Monday, May 16, 2016 Blog

The miracle of the red knot. The drama of nature in the comfort of your home. Conservation in the cause of economic development.

by Dana Beach


This was a big week for birds (especially small ones).  Deborah Cramer, whose beautifully titled Pulitzer prize winner, “The Narrow Edge:  A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey,” celebrates the courageous — even miraculous — life of the red knot, spoke at the Library Society on Wednesday to a standing room only crowd.  Who would have guessed that there could be such enthusiasm for an obscure bird that appears in South Carolina only briefly in the spring and fall?

Like so much in nature these days, the story of the red knot is bittersweet.  In spite of its beauty, courage and endurance, the red knot is under pressure on all fronts.  Its primary food source, which fuels a (truly epic) 9,000 mile migration from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, is the horseshoe crab egg — billions of them, to be specific.

Delaware Bay has been the historical refueling stop.  The red knot’s arrival there is perfectly timed with the annual egg laying of hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs.  Fishermen in Virginia and Maryland have depleted the population of these crustaceans, “harvesting” (aka, “killing”) them for bait to catch eels and conchs.  Red knot populations have plummeted as a result — so much so that it was recently listed as a threatened species.

South Carolina, fortunately, banned the killing of horseshoe crabs for bait in the 1980s.  Ironically, the motivation was to make more of them available for pharmaceutical use.  (The crab is a true blue blood — a valuable commodity in the drug business —  in contrast to our beloved native Charlestonians, whose blood is the same color of red as someone from, say, Charlotte.)  This is ironic because taking the crab’s blood also causes mortality, only not as severely as using them for bait.

So the good news, for us, is that South Carolina has become more important to the red knot’s migration and survival.  Another interesting point, according to Deborah, is that rice fields are also increasingly valuable habitats.  With 70,000 acres remaining, the Lowcountry is, for the moment, well endowed with both rice fields and horseshoe crabs.  

I urge you to read this op-ed by Deborah from the New York Times.  She presents with beauty and urgency the dire circumstances facing shorebirds.  We can’t ignore the perils we have created for these remarkable creatures. 

Another miracle of nature is the fact that a tiny sand bar in the middle of Charleston Harbor is the breeding ground for a large percentage of the pelicans, royal and Sandwich terns, and black skimmers that grace the Charleston area.  Crab Bank, at the mouth of Shem Creek, is now probably less than an acre in size, but its ecological value is almost incalculable.  All together, there are just five seabird colonies in the state — just a few hundred acres responsible for the survival of the birds most of us consider iconic and permanent parts of the Lowcountry ecosphere.

Now it is possible to observe a seabird rookery in action on your computer!  Last Friday the Conservation League officially launched our Pelicam, which provides continuous streaming video from Crab Bank.  In spite of the proliferation of eagle and owl cams, the Pelicam is the first and only seabird colony based webcam in the world.  Here is Channel 5’s coverage of the launch.

I won’t elaborate on the excitement… the therapeutic, almost hypnotic enjoyment… of contemplating these wonderful, serene, pugilistic, gentle animals.  Take a look for yourself:

Finally, in case anyone thinks of conservationists as just tree-hugging nature lovers, Sammy Fretwell, with the State, reports that conservation groups have collaborated with business interests throughout the state to advance economic development projects.  Recent examples on the coast include the mitigation plans for Volvo’s new plant and Boeing’s expansion, and for the harbor deepening project, all developed and implemented with participation and leadership from local conservation organizations.  This underscores the almost blindingly obvious point that economic development without the conservation of nature would produce a world that few people would actually want to live in.

Have a wonderful week and enjoy the Pelicam!


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