Red Knot project update -

by Lanny McDowell on November 28, 2008

Here is a copy of an article I wrote for the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette that was published yesterday.  It  describes and updates the efforts of Global Conservation Alliance, a partnership of three birders looking for ways to reverse the demise of Red Knots and other shorebirds that depend on horseshoe crab eggs on the shores of Delaware Bay to fuel the last leg of their northern migration.  The actual published article is online at

This is the issue I address on the Crusade page of this blog.  Please feel free to comment (in Comment field below) and suggest.

UNRAVELING THE RED KNOT DILEMMA by Lanny McDowell for the Vineyard Gazette 11/28/08:

  We had committed to spending the last week of May along the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay, on the beaches that stretch north from Cape May.  One of my two partners in this project, Porter Turnbull, had set up our first meeting at a service stop far down the Garden State Parkway. Our discussion was with a longtime fisherman who has been an advocate for commercial horseshoe crab harvesters.  The meeting outlined the complexities of balancing the interests of crab fishermen, shorebird researchers and the wildlife that served both. The meeting also answered our immediate question: where are the most shorebirds feeding on horseshoe crab eggs at the moment?  His answer was Moore’s Beach; and directions were noted.

 We went there straightaway, following a crumbling blacktop one-laner through vast marshes, one of us at the wheel, the other out ahead wading through enormous puddles and the tidal streams crossing the roadbed, feeling for deep holes underfoot that would snare our rental.  There was only one that deep and, fortunately, Porter found it, much to his surprise and up to his thighs in marsh water.

 We emerged from our rite of passage to deadend at an abandoned fishing outpost that remained only as shards of busted-up concrete and useless dock pilings.  A tidal estuary flowed into Delaware Bay between the mud banks of the marsh and the pebbled flats near the beach.  Shorebirds were flying in from the southeast as singles, in two and threes, and in small flocks.  The late light was striking from the west.  Off to the south along the sandy bayshore there were laughing gulls wading in tight feeding mobs.  The pebbled flats were covered with thousands of birds, all feeding actively and close together:  ruddy turnstones, dunlins, some semi-palmated sandpipers, some sanderlings and, most important to us, maybe one third of the east coast population of migrating red knots (Calidris canuta rufa), the reason we were there.

 The amazing annual cycle of migration for an adult red knot begins on a tidal mudflat along the coastline of Patagonia.  They fly north, typically to the northern shores of Brazil.  There they feed intensively, building up fat deposits to burn as fuel as they fly the next long leg over open ocean to the US, where almost all of them make landfall at Delaware Bay, a specific stopover area where fueling up for the last northward leg is top priority.  Dispersed over vast areas of the arctic tundra, they will mate, nest and hatch out young, which are precocial and quite capable of feeding themselves in the endless daylight. 

 Red knots are a large sandpiper about the length of a robin, but bulkier and longer-winged.  They are sometimes seen in passage on the Vineyard in small numbers, usually in late summer on flats interior to our south side barrier beaches, while much larger numbers gather at South Beach (off Chatham) and the Monomoy islands, staging for direct return flights to South America.  Red knot population declines have researchers puzzled and worried.  After tracking the radical drops in shorebird populations over the last thirty years, they fear that extinctions of this and other shorebird species are looming, a real possibility in even the next few years.

  The migratory flight segments of red knots run up to twenty-five hundred miles long, non-stop, eighteen thousand miles total in a year.  To power this kind of sustained flight at up to forty miles per hour they increase their body weight from fifty to one hundred per cent when sufficient food is available.  They even shrink certain digestive organs in the interest of trimming unusable weight.  At the end of those flights they are usually emaciated and exhausted … and very hungry.

 My interest in these incredible travelers began a few years ago when a friend of mine, an adman and writer on the Vineyard named Geoff Currier, gave me a book he had received as background for an advertising job.  It was called Flight of the Red Knot by Brian Harrington (with Charles Flowers), who happens to have long-standing ties with the Vineyard and a career in shorebird research associated with the Monomet Observatory for Conservation Sciences.  A couple of years later, another West Tisbury friend, Richard Cohen, suggested that he and I enroll in a shorebird monitoring program in Delaware.  We learned how to trap, handle, band, measure and weigh turnstones and knots, as well as how to read and interpret the leg bands of birds caught previously.  Then, two years ago in June, I was invited to go up to Lubec, Maine, by Porter Turnbull, who wanted me to meet a biologist friend of his, Norman Famous, his ornithologist mentor from college days.  We were all birders.   In the course of our stay there the precipitous declines in red knot numbers was discussed, along with the related problems that the horseshoe crab industry was enduring.  We wondered if some practical approach which went beyond the research efforts could be applied to the problem.  In other words, was there a way to directly stall or reverse the red knot declines; and could part of a solution be to supplement the available food sources at the Delaware Bay stopover?  It seemed an elegant solution, if it were actually doable.

 Researchers and activists had long been spearheading efforts to mandate the regulation or outright ban of commercial harvesting of horseshoe crabs in and around Delaware Bay, on both the New Jersey and the Delaware sides.  The over-fishing of the crabs for bait in conch traps and for medical uses is recognized as a direct contributor to the diminished abundance of eggs on the beaches where the shorebirds need them in great numbers to fuel their flight north in June.  Harrington estimates that a red knot will consume 135,000 eggs at this stopover.  In addition to the fat requirements for the flight up to the arctic, the birds may arrive to find a snow-covered landscape that is not yet warm enough to produce food for them, so they may have to live off reserves for another two weeks.

 An ad hoc committee, the Global Conservation Alliance (GCA), consisting of Famous, Turnbull and McDowell, was formed to save the planet.  Well, at the least we would sample the political waters of an issue that had pitted commercial interests against naturalist researchers and bird huggers; and we would look into the possibilities of finding and obtaining a supplementary food provision for the birds.  This would involve initiating some activity that would increase the food supply for the birds during a crucial time, provide an interim opportunity for the diminished stocks of breeding-age horseshoe crabs to recover, and find a way to integrate the fishing and naturalist communities in a process that is sustainable and mutually beneficial.  We also acknowledged to each other that we would be addressing only one of enumerable factors in a life cycle that literally spans the globe?

 Our first discussions within GCA had the nervous self-righteousness of the outsider:  Why are all those folks just studying them?  When are they going to do something? Don’t we already know they are dying off faster than we can keep count?  What if something bad happens in Delaware Bay, like an oil spill?  What if there’s a late snow on the breeding grounds?  Are they hunted for food in South America?  What if they are?  At the current rate of loss how many years are left?  Does anyone really care, besides us?  What if the horseshoe crab fishermen cheat on the harvesting bans?  What if the net effect of trapping and processing the birds for research is to stress them beyond recovery?

 When Norman joined us in Cape May he had a station wagon stacked with bags of fish-based food product which a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes produces to supply zoos. The Aquamax pelletized feed was the best manufactured food item we could find in terms of size, appearance and nutritional content, the closest to horseshoe crab eggs and what we hoped would appeal to ravenous shorebirds in a feeding frenzy.  A grant from the Marine Conservation Action Fund at the New England Aquarium paid for the product.  Bottom line, our trials did not have much success getting shorebirds to eat the food, in part because of limits placed on where we were allowed to deploy it and partly because the birds did not readily recognize it as a prey item.  The laughing gulls, however, really liked the food we spread on the beaches and would stand shoulder-to-shoulder to devour it until the last morsel was gone.

 The week was an unqualified success in other terms: our ability to assess the politics of competing factions, getting the lay of the land, the personal contacts we made and, especially, the resolve we came away with to pursue whatever combination of solutions seems most likely to contribute to slowing the demise of the shorebirds and restoring the egg-laying population of the struggling horseshoe crab, a beast that has been doing what it does for untold millions of years, in the waters of Delaware Bay and in the waters of Martha’s Vineyard.

 Where does the GCA partnership go from here, meaning what’s the plan for the spring of 2009?  Meetings with fish and wildlife personnel here in Massachusetts are ongoing and we are in touch with an expanding list of allies and interested parties from Virginia to Maine.The current best guess is that three strategies will emerge as the most practical and the most promising: find an available supplemental  food that red knots will eat in their natural context; rake the beaches holding the horseshoe crab eggs to turn over the top few inches to expose more eggs to predation by shorebirds; distribute food that will distract competing gulls to locations other than those where the shorebirds are feeding

on horseshoe crab eggs.  Any and all of these approaches will require funding, permitting and testing. That’s the plan that is taking shape.

The red knot project administered by Global Conservation Alliance, a non-profit organization, is looking for funding from private and public sources.  To read the 2008 project report, updates and contact info, go to the author’s website at; find Blog and then the Crusade page.

 Lanny McDowell is an artist and avian photographer making his home in West Tisbury. 


 Laughing Gulls scoffing up the Aquamax manufactured food we placed on a test plot:

John Brown, Porter Turnbull and Norm Famous at Moore’s Beach, NJ, plotting to save the planet:

Birds are cool!  Lanny

These images and more are available for purchase. Contact me or View store. Holiday Sale!

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Deb 11.30.08 at 7:35 pm

Birds are definitely cool, I agree and yet I wonder why I am the first to comment on your very perceptive and obviously well thought-out attempts to save the planet? Your GCA group of three [so far] has done more, perhaps, than other longer standing research-oriented organizations to actually put some theories to the test. Your idea to try an alternate food source for the red knots was great , and the fact that the laughing gulls found the product much to their liking was a by-product of some intelligent work.

If you need others to support your efforts as you outline them, I would like to be considered. My husband and I traveled to Cape May at full moon in June, 2006, to witness the red knots fedding frenzy. We also went to several beaches on the Delaware side to see what we could see of the horseshoe crabs and were impressed with the Dupont nature exhibit some miles north of Lewes. We have not been available for the netting and counting and banding programs in that area because we were living and working in upstate New York until our retirement this past year. Hence, we are more available to help out this spring, should we find a spot to do so.

Since many of our summers have seen us visiting Chatham, Pleasant Bay, Orleans and East Dennis, as well as Monomoy Nature Center, when I read your blog and report, I felt I had found a kindred spirit. I had the pleasure of finding a tagged horseshoe crab in Pleasant Bay this past summer and natually called in the sighting. We did not, however, see any red knots when we were there in September.

I applaud your interests and efforts in trying to help out the red knot and in taking the time to share your thoughts and findings. Count me in as a supporter of your group’s goals.



Lanny McDowell 11.30.08 at 8:03 pm

Deb: Thanks so much for responding to this blog (and wading through my “Crusade” texts). Yours is the first really practical commentary and one that promises some contribution in the future. Almost everyone who comments to my blog, at this point, already knows me and is applauding the fact I am taking and sharing my avian art, not that there is anything wrong with that. I want plenty of feedback.

It is too early to tell how we will hit the ground next spring. It sounds awful to me to say it, but permitting for our programs may in part determine which strategies are practical to apply. We will be down there trying to do something!

Please stay in touch and follow our progress through the winter months. Not just the permitting, but funding will also be priority one. I imagine some funding will be sought with a general commitment in mind, but I would think that grant underwriters will prefer to know how we will apply their money; and that will depend on how we narrow our focus and apply for permits to work on the beaches.

I will develop an e-mailing list for supporters. You are on it.

Thanks again for the encouraging response. It’s good for me to know someone out there is paying attention.



Deb 11.30.08 at 8:19 pm

Lanny: Wow, are you “on top” of your bolg site!

I wanted to say that other researchers that I have read have been concentrating on finding ways to limit the harvesting of horseshoe crabs, which, of course, is lauditory, or a few at the University of Maryland have been attempting to find alternative baits that appeal to conch and eel in the traps so that horseshoe crabs can be given a well-deserved break from that role. YOU have approached it differently and, I think, logically, when you attempt to find alternate appealing supplemental food for the dwindling red knot population.

Have you or others tried other fish eggs that may be available from their “doners” at less risk and more plentiful than the horseshoe crab? The texture and taste [if that is a consideration] may be more comparable to the horseshoe crab eggs and if fish are more readily available for the donation, it might work for the time we are talking about as we save the red knots until something else can be worked out. Just a random thought.

Also, I do like the painting of the Sensitive Fern on your website and wonder what the price is, if it still is available? Thanks. You may answer to my email address, if that is preferable.


Randy Ayers 06.03.09 at 8:02 am

When my wife spotted our house, in one of the photos dealing with Red Knots @ Money Isalnd…we looked closer. We have been assisting the “up-side-down” Horseshoe Crabs around Money Island , Gandy Beach, & isolated “out-cay” Islands in New Jersey for many years. We simply enjoy the isolation, solitude, & beauty of this area. We try to assist, conserve, & contribute to the “life-cycles” of this area, one being the annual influx of shorebirds, & the dilemna of the Red Knot. Cathy & I spent hours during full & new moons during May/June “flipping” over-turned Horseshoe Crabs. Having a Kayak, boat, & waverunner, I can always find areas to observe & assist. We consistently spot “tagged” horseshoe crabs & report them to USD of Interior. This year we noticed a increase in the number of feeding shorebirbs, including more Red Knots. Of course, this is not scientific, just an observation. We will continue to support & assist the life cycles of the turtles, monarch butterflies, shorebirds, dragonflies, Eagles, & Ospreys… maybe not so much those gnats, strawberry flies, & the up-coming, dare I say it, “GreenHeads”


Lanny McDowell 06.03.09 at 9:17 am

That sounds very energetic, Randy, and potentially very useful. My buddies in Global Conservation Alliance were actually discussing very recently the idea of promoting volunteer groups going along the beaches to flip over stranded HS Crabs as a useful activity and as an educational tool. We had some questions about access, given that some of the principal beaches are closed to the public, but maybe that could be waived. The thing is, at the right time of year high tides are coming twice a day every day. You do what you can.

I know that I was drawn to flip over large females at least. We had some time to kill between sample taking and observations out at Moore’s Beach about a week ago. One of our associates spent the time returning crabs to the bay. I was taking photos and, as I walked past him, I said, “You know that’s more about you than the crabs, right?” He said, yeah, and kept on doing it. I guess ultimately it is all about the crabs, then the birds, then the bay and its people, so I can’t fault anyone for keeping any part of the system alive and reproducing.

Thanks for your timely comment. I got back from NJ yesterday. There will be more blog and photos in days to come, once I get settled back into the Vineyard life.


Deirdre 03.16.11 at 11:06 pm

Hi. I am doing a project on this topic for one of my college classes. As I looked up more and more information about these birds and the horseshoe crabs that are also being affected, it really touched me. If you could email me with more information that maybe I could use to get a better grasp on the subject, I would truly appreciate it!


Lanny McDowell 03.17.11 at 7:51 am

Sure. I will be in touch by email.


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