Knot or Ash-coloured or Red-breasted Sandpiper

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Red Knot.]

[Calidris canutus.]


The Knot, good reader, is a handsome and interesting species, whether in its spring or in its winter plumage, and, provided it be young and fat, is always welcome to the palate of the connoisseur in dainties. As to its habits, however, during the breeding season, I am sorry to inform you that I know nothing at all, for in Labrador, whither I went to examine them, I did not find a single individual. I have been informed that several students of nature have visited its breeding places; but why they have given us no information on the subject, seeing that not only you and I, but many persons besides, would be glad to hear about it, is what we cannot account for.

I do not wish you to infer from these remarks, that the persons alluded to are the only ones who have neglected to note down on the spot observations which might be interesting and useful. I myself am very conscious of my own remissness in this respect, and deeply regret the many opportunities of studying nature which have been in a manner lost to me, on account of a temporary supineness which has seized upon me, at the very moment when the objects of my pursuit were placed within my reach by that bountiful Being to whom we owe all our earthly enjoyments, and all our hopes of that future happiness which we strive to merit.

I have traced the Knot along the shores of our Atlantic states, from Texas to the entrance of the Bay of Fundy, in the months of April and May, and again in the autumnal months. I have also found it in winter in East Florida, and therefore feel confident that some of the species do not proceed beyond our southern limits at that season. Whilst on the Bay of Galveston, in Texas, in April 1837, I daily observed groups of Knots arriving there, and proceeding eastward, meandering along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. In the interior of the United States I never observed one, and for this reason I am inclined to think that the species moves northward along the coast. But as I did not find any in Nova Scotia, Labrador, or Newfoundland, I consider it probable that those which betake themselves to the fur countries, turn off from our Atlantic shores when they have reached the entrance of the Bay of Fundy. However this may be, it is certain that they reach a very high latitude, and that some stop to breed about Hudson's Bay, where Dr. RICHARDSON found them in summer.

On some few occasions I have observed the Knot associating with the Tell-tale Godwit and Semi-palmated Snipe, about a mile from the sea, along the margins of ponds of brackish water; but such localities seemed in a manner unnatural to them, and it was seldom that more than two or three were seen there. Along the shores, in spring, I have not unfrequently thought that they seemed dull, as if they had lost themselves, for they would allow a person to go very near, and seldom took to wing unless induced to do so by companions of other species, who were better aware of their situation. In autumn, when they at times collect into very large flocks, I have often followed them until I obtained as many as I wished. WILSON has so beautifully described their movements at such times, that, although I have often witnessed them myself, I prefer giving his own words.

"In activity it is superior to the Turnstone; and traces the flowing and recession of the waves along the sandy beach with great nimbleness, wading and searching among the loosened particles for its favourite food, which is a small thin oval bivalve shell-fish, of a white or pearl colour, and not larger than the seed of an apple. These usually lie at a short distance below the surface; but in some places are seen at low water in heaps, like masses of wet grain, in quantities of more than a bushel together. During the latter part of summer and autumn, these minute shell-fish constitute the food of almost all those busy flocks that run with such activity along the sands, among the flowing and retreating waves. They are universally swallowed whole; but the action of the bird's stomach, assisted by the shells themselves, soon reduces them to a pulp. Digging for these in the hard sand would be a work of considerable labour, whereas, when the particles are loosened by the flowing of the sea, the birds collect them with great ease and dexterity. It is amusing to observe with what adroitness they follow and elude the tumbling surf, while at the same time they seem wholly intent on collecting their food."

I have however seen the Knot probe the wet sands, on the borders of oozy salt marshes, thrusting in its bill to the feathers on the forehead, and this with the same dexterity as several other species. Its flight is swift, at times rather elevated, and well sustained. At their first arrival in autumn, when they are occasionally seen in great numbers in the same flock, their aerial evolutions are very beautiful, for, like our Parrakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Rice-bird, Red-winged Starling, and other birds, they follow each other in their course with a celerity that seems almost incomprehensible, when the individuals are so near each other that one might suppose it impossible for them to turn and wheel without interfering with each other. At such times, their lower and upper parts are alternately seen, the flock exhibiting now a dusky appearance, and again gleaming like a meteor.

Many of these young birds continue mottled with dull reddish-orange on their lower parts until the winter is far advanced. The old individuals have their whole upper plumage of a uniform grey, and their lower parts white. As those of the first year have their markings at that season handsomer than at any other period of their lives, I have given the figure of one in preference to that of an adult.

It has been supposed by some that two different species of Knot occur in the United States, but I am of a different opinion. The dimensions of birds of this family, as well as of many others, are extremely variable; and, on shooting eight or ten Knots, it would be difficult to find two of them having exactly the same size and proportions. If I add to this the very remarkable changes of plumage exhibited by birds of this family before and after maturity, you will not think it strange that WILSON should have mistaken the young of the Knot for a separate species from the old bird in its spring dress. Indeed, I am obliged to tell you that I have been much puzzled, when, on picking up several of these birds from the same flock, I have found some having longer and thicker bills than others, with as strange a difference in the size of their eyes. These differences I have endeavoured to represent in my plate.

My friend JOHN BACHMAN states, that this species is quite abundant in South Carolina, in its autumn and spring migrations, but that he has never seen it there in full plumage. In that country it is called the "May-bird," which, however, is a name also given to the Rice-bird. Along the coasts of our Middle District, it is usually known by the name of "Grey-back."

ASH-COLOURED SANDPIPER, Tringa cinerea, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii.p. 36. Winter.
RED-BREASTED SANDPIPER, Tringa rufa, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii.p. 57. Summer.
TRINGA ISLANDICA, Bonap. Syn., p. 350.
TRINGA CINEREA, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 387.
KNOT or ASH-COLOURED SANDPIPER, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 125.

KNOT or ASH-COLOURED SANDPIPER, Tringa islandica, Aud. Orn. Biog.,vol. iv. p. 130.

Male, 10 1/4, 21.

In autumn and spring ranges along the coast from Texas to Labrador. Breeds in the Fur Countries, to a very high latitude. Common.

Adult Male in summer.

Bill rather longer than the head, slender, straight, compressed, tapering, with the tip a little enlarged and blunt. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straight, and slightly declinate, the ridge narrow and flattened until towards the end, when it becomes considerably broader, the sides sloping, the tip convex above and ending in a blunt point, the edges thick and flattened. Nasal groove extending to near the tip; nostrils basal, linear, pervious. Lower mandible with the angle long and very narrow, the dorsal line straight, the sides sloping outwards, with a long narrow groove, the tip a little broader, but tapering.

Head rather small, oblong, compressed. Eyes of moderate size. Neck of ordinary length. Body rather full. Feet rather long, slender; tibia bare a third part of its length; tarsus somewhat compressed, anteriorly and posteriorly with numerous small scutella; hind toe very small, the rest of moderate length, slender, the fourth slightly longer than the second, the third longest; all free, broadly marginate, flattened beneath, and with numerous scutella above. Claws small, slightly arched, compressed, rather obtuse, that of the third toe much larger, with the inner edge dilated.

Plumage very soft, blended on the head, neck, and lower parts, the feathers rather distinct above. Wings very long and pointed; primaries tapering, obtuse, the first longest, the second two-twelfths of an inch shorter, the rest rapidly decreasing; outer secondaries slightly incurved, inner elongated, straight and tapering, one of them extending when the wing is closed to an inch and a quarter from its tip. Tail rather short, nearly even, of twelve rather broad feathers, which taper to a broad point.

Bill and feet black. Iris dark hazel. Upper part of the head and hind neck light grey, tinged with buff, and longitudinally streaked with dusky; fore part of back and scapulars variegated with brownish-black and yellowish, and each feather with several spots of the latter and tipped with whitish; the hind part of the back, rump, and upper tail-coverts white, barred with black; wing-coverts ash-grey, edged with paler. Alula and primary-coverts brownish-black, tipped with white; primaries similar, their shafts and the outer margins of all excepting the first three, white, the inner webs towards the base light grey; secondaries and their coverts grey, margined with white. Tail-feathers ash-grey, tinged with brown, and narrowly edged with white. The sides of the head, fore part of neck, breast, and abdomen rich brownish-orange; lower tail-coverts and feathers of the legs white, each of the former with a central dusky narrow-shaped or elongated spot, axillaries white, barred with dusky; lower wing-coverts dusky, with white margins.

Length to end of tail 10 1/4 inches, to end of wings 10 3/4, to end of claws 11 1/2; extent of wings 21; wing from flexure 7; tail 2 9/12; bill along the ridge 1 (4 1/2)/12; along the edge of lower mandible 1 (4 1/2)/12; tarsus 1 1/4; hind toe and claw 4/12; middle toe and claw 1 (1 1/2)/12. Weight 5 1/2 oz.

The female is similar to the male, but considerably larger.

Length to end of tail 10 3/4 inches. Weight 6 ounces.

In winter.

Bill greenish-black, eye of a darker brown. Feet dull yellowish-green; claws dusky. The upper parts are deep ash-grey, each feather margined with whitish; feathers of the rump greyish-white, upper tail-coverts white, barred with dusky. The quills and tail feathers as in summer. A band from the bill over the eye to the hind part of head, white; loral space, cheeks, and sides of neck pale grey, streaked with darker; throat and lower parts in general, white; the sides, axillar feathers, and under wing-coverts, barred or spotted with dusky; lower tail-coverts as in summer.

The young in autumn are of a dull light brownish-grey colour above, each feather having a narrow whitish margin, within which is a dusky line. The fore part and sides of the neck, and the fore part of the breast dull greyish-white, with small dusky-grey longitudinal streaks; the band over the eye indistinct, the loral space darker. The bill and feet are of a duller tint, and the eye darker, than in the adult in winter. Weight 4 1/4 oz.

On the roof of the mouth is a double series of small blunt papillae. The tongue is very slender, 1 1/12 inches long, emarginate and papillate at the base, channelled above, horny beneath, the point rather acute. The oesophagus is 4 3/4 inches long, narrow, its diameter 3 1/2 twelfths. The proventriculus is oblong, 5 1/2 twelfths in diameter, 9 twelfths long. The stomach is an extremely powerful gizzard, of a roundish form, 1 inch and 5 twelfths long, its greatest breadth 1 1/4 inches; the cuticular lining thin, horny, with large longitudinal rugae. The intestine 25 inches long, its average diameter 3 1/2 twelfths; coeca cylindrical, 3 twelfths long. The contents of the stomach are fragments of mussels and gravel, with which part of the intestine is also filled.

The trachea is 3 1/4 inches long, flattened, 2 1/2 twelfths broad at the top, diminishing to 2 twelfths; its rings very slender and unossified, 98 in number; the bronchial half-rings about 15. The lateral muscles very thin, the sterno-tracheal slender.

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