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Red knots, horseshoe crabs, and us



It’s an annual ritual, the flocks of red-breasted shorebirds landing to refuel along the Atlantic shores of South Carolina during one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. The red knots’ layover on their journey from the Patagonia region of South America to the Arctic is timed to the spring spawning of horseshoe crabs and the abundance of eggs lining the beaches. But red knots have been less plentiful of late, so much so they are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.

It was the red knots’ dependence on the horseshoe crabs that led SELC and our partners to a historic victory protecting these threatened birds from the harmful impacts of commercial horseshoe crab harvesting. The courts agreed harvesting should be limited because of the vital role crabs’ eggs play in the species’ survival.

The birds’ South Carolina stopover isn’t far from the Edisto-area pink house where J. Drew Lanham retreats for focused writing. A renowned author of books, essays, and poetry, as well as a cultural ornithologist, academic, and MacArthur Fellow, Lanham is intimately familiar with the red knot migration and their reliance on the horseshoe crabs. The following essay dives into his perspective on this prehistoric relationship and the ways our human culture ignores it at our own peril.

Lanham looks for the latest bird arrivals on Editso Island, South Carolina. Credit: Joel Caldwell

By J. Drew Lanham

A bird’s-eye view, that’s how I see most of the world. I’m an ornithologist by training and a wild bird adorer by something hardwired heartwise. This is to say, I am more than an academically objective identifier of birds. I identify with birds and have been in love with them for most of my life. These lifelong relationships make bonding with them second nature and evoke in me a kind of wild-wishing.

I’m often asked what my favorite bird is, and because answering such a question is impossible, I respond “the one with feathers,” relieved at not having to choose one from ten thousand. I must admit at times to playing favorites though, if only for a moment. That favoritism is torqued by season and habitat. I can’t take a living being out of the context of time and space. Because I love coastal places, especially seashore and salt marsh, shorebirds inspire a certain kind of wandering wistfulness. It is impossible to be in the company of wheeling flocks of them, watching them skitter, scatter, peep, call, and probe, without every sense coming alive as surf pounds the soul and the sulfur stink of pluff mud fills the nose.

The late nature writer and ardent Zen-conservationist Peter Matthiessen categorized shorebirds as “wind birds” and wrote: “The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures.” I share his soulful sentiments for the fancifully named species like sanderlings, curlews, whimbrel, godwits, willets, plovers, and a robin-sized sandpiper called a red knot (Caldidris canutus). As the ornithological bias often bends my perspective through a featherweight prism, different shorebirds conjure different stories that bind me not just to them, but to other beings not fortunate enough to be feathered. I agree with Matthiessen’s idea of “kinship” but extend it beyond the charm of birds to other beings easily overlooked.

A large group of horseshoe crabs stretch in a line down the beach.
A dozen horseshoe crabs are held in a line on a lab table with small tubes drawing light blue blood from them into glass jars.
Horseshoe crabs in the wild contrast vividly with harvested horseshoe crabs in a lab where their blue blood is being drawn. Credit: Ariane Müller

One such kinship tale, the story of the red knots and horseshoe crabs, is a charisma-driven, care-
conjuring odyssey that leads me to seek relationship and cause for concern in animals that few see any likeness or relatedness in. Turns out that red knots have a kinship so close to the horseshoe crab that one might consider them cousins of a sort. It is a link that connects us to a kind of ancestral Adam and Eve — the horseshoe crab. Limulus polyphemus is an ancient crustacean evolved in a sea-swamped not-yet-drifted-apart world at the beginnings of life on earth. Being old enough to have crawled from Eden’s seashore gives them ultimate “kin” credibility.


Good neighbors?

Photos by Julie Dermansky

The golden rule teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But what happens when your neighbor is a massive facility pumping out pollution that doesn’t stop at your property lines? It’s a question too many of our neighbors across the South face and one we’re working to address.

Pollution can often be hard to see. But neighbors know. They know the dust that collects on their cars, the headaches that flare up when it rains, and the smells that keep them indoors.

To illustrate just how pervasive the presence of polluting industries in residential areas is, we asked
photojournalist Julie Dermansky to visit some of the communities fighting these dirty neighbors. Below is some of what she saw.

Gassed: Taking the steam out of utilities’ fossil-fueled dreams

By Emily Driscoll

Earlier this year, energy company Williams took the first step needed to construct a large expansion of its Transcontinental Pipeline that runs from Virginia to Texas, cutting through five SELC states. There hasn’t been a gas-delivery project of this scale in the South since the Atlantic Coast and the Mountain Valley pipelines were proposed in 2014.

But it’s not just this pipeline. The South is facing one of the largest methane gas buildouts in the country. Utilities regionwide continue to propose new pipelines and gas-fired power plants, even though they’re directly at odds with goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Over a 20-year period, methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet when it leaks into the atmosphere. Plus, burning methane for power produces carbon dioxide itself, the primary driver of climate change. Nonetheless utilities are looking to lock customers into yet another fossil
fuel for decades, stalling our transition to clean energy.

Left: Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Credit: Kristian Thacker. Right: A map of proposed gas plants.

The decisions we make about methane gas now and in the next few years will determine our climate future. The time is now to fight against new fossil-fuel investments and for a future fueled by clean energy. “The gas-fired fever dream gripping the South is completely at odds with the need to decarbonize how we get our energy,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s regional gas team. “Methane is just another dirty fossil fuel that pollutes communities and heats up the planet. It’s time to make a different choice.”

Enjoy the full digital version of Issue 3.


J. Drew Lanham


Joel Caldwell


Ariane Müller


Julie Dermansky


Kristian Thacker


Wilson Brissett



Sam Baars



Sarah Caldwell



Emily Driscoll



Kelly Schindler