‘Moon’ bird grazing Lowcountry beaches

Hundreds of endangered red knots swarmed the Breach Inlet beach on Isle of Palms to feed one evening earlier this week. They were chased off by dogs, said Craig Watson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thousands of red knots are pecking away in flocks on Lowcountry beaches right now, hordes of them at a time feeding in the tide wash. It’s a seasonal spectacle for beachgoers.

But leash the dog and leave the birds be, conservationists are urging. The red knot is one of the latest species to be declared federally endangered. These critters are very hungry. They have come from as far as Cape Horn — 6,000 miles away.

Disturbing them might make it harder for them to recuperate enough to keep going, maybe as far as the Arctic. They have to maintain weight and build fat reserves, said Jennifer Koches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston.

The rust-breasted shorebird is the robin-size creature that flies “to the moon,” covering that distance in yearly migrations in its life span. Its survival might now depend on the tiny clams and other invertebrates it scavenges along the beach.

The traditional food for it here has been eggs laid by horseshoe crabs on beaches and in the estuaries each spring. The bird’s decline has been tied to the crab’s decline; horseshoe crab harvest has increased dramatically since the 1980s because it’s eel and whelk bait, and because it has become invaluable medicine.

In the Lowcountry, the crabs are harvested by the thousands each spring spawning season.

The red knot is in a decline indicated to be as steep as 75 percent on the Eastern Seaboard since the 1980s.

“Stopover” feeding and resting beaches in the Lowcountry and along the Southeast coast are among the few places where the birds’ numbers appear to be growing.

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