Red Knot Shorebirds by Christophe Buidin

Photo Credit © Christophe Buidin

FORGET ME KNOT: Local Marine Protected Areas and Bird Species Resiliency
Author and MIT Scholar visits the Monterey Bay to share stories of bird migration

Did you know you are part of an annual 19,000 mile round-trip migration of a shorebird that is roughly the size of your foot? Every year, the shorelines of Monterey Bay provide critical stopover grounds for migrating Red Knots, Calidris canutus roselaari, on their passage to the Arctic.

Have you ever been on a road trip or backpacking before? You read a sign, or a map, or heard from a friend that there is a fuel station coming up. You’ve been on the road for a few days, or a few miles and you’ve budgeted just enough gas, water, and tortilla chips. You know that just around the corner you’ll be able to rest, stretch, nap, fuel up, and load up on more chips and lattes before heading back out.

But what happens when you arrive and it’s closed or gone?

Just like packing for a trip into the backcountry, or going on a road trip… you need a lot of snacks. Red Knot migration is no exception. These shorebirds fulfill the bulk of their caloric intake in the narrow band of tide line along the coasts of South, Central, and North America. The key for these shorebirds is finding the most energy dense foods in relative abundance. Have you ever had the feeling after a long excursion or some physical endeavor that you can’t wait another moment before eating a Clif bar? During migration, Red Knots can sometimes fly for days or a whole week without stopping. With this flight pattern, finding food is key to survival. Knots are obligated to eat copious worms, shellfish, eggs, and whatever other nutrient dense foods they can get their bills on at each stop. Without it, you can guess what happens. Their journey is fraught with challenge, risk, and adversity.

Enter habitat degradation, changing climate, predation, non-native species, human disturbance, pollution, over-fishing, to name a few. Certainly they represent the environmental buzzwords of our time, but how does this message come off the screen and onto the shores, into the sand, swept and shaped by tides and wind. We all have a part in this narrative, and with sentience comes responsibility.

So how do we help our winged friends and provide that little bit of fuel to keep them going? Last week, Monterey Bay had a visitor from the east coast, with a tale to tell. Deborah Cramer has been studying Red Knot migration and shorebird ecology for years. She recently visited to talk about her new book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and An Epic Journey. We had the privilege of speaking with her last week to hear her story on Red Knots and the state of shorebirds in Monterey Bay and beyond. Cramer conferred with local bird expert Don Roberson to fill in specifics for our region.

We corroborated Cramer’s comprehensive knowledge of shorebird ecology with Don Roberson’s bird atlas of Monterey Bay. Together these two experts provided us with a portrait of a fragile yet hopeful outlook for Red Knots, who Cramer describes as the “bellwether for millions of migrating shorebirds.” What these two experts confirmed for us is the instrumental role that protected regions like Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and National Wildlife Refuges (NWFs), play in providing shelter, safe havens, and food buffets for birds during migration. Cramer and Roberson characterize this broader network of protected areas along the migration route, referred to collectively as the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). As one might imagine, The Elkhorn Slough, designated as a Marine Reserve (which holds the highest level of protection from MPAs) is a major part of this “necklace of protected areas along shorebird flyways.” These protected regions are also ideal locations to get your “bird nerd” on, with opportunities to view a bevy of resident bird species as well as migrants and vagrants from far away regions. Roberson fondly remembers sighting rare gull and curlew species from as far as the Galapagos and Siberia.

How can you help the nearly 500 species of birds found in the Monterey Bay? For close to 40 years, Save Our Shores has been working to protect and promote the ecological integrity of the Monterey Bay. Advocating for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary designation and educating people about Marine Protected Areas are a couple of the ways this mission has been protracted. Roberson suggests supporting local environmental nonprofits and reducing reliance on instant trash plastics while Deborah encourages people to buy a Federal Duck Stamp, even if you are not a hunter. The proceeds support land purchases for National Wildlife Refuges.

Let’s revisit that road trip story from the beginning. What if someone realized that people might still be visiting that spot and thinking they can make the extra push to get there. Now imagine that someone goes a little extra distance and leaves food, water, tanks of fuel, or maybe even invites you over for warm food and shelter. You’re trip is saved, or at least that part of it is, and you’ll be able to tell all your friends later how amazing that person or place was. As a friend once phrased, “fodder for the memoir.”

Well we all have that choice. We can all be that trail angel, that resource, that ordinary someone who cares enough to make a difference in a traveler’s journey. Shorebirds, shorelines, and our local habitat all need a similar love.

Deborah Cramer’s last bird word of advice? “Go on a bird walk, and while you’re at it, try and find a Knot!”


Matt Miller, Save Our Shores

Brought to you by ‪#‎MPAmondays‬, a Save Our Shores project to promote Marine Protected Area awareness. Share this article using #MPAmondays to help us spread the word!


Longest Bird Migration: The American Golden-Plover, which occurs sparsely in spring and fall migrations, migrates from the high arctic to the Argentine grasslands. The Arctic Tern, which migrates offshore, goes from the high Arctic to near Antarctica. Swarms of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters migrate from their New Zealand nesting grounds to Monterey Bay annually.

Don Roberson’s favorite birding sites: Pt. Pinos in Pacific Grove, the Carmel River lagoon area, Salinas River mouth, Elkhorn Slough

More information on Don Roberson:

More information on Deborah Cramer:

[box type=”info”]For the published Opinion Piece edited by Ryan Kallabis in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, click HERE[/box]

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