An Arctic Snowbird Visits SW Florida

December 27, 2014

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

The variety of birds at the beach can be challenging but it is very rewarding not only to identify them but to learn about their habits. The variation in migration patterns is quite astounding. Some birds breed in SW FL but many migrate to distant regions. I was recently at Palm/Knight Island at dusk to observe a large aggregation of birds. There were the usual gulls and terns, many dunlins and skimmers, but of most interest was a large group of about 150 red knots. Our winter resident knots are dull gray in color, quite unlike their reddish plumage during the breeding season. They are medium sized shorebirds, about 5 oz in weight, with an intermediate sized bill that they use to probe in sand for food. They breed in the high Arctic in tundra habitats near the ocean. It appears that they fly to and from the Arctic via Delaware Bay, where they gain weight for their flights eating the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Then they work their way down the east coast, eventually reaching their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. We know this itinerary in some detail due to the efforts of scientists who have marked the knots with leg tags. One of the more exciting activities I have on the beach is to search for marked red knots. I found one in the group on Palm Island which had a light green flag on its upper left leg marked 6C9; there was a silver metal band on the right leg. I checked on the website and found that this individual red knot was banded on Oct. 18, 2011, three years and two months ago in SC and subsequently re-sighted ten times in SC, GA and FL. This small bird has thus made at least four flights to and from the Arctic Ocean, a very impressive feat. Let’s do what we can to protect these marvelous birds while they visit us.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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