Armchair Birding: “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab and An Epic Journey”, by Deborah Cramer

Armchair Birding: “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab and An Epic Journey”, by Deborah Cramer

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By Anne Kilgannon – The narrow edge of the title has multiple meanings: the small wedge of shoreline that nourishes these birds—the red knots—as they migrate from one end of the world to the other and back again; the same small edge that provides the breeding ground for one of their principle food sources, the horseshoe crab, whose eggs laid on these shores provide an energy rich infusion gobbled by the birds desperate for fuel to finish their vast migratory trek; and the perhaps even smaller edge of time we have to save them both from extinction. It’s a harrowing story Deborah Cramer has to tell as she follows the red knots on their migration route from the farthest tip of South America to the far Canadian Arctic where they nest and raise their young. If they are lucky enough to make it that far.

Cramer herself experiences some of the dangers of the journey. Describing her travel adventures as she traces red knots on their annual flight as “exhilarating to hair raising,” she ponders: “Slogging through isolated, remote areas looking for birds, I have a compass, GPS, and a radio to keep track of myself. The birds have—what? By the end of this journey I am more in awe than when I began.” Certainly part of this story is the courageous, persistent, dedicated work of researchers and conservationists who endure every kind of weather, mosquito-infested marshes, hungry polar bears, storms, and other goes-with-the-territory conditions to count birds, monitor their stopping over places, and try to protect their food sources so they can keep on living their lives. If the birds are powered by horseshoe crab eggs and tiny mollusks they probe from the wet reaches of shorelines, the scientists and other concerned birders are unabashedly drawn to this work by love of red knots; it’s the love that shines through this book and makes the reading of such a poignant tale bearable. There is fear and worry and anguish here too, but the red knots’ tenacious hold on life keep readers and advocates turning the pages and showing up to search the beaches for these elusive birds.

So little is really known about red knots. Their migratory feats were a mystery until quite recently. The work of saving them was made more complicated by the difficulty in counting them, knowing where they went, where they fed, where they raised their young. For the most part, red knots prefer remote hidden shores, but in the course of their travels they are also in plain sight, flocking in to feed on beaches near some of the most frequented sea-sides. The knowledge that they depended so heavily on the eggs of horseshoe crabs was either ignored or unrealized. As the crabs were decimated for use as fertilizer, bait, and lately, medical purposes, the numbers of the birds fell with them. Cramer takes us deep into the world of this ancient race of crabs and traces human uses and abuses of this essential species. Red knots are not the only birds closely connected with the crabs but they seem especially vulnerable to whatever fate the crabs are subject to. To protect one is to protect both species.

And to protect red knots and crabs, the beaches that both need for survival must also be protected. The birds depend on a long-stranded necklace of beaches stretching from pole-to-pole of the earth for places of refuge and refueling. If any bead on the string is threatened or destroyed, the whole enterprise of bird life is put in jeopardy. Development, that catch-all word that covers all the reasons humans find for building on or taking over wild areas, encroaches on shores desperately needed for birds, turtles, shellfish and near-shore life as it erodes and destroys habitat. Joy-riding on ATVs—the most heartless and thoughtless of activities—crushes the life of shelled species as well as eggs laid on beaches just under the surface and forces flocks of birds into the air again and again, preventing them from feeding when they need it most. Loose dogs running on beaches do the same. Intense education programs addressing these behaviors in tourist areas and in especially critical habitat is making some difference. Wanton hunting of endangered birds is also the focus of efforts to awaken interest and a sense of wonder that may protect these small but amazing birds.

The more we learn about red knots and their incredible lives, the more we too will be in awe of their strength and concerned about their vulnerability. Deborah Cramer asks the most important question—for red knots, for horseshoe crabs and for all beings: Are we willing to share the Earth, to make room for all the species that share the planet with us? Or will we spread ourselves, our buildings and streets and use of resources, so thickly and relentlessly over every nook and cranny, every beach and prairie, forest and lake, that in the end we will stand alone, bereft of all that brings joy and wonder to our lives? The red knots are still with us, ruddy-feathered, long-beaked wanderers; it’s not yet too late.