When you step onto South Carolina’s beaches, look out for fellow visitors who traveled a lot father to get there.
The red knot flies 18,000 miles in one year. As part of its migration from one end of the earth to the other, the robin-sized shorebird uses South Carolina’s beaches much like an interstate rest area.
“These shorebirds are on very long journeys,” DNR shorebird wildlife biologist Felicia Sanders said.
Red knots spend their winters in the southernmost tip of Argentina. Then they fly north to the Arctic Circle in the summer to nest.
“On that long journey from the wintering site to the nesting site they stop and rest and feed at quite a few states along the North, Central and South America coast,” Sanders said.
She said the last stops the birds make in South Carolina are crucial to their success at their breeding grounds in the Arctic because they need the strength not only to finish the journey but to build their nests, mate and lay eggs. When they arrive in South Carolina, their feathers are gray. Feeding on coquina clams and nutrient-dense horseshoe crab eggs turns their feathers a rosy color for breeding.
“They are resting and consuming all the foods that keep them alive and takes them on the next leg of their journey on the beach, so it’s very important that people let them live without disturbing them,” she said.
Although she encourages people to enjoy the birds, “if they start to fly, you’re too close.”
Sanders also recommends people follow the rules of the beach when walking dogs on a leash and try to keep them away from the birds.
The red knot is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act and Sanders said “they’re of high importance to us.”
“We’ve been putting some geolocators on these birds,” she said. “So we catch them on our beaches and place this device that enables us to track their migration . . . really amazing to see a small bird on our beach and then realize it’s done this huge migration each year of its life.”
Sanders said researchers suspect the Red Knot migrates so far to follow daylight.
“When they leave South American they really have no idea what the weather is going to be like at their next stop or in the Arctic but they’ve just evolved to start migration when light levels change: time to move north or time to move south,” she said.
She said some of the birds stopping in South Carolina on their way north in the spring have been tracked flying directly to James Bay, Canada.
During late winter and spring, red knots gather by the thousands at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Seabrook, Kiawah, and Harbor Islands. At times, they form the largest flock on the Atlantic Coast, with as many as 8,000 knots counted on Kiawah Island in recent years.
Sanders said the population of the Red Knot has declined by as much as 85 percent over the last few decades. Researchers suspect the decline is due to disturbance and food availability, especially during migration.
“It’s just a small percentage of what it was decades ago,” she said. Research done on populations in Tierra Del Fuego, where the birds spend the winter, shows a 25 percent drop in numbers from 2017 to 2018.
“[We’re] really just trying to understand what we can do in South Carolina to help them because they’re in trouble and hopefully, people at the other stopover sites can do the same.”