The story of the Red Knot band number 052-65648

Article | Updated 5 months ago

Among the most extreme cases of long distance flights are those performed by the shorebirds. Many of these breed in the high latitudes of the Arctic tundra of the northern hemisphere. The 24 hours of daylight and the abundant food supplies in this region are however short-lived and these birds must soon depart the Arctic ahead of the severity of the winter. They fly southwards, thousands of kilometres and for many, their destination is Australia.

The Red Knot is one of the most colourful of our waders and it makes one of the longest yearly migrations of any bird, travelling 15,000 km from its Arctic breeding grounds to Australia and then for many, moving on to New Zealand. Most arrive in Australia in August-September and depart for the return journey back to their breeding grounds in April. Noteworthy is the fact that the adults depart the breeding quarters before their newly hatched juveniles who must find their own way to Australia!

On 4 March 2015, Grant Lodge of Kununurra found a recently dead shorebird on a beach near Broome. The bird had a number of bands and leg flags and realising its possible importance to science, he froze the specimen and contacted Ron Johnstone, Curator of Ornithology at the Western Australian Museum.  The specimen was sent to the museum, prepared into a research study skin (registered number A39016), and identified as Red Knot Calidris canutus piersmai one of the world’s long distance migrants. It was a female, length 251 mm and weight 121 g with extensive body and subcutaneous fat (obviously ready to migrate back to its breeding quarters). This body fat is the ‘fuel‘ shorebirds, such as this, ‘burn’ during this non-stop migration. The Red Knot has the ability to build up its body fat (up to 30% its body weight) in a few weeks, but to do so it requires abundant food supply. Its main food includes small marine worms, bivalves, gastropods and crustaceans that abound on the intertidal mudflats and sandflats of the Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia and the shores of the Yellow Sea region in China and Korea. 

World map showing migration patterns

Red Knot Migration Patterns
Image copyright WA Museum 

 Judging from its injuries, small puncture marks in the head and neck, it had probably been killed by a bird of prey. Its recovery and preparation into a museum research specimen has provided us with a great deal of information on its body condition, its sex, age, plumage and its subspecific identity.

The story does not end there as information derived from banding, flagging and geolocation programs has enabled researchers to determine the region of origin of many of these birds and highlight the importance of global flight paths and stop-over areas that are of international significance for shorebirds. Details of the bands – alloy band number 052-65648 and three yellow bands on left leg and a red plastic band above a green band on the right leg – were sent to the Australian Bird and Bat Banding office in Canberra and the history of its migrations were revealed. Colour bands and leg flags help identify individual birds in the field using different colour combinations. This bird was not fitted with a geolocation device which has the ability to record the bird’s location and the data can then be downloaded when it is re-captured.

This Red Knot was fitted with band number 052-65648 and distinctive colour bands at Eagles Roost, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Western Australia on 1 August 2010. It was observed on numerous occasions in Roebuck Bay between 18 February 2011 and 25 April 2011. By 30 May 2011, it was observed at Nan Pu, Bohai Bay, China and by the 3 September that year had returned to Roebuck Bay in north-western Australia.  It was again observed on numerous occasions in Roebuck Bay between September 2011 and 25 April 2012 and was then recorded back at Nan Pu, China, on 23 May 2012. By 14 September 2012 it was back at Roebuck Bay and remained there until the last sighting on 22 April 2014. On 17 May 2014, it was observed at North Beipu, Bohai Bay, China where it remained until 22 May, no doubt  ‘re-fuelling’ before flying further north to breed. The next observation was back at Roebuck Bay on 13 September 2014. There were several other observations at Roebuck Bay and the Eighty Mile Beach in September, October and December 2014 and in February 2015 until its death in March 2015. In the five years since being caught and banded, this Red Knot had been observed on 60 occasions in north-western Australia and 6 times in China.

Shorebirds worldwide are declining and their habitats are under threat in many areas from industrial development and global climate change. Current researchers working on the Global Flyway Network are using the Red Knot as a flagship species as part of the program. Information from specimens such as 052-65648 will help provide a wealth of information on the migration and movements at these sites of international importance in both Australia and overseas to preserve shorebird numbers in a rapidly changing world. Red Knot 052-65648 also highlights the value and involvement of the general public in finding and reporting banded birds and the role of the Western Australian Museum, the Global flyway Network and the Australian Bird and Bat  Banding Scheme in research and conservation.

WA Museum Ornithology Curator Ron Johnstone