Cape Cod; banding Red Knots

Cape Cod is changing daily. Each tide moves thousands of cubic yards of sand and each storm makes your map even more useless. Barrier beaches protect much of the coast but they are also coming and going almost daily. Chatham is the town at the elbow of the Cape. From here you go east into the Atlantic or south into Nantucket Sound. The actual corner has a great deal of sand around it; there are shoals, bars, beaches, and barriers. There is one new beach that is already several miles long and there are many places where even shallow-draft boats can no longer travel. The fishing fleet is always on the move to avoid sand and low tide blockages.

But is still is a pretty good place for the migration of shorebirds (waders, sandpipers, plovers, godwits, turnstones, knots and more) to be observed and the species tallied. There is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife building on this corner and they are involved in managing and understating that Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness area. There is a tern colony of over ten thousand pairs here and the threatened Red Knot passes along this coast in reasonable numbers. The numbers are reasonable when seen as a percentage of the total population but the number are dramatically lower than twenty years ago – dramatically.

The boat ride can be easily half-an-hour to the potential banding site. We ferry equipment and people over the first couple hours.
Once the birds arrive and are gently coerced into the range of the net; the net is shot out and over the birds. Traction may not happen if any birds are standing on the net or to close to the discharge area. It is really disappointing to be so close and then have to scrub the attempt and hope for another chance on another day. Once the birds are in hand they are placed on both covered cages on the sand so that they are sheltered, out of the sun, and unaware of all the activity around them. They are banded with federal silver bands and field-readable color bands. The color is meaningful (year, month) and the letter number combination is specific.
They are weighed, bills measured, wing chord measured, sexed (if possible) and aged. Sometimes there is a tiny transmitter attached to the feather shaft of the upper tail. This allows the birds to be followed by coastal technology along their migration route.
All the equipment now gets used – and the lunches and water also. The weighing of these birds is similar to any bird banding operation; smooth can, tare weight, and done. The birds are passed around a circle of specialists to be measured, weighed, banded, and perhaps outfitted with some very lighweight technology.
Bird watchers along the coast notice these bands. The same sort of thing has been done with California Condors and American Bald Eagles on the readable tags are attached at the shoulder.
The white spot between the thumbs is the technology; the hairlike extension out from the tail feathers and over the little square box/bag is the antenna. This sort of technology has provided millions of new data points and understandings with sharks, fish, bears, snakes, as well as birds. Things we can’t see can now talk to us. Remarkable!!
Then they are off and running and flying. There was no damage to any of the Red Knots during this project. The research on east coast, of Massachusetts mostly, is now forty years old and Brian Harrington has been the lead guy throughout much of that time. Brian is now sort of retired from what was the Manomet Bird Observatory (now a broader environmental research group) but still gets out looking for knots each summer. Though now in a small metal boat with a motor rather than his kayak – this after a passive, but very close, encounter with one of the areas Great White Sharks. 

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