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Conservationists flock to Chatham to observe a rare and athletic bird

Red knot
Red Knot

Last week, I joined some folks stalking around Chatham looking to catch some birds. Armed with gunpowder, heavy iron cannons, and multiple nets, they were hunting one of the rarest shorebirds in the country. Not much more than 100 years ago, people like this would have been looking to fill barrels full with fat-breasted shorebirds to sell to upscale Boston restaurants. But these weren’t the market gunners of old, they were researchers, conservation biologists looking to better understand a special bird, one that, here in the Northeast U.S., is best found in Chatham – it’s the amazing, and federally Threatened, Red Knot.

In breeding plumage, the Red Knot is one of the best-looking sandpipers in the hemisphere, sporting rich, buffy orange from face to the belly, and a back attractively mottled in black, white, and buff. They breed in remote areas of the high Arctic, and are best known for their long-distance, almost pole-to-pole annual migrations, as well as their dependence on horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay each spring. Here we see them on their southbound journey each summer and fall, and then, pretty much only in Chatham. There they find the food they crave, mainly tiny blue mussel spat and small intertidal shrimp, plus remote roosting areas for resting deep in within Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

The Rufa subspecies is the one that each year travels from the high Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the south tip of South America and then back, a round trip of close to 20,000 miles powered by nothing but a few ounces of muscle and fat. The one-way trip is equivalent to running 346 marathons. Their populations have plummeted in recent decades, threatened by climate change on the nesting grounds and a lack of horseshoe crab eggs on Delaware Bay.

To trap the knots, in order to put satellite trackers on them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers and their partner biologists from New Jersey, first need to scout the area to see where they are feeding and roosting — consistent high-tide roosts offer the best chance for a catch. On trapping day the crew storms the beach carrying hundreds of pounds of nets, cannons, projectiles, and other gear, sometimes schlepping this stuff over a mile or more, much of that in waist deep water. Nets are buried and camouflaged, then attached to cannons that will fire them up and over the roosting flock of birds. Several people watch and nudge the flock from various angles to make sure no birds will be endangered, and if all is perfect, the signal is given and the net is fired.

I was only able to help one day out of a several week trapping window this year, just enough to get my Monomoy fix after a few year project hiatus. Once the nets were set, my job was to wade across a hip-deep tidal channel from North Monomoy to a small island, part of the tattered remains of what was once the great South Beach shorebirding grounds of a few years ago. A bit rusty on navigating the sketchy Monomoy waters, I balked for a while before finally finding my way across. There, I was to keep any knots from settling in to roost, as we needed them to be across the channel near the nets. But the birds had other ideas, and not enough showed up to bother firing the nets that day. On other days they were successful and attached satellite transmitters to several birds, something not possible on a bird this small just a few years ago, giving near real-time data on important stopover and wintering areas for these globetrotting little birds.

It’s hard to find Red Knots away from the inaccessible, shifting sands of Monomoy, but try Chapin Beach in Dennis, the tip of Sandy Neck, or sometimes Race Point. If you do find some, give them plenty of space so they can feed and rest — from here, these super athletes may have another 242 consecutive marathons before they can rest again at the other end of the planet. Meanwhile, I get grumpy when I have to park more than 10 spaces from the supermarket entrance. I’d never make it as a Red Knot.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.