Ask SIB: “Are Red Knots at North Beach?”

Fred Whittle recently sent a question to Seabrook Island Birds. He asked, “Are Red Knots at North Beach now?  Thought I saw them on Sunday afternoon.”  

Photo taken of Red Knots and other Shore & Seabirds by Mark Andrews on 12/28/21.  Notice the misty view, as there was a thick marine layer with visibility of only around 50m date day.

The quick answer is yes. Mark Andrews recently reported 300 birds at the end of North Beach. That leads people who like birds to a host of other questions. First and foremost, “Why are they here?” Instinct drives much bird behavior. The hard-wired drive to migrate makes birds leave the far north long before conditions become untenable for life. Some but not all of the eastern race of Red Knots, Calidris canutus rufa, migrate from the Central Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. With studies being done by scientists and observations like birders on Seabrook Island, much has been learned about Red Knot migration habits and much more still needs to be discovered. Knots spend winter in four regions:

  1. Southern coast of S. America, mainly Tierra del Fuego
  2. Northern coast of S. America, mainly Maranhão
  3. Western Gulf of Mexico, mainly the Laguna Madre
  4. Southeast U.S./Caribbean, mainly FL to NC

Evolution created these four regions as ways to protect the populations. Each location offers advantages and disadvantages—e.g. long or short distance to travel low or high parasite exposure. Unfortunately, a evolutionary new risk has arisen in these ancestral wintering grounds—humans. Development along the migratory route and probably climate change stress the migrants. 

The work being done by SCDNR, University Of South Carolina’s Senner Lab, and our local birders strive to understand if the same birds each year hang around South Carolina or are they stopping here on their way to Florida or farther south. We do know that the numbers of Red Knots slowly increase as the season passes into spring. We do know that many of our birds spend time in Florida and when they arrive here, they may stay several weeks of even months before flying on to either New Jersey’s Delaware Bay or directly to the southern tip of the Hudson Bay.

In May, birds with flags indicating that they were banded in South America show up on Seabrook Island. They join up with the birds already here before they all depart sometime before Memorial Day.

For all these birds, the arc along the South Carolina coast provides a critically important stopping area where they can pack on the fat before tackling the long flight to the Arctic and the arduous task of raising the next generation.

When you see people out on the beach taking pictures, recognize that the photographers want far more than pretty picture, they want clear images of the tiny flags on the bird’s legs. Once scientists receive these flag codes, the scientists can start to build a better understanding of the migratory patterns of the Red Knots.

When you are on the beach, remember, “Share the beach – give them space!” If you have questions or are interested to learn more about the SIB Shorebird Steward team, please send and email to: sibstewards@gmail.com or complete this form.

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