Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Long distance traveller with interesting back story.

Recently I managed to photograph a group of Red Knots as they busily fed along the shore of Albifrons Island on the Gippsland Lakes.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

My first photo of a group of Red Knots on Albifrons Island taken from a boat – they were a long way off. There are seven Red knots in the photo and five smaller shorebirds - Red-necked Stints.

Our main objective in this location was checking on the progress of two Pelican rookeries, looking for breeding Little and Fairy Terns and recording breeding activity of beach nesting birds including Hooded Plovers, Red-capped Plovers and Australian Pied Oystercatchers. During our regular weekly monitoring runs by boat on the Gippsland Lakes we encounter many other water bird species including both local and international/migrant shorebirds. Photos are taken of many of the birds for record purposes.

So far this season the shorebirds encountered include: Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Red and Great Knot, Rudy Turnstone, Pacific Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Hooded Plover, Double-banded Plover, Red-capped Plover, Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers and Masked Lapwing.

Returning to the Red Knots, the subject of this post, I took a series of photos of the Red Knots as they fed along the shoreline and came closer to us in the process. At home as I processed the day’s photos, nearly 200 images in all, I noticed the bird in the above photo had a flag. If you look at the above photo (suggest you enlarge it) and look closely at the third bird in from the right-hand end, the bird has its right leg lifted, you may be able to see a flag. At this discovery, I became very excited because finding flagged migrant shorebirds is not very common, at least from my experience.

My next step involved cropping the above image to get a closer look at the flag – see next image.

This cropped image shows a metal band on the left leg tibia and a pale green plastic band on the right leg tibia above a white flag with the letters CUT. I was very pleased that the letters were clear enough to read.

My next move was to look through all the other photos to see if there were any better shots of the flagged bird and to see if any of the other birds were flagged or banded. The following two photos more clearly show the flag and bands.

This is a heavily cropped photo showing the bird from behind – the green plastic band shows well here and some remnants of red breeding plumage are visible on the lower belly.
This is the other photo which shows the flag letters well.

None of the other Red Knots had flags or bands. I then went back through photos of Red Knots taken during the previous week’s trip when we encountered thirteen Red Knots among Chestnut Teal. I found the subject bird with the flag however the photos did not show the flag clearly enough to see the letter CUT. The following two photos are of the thirteen Red Knots as they flew around with the Teal after being spooked.

A photo from the week before showing the subject bird in the group of three birds on the left.

I now had a clear photo record of a flagged Red Knot, a migrant shorebird that breeds in the Chukotka region of Siberia. Given the serious threats that face our migrant shorebirds and the great effort researchers make to capture and fit bands and flags to these birds it is essential that the flag be reported. So, details of the sighting including photos were emailed to Joris Driessen, Leg Flag Sighting Operator, Australasian Wader Studies Group.

A prompt response came by reply email – Joris was as excited as I was – here is his reply:
Wooooh!!! Southern Chukotka, you beauty!! Cracker, guys! I will get in touch with the Russian banders – they’ll be pleased alright!

And pleased they were – here is the report back from Joris after the Russian researcher replied to his email:
Hi John & Deb, what an absolute cracker of a resighting (photos a must in cases like these, thanks!). Within 2 hours of your email I received the banding details from Pavel Tomkovich – a nice turnaround!
This bird is well known to him as it resides in his Meinypilgyno study area in Southern Chukotka. As per Pavel: “This bird was originally banded as a chick near Meinypilgyno, Chukotka on 29 June 2010 and later flagged as a locally breeding male on 5 June 2015.  Since then he was a local breeder annually being presumably solitary in 2016.  In 2018 his chicks hatched on 2 July, last time observed with the brood on 15 July. This is first observation of the bird outside the breeding grounds.”
Great stuff!

Screen shot, courtesy of Google, red flag shows the location of Meinypilgyno Southern Chukotka in remote eastern Siberia – Alaska is to the east/right.

And here is a section of the official flagging report:
Band number: HS009547 
        Engraved flag: CUT 
        Date of first banding: 29/06/2010 
        Age of bird when banded: P 
        Location banded: 2161WS (MEINYPILGYNO CHUKOTKA, Russian Federation) 
        Approximate coordinates: 62deg 33min, 177deg 5min 
        Flag combination: light green 

Sighting details: 
        Species: Red Knot (Calidris canutus) 
        Observer: John Hutchison, Deb Sullivan 
        Sighting location: Albifrons Island, Ocean Grange Lakes NP Vic, Australia (-37deg 57min 0sec, 147deg 47min 0sec) 
        Date: 18/12/2018 
        Flag(s) LEFT leg: metal band on tibia above nothing/unknown on tarsus 
        Flag(s) RIGHT leg: light green band on tibia above white engraved flag on tibia

The re-sighting distance was approximately 11479 km, with a bearing of 203 degrees, from the marking location. 

So, Red Knot white flag CUT is an eight-year-old male. He raised chicks in Meinypilgyno Southern Chukotka back in July of this year and since then has flown at least 11,479 kilometres to reach the Gippsland Lakes where I photographed him in December 2018.

To give you some appreciation of just how far this small bird has flown, along with his fellow travellers, look at the image below courtesy of Google Earth. The red flag at the top is on the precise location where CUT was banded in Siberia and I photographed him just above the oo in Google at the bottom of the image - and in between there is well over 11,000 kilometres of vastness!
What an undertaking, and he will do the return trip again in autumn and all going well repeat the annual cycle again and again every year of his lifetime - it is humbling to contemplate.

Photo files of the flagged bird together with a brief report on its sighting on the Gippsland Lakes was emailed to Pavel Tomkovich in Russia and less than 24 hours of finding the flagged bird in my photos I received a report on the bird’s background history and Pavel now knows where one of his research birds is - he has a valuable piece of data, the first observation of this bird outside of its breeding grounds in remote Siberia.

There are many joys and rewards to birding but I would have to say it is particularly satisfying to know in this case that I have made a small but important contribution to migrant shorebird research with my photos, albeit with some luck as I could easily have missed seeing the flagged bird in the photos.

To finish this post here are a few more photos of the Red Knots, amazing long distance travellers, feeding at Albifrons Island (albifrons is the species name of the Little Tern Sternula albifrons which have nested in the area in the past, hence the name).

The flagged bird is now on the left.
Four of the Red Knots busy feeding.
A view of the red Knot from behind showing tail detail and chevrons on flank.

End notes:
(1)  There are two subspecies of Red Knot found in Australia. Calidris canutus piersmai is found in north-west Australia and breeds in the New Siberian Islands and Calidris canutus rogersi occurs in eastern Australia and New Zealand and breeds in the Chukotka region of Siberia. From a common ancestor two subspecies have evolved to occupy geographically separated breeding grounds in Siberia and the birds stay separate when they fly vast distances to their over wintering grounds in the Southern hemisphere – truly amazing!
(2)  A modern DSLR camera fitted with powerful telephoto lens, or an equivalent digital camera with sufficient digital zoom capacity, is essential for capturing flag details as it is nearly always impossible to get close enough to shorebirds to read the flag numbers and letters even with good binoculars. The subject photos were taken hand held with a Canon 5D MKIII body and Canon 300mm prime lens fitted with a Canon 2X extender giving a focal length of 600mm.

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