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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Moonbird B95

The media specialist at LHS recently recommended a book to me, Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose. It was very enjoyable reading, and had lots of excellent photographs. The book follows the migration of a rufa red knot, a small shorebird about the size of a robin. These little guys do an annual migration from Tierra del Fuego, an island off the southern tip of South America, to the Canadian Arctic, and back again, and that’s a distance of almost 18,000 miles! And a red knot weighs in at only four ounces!

Unfortunately, I don’t have a local tie-in with this story, but it was such an amazing story I thought it was worth telling. Red knots are found on every continent except Antarctica, and they are divided into six subspecies, rufa being one of them. The rufas migrate along the coast, but some other red knots may be seen during migration on the shores of the Great Lakes. That’s about as local as I can get with this particular bird.

Ornithologists began banding red knots at Tierra del Fuego in 1995 and one of the birds they banded that first year later became known as B95. A few years after the initial banding scientists starting using laser-inscribed flags with a combination of colors and letters that told the individual’s identity and in which country he was first banded. The advantage of these flags is that they can be read from a distance through a spotting scope, so it’s easier to track the birds. You can identify them without approaching them or disturbing them. That’s important because these birds are eating machines and can consume 14 times their own weight. And the really good news is that while in Canada they mostly dine on mosquito larvae!

Many of these birds fly some 3,000 miles non-stop between Brazil and the Delaware Bay in New Jersey. There they dine on the eggs of the horseshoe crab to refuel for the rest of their journey. It’s a delicate dance to hit the beaches at just the time the crabs are laying eggs. But in recent years the crab population has been reduced because they are needed for producing medicines and fertilizer. Fewer crabs = fewer eggs = fewer red knots. The simple solution was to limit the number of crabs that could be taken from the bay, but as usual, simple solutions aren’t always so simple when you examine all the ripple effects. Limiting the number of crabs that are taken has caused some fishermen to give up a line of work their families have followed for generations.

But back to B95. He was already an adult when he was banded in 1995, so he was at least three years old by then. Once the laser flag was added when he was recaptured in 2001, he could more easily be identified. And he kept being identified, year after year, from one end of the globe to the other. It was estimated that he had migrated enough times that he had covered the distance from earth to the moon and more, hence the nickname of the “Moonbird.” And this was at a time when the rufa red knot population was plummeting across the globe. When he was born in the Arctic there were an estimated 150,000 of his kind, but by 2007 there was less than half that number remaining and their extinction was predicted to occur within five years if no changes were made.

Conservation groups, ornithologists, schools and individuals all worked and are still working to make the migratory route as safe as possible for these birds. For example, an area where they rest in Brazil was made into a national park. There is some hope that these birds are making a comeback at present, but they are still susceptible to a variety of problems, such as hurricanes blowing them off course as they return south.

Geolocators are making the tracking of these birds more precise. A geolocator can record the latitude and longitude of the bird’s location. It can tell not only how far the bird flew, but his exact path and the time of day he flew. These geolocators can only relay information if that particular bird is recaptured and the geolocator is still intact. When the book was written (2012) only one geolocator had been retrieved, but it revealed that particular red knot had flown 5,000 miles in one leg of his journey, non-stop for six days.

The oldest known red knot before B95 was 16 years old. One had lived in captivity to the age of 20. When the book was written, B95 was last seen on November 25, 2011 in Argentina, and was considered a geriatric wonder then. The book aroused enough curiosity in me that I did an internet search and found that he is still being seen, most recently in May of this year in the Delaware Bay on his trip north. Seeing him or any other red knot in Indiana is extremely unlikely, but then, we weren’t supposed to see a rock wren here either and yet we did.

Fly on, little red knot. The world is watching.