Supplied photo courtesy of Lindsay Addison
The rufa red knot, shown here on Lea Island, is being considered for a threatened species designation under the Endangered Species Act.
As winter turns to spring, millions of migratory birds in the Northern Hemisphere will begin their trek back to their northern nesting habitats.
This year, one such visitor to the North Carolina coast could be staying in the spotlight longer than usual.
The rufa red knot, a robin-sized shorebird, which has in recent years been spotted resting on Wrightsville’s north end, is being considered for a threatened species designation under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially proposed the rule Sept. 30, 2013. A subspecies of red knot specific to the east coasts of North and South America, the rufa red knot, had been wait-listed for consideration in 2003, due to what Audubon North Carolina biologist Lindsay Addison called a precipitous decline in its population since the 1980s.
“The population of rufa red knot nest in the Canadian Arctic, and they winter all along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America,” Addison said in a Jan. 2 interview. “Surveys have indicated that their population has declined by about 70 to 80 percent.”
With a two-month migratory route that can span close to 10,000 miles, the red knot is highly dependent on the timing of its departure. Addison explained the birds might only stop once to rest and replenish their fat store for the second half of the journey. One of their main sources of food is horseshoe crab eggs, making the Delaware Bay and Cape Fear National Seashore two highly sought-after rest stops for the nomadic birds.
“In the Delaware Bay, the harvest of the crabs has decreased the horseshoe crab population there, so there aren’t as many eggs,” she said. “Climate change affects the timing of these events, so if the knot are rising either too early or too late, there won’t be food for them. There are several different things the proposal mentions as factors in their decline.”
Since 2009, small flocks of the birds have been seen stopping at Wrightsville’s north end, county records show. Until the end of 2013, Audubon North Carolina maintained weekly tallies of shorebirds on the north end as part of its contract with the county per the Mason Inlet Waterbird Habitat Management Plan.
Aside from lone individuals seen during late fall and winter, groups of the birds numbering from 20 to 35 individuals were counted in May 2009, then in January and May 2011. After a scattering of minor appearances throughout 2012, a flock of 65 rufa red knot appeared to take up residence for several weeks in May 2013.
Spencer Rogers, a coastal erosion specialist with N.C. Sea Grant, said in a Jan. 6 interview the relatively active Masons Inlet, which currently moves south at a rate of about 90 feet per year, could play a role in the red knot’s recent appearance.
“If [the inlet] is moving fast enough, the habitat stays bare,” Rogers said. “That’s definitely the case at those two locations; that the alteration takes away the vegetated dune habitat and makes sure that what is there is bare sand habitat.”
Fish and Wildlife’s proposed listing refers to those unvegetated, bare sand areas as preferred habitat for the knot, which the proposal states often overlaps with that of the piping plover. Plover already have critical habitat designated at the north end of Wrightsville Beach.
This led the county to submit comments to the federal agency requesting that any critical habitat designation for rufa red knot mirror the plover’s designated habitat. The two-month public comment period for the listing proposal ended Nov. 29.
County shore protection coordinator Layton Bedsole said on Jan. 7 those comments also reflected a desire to minimize the rule’s potential impacts on cost, timing and access to resource areas associated with nourishment projects on Wrightsville Beach.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Meagan Racey said Jan. 6 the habitat designation would not create a refuge or sanctuary, but could lead to restrictions on activities undertaken by federal agencies, including beach nourishment.
“In general, a critical habitat designation has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or a federal permit,” Racey said. “We advise agencies on whether permitted actions would be likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the red knot or adversely affect the critical habitat.”
Racey said the agency expects to publish its proposed habitat designation by early spring of 2014. After that announcement, a public comment period will follow, which Racey said will likely include a public hearing in North Carolina.