coasts reaching southern Brazil and begin the mother of all migratory flights, seven days of nonstop power flying. To do this, they cast away all caution and pack on fat with abandon. In the final days, they’ll reduce the organs of digestion in a last-ditch effort to make room for more fat.
The Dutch ecologist Thuenis Piersma famously called it “guts don’t fly” in a memorable paper on Bar-tailed Godwits. The immense journey of the red knot takes them across the Amazon Basin, over the Atlantic Ocean ultimately to Delaware Bay. Once again they will restore lost fat on eggs of horseshoe crabs for only two weeks. Then off to the Canadian Arctic to mate, lay and incubate eggs, fledge young and rebuild again before heading south again. Too early or late, the mighty Arctic will end everything.
Three Natural Forces Shaped the Species – Now Humans do
The three unyielding forces of evolution once shaped it all – food availability, predator avoidance and the urge to breed. The future of the species depended on this delicate ecological dance. Fully three-quarters of all new world knots made this 10,000-mile long flight twice a year.
They used to anyway because a new evolutionary force shapes their existence. A new competitor has taken over, and he is not benevolent. Human-induced threats are destroying red knots.
Every place necessary for the red knot, suffers recurring humanmade destruction or degradation putting extraordinary pressure on all resident wildlife as well as the wayfaring knot. Growing hordes of people play on beaches oblivious to the birds struggling to find food or resting places. Hunters shoot birds for fun and greed. Industrialists clear away, flood, or pave over productive or safe habitats. Fishers gobble up valuable prey, with little or no regard to either fish or fowl. It occurs throughout the bird’s increasingly desperate flight.
To my shame, the worst occurs in Delaware Bay. In many ways, the bay is the hinge on which red knot survival swings. The knots arrive on the bay after their epic flight from South America, looking like victims of famine. It has always been so. For ten thousand years red knots have followed a path to the bay and the most significant population of horseshoe crabs in the world just when they fill the sandy beaches with abundant fatty eggs. Once upon a time, (1990’s) carpets of high-quality food awaited the knots and five other shorebird species. All followed the same playbook; double body weights to fuel the last flight to the Arctic and the production of young. The breeding horseshoe crabs anchored the whole migration – the crabs’ eggs providing a sort of gulf stream of bird energy pushing them onward to the tundra.
The end of the long-distance knot is in sight
No longer. A sort of Russian roulette awaits knots now, after a reckless depletion of horseshoe crabs 20 years ago. Instead of restoring this ancient being to it pre-harvest population, federal and state agencies employ half measures while birds continue to decline. Every year the birds find enough eggs barely to meet their needs. In 2017 they did not.
As in many natural places in the world, Greed and avarice have wrecked the age-old evolutionary equation of life and death on Delaware Bay. Now people dominate. We live in a new age, known to paleontologists as the Anthropocene. It ’s the age of man and the shortest but one of the most destructive period of extinction in our world’s history, and we have no idea what will happen as a result. No one knows how many species have been lost because we are still counting new species as the rate of extinction grows. If one takes the low estimate, we lose hundreds of species every year. The high estimate goes ten times that number.
In some cases, the carnage is swift and decisive. The last West African Black rhinos fell to hunters and a mean-spirited market for their horns. Sometimes it unwitting. Like the bird community of the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil, where the rapid loss of habitat is causing species to go extinct not long after their discovery.
Slow Loss and in Full View
But sometimes it happens slowly and in full view, like oil spreading in clean water. This is the red knots fate. It’s majestic flight cuts a hemisphere-wide cross-section into all the trouble in our world’s natural coasts.
In developing countries, one must shrug and hope for the better side of people to show. In Maranhao/Para coastline of northern Brazil, the coastal islands t shift with the wild tumult of tradewind blown seas. They shape vast Mangrove forest and wilderness beaches, among which subsistence communities struggle to eke out an existence. They cling to nature in the same way as the native American populations that still exists in the nearby Amazon forest. The two cities that flank this wild landscape, Belem and Sao Luis sprawl with heartbreaking poverty. Its a hardscrabble, corupt and dangerous place and the ICMBio biologists risk life and limb to protect the it, but no one can stop the creeping damage from the urban areas.
But how do you explain lasting natural resource damage in one of the wealthiest regions in the world? Delaware bay nestles squarely within a days drive of Washington DC and New York City. It’s home to one of the best organized and equipped birder communities in the world. We have more natural resource agency and conservation group staff, educators and generous donors than most areas of the world. The knot has inspired at least four books, hundreds of scientific papers, helped launch many scientific careers, and thousands of volunteers. How to explain the damage in plain sight to horseshoe crabs and all the natural heritage that depend upon them
Evolutionary Art or the Creator’s Handiwork
Perhaps the discredited comedian Lewis Ck captured the whole sad story in a joke. He said, “I like to feel good about thinking about doing good.” There are just too many people feeling good about thinking about doing good for wildlife. Or are we resigned to the bird’s extinction but refuse to face it squarely? Are we just looking away at the fact that the next generation will only know written descriptions of its remarkable flight.?
I think of the knot’s long and complicated trip and it organic transformation as a sort of evolutionary art or one of the creator’s most beautiful bits of handiwork. In a way, the knots migration is as rare and elegant as DaVinci’s fresco The Last Supper. Would we remove the wall on which it’s lovingly preserved to make way for productive use of the space?
With the long-distance population of red knots, extinction is irreversible. One could argue, there are the other wintering populations, and other subspecies around the world. So why not let this one go, allow it disappear from the world? Perhaps this is the practical action, but when this migration is lost, it is lost forever. Unlike restored bald eagles or wild turkeys, this bit of nature is too complicated to put back together again.
Hope Springs Eternal As We Begin a New Study
But hope springs eternal. In fact many people do act to help the knot throughout the flyway. Here in Chile, Carmen Espoz’s Centro Bahia Lomas runs mostly on the energy and the good will of young people dedicated to the future of this vital shorebird habitat. ( see this previous post about the center) In Argentina. Patricia Gonzalez leads a lively group of volunteers in San Antonio Estes, Juliana Almeida’s SAVE Brazil struggles to protect Lagoa de Piexe, a national park in southeastern Brazil.
In Delaware Bay, an international team of mostly volunteer conservationists has studied and protected red knots for 20 years. In fact, much of the data in this blog comes from their work. Shorebirds and horseshoe crabs bring together hundreds of volunteers every year. One group of about 400 volunteers called ReTurn a Favor, rescues stranded or impinged horseshoe crabs. In four years, they have saved the lives of 250,000 crabs.
It is in this tradition we do our work here in Chile. Our team of Americans, Canadians, and Chileans work together to develop new tools for conservation. Our 83 instrumented red knots will provide one more tool, perhaps new awareness. Maybe it will be just enough to tip the scale to the knots benefit.
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