This article was originally published in The Cape Codder on December 21, 2014. It was written by Rich Eldred. View the original article here.
Move over piping plover. There’s a new federally listed bird on Cape Cod.
On Tuesday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated red knots as threatened. Specifically, just the rufa subspecies was so designated but that happens to be the one subspecies that visits Monomoy Island and nearby towns each summer.
“There’s a staging area Chatham, Orleans, Eastham that’s very important for red knots migrating south, far less important for northern migrants, but very important for southern migration from July to October,” Stephanie Koch, a biologist at the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge, which oversees Monomoy Island. “They have a short breeding season (in northern Canada). The birds we see in July are birds that failed to nest. They’re generally adults first and the juveniles are next to arrive.”
The goal of the designation is to allow biologists to assess and provide for the needs of the species.
“The designation will be a big help,” observed Brian Harrington, author of “The Flight of the Red Knot,” and an ornithologist at he Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. “The next step is to develop a recovery plan and that hasn’t been done yet. The idea of the listing is to get things done that need to be done.”
Numbers are down.
“Red knots in the 1970s used to have 8,000 to 10,000 knots on the coastline and today they’re on the order of less than 2,000,” Harrington observed. “Nobody likes to see a bird listed but given the rate of decline clearly something is going on and needs to get attention and the listing will get attention.”
The red knots visiting here are on their way south.
“There are two different strategies the red knot is using,” Koch explained. “Some migrate all the way to South America. They come through Chatham and Orleans and don’t stay long. They fuel up and continue south. Another group stays three months and winters in more northerly areas in the southern U.S. and Cuba.”
While they are here task number one is fattening up to store energy for the next flight, which in some cases is part of a 9,000-mile journey to Tiera del Fuego. They breed inside the Arctic Circle.
“While they’re here they alternate between foraging on the intertidal flats, feeding on invertebrates and mussel spat and as the foraging area is covered up with water when the tide comes in they go above high tide to roost and rest till the flats are exposed again,” explained Koch. “So they alternate between foraging and resting. They like a roost site that’s close by.”
But why pick Cape Cod instead of Block Island?
“There are a couple of things special about this area,” Koch continued. “One is the wide expanse of flats or salt marsh in good proximity to roosting sites so the birds don’t have far to go. Also with a gently sloping forage area it takes a long time for the tide to come in so they can feed for a long time and they are protected from disturbance so they can rest for a long time. Birds that are being disturbed while feeding are not spending the time they need.”
Disturbance is one potential local issue to be addressed by most of Monomoy is already insulated from that. In addition the problems afflicting red knots may not center on Cape Cod.
“The most important issue is during the northerly migration when they stop in Delaware Bay,” Harrington pointed out. “That’s a food resource they depend on; the eggs of horseshoe crabs. The number of eggs available to birds has declined substantially. That’s a major threat. But there are certainly other things going on we need to identify and we’re looking at the resources they need stopover areas like Monomoy.”
Some resources there are also becoming scarce.
“The major food here is young mussel spat. A lot of the mussel beds in Little Pleasant Bay have declined a lot,” Harrington said. “The Friends of Pleasant Bay is starting a major study of what’s going on with the invertebrates and fish.”
Koch has also been learning about the birds.
“The past year we’ve been using a cannon net to trap red knots and putting a geo-locater tag on. It collects location information from the band but you have to recapture the bird to get the information back. It gives us information on where the juveniles spent their first winter,” she said.
She’s learned the birds that aren’t heading to South America will stop on islands off the Carolinas.
“This year we put 21 nano-tags on birds. That information is recorded by recording towers we set up on the coast anytime a tagged bird is in the range of a tower,” Koch said. “That gives us a much more detailed view of how the red knot is moving around the Cape. That was a pilot program this year.”
Other eyes are on the birds as well. Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program, based at Long Pasture in Barnstable, focuses on nesting birds such as piping plovers and roseate terns but they see and band red knots as well.
“We’ve been able to band a few birds with readable bands and the nice thing about the bands is members of the public can see them and report them in at bandedbird.org,” Kathy Parsons pointed out. “We do see them when were working with roseate terns. When they’re roosting they’re in the same area.”
One bird, banded in Argentina in 1995, has made the north-south migration for 21 years, flying the equivalent of a trip to the moon. But such a long journey can have multiple perils and the designation should make at least one portion more rewarding.
“Now that it’s formally listed the next step is for resource managers to take inventory and look at the impacts of different uses on designated habitat,” Koch said. “I haven’t heard anything about funding but I do think the designation brings more awareness to the species.”