Big Day for the Friends of the Red Knot

Arriving in a flurry of activity, there is a great deal of chatter as the small flock arrives along the Delaware Bay. Here for just a short time, they must fill up as quickly as possible while in Delaware, taking advantage of the bounty before them. Thus began the Big Day adventure for the Friends of the Red Knot (FoRK), a group of young conservationists (ages 8 to 12) dedicated to protecting the endangered shorebird. Piling out of a minivan, four sets of bright eyes and sharp ears made ready for an avian adventure.  

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Mike, Mica, Gail, Judy, and Bill watch a Prairie Warbler, while Emily and Maria search for the birds in the bushes.


Mike, Emily, Mica, and Maria arrived at 8:00am on May 9 from their homes near Baltimore, Maryland, supported by parent leader Gail Hudson. Their mission: take part in a Big Day as part of the third annual Delaware Bird-A-Thon. Last year’s effort netted an impressive tally of 102 species, and they were ready to beat that record! 


These youth had a stable of veteran Delaware birders to guide them: Bill Stewart, Judy Montgomery, and myself, all officers of the Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS). We are also leaders of the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birders Club (www.DelawareDunlins.com), and jump at any chance to take kids afield and show them some great birds!  Put twelve hours on the clock, we are going for a whirlwind bird tour!


To begin a Big Day, you need to hit the supermarket first.  I’m not talking about a store.  I mean a place with one-stop shopping for a wide variety of birds to fill your Big Day bag quickly. Milford Neck Wildlife Area fits this bill:  a mix of pine forest, deciduous woods, thickets, meadows, freshwater impoundments, tidal creeks, and brackish bay. Lots of diverse habitat equals lots of bird species.
Within minutes of beginning our birding spree at a brushy field, the cart filled up with great finds: brilliant Indigo Buntings, flashy Prairie Warblers, talkative Yellow-breasted Chats, and a young Bald Eagle spinning circles in the sky.  Moving to nearby woodlands, the songs of Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Acadian Flycatcher, and Yellow-throated Warbler greeted our ears.


While driving to our next stop (with windows down, of course!), our ears caught the twitter of warbler calls. Soon the bright colors of a Magnolia Warbler, Northern Parula, and American Redstart came to light amidst the newly leafed-out treetops. The warblers thrilled the crowd, as did a Great-crested Flycatcher that posed for views in the spotting scope.


At Big Stone Beach, the kids ran for the sand. As far as the eye could see, the brown forms of horseshoe crabs carpeted the water’s edge. Caught up in their spring spawning ritual, these ancient creatures provide the millions of eggs that help fuel the Red Knot and other shorebirds for their migration to Arctic nesting grounds.

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Maria and Emily investigate a pair of Horseshoe Crabs on Big Stone Beach, Delaware. The smaller male crab fertilizes the large female's clusters of eggs. As many as 25,000 pearly eggs may be laid at a time. Migratory shorebirds depend upon the fat-rich eggs to fuel their flight to the Arctic breeding grounds. 


An engaging game of “help the horseshoes” ensued, as Emily and Maria led the charge to flip over stranded crabs and return them to the water. In short order, a quarter-mile of beach became barren as the children hoisted crabs back into the bay to await the next high spawning tide. Black Skimmers, Double-crested Cormorants, and swarms of Laughing Gulls passed by while we helped the crabs. After much fun at the beach, we headed south to the next hotspot. Mike tallied the checklist, and in three short hours, we’d already observed 85 species!  Shopping for birds at Milford Neck proved productive! 


The road into Mispillion Harbor bore its usual bounty of buzzing Seaside Sparrows, flashy Willets, and noisy Clapper Rails. A giant Red Knot statue greeted us at the DuPont Nature Center (http://dupontnaturecenter.org) at Mispillion Harbor Reserve. Would we see his feathered likenesses? No need to worry— the real Red Knots flew about the harbor in small flocks, along with Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Dunlins, and Black-bellied Plovers. The deck of the nature center is the best place in the world to view Red Knots, and we savored looks at these remarkable shorebirds freshly-arrived after a non-stop flight from Argentina. 


The marsh at Fowler Beach teemed with shorebirds, including more Red Knot and the similar-colored Short-billed Dowitchers. A lingering hen Bufflehead made it onto the list, tying last year’s record of 102 species. On the nearby viewing platform, we posed for photos overlooking the beachfront habitat that previous Bird-A-Thon funds helped purchase.


Birding around Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, the new birds kept coming:  a surprise flock of Snow Geese, lingering Blue-winged Teal, and a brilliant Prothonotary Warbler. On a tip from a birding friend, we found a beautiful red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl peering from a hollow tree. The tiny owl regarded us with wide yellow eyes, not knowing he’d just made it onto four kids’ life lists.

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An inquisitive red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl peers down at an excited group of birders who are delighted to see an owl during daylight!

   
As evening approached, there remained one key stop with a cast of still-needed birds. Abbott’s Mill Nature Center’s diverse floodplain woodlands hold a bounty of birds, and we stole looks at Eastern Phoebes, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Belted Kingfisher, and finally, an Eastern Towhee.


For the grand finale, I wound up my vocal cords and unleashed my best Barred Owl imitation. The first owl materialized in a pine tree, followed shortly by its mate. “Who-cooks-for-you-all?” queried the curious raptors, and Emily and Maria answered with their best husky hoots.  


The clock struck 8:00pm and the owls continued calling. Our whirlwind birding day came to a close and you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces with a whole bottle of lens cleaner. The Friends of the Red Knot rang up an incredible total of 116 species of birds on their shopping list, and enjoyed a feast of bird life during twelve hours in Delaware.  Aren’t we always hungry for more birds? 

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In 12 hours afield, the Friends of the Red Knot observed 116 species of birds and experienced a banner day of birding for conservation. Their efforts earned them top honors in the Youth Team category of the Delaware Bird-A-Thon.

       
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A month after the great Big Day adventure, the FoRK team found out they had won the Bird-A-Thon Youth Team category, by raising over $1,000 for conservation. The Delaware Bird-A-Thon achieved a landmark by raising over $45,000 this year, surpassing $100,000 total for its first three years.  Supporters from across the United States, and as far away as Ireland and New Zealand contributed generously to the cause. As always, the money will go towards protecting vital migratory shorebird habitat and educating the public about bird conservation.


In order to make the event a success, it takes the efforts of a caring and concerned global birding community. The Red Knot is just one of many bird species in need of our help. Wherever you live, you can make a difference for the birds you love. As the Delaware Bird-A-Thon motto says, “Birding for Conservation Makes Cents.” 

 
Derek Stoner is President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, coordinator of the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birders Club, and an environmental educator for the Delaware Nature Society.

1

A great piece of literature, worthy of soliciting additional support for the annual Birdathon. While the individual and team competition activities are restricted to the first or second week of May each year, the fundraising effort is an ongoing project and both corporate and foundation sponsors are welcome and encouraged to support this educational conservation project. Further information and direct donation links are provided at the DOS website – DOSbirds.org

2

As becomes obvious from one’s reading of this piece, not all news is bad. People can change. Wildlife has a legion of advocates. Who could not smile at the hands-on encounter young Maria and Emily enjoyed with the horseshoe crabs? I hope it is only one among countless experiences each of them will have with the real, ancient, actual world, in which we are but fleeting participants.

3

I think what you all are doing is fully awesome! With more clubs like this, we’ll save the earth one step at a time! Hi Mike :)

4

It is fun for us to go birding, but I think our most istirenteng bird happenings have happened right outside our windows. We have a handful of ducks and put them away at night because of predators. Early one morning in May when only my 9-year old and I were awake we happened to notice out our front window a couple of ducks on a tree limb. For a brief second I wonder how did our ducks get there? It was cloudy and the sun hardly up yet, so we didn’t see any colour. I grab the camera and get a couple pictures of the two. They must have sensed our movement because they flew off. It was only when we zoomed in the picture after we took it, we recognized the light markings as being Wood Ducks, male and female. I think this is a pretty cool yard bird to have, especially because we do not have a pond at our place. Another istirenteng sighting outside our window was a Cooper’s hawk eating its supper at the same time we were. This was maybe about 15 feet from the house. A child at that end of the table just happened to catch it out of the corner of his eye. I admit I am not a fan of bird-eating birds, but there was the thrill of experiencing this up close. The episode never looked gruesome and the prey looked larger than the usual Juncos or sparrows this hawk got in the winter months. . I suspect it saw us as close it was to the window, but it just kept on eating. We learned the hawk eats everything but the feathers, as we went out to look at what was left, expecting to see the bones at least.

5

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