red-knots:-a-story-of-migration-and-survival
A group of red knots (shore birds) foraging on the beach. © Pamela Cohen

A group of red knots foraging on the beach. Kiawah Island, South Carolina © Pamela Cohen

By Pamela Cohen

A group of resilient sandpipers, the red knots (Calidris canutus rufa), feed along coastal beaches. This amazing species has one of the longest migrations of any bird. Originating as far south as Tierra del Fuego, at the far southern tip of South America, they move all the way north to nest in the Arctic tundra. Some groups of red knots fly more than 9,300 miles going north each spring and again on their return south in the fall.

I live on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, which has been designated by the South Carolina DNR, as one of the critical sites on the Atlantic Flyway. During the months of March through May, the birds feed voraciously on Donax clams, at the water’s edge. It is crucial for the birds to nearly double their weight in order to survive the nonstop flight to the breeding grounds. Researchers have noted that over 17,000 of the knots, about 41% of the entire species’ population, feed here. But that number has been in decline, even here. The subspecies rufa (which congregate here) is listed as “threatened” in the U.S. and it has become apparent there is a dire need for conservation.

As a professional wildlife and nature photographer, biologist, and volunteer island shorebird steward, I decided to do my part to protect this species. I spent 13 days in the field, making nearly 5,000 images and some video.

As a steward, I helped keep people and their pets from flushing the birds while they were feeding or resting. With a 500mm lens, I was able to photograph the birds without unduly disturbing them. (See NANPA’s Statement of Ethical Field Practices.)

With that long telephoto lens, I was often able to document leg tags and satellite geolocators on individual birds, which will be beneficial to scientists. But the pinnacle of all this work was to utilize the photographs in a different and equally important way. I wanted to get a message out to all who were interested in the circle of life of these amazing avians. So, I created a YouTube video which, I feel, is my contribution to educating the public and helping them care about conservation, particularly of these remarkable birds and the ecosystems on which they depend.

Red knots’ diet consists primarily of shellfish like Donax clams. © Pamela Cohen

Pictures can be powerful, but we can also go beyond just making pretty pictures. As photographers, we need to use our imagery to make important statements about and to the benefit of wildlife and conservation.

Pamela Cohen is a professional landscape/wildlife photographer and owner of Prima Photography. As a biologist and photographer, she incorporates her knowledge of nature and photography skills to create stunning images. Cohen studied in the field under the guidance of National Geographic photographers, including Frans Lanting and Galen Rowell and her work has earned numerous awards.

Today, she is a lecturer, teacher, workshop leader, writer, and book illustrator. She’s served on the board of the Kiawah Island Natural Habitat Conservancy, which promotes preservation of the environment, is affiliated with Nikon Professional Services, and is a member of the North American Nature Photography Association, Carolinas’ Nature Photography Association, Audubon, Charleston Artist Guild, and the Kiawah Island Photo Club.

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