A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey

Western Atlantic Flyway Paintings

C.c. rufa


* Click on each painting image for a larger lightbox view

Arctic Insect Hatch

Red Knots arrive on the Arctic breeding grounds in early June to feast on abundant insects, a prime food source of the tundra. However, climate change is affecting the emergence of insects in the Arctic. If the prime insect season is finished before Red Knots arrive, or before eggs hatch, reproductive success is threatened. Young birds may not have adequate nutrition resulting in smaller body size and less energy reserves for the southern migration.

In this painting, more insects are shown with the birds on the left. Birds on the right with fewer insects are smaller. This playful style is one of many used by indigenous Inuit artists of the Cape Dorset printmaking cooperatives of Hudson Bay. Other artistic styles of the Canadian Arctic region are very symmetrical and elegant, yet all share the hard-edged quality of the printmaking process.

Trek from Nest to Coastline

Although chicks are able to walk and forage as soon as they hatch, they are unable to regulate body temperature for the first few days. They depend on adult care for warmth. Adult males stay with chicks until they are able to navigate the tundra by themselves, then leave. Chicks may walk up to several miles from their nest to the coast, as they grow flight feathers. They then embark on their southern migration without adult guidance.

Nunavit artist cooperatives in Baker Lake, Canada, produce both prints and other types of wall art, including hangings of wool applique and embroidery. This painting, influenced by Nunavit textile arts, shows the journey of two chicks through the tundra, passing other birds and mammals who present direct and indirect threats.

Ocean Acidification

On their southern migration, C.c. rufa stages along the shores of James Bay in Canada, eating clams and mussels. Ocean acidification, a result of greenhouse gases, will eventually affect the availability of food in this area. Already there appears to be a decline in invertebrate populations. Less is currently understood about the effects of changing salinity as a result of hydroelectric projects that dam major rivers leading into the Bay. Development of mining interests in the watershed will also affect the environment in ways yet to be examined.

In the style of the Ojibway-Cree-Odawa School of legend painting, flocks of Red Knots leave James Bay. Bright colors and stylized forms, adapted from traditional beadwork, characterize this contemporary Indigenous Canadian painting style. In the painting, changes in ocean salinity and PH are shown as the background color changes from blue to yellow. 'Ghost images' of birds are seen in both sections, symbolizing the rapid population decline of Red Knots in recent years.

Three Waves

Three distinct waves of Red Knots leave the Arctic breeding grounds, flying south to staging grounds where they will replenish the bodyfat necessary for the long non-stop flight to the southern hemisphere. Females, who have used half their body weight to produce four eggs, leave shortly after the chicks hatch. Males stay with the young birds as they learn to forage, grow body and flight feathers, and walk from their inland nest sites towards the sea. Males then follow the wave of females. Finally, the juveniles navigate their first migration on their own, leaving the Arctic as insect food sources diminish with the coming of winter.

Scientists watch for these three separate waves as an indication of breeding success each season. If males arrive with the females it is likely that breeding was unsuccessful.

In this painting, the three “waves” are shown as individual birds: the female with the four empty ovals within her body, the male behind her, and the smaller juvenile following. Their migration route and staging grounds are depicted as a stylized map. Bright colors and graphic forms characterize this style of contemporary Spirit painting of Quebec, reflecting the colors and shapes used in traditional Algonquin beadwork. As paintings, the style has gained international recognition through the work of Canadian artist Norval Morriseau.

Horseshoe Crabs on the Atlantic Coast

Staging birds require sufficient food and undisturbed resting areas, or roosts, so that they can arrive at breeding areas in top condition for successful nesting and brood-rearing. Thus, the staging habitat is an essential link in the chain of sites used by Red Knots each year in the Flyway. This linked-chain migration strategy is seen in many migratory animals. C.c. rufa arrive at their main staging site at Delaware Bay, in the eastern U.S., just in time to take advantage of abundant food provided by eggs of spawning Horseshoe Crabs (Limulus polyphemus). There is ample evidence that adult survival of this subspecies is directly related to availability of Horseshoe Crab eggs during staging. Over-harvest of adult Horseshoe Crabs for bait and for the biomedical industry threatens both crab and bird populations.

The Red Knots shown here mirror a painting by the renowned American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon. The empty upside down Horseshoe Crab shell is a symbol of the threats to that population from overharvesting. On the far shore, within sight of major east coast cities, crabs come onto the beach where Red Knots are foraging.

Padre Island Inland Route

After crossing the Caribbean, some Red Knots follow an ancient migration route through the Central Flyway of North America, rather than up the Atlantic coastline. Beginning at Padre Island in Texas, they stop at ponds and wetlands located throughout the central prairies. Padre Island is critical habitat for many bird species, both migratory and resident breeders. Recent studies with radio-tagged birds show C.c. roselaari also uses Padre Island as a migration stopover.

Rendered in the landscape style of American Regionalist painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton, this painting illustrates several species on the mudflats of Padre Island, including Red Knots, Willets, Black Bellied Plovers, Long Billed Curlews, Skimmers, and Brown Pelicans.

Shorebird Hunting Bans

On the southern migration, C.c. rufa passes along the Caribbean coastline of South America. Dedicated efforts of local and international conservationists have resulted in legal prohibition against hunting of many shorebird species, including Red Knots. Education of the public regarding the importance of the stopover sites as places of refuge for the birds continues in the many countries that the birds pass through.

This painting is composed using design elements from contemporary Maroon painting and European art. The Maroon are descendants of escaped African slaves who formed communities along the Atlantic coast of South America. Unique design elements from their traditional African calabash carving and New World quilting are now incorporated in acrylic painting and combined with European abstract and expressionist art. Here, a looping design of a Red Knot in its gray non-breeding plumage is repeated within the red outline pathway. The background circular designs, or targets, derive from the 1910 painting Homage to Bieriot by French modernist Robert Delauney, which celebrated the first human flight across the English Channel.

Half of the Brain Sleeps

From Brazil, the non-stop flight from South to North America requires several days. In flight, birds rest by allowing half of their brain to sleep at a time. Like mammals, birds exhibit two types of sleep: slow-wave sleep (SWS), and rapid eye movement (REM), sleep. SWS can occur in one or both brain hemispheres at a time. During unihemispheric SWS, the eye connected to the awake hemisphere remains open, a state that may allow birds to visually navigate during sleep in flight. The miniaturization of EEG recording devices now makes it possible to measure brain activity in flight. Determining if, and how, birds sleep in flight will contribute to understanding an unexplored aspect of avian behavior.

The unique resting behavior during flight is represented here as some birds feature open eyes, while others show a tightly closed eye. The background is divided into night time, sunshine, and cloudy days. The painting is styled after José Francisco Borges, a Brazilian folk artist known for high contrast color woodblock prints.


After leaving San Antonio Oeste, the first staging site for the northern migration is Lagoa do Peixe National Park in southern Brazil. From there, some flocks continue north up the coast to Maranhão Island, while others apparently choose an overland route to the southern United States. A flock of birds in preparation for a migration flight often begin vocalizing to one another on the mudflats. Calls continue as the birds flush and take flight in a circular pattern. As the birds gain altitude, the flight pattern evolves into a slight ‘v’ or echelon – a ladderlike shape – as the flock heads north.

Brazilian artists of the 20th Century, led by Tarsila de Amaral, claimed their own place in Western Art with a style they named ‘Anthropophagus Art’. The name twists the European obsession with the concept of cannibalistic peoples of the Amazon. These artists, having trained in Europe and digested the lessons of modern art, developed work with a uniquely Brazilian sense of color and proportion.

Red Knot City

As the days begin to shorten, Red Knots leave for their Arctic breeding grounds. For many, the first stop is 900 miles north to San Antonio Oueste in Argentina. “B95”, a Red Knot banded in Argentina, was resighted during its annual migration for 20 years. Nicknamed "The Moon Bird", B95 has flown a sufficient number of miles to equal a journey to the moon. Dedicated Argentine biologists have helped save crucial habitat and begun intensive public education about the needs of shorebirds for safe and undisturbed staging areas on their migration routes. In San Antonio Oueste, a Red Knot is a city mascot, pictured as a pilot.

The writings of Antoine de St. Exupery, who helped establish postal delivery by airplane, are well known in Argentina. His watercolors in the book The Little Prince are the source for this painting. In that story, the Prince escapes from his planet by attaching himself to a flock of migrating birds. Later he meets and tames a fox. Here the Little Prince is shown in the rising full moon, while the fox/collie is on the beach watching a flock of Red Knots.

Precipitous Decline

The five months of the non-breeding season are spent on the remote mudflats of the Straits of Magellan and Lomas Bay in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It is believed that Red Knots reached this area shortly after humans, following the last ice age. Today, industrial pollution, change of ocean levels due to climate change, and habitat loss from human development all threaten the mudflats that Red Knots depend upon. Dramatic declines in bird populations have been reported by biologists monitoring sites in Chile and Argentina.

In the style of Argentine urban street art, this 'mural' depicts the mountainous landscape of Tierra del Fuego under a summer sun. The band and dot patterning mimics the body painting and bark hats of the indigenous Selk’nam people, the last of whom died in 1970. One realistically painted Red Knot stands in the center of the painting. Colored ovals come in from the upper left and leave to the right representing populations of birds that no longer exist. Will extinction of the birds follow that of the native humans?

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