Culture

Watch ‘Birds of May,’ a New Documentary About Red Knots

The film explores the growing debate over the environmental impact of oyster farms in Delaware Bay, an important stopover site for the threatened shorebirds.


Documentary filmmaker Jared Flesher has heard all the stereotypes about New Jersey. A resident of Hunterdon County, which he describes as "one of the most beautiful places you could be," Flesher is all too familiar with jeers that scorn his state as dirty and smelly. He knows most people looking to film a nature documentary would never go anywhere near the so-called “armpit of America.” 

He also knows that they’re wrong.

New Jersey is chock-full of humans, earning it the distinction of having the highest population density of any U.S. state. It also has a huge amount of preserved land relative to its size and is biologically diverse. Flesher is fascinated by the ecological conflicts created by this contradiction. In one documentary film, he captured the trouble local roads pose to salamanders by blocking them from the ephemeral pools where they lay eggs; in another, he describes how roads and off-road vehicles threaten snakes in the Pine Barrens, a forest that stretches across the southern half of the state. In his most recent project, the documentary film Birds of May, which you can watch above, he wanted to spotlight a feathered protagonist.

“The Red Knot has been on my list since the very beginning,” he says. “As a species, it has all the elements of a dramatic story.” The bird is charismatic and attractive, particularly in its red-breasted summer plumage, and it makes one of the longest annual migrations on Earth, flying up to 9,000 miles each way from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost reaches of the Arctic where the species nests. Every May, as Red Knots make their long trek north, they pause at Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey to refuel, gobbling down the fat-rich horseshoe crab eggs that coat the shore.

At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Red Knots already have to overcome numerous challenges on such a long migration, but today they also face new threats. Climate change puts the species' Arctic nesting sites at risk, and there’s trouble with their main food source at Delaware Bay, where in the early 2000s horseshoe crab overharvesting led to a Red Knot population crash. Since then, the subspecies that migrates through Delaware Bay has been listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the crab harvest has been limited. Red Knots seem to be slowly rebounding, but conservationists are worried that the population is still fragile.

“As a storyteller, a species disappearing from Earth forever—that’s just about the most dramatic hook there is,” Flesher says. And as he explores in Birds of May, which was partly funded by the Washington Crossing Audubon Society, a new threat may be lurking for the far-flying birds at their New Jersey stopover site.

Increasing demand for oysters has inspired entrepreneurs to farm them in Delaware Bay. But the bay’s waters are too rough to seed oyster reefs directly in the shallows; the waves would wash the tiny larval mollusks away. Instead, Delaware Bay oyster farmers use hatcheries for their earliest days before anchoring elevated racks in the bay to finish raising the young shellfish—potentially blocking horseshoe crabs ready to lay eggs and disturbing the Red Knots' migration routine. 

It's not yet clear to researchers how the crabs and birds will respond to the oyster racks. And so the documentary, introduces the viewer to scientists and oyster farmers as they try to decide whether the new aquaculture operations are safe for birds. No one wants to see the Red Knots disappear, but without good data, it's tricky to sort out what should be allowed from what might be too restrictive. “It doesn’t just come down to science, because sometimes science isn’t able to answer the question,” he says. “It comes down to values and risk tolerance.”

Flesher is pleased with the final product, although he's haunted by a scene he didn’t manage to capture on film. During his first few hours on the bay with his camera gear, a Peregrine Falcon appeared overhead, and foraging Red Knots—he estimates hundreds of the birds—scattered, forming an enormous flock that danced across the sky. A biologist who witnessed the scene with him worried about meddling with nature, and told Flesher to stay still and leave his camera in its case. So he sat, the filmmaker side of him internally screaming while the rest of him watched in awe. “As a moment of natural beauty, that’s something I’ll never forget,” he says. And it's that side of New Jersey for which he strives to be an ambassador through his films.

Flesher doesn’t rule out the possibility of a sequel, saying he’d like to film the birds at their Arctic nest sites as well. “I hope I’m not done telling stories about Red Knots,” he says. “I hope this is just the first chapter.”

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Red Knots are just one of many bird species that depend on the Arctic's vibrant tundra and wetlands during breeding season. But this pristine ecosystem could soon be threatened by new oil and gas development. Stand up for birds and ask Congress to protect this vital habitat

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