Coastal Conservation

Red Knots Return to Outback Key after Devastating Red Tide Bloom in 2018

Red Knots are returning to beaches once ravaged by red tide. Will red tide hurt their populations again this year?

by Jeff Liechty, Suncoast Rooftop Nesting Biologist, Audubon Florida

In 2018, a red tide algal bloom marched across Outback Key, directly impacting the thousand Red Knots that migrate through or overwinter on the island.  

Red Knots, listed as federally Threatened, breed in the Arctic tundra before migrating as far as southern South America. Red tide arrived on the shores of Outback Key in August and remained active until December. Audubon staff and other stakeholders monitored the population when the birds began returning from their Arctic breeding grounds in July, only to see dozens of the birds fall sick. In just a few days, Jeff Liechty, Audubon Florida’s Suncoast Rooftop Nesting Biologist, took nine birds to a local wildlife rehabber and counted 40 more that perished. In all, he estimates that over 100 may have lost their lives as a direct result of red tide.

“As a federally Threatened species, many Red Knots have been banded by researchers across the hemisphere as we seek to understand their movement, survival, and factors behind their precipitous population decline,” Liechty explains.

“So to me, even when there are hundreds of Red Knots on Outback Key, they are individuals with names like 569, 3NC, E7J… all regular winter visitors to the Gulf Coast.”

Each fall, Liechty takes pleasure when he recognizes familiar birds from the year before, wondering if they had nested successfully in the Arctic.

“I re-sighted a bird banded with E18 on four separate occasions in 2017,” he continues, “so it was with particular sadness that I bent down, turned over the body of a small brown bird, and saw my friend again during the bloom last fall. E18 was but one of the individuals that relied on Florida’s Gulf Coast for food and rest, and but one of the victims of last year’s red tide.”

Eventually, the flock fled, and Liechty and other staff still have no idea where they spent the remainder of the winter to escape the nasty effects of the algal bloom. However, if we give them a chance, birds can be resilient.

This fall, Red Knots have returned to Outback Key, including many that survived the red tide bloom of 2018. Audubon staff remained unsure if the knots would return, and felt a surge of hope when over one thousand rested and fed along the island’s shore in early October 2019. Their populations continue to be threatened across their migration pathway, from red tide in Florida to prey loss in Delaware to warming temperatures in the Arctic.

“In the short term,” Liechty says, “I’ll keep monitoring the Red Knots closely, documenting the impact of the next red tide, and saving as many as I can, just as many others are doing around Florida.”

The red tide tragedy sat heavily on the shoulders of those who love birds, and Floridians must work together to prevent future blooms from becoming as severe. Though red tide algae naturally occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, higher water temperatures and nutrient runoff from agriculture, stormwater, and septic tanks fuel the blooms. Audubon policy staff are working with Florida legislators to limit pollutant sources and mitigate harm to coastal wildlife.

To learn more about creating local ordinances to reduce nutrient runoff in your community, click here to see Audubon’s Model Ordinance Toolkit. Furthermore, tell your local elected officials that you want to see reductions in the nutrients that reach our shorelines and Gulf of Mexico.

Liechty concludes, “I hope that we can learn from this red tide event, turn it into useful information and action, and prevent this type of ecological disaster from happening again.”

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