Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 1, 2008

Knot the End of Summer

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:57 pm

    Labor Day is often hailed as the last day of summer, but the actual calendar end doesn’t arrive until much later in the month. There’s no denying the presence of school supplies on the store shelves, but we’ve got plenty of “summer” left. The winds of seasonal change are blowing in from the north, however. Migrant birds are already stirring and some of the long distance travelers, such as Osprey and warblers, are already on the move.  

  One of these world travelers, a shorebird known as the Red Knot, arrived in our neck of the woods just last week (see above). It was feeding among the accumulated water plants cast upon the shore of Lake Erie at Lake Erie Metropark. The appearance of this weary traveler in S.E. Michigan is an occasion knot to be overlooked. They are rarely seen here. Knots breed in the high Arctic at such top-of-the-world places as Ellesmere Island and Siberia. The species migrates all the way to the bottom of the world to Patagonia and the Straits of Magellan and usually does so via an east coast route. Michigan is knot in this migrant’s travel guide. 

  By the way, in case you are attempting to calculate the mileage between the Arctic and the northern suburbs of the Antarctic, this is a distance of some 9,000 miles one way. Knot all of them go all the way to the end of South America, but most do.  By flying 18,000 miles annually, they can be considered as one of the champion migrants found on the planet. 

  Who knows why this bird showed up here (shoulda took a left at Moosejaw, perhaps?), but one explanation lies in the fact that it appears to be a young, and perhaps inexperienced, individual.  Counting this sighting, I have seen exactly one Red Knot in my lifetime so I can-knot make any deep comparative identification judgments. It does appear to match the guidebooks as a juvenile bird rather than a typical winter phase adult. This time of year the adults have an even gray back while this one has scalloping on the back (here, look at another view). I should also add that I did knot originally find the bird. It was spotted by an alert and very experienced birder who knows a good thing when he sees it.

   You are probably wondering at this point why this thing is called a Red Knot. If you’re knot, you should be.  Take the “red” part of the name, for instance. This bird does knot have a speck of red on it. As it turns out, both sexes of this species have robin red breasts during the breeding season (see here). They shed the fancy stuff during the off season.

  The “knot” part, now, that’s a different beast.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t think anyone really knows where that name comes from. One of the explanations states that “knot” is derived from “Knut.”  The species name, Caladris canutus, was given by Karl Linnaeus in honor of King Canutus the king of Denmark.  This guy once had the gall (or is it Gaul?) to “command the tide to keep back and not approach him.”  The sea said “not!” and the king was forced to “retire there from” to keep from getting wet.  Because this is a bird of the tide line, this seems an appropriate title.  The thing becomes strained when it is explained that Canutus’s nick-name was Knut and that it was corrupted to “Knot.”  Like the sea, I say “Knot!”

  The other likely, although still hard to accept explanation, is that the bird’s call sounds like “knot, knot, knot.”  Go to this web page (here) and click on the part that says “listen to the bird’s call” and decide for yourself.

  Unfortunately, all of this name stuff fades into obscurity when you consider that this bird has fallen onto hard times as of late. Once one of the most abundant of shorebirds, the North American population of Knots has plummeted within the past few decades. No one is sure exactly why.  Some blame this on a reduced number of horseshoe crabs upon whose eggs these migrates depend.  Fortunately, elsewhere in the world they appear to be holding their own.

  Let’s hope this youthful migrant will complete his southbound journey by summer’s true end. We wish him luck when he returns to the arctic next spring, ties the knot, and has a family of little knotlets who inherit their directional skills from their mother.

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