Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Taking Flight with Moonbird”
by Phil Hoose
Photo credit: Sandi Ste. George
After completing my book The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, 2004), I wanted to write about another animal in danger of extinction, but one for which there was more hope. My friend Charles Duncan, an ornithologist and conservationist, suggested several creatures, but none seemed the perfect choice.
“What about red knots?” he asked one day in 2009. “They’re fabulous shorebirds. They take unbelievably long migration flights from the bottom of the world to the top and back again each year. They’re beautiful, especially in breeding plumage. It’s not a hopeless situation—there are still thousands left, but people need to understand why they are crashing toward extinction. A good book could help them.”
B95 in Reeds Beach NJ, May 28, 2012. Photo credit: Patricia Gonzales
Still I balked. Stories need characters. How could I put readers in the air with hundreds of birds that look alike? Then came the breakthrough call. “Look,” Charles said. “I was just talking to Patricia Gonzales, a biologist in Argentina. She told me about a particular red knot with a tag around its upper left leg imprinted B-95.” The bird was banded in 1995 and it was still being sighted in 2009. This (seemingly) bionic survivor kept completing unbelievably difficult flights year after year. “They’ve totaled up the lifetime miles it’s traveled,” Charles noted. “It’s farther in distance from the Earth to the Moon. The bird is becoming famous. They’re calling it Moonbird.”
Bingo. I had my story (and a title).
I decided to follow B-95 on its hemispheric circuit for a year, starting in Argentina, where most knots spend the winter months. In Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego, I learned firsthand with the experts about feathering and molt, wing wear, and feeding strategies. I discovered how red knots cleverly evaded peregrine falcons, their number-one enemy. I held the birds softly in my hands while they were measured and weighed, and attached lightweight bands, each with a distinctive letter and number combination, to their legs. It was amazing that such small creatures—about four ounces—could fly nearly 19,000 miles each year.
Me banding red knots. Photo © Jan van de Kam
I continued up the Argentine coast to San Antonio Bay, the first stop for many of these animals on their 9,000-mile, northbound journey to Arctic breeding grounds. In the United States, I visited Delaware Bay where thousands of shorebirds gathered to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs.
I spent nearly three years writing and researching Moonbird (Farrar, 2012). Though I read widely, most of what I learned came from my own field observations and from interviews with experts. I had the enormous advantage of unrestricted access to the brilliant scientists who know more about these creatures than anyone else.
Cover of Moonbird (Farrar, July, 2012)
One special challenge deviled me: the evolving science. For instance, in the spring of 2009, scientists fastened the first miniature, lightweight (about as heavy as a paper clip) recording devices—geolocators—to the legs of several dozen red knots. Geolocators record changing light levels and provide two readings a day indicating the bird’s longitude and latitude. Combined, the two readings pinpoint the animal’s location against the Earth’s surface.
Geolocators were revolutionary. A banded or flagged bird seen in one location, and later in another spot, indicates that a journey has taken place; it tells nothing about the details of the trip. In contrast, the geolocator records the journey itself: how far the animal went, the path it took, and the time of day it flew. The entire voyage is revealed. In the spring of 2010 scientists captured a few birds wearing these devices and computer programs produced maps detailing exactly where they had been for an entire year.
The results were astounding. Geolocator data established that red knots can spend nearly a week in the air, traveling distances of more than 5,000 miles without stopping to eat, to drink, or to rest. The information demonstrated that migrating rufa red knots don’t always migrate in straight lines. One bird flew 620 miles off-course to outrun a tropical storm, recalculated its position in mid-air, and reassumed its original course.
Photo © Jan van de Kam
Those tagged animals challenge many scientific assumptions, and made me revise some of what I had written. Researchers found themselves wondering: Have we underestimated the distance they can travel? Are they taking such long flights because that’s what they usually do, or are new circumstances, such as climate change, causing more frequent and powerful storms, forcing the birds to change their migration patterns? And as for B-95—my book’s hero—how far has he really flown? We’ve been totaling up the distances he’s traveled in straight lines, but we now know migration flights rarely happen this way. Could it be that this creature has really flown to the moon … and back?
An original article by Phil Hoose
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Phil Hoose. Images courtesy of Phil Hoose.
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