Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

B95, the Moonbird, spotted on Delaware Bay

Every year, researchers figure his time was up. He's gone. But this year -- and last year -- he surprised them.

B95, the Moonbird, spotted on Delaware Bay

From the book jacket
From the book jacket

A rare bird that has defied all the odds has been spotted yet again on Delaware Bay.

The bird is B95, after the number on his leg band. But his nickname is, perhaps, more to the point. He’s the Moonbird, because in his lifetime, researchers figure he had flown the equivalent of the distance to the moon. And at least halfway back.

This, for a bird that weighs about as much as a stick of butter.

The bird is a red knot, one of the most imperiled shorebirds now arriving on Delaware Bay.

A statue celebrating his life is been erected at Mispillion Harbor in Delaware. Another is being built in Rio Grande, Argentina, where many red knots spend our winter.

His unlikely life was celebrated in a book by Phil Hoose, “Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95.” The book won numerous awards and a bundle of kudos and is now in its third printing.

Get those presses rolling, publishers. You’re going to need more copies.

“Everybody gives him for gone, for a ghost, every year,” said Hoose, who is on the staff of the Nature Consevancy. But he keeps on flying.

Red knots have one of the longest bird migrations on the planet -- from the tip of South America to the Arctic, where they breed. They stop on Delaware Bay every May to refuel on crab eggs.

B95 was spotted yesterday on the Delaware side of the bay.

Researchers from all over the world are here now, studying the birds. Part of what scientists do is scan flocks, look for birds that have been banded, and then note the band colors (designating a specific location where the bird was captured) and, if possible, the numbers. The data the amass helps them learn where the birds go and how long they live.

A team of folks were out at Mispillion Harbor. As they searched, Nigel Clark, head of projects for the British Trust for Ornithology, saw a bird with an orange "flag" -- the name for the colored band.

B95 has an orange band.

Clark looked closer. It said B95.

I haven't talked to Clark yet -- check back later, and I'll post it if I get ahold of him. But Kevin Kalasz, a wildlife biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, said that when the rest of the Delaware crew found out about the discovery, they were ecstatic. "We all know the importance of the bird," he said.

Kalasz said that not all knots have made it to Delaware Bay yet. They're still arriving.

"B95 is one of first group from South America to make it here," Kalasz said. "It might be an indication of its knowledge of the system and migration, having lived so long. It knows when it needs to be here."

When I got ahold of Hoose at his home in Maine early this morning, he was jubilant.

“The guy is a rock star!” Hoose said.

“Gosh, I'm so excited. How does he do it? How does someone make his way through an ever-tightening eye of a needle, or something like that, year after year after year?”

B95 is 20 years old at least. He was first banded in 1995, as an adult, which meant he was at least two years old then. Admirers, which are legion, have dubbed him "the toughest four ounces on the planet."

Before that, the longest-surviving red knot known to scientists lived 16 years, eight months.

Every year, scientists think B95 won’t show up. Surely, he has died.

That was the case last year on Delaware Bay. B95 hadn’t been seen in a while, and as the researchers scanned flocks of birds, searching for him, they began to give up hope. They thought, well, no bird lives forever.

Then, on May 28, pretty much the last day red knots are on Delaware Bay, an Argentinian researcher named Patricia Gonzalez went up to the deck of the house the Jersey researchers stay in, took the lens cap off her spotting scope and, wow!, there he was.

Folks looked in July and August at Mingan, Quebec, where he has been seen on southbound migration. “But conditions were poor — fog — and no luck,” said Charles Duncan, director of the Shorebird Recovery Project for the Manomet Center for Conservation, which is based on Massachusetts.

Then, during the winter (for us, it was summer in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America), teams looked for him again, but no luck.

Once again, hopes fell. Was B95 gone?

I can imagine the cheers that went up yesterday in Delaware. And beyond, as the news spread.

It’s a fun story, of course.

But it has a much deeper meaning.

“There’s a crisis of species loss and decline among the shorebirds of the world,” Hoose said.

That crisis is happening around the world, mainly because of effects of humans on these stopover sites that are so important, researchers say.

Delaware Bay — and the red knot — is a case in point. Red knots once numbered about 100,000 on the bay. In recent years, they dipped to less than 20,000.

“To personalize a global crisis is a rare opportunithy for a bird,” Hoose said. “We really lucked out that we identified one individual among all those millions and millions of shorebirds and we were able to document his story and present it to a big audience. I guess that's the big picture. B95 is the face for the global crisis in shorebirds.”

This year, B95 has been much more obliging than last.

He surfaced at the beginning of the roughly two-week period that the birds spend on the bay, refueling on horseshoe crab eggs.

"The news that B-95 was seen in Delaware is a joy," said Duncan. "So many people have learned about shorebird conservation through this iconic little hero."

So plenty of birds will be scanning the shores with their lenses to get a glimpse.

Hoose is headed this way himself. He'll be speaking this weekend at a shorebird festival hosted by the Wetlands Institute.

Meanwhile, want to follow along on Moonbird's journey?

The Nature Conservancy has developed an interactive "frequent flyer" map to follow him and two other migrants (although it's not as if they can track the birrds in real time).

And below is a video of Phil Hoose performing a song he wrote about Moonbird:

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
About this blog

GreenSpace is about environmental issues and green living. Bauers also writes a biweekly GreenSpace column about environmental health issues for the Inquirer’s Sunday “Health” section.

Sandy Bauers is the environment reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she has worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor. She lives in northern Chester County with her husband, two cats, a large vegetable garden and a flock of pet chickens.

Reach Sandy at sbauers@phillynews.com.

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
Latest Health Videos
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected