Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Monday, March 17, 2008

Red Knots – Hundreds of Birds, One Thought

They appeared out of nowhere, suddenly, a large flock of shorebirds flying fast in tight formation, swooping low over the edge of the surf, the rush of their wings passing by me. Two or three hundred birds, moving as one, they turned sharply out to sea and then back again, flying up, then down, flowing this way and that, catching the sunlight and changing colors as they changed direction – tan and cream and cinnamon and pewter. It was a breathtaking display of flight, and they looked not like separate birds, but like one form in fluid motion, one thought.

Red Knots.

An individual Red Knot in winter plumage is one of the plainest and most nondescript of birds – a sturdy, rather large sandpiper with a gray back, dingy gray breast, dark legs, and a dark, straight, medium-sized bill. Its beauty is not in the individual bird, but in the glorious way hundreds of Red Knots move together, especially in flight. The first time I saw them during this visit to Kiawah Island, the flock flew by me and away down the beach so fast that it seemed almost like an apparition, leaving an image lingering in the air after they were gone – and leaving me with a frustrated wish that they’d return.

They didn’t come by again that day, but a couple of days later they did. I was walking on the beach late in the morning with the tide coming in, and the sky sunny and clear. The Red Knots appeared with a whoosh – again, it was a flock of at least two hundred – but this time they settled right in front of me, as if the grains of sand in a whirlwind had fallen out and sprouted legs. The instant their feet touched the sand they began to run from spot to spot and probe into the sand – in constant, rapid motion as if they had not a second to spare. They spread out in a long line up and down the beach, and although they broke up into several loose groups, within each group many, if not all, of the birds moved in sync, running and probing together.

Most were still in gray-on-gray winter plumage, but a good many showed faint highlights of soft brown, and a few showed the beginnings of reddish mottling that would later become the salmon-red breast that gives them their name.

Red Knots are the cover story in the March-April issue of Birdwatcher’s Digest, and I had just read the article before coming to Kiawah, so I had hoped to see them. Their population numbers have declined steeply in recent years, and there are serious concerns about their future. One area of concern is the importance of habitat and food supply along their migration routes each spring. Unfortunately, I was so absorbed in watching the way they moved, and in the sense of urgency and intensity they brought to the beach, I completely forgot to look for color bands or color marking.

It may have been five or ten minutes at most when, just as suddenly as they had arrived, they took flight again, the whole long, strung-out line of them rising swiftly and flowing back into the tight formation of the flock, silent except for the sound of their wings, becoming one again, and disappearing up the beach.


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