Red Knot – Calidris canutus
Length: 10.5″; Wingspan: 23″; Weight: 4.7 oz.
(At the end of this article, read about two programs we are offering this week and how you can register to attend one or both!)
One of the most exciting visitors to our beach March-May are the Red Knots. They have one of the longest migrations of any bird, about 18,000 miles round trip, from the tip of South America to the Arctic tundra where they breed. Our beach is an important stopping point as a food source for them to feed and rest on their long journey. In April and May, we can see thousands of knots in a group!
The Red Knot is a fairly large sandpiper, about robin sized. When we first see them in early spring, they are plain gray color, with barred flanks (photo 2). In the spring they begin to turn into a rufous plumage for the breeding season. By the middle of April, we will begin to see hints of orange on them and by May, many of them are stunningly gorgeous with the reddish color on their breasts and heads (photo 3). It is truly amazing to see them flying in a large group where they move with a lot of synchrony. When they feed on our beach, they are often in very tight groups (photo 4), all moving along together, probing with their bills like a sewing machine (photo 5). They are long-winged and very strong flyers. How could you not be for that very long journey?
When the knots feed on Seabrook and along the SC coast, they eat Coquina clams and crustaceans. Later in the spring, the knots will gorge on nutrient-rich Horseshoe Crab eggs in places like Delaware Bay, DE. In SC the crabs spawn in big concentrations at St. Helena Sound and Bulls Bay, but there is too much wave action at Seabrook for them to spawn here. This crab egg food source is crucial to the knots for them to make the long flight to their breeding grounds in the Arctic or they will die on the journey. Because of the harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs in some areas of the east coast, the crab source has been severely diminished and the population of Red Knots on the Eastern Seaboard has declined nearly 85% since 1980. Because of this decline, the knot has been listed as “Federally Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Ed and I have been counting and reporting Seabrook Red Knots to eBird and the US banding bird site for several years. One high count was over 3,000. This year already we are up to at least 500 birds. Their flocks can build up to 4,000 in mid-April and early May. The knots are found at the edge of the water from the Oystercatcher boardwalk all the way up to the cut. They are easily disturbed by humans and particularly dogs adding stress to an already perilous journey. (photo 6) The knots can’t read the “No dogs beyond this point” signs, so if you are a dog owner and see a large flock in the dog area, please try to give them some space and don’t allow your dog to chase them. Their feeding is so crucial because they need to build up enough fat for the very long flight north.
Some of the birds we see on our beach are “banded” or “flagged” which means they have very lightweight plastic rings/flags placed around their legs which have numbers and letters (photos 7 and 8). That is a way for researchers to track their movements. Some even have geolocators, which can tell where a bird has been on it’s long journey (photo 9). Ed has photographed many of these bands and submitted them to the US Banded Birds site to help track them.
A great book on the knots is “Moonbird” by Phillip Hoose, which is available at the local bookstore. It tracks the journey of a particular Red Knot (banded B95) who has in his lifetime, flown the distance to the moon…and halfway back! When last seen in 2014, he was over 20 years old!
So look for our very special visitor as you walk the beach!
If you’re interested in becoming better informed on the Red Knot, SIB has scheduled a two-hour training session on Tuesday, March 28, 10:00am to Noon, at the Oystercatcher Property Owners’ building. Nolan Schillerstrom, Audubon South Carolina’s Coastal Program Coordinator, will conduct this special training. We’ll learn all about the Red Knot and their incredible 18,000-mile-long migration. The importance of our Seabrook island habitat will be covered, as Red Knots come to SC beaches in the spring to feed and rest. Nolan will also discuss how we as stewards can better educate other Seabrookers on the beach to be respectful and responsible with our Red Knot guests. This program is free for all who attend. To enroll in this interesting, informative, and important program, please REGISTER NOW.
Note there is also a birding walk on North Beach scheduled on Wednesday, March 29 from 10:30 am – 12:30 pm if you would like to view the Red Knots (hopefully!) the morning after the training. Please also sign up for the walk now! (Please note you can attend one or the other or both!)
If you would like to learn more about this bird visit:
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birders: Red Knot
- Article submitted by: Aija Konrad
Photographs provided by: Ed Konrad
This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents. When possible we will use photographs taken by our members. Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.