Migrating Shorebirds Bring a Variety of Species
Our sandy coastal shorelines are feeding grounds for many species of migrating shorebirds this time of year. It is interesting to watch them as they feed. We have over a dozen species of shorebirds bulking up here before they continue their journeys south.
One interesting species is the Red Knot. This species was newsworthy a few years ago because of its staging area in Delaware Bay (more on that later). It uses our shorelines to feed on mollusks, worms, snails, seeds and gastropods. It is found only in small flocks here as the population makes its way south.
The Red Knot breeds in our high Arctic islands where it nests on tundra. It winters along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern USA and also in Central and South America. It also lives in Europe and Asia.
The Red Knot is a medium-sized shorebird. It is larger than the 'peeps' (Semipalmated Sandpiper, for example) but smaller than the Yellowlegs and Willets. It appears here only in its winter (basic) plumage. That is too bad because it is really beautiful in its breeding plumage, with a bright reddish face and breast and a speckled brownish and grayish back.
In its winter plumage, as seen in the photo above, it appears overall grayish. Of note are its medium-length black bill, dark legs, white underparts with gray spots and streaks going up the sides and neck. A good identifying feature is the gray chevrons or streaks along the white sides. In flight it shows a long wing with a gray lining and a fine white line above. The tail and rump are gray.
The Red Knot has been made famous by the media due to its staging area in Delaware Bay, USA. As much as 90% of the entire population gathers there to feed. This is one of its main staging areas and there it feeds on horseshoe crab eggs. These are energy rich and give the birds enough energy to complete their flights southward. The problem arose when horseshoe crab fishermen overfished the crabs, depleting the food source for the knots. Through good horseshoe crab management in the US, the problem is resolved for now. The crabs are very important in the ecology of coastal areas.
The horseshoe crab is important in the medical industry for sterility testing in medical equipment and intravenous drugs. Also, research on their eyes has provided a better understanding of human vision.
We will continue to have problems when human 'needs' interfere with the ecology of our native species. Education and good management hopefully will avoid serious effects on the birds.