Birds – Knot

(Tringa canutus)

Called also: ROBIN SNIPE OR SANDPIPER; RED-BREASTED SANDPIPER (summer); GRAY SNIPE (winter) ; BEACH ROBIN; ASH-COLORED SANDPIPER; GRAY BACK.

Length—10.50 inches: largest of the sandpipers.

Male and Female: In summer—Upper parts varied black, gray and reddish ; crown gray streaked with black ; line over the eye, chin, throat, and underneath cinnamon red, fading to white on centre of abdomen; rump, upper and under tail coverts and flanks white, barred with dusky; tail ashy brown, bounded by dusky brown and tipped with white. Bill, legs, and feet black. In winter—Top of head and back of neck brown, streaked with soiled white; back and shoulders ashy gray, the feathers edged with a lighter shade or white; under parts white, the neck and breast spotted and barred with gray.

Range—Nearly cosmopolitan; nesting in the northern half of the globe and migrating to the southern half in winter. In the United States more common, during the migrations, along the sea coasts than in the Mississippi valley route southward.

Season—Spring and autumn migrant; May and June; July to November.

Like King Canute, this beach robin that Linnaeus named for him seems to defy the waves, as, running out after them, it would fain bid them keep back until it has had its fill of the small shellfish left uncovered on the sand; but more quickly running in again when the surf combs and breaks in a threatening deluge. Now it runs nimbly out in the wake of the receding waters, apparently intent only on its dinner, but all the while watching out of the corner of its eye an incoming wave, whose march and volume it so accurately estimates. It is amazing how closely and yet how certainly it escapes a drenching: the tumbling surf never quite overtakes it on its race back, though that last morsel it stopped for seemed inevitably fatal. It is a fascinating, though a nervous, sort of occupation, watching the sandpipers picking up their hurriedly interrupted meals. Dray-ton gives a different reason for fastening Canute’s name on the knot, than the one popularly supposed to be the right one, in his lines:

“The Knot that called was Canute’s bird of old, Of that great king of Danes his name that still doth hold, His appetite to please, that far and near was sought.”

Not all the knot’s food is picked off the surface: the worm, snail, or small crustacean that has buried itself in the soft mud must be probed for, snipe fashion.

Gentle, easily decoyed birds, owing to their fondness for society, usually a good sized bunch, if any, settles down on the mud flat or sandy beach after a preliminary wheel in close array; hence the all too frequent possibility of a single discharge killing the entire company. The marvel is that there are any knots left to shoot. Mr. George H. Mackay, in The Auk, tells of the “fire lighting” method of capturing them, once in vogue, which was “for two men to start out after dark at half tide, one of them to carry a lighted lantern, the other to reach and seize the birds, bite their necks, and put them in a bag slung over the shoulder.” Sportsmen put a stop to the burning of marshes some years ago, but not until this fine game bird, with many others, had become rare. The same authority quoted describes its notes as “a soft wah-quoit, and a little honk.” In Kansas, Ohio, and other parts of the interior, where there is no surf to chase out and run from, one meets scattered flocks pattering about on the muddy shores of lakes and rivers, quite as actively as if the water pursued them. Alighting one minute, flying off the next, resting an instant, then on again after a quick little run, the knot sometimes acts more like a fugitive from justice than an inoffensive, peaceful lover of its kind. This restlessness is not so noticeable in the autumn migration, perhaps, when the birds are fat from abundant food, as in the spring, when they make short pauses on the long trip, impatient to reach their nesting grounds within the Arctic Circle.

It was General Greely who first made known the eggs and nest of these birds. “They arrived on June 3, 1883,” he writes in his “Three Years of Arctic Service,” “and immediately nested (near Fort Conger). . . . The ground color (of the egg) was light pea-green, closely spotted with brown in small specks about the size of the head of an ordinary pin. . . . Fielden has described the soaring of these birds, and the peculiar whirring noise they make.”

The Purple Sandpiper, Winter or Rock Snipe (Tringa maritima), an extremely northern species, also observed by General Greely near Thank God Harbor, comes down our Atlantic coast between November and March, but not often farther than Long Island or the Great Lakes. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, it chooses to dwell on a “stern and rock bound coast.” It is wonderfully sure-footed in running over the slippery bowlders dashed by the spray, picking its food as it goes from among the algae attached to the rocks. It is nine inches long, and in its winter plumage—the only dress we see—the purplish gloss on the black feathers of its back, worn in summer, is not visible. Instead, it is a uniform lustrous ash on its head, neck, breast, and sides. The back, which is a dingy olive brown, has the feathers margined with ash. The wings are the same shade, but the coverts and some of the long feathers are distinctly bordered with white; linings of the wings and under parts are white; the upper tail coverts and middle tail feathers are blackish; the outer feathers, ashy.