Kiawah Island, SC – Red Knots

On a cold and blustery, but brilliantly sunny morning on Kiawah Island, the tide was coming in, the beach still wide and open, with only a few other walkers in sight. A few Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls flew over, one by one, and others stood along the edge of the surf, widely scattered. Brown Pelicans sailed low over the water further out. One Forster’s Tern flew over the waves, quite low and close, so silvery-white it looked translucent, as if it were made of light. With slender wings and deeply-forked tail, a black mask and black bill at this time of year, in flight a Forster’s Tern is animated, graceful, and always fun to watch. This one was flying into the wind, hovering over the waves for seconds at a time.

This was the first day of a four-day visit to Kiawah Island during which I spent most of every day watching birds – a real luxury of time – on the beach, around ponds and some in woods and marshes. It was the perfect break and change of scene, completely different from the woods and fields of home. Here, it’s a world of light – and sun and sea and sand and marsh, and an abundance of birds – herons, egrets, eagles, osprey, pelicans, ducks, shorebirds, songbirds. The possibilities seem endless. There’s an openness and clarity that’s different, and being here even for a short few days does wonders to clear the mind of clutter.

At first I saw almost no birds along the beach, but then they began to appear – or I began to see them. The beach was so open and big it seemed they could almost disappear. Sanderlings scurried here and there along the edge of the waves, the most familiar little white sandpipers with gray backs, black legs, and straight black bills, so quick and energetic and bright they seem to sparkle. With them were Dunlins, a study in contrast – a more drab, brownish-gray color with pale, brownish-gray “bibs,” they didn’t run around so much, but clustered together with heads down, probing industriously in the sand with long, dark, drooping bills and shoulders that look slightly hunched.

Several Willets walked along the edge of the surf, one by one; larger, gray sandpipers on long legs, with long straight bills, they look so plain and quiet and nondescript, with no dramatic markings and unassuming behavior, until they’re startled into flight – flashing brilliant white and black stripes in the wings, and whistling a high, sharp klee-ee!

A flock of Red Knots flew in with a rush, low over the water, and settled on the sand at the shallow edge of the waves, bustling right to work, probing the sand. Maybe a hundred of them – a relatively small flock – they mostly stayed together in a tight group to feed, though a few scattered out more widely. Slightly larger and stockier than the Dunlins and Sanderlings, with short, thicker legs and relatively short, straight bill, they seemed at first to have few distinguishing features – just sort of grayish backs, pale bellies, and mottled breasts on which I could see no hint of red. They seemed still to be in gray winter plumage. Their heads stayed down most of the time, very busily probing into the sand like the Dunlins, intensely focused on feeding.

Then a bicyclist came along and passed them, and they burst into flight – and became breathtakingly beautiful. They fly so closely together, sweeping up and out and catching the sunlight on their breasts, which then showed a flush of warm rose, all of them together in the sunlight, like a sunset in flight. They flew up and out and circled back almost immediately to the same spot they had just left.

I watched them from a few yards away, trying to be careful not to disturb them. Populations of Red Knots have declined dramatically in the past two or three decades and there is serious concern for their future. Thousands of Red Knots stop here on Kiawah in the course of their extremely long northward migration in the spring, from Tierra del Fuego in South America to the Arctic. The food they find here and in other coastal stops along the way is vital to their survival. It’s believed that loss of adequate food sources during their migration may be responsible for their decline.

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