Spring is a time to welcome the return of many wildlife species and renew our conservation efforts to protect them. While you might be familiar with long-standing campaigns to help species like the threatened piping plover, you might not know of the many other animals that benefit from these measures. The amazing rufa red knot is one of the many beneficiaries of seashore conservation efforts, and it’s important to understand this species and how we can help it on its way.
The rufa red knot is nothing short of a migratory marvel. These birds have one of the longest migratory ranges of the entire animal kingdom. They cover a range that extends from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Argentina and includes 40 states and 24 countries. During their spring and fall migrations, knots can fly as far as 9,300 miles!
Red knots tend to winter in South America from December to February, although they could arrive as early as September and leave as late as May. They breed in the tundra of the Arctic Circle in June. If you live along the East Coast, you have the best chance of spotting a red knot during their spring and fall migrations. This April and May, keep an eye out at the beach for the distinctive “rufous” red plumage of these medium-sized shorebirds.
If you do catch sight of a red knot on its northern migration, you’ll also notice its scrawny appearance. When they arrive in the spring to the Delaware Bay and Long Island beaches, they need enough sustenance to double their body weight for the last leg of their journey. Stopover points with adequate food resources are essential to their successful migration.
Reduced habitat and food resources have caused the red knot to become federally threatened. Their population has dropped by 75 percent in key wintering and stopover areas since the 1980s. The steepest declines have occurred since 2000, and the best estimates suggest they will become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.
Human disturbance is a major factor that has led to this precarious state. Amazingly, individual birds tend to return to the same stopover sites along their extensive journeys because of the presence of nutrient-rich resources, such as horseshoe crab eggs, in those areas. Like your favorite restaurant, these places are hardly interchangeable. Human presence and development in these areas leave the birds with no place to go.
Climate change is another major threat to the red knot. Because their migration is so extensive, timing is critical for each leg of their trip. Changes in the season and habitat conditions in places like their breeding grounds can throw off this delicate schedule. Even slight variations in the timing of their migration due tocan be catastrophic for the red knot’s chances at a successful trip.
Fortunately, coordinated conservation efforts and individual actions can help the threatened knots on their way.
Because their timeline is so particular and their stopovers so critical, we must provide the knots with safe, dependable habitat to fuel up for each leg of their trip. On the U.S. East Coast, that means minimizing disturbance and development at the sites where knots are known to visit.
Luckily, shoreline conservation efforts that protect other seashore species like the piping plover also help ensure the safety of the red knot. Just as you would with piping plovers, make sure to obey posted signs and string fencing, clean up your trash on the beach, and keep pets leashed or indoors to prevent predation.
Doing your part to mitigate climate change also goes a long way in helping these long-distance athletes. You can help the red knot and numerous other species affected by climate change with energy-conscious decisions like driving and flying less, limiting the energy consumption of dryers, climate control systems, and lights in your home, and reducing and reusing before recycling.
It’s important to understand, appreciate, and protect threatened species like the red knot, because there’s no other animal quite like it!