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Key Habitat Preserved for Red Knots

Birders spearhead the purchase of Delaware Bay habitat to help declining Red Knots.

BirdChannel News Division
Posted: February 1, 2008, 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Conservation Fund and the Delmarva Ornithological Society joined forces to acquire approximately five acres of Delaware Bay coastline that buffers the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge - one of the most important stopover areas for the Red Knot rufa subspecies and other migrating shorebirds.

The fund will transfer the property to the refuge for long-term public stewardship, preserving crucial habitat for threatened wildlife and ensuring generations of birders a chance to admire Red Knots, said Bill Stewart, conservation chair of the society.

Northbound migrating shorebirds rely heavily on the Delaware Bay coastline. It's a prime feeding and nesting area for many shorebird species, including Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sanderling and Dunlin. Each spring, tens of thousands of these birds flock to the coastline to feast on horseshoe crab eggs.

A loss of horseshoe crabs as a result of overfishing along the mid-Atlantic coast, however, is linked to a significant drop in the Red Knot population. The rufa subspecies population declined by more than half between the mid-1980s and 2003, according to "Birder's Conservation Handbook" by Jeffrey V. Wells.

In 2000, the total North American population of Red Knots was estimated at 400,000. That figure includes 170,000 of the rufa subspecies. By 2004, the count dropped to 30,000. The current rufa population hovers at 13,000.

Environmental scientist Kevin Kalasz, coordinator of the Delaware Shorebird Project, said it's feared that the population might reach some low threshold that it is difficult or impossible to rebound. "This population decline is a cause for alarm, because it has been so precipitous over the past several years and has shown no signs of recovery," he said.

Not willing to watch this species become extinct, Stewart decided to act.

"Although not officially on the Endangered Species list, it may be past the recovery point," he said. "Scientists have predicted extinction as early as 2010."

Stewart formed an alliance with the Delaware office of The Conservation Fund to help the conservation group purchase five acres of prime Delaware Bay coastline. This property was privately owned and being sold for development, Stewart said. The society's commitment for the land acquisition was to raise $15,000.

To meet the target, Stewart organized a weeklong bird-a-thon in the winter of 2007 to raise funds. In the following four months, the project received numerous business sponsors and pledges from schools, the society's members and the general public. The society surpassed its goal of $15,000 by raising $28,076 in donations.

Blaine Phillips, mid-Atlantic director of the fund's Delaware office, called the land deal "a great transaction" and a victory for Red Knots. The property will continue to serve as beaches and marshes that supply abundant food and habitat for Red Knots and other species, he said. The total selling price has not been made public at the seller's request.

"The Red Knot depends on such a small amount of land when it arrives in the Delaware Bay, a crucial spot on its migration to arctic breeding ground," Phillips said. "There's a very little bit left that they need literally to survive. We need to step up, and we need to step up quickly to help the Red Knot."

Protecting habitat assures the horseshoe crab a place to spawn their millions of eggs as well as a place for the migrating and staging shorebirds to eat and refuel before their second and final leg to their breeding grounds, Stewart said. The extra money raised went to establish a registered Hawk Migration Association of North America hawkwatch in northern Delaware.

The partnership that developed to benefit the Red Knot proved successful, and Stewart said more efforts are in the works for 2008, when a second, larger property is going up for sale.

"I believe once an individual becomes a birder, a transformation takes place," he said. "They become a conservationist, focusing on birds."

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