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It was a month ago that I first heard about red knots from a young, starry-eyed couple who had traveled from California to New Jersey to watch the birds as they stop along the beaches of Delaware Bay during their annual migration.

The red knots have one of the longest migration path of all animals. In the spring, they fly more than 9,000 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Artic, their breeding grounds. They time their migration to arrive in New Jersey when horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs from early May to early June. The birds eat the eggs to regain the weight they lost during their flight and build up their stamina to be able to reach their Artic destination. Unfortunately, the use of horseshoe crabs as fishing bait and in medical tests has led to a decline in horseshoe crabs. The red knot population has also declined 80 to 90% as a result.

New Jersey has had a moratorium on fishing for horseshoe crabs for the past eight years. Now some people say that is long enough and that horseshoe crabs and red knots have recovered from their respective nadir. Is that true? I had to go see for myself.

Yesterday, I went to Reeds Beach in Cape May Court House, NJ. There are now guards who prevent people from going on the beach and disturb the birds while they are feeding. There were people from Canada and Australia who were monitoring the red knots, all very serious and dedicated to their cause. One pointed out to me a small plane that flew overhead to take photos for counting the birds. The red knots I saw were more numerous and seemingly fatter than those I saw two weeks earlier (see Horseshoe Crab Season). Here’s how they looked then.

Red knots - two weeks earlier

Red knots – two weeks earlier

and here’s how they looked yesterday.

Red knots - yesterday

Red knots – yesterday

Some closer looks from yesterday:

Red knots at Reeds Beach

Red knots at Reeds Beach

In the following photo, you can see that the red knots are much smaller than the laughing gulls behind them

Red knots

Red knots and laughing gulls

How many were there? I couldn’t tell, but certainly a lot. For the actual count, we’ll have to wait for the official tally from that small plane.

Red knots

Red knots at Reeds Beach

In the following photo, the red knots are lined up in three orderly lines, in contrast to the other shore birds. Perhaps they know to organize themselves in platoon-sized groups to travel such long distance.

Three lines of red knots

Three lines of red knots

Red knots feeding

Red knots feeding

Meanwhile, what were the horseshoe crabs doing? There were hundreds of them lying overturned and dead on the beach, their decomposing bodies emitting an unpleasant smell. But many others were having a good time. In the following photo, six male crabs were crowded around a female that was partially buried in the sand.

Horseshoe crabs

Horseshoe crabs

I also went to Cook’s Beach and Kimbles Beach. Those places also had many birds, but I could not get a decent shot because the guards were keeping visitors a good distance away from where the birds were.

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