October 23, 2013
The Red Knot:
Small shorebird may yet ruffle feathers
By BRAD RICH
Coastal Review Online
A little shorebird bird known for its epic migrations is likely to ruffle some feathers.
they decided to list the brontosaurus, they might have a hard time,”
Derb Carter, noted North Carolina birdwatcher and the director of the
Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center said
recently when asked about potential opposition to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service’s late-September proposal to list the red knot as
“threatened” under the federal Endangered Species List.
might be true, especially when the service, as required by law,
eventually proposes to establish critical habitat for the knot, a
robin-sized sandpiper with a wingspan of 20 inches and a ruddy head.
The bird is known for its 10,000-mile migration from the southern tip
of South America to the Arctic and back each year. That means it’s
almost everywhere at least some of the time.
includes North Carolina’s beaches, and ocean beach critical habitat
proposals for loggerhead sea turtles have in recent months stirred up
hornets’ nests of opposition in the state. While none of those hornets
seem to be swarming around the tiny knot yet, there’s already some buzz.
proposed listing of the knot is the result of a settlement in a lawsuit
brought by environmental groups, and there appears to be plenty of
scientific justification to list what must surely be one of the
planet’s greatest athletes. In recent years, the bird’s population in
Delaware Bay – its prime rest and food stop on its seemingly endless
migrations from the Arctic to Brazil and back – has plummeted from an
estimated 100,000 to about 25,000.
It’s a complex story that
involves the nature of the bird, loss of habitat, loss of food and,
perhaps, climate change, according to Andy Wood, a respected
ornithologist, former education director for North Carolina Audubon and
head of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group, based in Hampstead.
habitat loss is coast-wide, he explained, and the food loss is
primarily a result of a decline in the stocks of horseshoe crabs,
particularly in Delaware Bay. Climate change, Wood said, is most
noticeable in the warming Arctic, where less tundra is available at
times for the birds to lay their eggs. And the bird, according to most,
migrates in larger flocks than most shorebirds and is highly faithful
to the same stopover sites on the annual migration journey. That makes
it vulnerable, perhaps more than most, to changes.
really has everything to do with the changes in coastline structure,”
Wood said of the decline of one of his favorite birds. “Over the years,
we’ve occupied the barrier islands from the Gulf to Canada, and those
are the areas the red knots use for resting and refueling for that
incredibly long migration.”
In the past, Wood said, the red
knots might have encountered a red wolf or a fox or a few predator
birds. But they wouldn’t have encountered many people, and there were
fewer structures, so there was more beach.
“They didn’t have to
deal with, for example, cats and dogs and small children chasing them
every time they sat to rest or forage,” he said. “Basically, anything
we do disturbs it. And for a bird that makes such a long migration,
those things are critically important. These birds weigh just a few
ounces, and it takes an incredible amount of energy to make that
Not only are the beaches more crowded and smaller,
they’re also harder, at least in many areas, because of beach
nourishment. Wood said research by many, including Pete Peterson of the
University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead
City, has shown that nourishment, especially if the sand is not of the
right size, buries the worms, mole crabs and coquina clams that
shorebirds feed upon. The beaches recover, of course, and so do those
organisms. But nourishment probably takes a toll.
critical, though – likely more critical right now than beach
development and loss – is the decimation of the horseshoe crab
population, particularly in Delaware Bay, which separates New Jersey
The horseshoe crab has been harvested for many
years for a variety of reasons, including for fertilizer and for the
use of its blood as a clotting agent for pharmaceuticals. But more
recently, particularly in the New Jersey area, the crabs have been used
as bait in eel and conch traps.
In the past, the red knots
literally gorged on the crab eggs on the beach. Anecdotal reports cited
so many eggs the shoreline looked green. But as the crabs and their
eggs declined, Wood said, so have the red knots. The Atlantic States
Marine Fisheries Commission – a compact comprised of fisheries managers
from all the East Coast states – has been pressured by
environmentalists and has tried to stem the horseshoe crab harvest, and
the number taken has declined. But it’s going to take time for the crab
population to rebuild.
There also seems to be some evidence that
the already smaller red knot population in that area was harmed by
Hurricane Sandy, which dramatically altered beach habitat.
red knot is already listed as endangered by New Jersey and would join
the piping plover as East Coast shorebirds protected under the
Endangered Species Act.
In a press release that accompanied the
listing proposal for the red knot, Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and
Wildlife Service, called the red knot “an extraordinary bird that each
year migrates thousands of miles from the Arctic to the tip of South
America and back.” Like many shorebirds, the red knot “is vulnerable to
climate and other environmental changes,” Ashe added.
Endangered Species Act, plants and animals declared “threatened” are
considered likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
“Endangered” means they are in danger of extinction. The law prohibits
a person without a permit from killing, shooting, hunting, pursuing,
harassing, capturing or engaging in other activities deemed harmful to
the endangered or threatened species.
The federal announcement
that the birds are being proposed for threatened status was welcomed by
environmental groups that have been working for years to stem the
“The red knot is a testament to tenacity, but
right now it really needs our help,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species
director with the Center for Biological Diversity, a partner in the
lawsuit, said in a press release after the proposal appeared in the
Federal Register. “With massive overharvest of the horseshoe crabs
these birds need to fuel their spectacular migration, protection can’t
wait any longer.”
Red knots that do not put on enough weight at
the Delaware Bay staging grounds perish on the final push north to the
breeding grounds, or may be too weak to nest successfully once there,
To date, Greenwald noted, the center’s 757-species
agreement with the service has resulted in final protection for 111
species and proposed protection for 62 species, including the knot.
of those was the loggerhead, for which service and the National Marine
Fisheries Service have proposed critical habitat in North Carolina,
raising the ire of many who feel the designation will make it harder
and more expensive to nourish beaches and to engage in some fishing
activities. Those who have opposed critical habitat for the turtle have
pointed to problems the Hatteras area has experienced with critical
habitat for piping plover. Will the red knot eventually cause similar
service’s notice in the Federal Register notes that the bird winters in
North Carolina, in addition to Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida,
South Carolina, Mississippi, the Caribbean and South America.
said that although relatively few red knots stay in North Carolina all
winter – most are here only for short periods of time during their fall
and spring migrations – the ones that do appear to be “residents” are
mostly in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Would migratory
stopovers and small overwintering populations be enough to trigger
critical habitat designations for North Carolina when the service
issues proposals late this year or early next year?
through SELC has vast experience with these issues, said it’s possible.
There’s been no furor over the proposal yet, at least not that he has
heard, but he won’t be surprised if there is. The Hatteras knots were a
factor, for example, when certain areas in the seashore were put off
limits to off-road vehicles.
“A lot of the focus was on breeding
birds – piping plovers, skimmers and terns – but there was some
attention paid to the red knots,” he said. “It affected a couple of
small stretches (of beach).”
Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, head of the
Carteret County Shore Protection Office, which is responsible for
advocating for funds for beach nourishment and coordinating projects,
helped organize opposition to the loggerhead critical habitat
designation in Carteret and elsewhere. The federal public hearings were
well-attended, and almost all the speakers opposed anything that would
limit beach use. Carteret County Commissioners have threatened to sue
the feds if the critical habitat designations go through.
said he’s at least somewhat concerned about the potential for the red
knot to cause problems and recently sent an email about the issue to
members of the county’s beach commission, which is appointed by the
county’s elected board.
he added that there have been many instances when, under the Endangered
Species Act, there has not been a “linear” progression from listing to
designation of critical habitat. In other words, despite what the law
says, it’s not a given that listing begets critical habitat, at least
not fast. It’s the same argument conservationists sometimes make from
the opposite end of the spectrum -- listing can do a species harm if
there’s no follow-through on the protection.
any rate, Rudolph said it would appear – logically – that if there is a
critical habitat proposal for the red knot, it would focus on the
central Atlantic Coast, where the horseshoe crab and red knot
interaction appears to be driving the bird’s problems.
have a crystal ball, but that would seem to make sense, if they’re
going to anything,” he said. “On the other hand, the last time I went
to Cape Lookout (National Seashore, off eastern Carteret’s mainland), I
saw a lot of horseshoe crabs. Is that going to be important? I don’t
As for official comments on the proposal, Rudolph said,
“We will likely provide a small comment regarding the ‘threatened’
listing, and get ‘geared up’ for the critical habitat designation,”
should that become necessary.
But Rudolph remains concerned,
he said, by the whole “sue-and-settle” process that seems to be driving
protection of species under the Endangered Species Act.
sue, then settle, then create critical habitat, then enforce, and the
critical habitat has unintended consequences,” he said.
Others, however, see the red knot saga as more than just the story of one remarkable shorebird and a federal law.
need for listing of the red knot can be taken as a signal that
something is going on with the ecosystem that we’re all a part of,”
Wood said. “And we need to pay attention to that, not only for the sake
of the red knot and other species, but for our own sake. You know what
John Muir said.”
Muir, a 19th century naturalist, author and
advocate for wilderness preservation, said a lot in his numerous essays
and books. But the quote to which Wood referred went like this: “When
we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything
else in the Universe.”
People can comment on the proposed listing through Nov. 29.
may be submitted on the Internet through the Federal Rulemaking Portal.
Follow the instructions for submitting information on docket
number FWS-R5-ES-2013-0097. Comments can also be mailed to Public
Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R5-ES-2013-0097; Division of Policy and
Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax
Dr., Suite 222; Arlington, Va. 22203
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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