Hanging Out, Fueling Up

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There isn’t a bird in sight. The only sign of life is a ghost crab that silently crawls into the mouth of its tunnel.

A Sandbar Stroll

The tide is high. I wade through water with tidal ridges below which massage my feet. A long sandbar is soft on the surface, but sturdy beneath. It ends in the water. I get off again wading through shallow water. There’s an assembled multitude of 250-gulls and terns on shore. They spend the day here hanging out.

This morning there are two stand-out gulls that are here. Herring gulls, the largest on the beach, are seen here at times, but usually immature ones. The one here is just about mature. They aren’t European visitors but ones that breed in Alaska. There’s also a lesser black-backed gull whose dark charcoal back stands out. This gull is a regular visitor to the U.S. in winter and probably from an Icelandic breeding population.

A Double Amputee

While I’m surveying the large tightly packed population of gulls and terns, one bird’s movement catches my eye. Something’s not right about it. The gull, a ring-billed, moves to another section even more congested where I can’t see its whole body. Then it hop/flies a distance. When it lands I follow to where the ring-bill comes down. Both feet are missing but it has both legs. It’s hardly uncommon to see a gull or a tern missing a foot here, but I’ve never seen a double amputee. This may have been the result of a fishing accident caused by a mono-filament fishing line. There’s a war story here. Poor guy. After walking peg-legged, the ring-bill eases itself to the sand by bending the lower portion of its legs forward and proceeds to turn its head on its back and snooze.

Birds with a missing foot are actually very adaptable. Their balance on one leg can be perfect. I marveled at an immature herring gull that came to this beach as a juvenile and displayed that balance for a few years until it stopped coming. As I walk there’s another bird, a laughing gull with a grotesquely bent back right foot. Another fishing casualty; another war story.

The group, as usual, is comprised mainly of laughing gulls, royal terns, sandwich terns and some black skimmers. There’s a strange “yip, yip yip” sound coming from where the laughing gulls are. That’s hardly their usual sound and I cannot locate the source. This a problem for another day. Some ruddy turnstones, also sandpipers, are in two’s and three’s pecking away here and there for morsels under shells, leaves or in the sand. Because they are a rust and rich brown with red legs, their colorfulness makes them attractive to new birders.

A lesser black-backed gull

Don’t Be A Stranger

There’s a strange looking bird here. No, five strange ones. They are bigger than the sanderlings, a duller brown and have longer bills. Yet they look familiar. Red knots? Their sides have a dull white with a dotted pattern. A look at the breast will show whether there’s a similar dot pattern but they’re not offering a frontal view. I take as many photos as possible to ID them later. After a while I realize that they are red knots. I just haven’t seen them in a long time.

In past years red knots have been plentiful on this beach. However last year not one showed up. Not one. It was as if the knots were becoming an extinct species as dire predictions indicated. In 2014 they were put on the threatened list. I was sure that this was a sign that their numbers which had shrunk precipitously from 100,000 in 1980 to 14,000 in 2006 were falling even more so. It gave me an ominous feeling.

These birds are one of nature’s longest distance fliers. To understand what they endure put yourself in the “shoes” of these 9.5-inch birds, with 21-inch wingspans weighing approximately 5.0-oz. Every spring they fly 9,300 miles from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina in South America. In the spring they fly back. Each migration equals flying one whole side of the earth. Sometimes they stay aloft for six or eight days without resting or feeding. How would you feel being in an aircraft that length of time under the same conditions? One red knot nicknamed “moon-bird” who was banded in Tierra del Fuego in 1995 was seen there in March 2015. Its flight mileage by then had exceeded the distance from the earth to the moon and back.

The knots return migration in spring is timed with the release of horseshoe crab eggs at Delaware Bay where the birds arrive sometimes having lost half of their weight. Their gizzards have also shrunken making hard food difficult to eat. The soft horseshoe crab eggs, rich in fat are an ideal food and likened to eating peanuts by one scientist. However due to the reduction of horseshoe crabs from over harvesting the knots cannot get the food they desperately need to double their weight and finish the journey.

The five red knots at which I’m looking give me some hope, perhaps misplaced, that their extinction isn’t inevitable or near. I don’t know if these birds are winter residents just hanging out or migrants here to fuel up. For the moment I’m buoyed and I want to see more of them here. Hey guys bring your friends and families. This is a good stop on the way to or from Tierra del Fuego and quality wintering grounds. When I take my birding class out here please send a big delegation. I wanna tell ‘em your story while they watch you live from the field.

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Michael Givant, who writes our Bird’s Eye View column, resides in Woodbury and teaches a film course at Farmingdale State College in the Institute For Learning In Retirement and a foreign film class at The Longboat Key Education Center in Florida.

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