Boom! At the sound of the canon, we rose frantically from our hiding places and started sprinting toward the water’s edge where we had set our net hours before. Just days ago, I had arrived in Canada’s Mingan Archipelago National Park to collect information on Red Knots – a shorebird that boasts spectacular cinnamon-colored plumage during breeding season. As I approached the bird-netting mayhem, I realized I would finally get my chance to see these little flying machines up close!
Referred to poetically as “moonbirds” because some of them fly the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back during their lifetime, these birds are some tough cookies. Each year, they travel approximately 18,000 miles on their 20-inch wingspan – from South America's southern tip to their Arctic breeding grounds in the spring and then back in the fall – for one of the longest migrations of any animal. The distance is worth it due to the Arctic's abundance of food and low pathogen levels.They make a few stops on the way to eat but have been known to cover 4,800 miles over 6 days without stopping!
While seeing these rare birds up close was an incredible opportunity, the actual reason for our trip was sobering: to help obtain information regarding the significant declines in Red Knot populations. Indeed, over the past 10 years, the Red Knot population has declined by 80% to less than 35,000 along the Atlantic Flyway. Scientists, including those we were with in Mingan, believe the plummeting numbers are linked to a critical stopover point during the birds' spring migration: Delaware Bay, where they feast on horseshoe crab eggs left in the sand to gain weight for the final stage of their migration. Due to increasing commercial harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait in Delaware Bay, Red Knots are not putting on the necessary ounces to finish their route to the Arctic.
(C) Red Knot Working Group
In 2003, scientists projected that at its current rate of decline, the Red Knot might become extinct as early as 2010. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened but we are certainly getting close. Several environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the birds as Endangered, but like so many others species, they have ended up on the candidate species list – the Service agrees these birds are in serious trouble, but lacks the resources to recover them. Some states along Delaware Bay have risen to the occasion – New Jersey imposed a moratorium on horseshoe crab collection to give the birds a chance that is in danger of being repealed and Delaware has unsuccessfully attempted similar efforts.
But more must be done. These birds need to be granted the federal protections necessary for recovery and states surrounding Delaware Bay need to place permanent limits on horseshoe crab fishing. Otherwise, we are going to see these little guys disappear pretty soon and the wonder they inspire will be gone with them.