Editor's Picks

22 November 2011

Flying Marathoners The Red Knots

Did you ever run in a marathon? Did you win? If you did, you thought yourself pretty distinguished, didn't you? But whether you won or not, the greatest victory was completing it—right? You became a marathoner.

Well, we red knots are flying marathoners. How long is the marathon you run? Something like 26 miles? Well, if we flew only 26 miles, we wouldn't think we had gone anywhere. Every year—are you with me? Every year we red knots fly some 20,000 miles. Often we fly as many as 2500 miles non-stop. And we average speeds between 30 and 40 miles per hour. Now how do you feel about your marathon achievement? I'm afraid we passed you long ago!

But I can't take any credit for this. I have to tell you about my wonderful Creator, who designed my robust, muscular wings, and my fine, streamlined body that is able to carry its own food supply—fuel supply, I mean. Yes, I've been engineered to keep flying.

Why do we fly so much? We red knots, it seems, have an obsession for daylight. The more daylight, the better. 24/7 is perfect. Impossible? We come close! We just plan our time so that we're in the Arctic during the summer months (May, June, and July), when the sun there scarcely dips below the horizon, and we are in Antartica during the winter months (December and January), when the days are longest there! Yes, we follow the sun!

What is our motivation? More daylight means more time to forage for food. Because we spend so much time in the air burning up energy, we have to pack all we can into that time on the ground—or we won't keep flying. At the same time, we have to know when to stop eating. If we ate too much back at the bay (where we fuel up) and got too heavy, we'd still be there. Grounded!

Life for us begins in the Arctic summertime. This is where we raise our families. By late summer, when the days begin to be noticeably shorter, we are on our way south. The first stopover for many of us is Delaware Bay, where the horseshoe crabs have just laid their eggs. Someone has estimated that 100,000 of us devour 248 tons of horseshoe crab eggs during the time we are there. This rich food is excellent for refueling and rebuilding our muscular wings.

Then we're off to Brazil or Argentina non-stop. That means going several weeks without eating. (Do you see why we need all those horseshoe crab eggs?) By late November we are in the Antarctic, just when the daylight there is getting close to 24/7. Well timed, isn't it?

Then in the spring (your spring) we head back north, stopping to refill our energy tanks in Brazil or Argentina, and again in Delaware Bay.

Scientists have found that when we refuel we actually triple the size of our liver and double the size of our flight muscles, which eventually serve as a source of protein for us. This is all very important to our survival. If any of us run out of fuel on the way—that's the end of the story for us. There are no refueling stations in the air!

And think about this. When we head for the Arctic, we have to have a little more than enough energy to arrive, because there may not be food immediately available in that region, and we need to build nests and raise our young while the days are longest. That is why, when we're on the ground, we eat so ravenously.

Besides knowing just how much to eat, we also have to know just how fast to flap our wings, as every wing movement uses valuable energy from the very limited supply. How do we know these things? I can only thank our marvelous Creator. (If I tried to figure it out for myself, I would get nervous—and burn up more energy!)

So you agree that 20,000 miles a year is a major undertaking for a nine or ten inch bird? Those miles add up. By the time we are 13 years old, we have flown a distance equal to the moon and back!

The worldwide flyways of six morphologically distinct subspecies of Red Knot Calidris canutus. Polygons in the Arctic depict breeding ranges; circles depict principal wintering areas with the diameters of circles indicating relative numbers of birds
What about adverse weather? What if strong winds or storms blow us off course? In general, weather conditions are not a big problem. If we get blown off course, our Designer has provided us with an inside navigation system to get us back on course. I can't explain how it works, but I thank our great Creator that we are very seldom lost.

You call it “instinct,” this marvelous programming in our brains that we didn't put there? When you think about it, isn't it fantastic? Yes, our little ones hatch actually knowing how to fly, and which direction to go. How do we judge distances so accurately? How do we navigate? How do we find the same stopovers every year (at the right time of year) when flying two or three thousand feet above the earth? There's no logical explanation—except that we are awesomely designed!

Some of our kind leave the Antarctic and head for the Arctic by way of a stopover in northwest Australia. The bay waters there are distressingly hot and humid. We find these conditions extremely difficult (it's a shocking contrast with the temperatures in the Antarctic). But again, praise to our Creator, our body temperature fluctuates, and our normally low temperature can rise to well over 100 degrees F. We don't like it—we pant, and wade in the warm shallow waters, and raise the feathers on our backs to dissipate some heat—but we survive! And soon it is time to fly on.

Every flap of my wings is another “Thank You!” to my wonderful Creator. If He is able to keep little me flying all those miles, what can He do for you!

"Do they not see the birds committed to fly in the atmosphere of the sky? None holds them up in the air except GOD. This should be (sufficient) proof for people who believe." [Quran 16:79]
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