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The amazing Moonbird, still going strong at 21

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Photo showing Moonbird, the red knot, is courtesy of Allan Baker

Researchers were astonished this week to discover that Moonbird had returned to Delaware Bay, once again, to gorge on the eggs of horseshoe crabs before resuming his northbound journey.

Moonbird is a red knot and looks like the other shorebirds of the same name, except for the orange band around his leg, which bears the male bird's other name, B95.

B95 was banded at Delaware Bay, on the Northeast seaboard, in 1995. He was believed to have been at least 2 years old at the time.

He's the oldest-known member of a species that annually migrates nearly 20,000 miles, round-trip, from Arctic breeding grounds to and from the tip of South America.

It's one of the longest migrations of any bird species, so imagine the frequent-flier miles logged by B95, who has made this perilous journey, negotiating ferocious storms and headwinds, for at least 21 years.

Researchers figure that B95 has flown a distance equivalent to flying to the moon and halfway back. Hence the name, Moonbird, a four-ounce marvel who is famous in the global birding community.

Moonbird represents a dream sighting, and Delaware Bay, where red knots converge by the thousands for about two weeks to refuel and fatten up on horseshoe crab eggs, is the most likely spot from which to spot Moonbird.

But each time Moonbird is spotted, researchers wonder whether it will be the last. How can a small bird that has endured so many marathon migrations, they wonder, possess the strength and stamina for another?

So on Sunday morning at Reeds Beach in New Jersey, when researcher Patricia Gonzalez saw through her spotting scope a red knot bearing an orange tag with a faded B95 imprint, she was beside herself.

"It's incredible… a miracle," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Birders were in force, and included the Nature Conservancy's Phillip Hoose, who in 2012 wrote a book titled, Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95.

Hoose, upon hearing of Moonbird's presence, hurried to the area only to find that B95 had moved on. "Jilted again," he quipped.

Charles Duncan, a Maine conservationist and seasonal visitor to Delaware Bay, was also present. He told the Inquirer: "None of us ever believed that B95 would live to be 21 years old and just keep going as strong as ever. But here we are. And now I think none of us would dare bet–25, 30? Who knows?"

Red knots, like other shorebirds, have declined over the years, in part due to the over harvesting of horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay, which is a critical staging area.

According to the Inquirer, the Delaware Bay population dropped from 100,000 birds decades ago, to only 12,000 in 2003.

But this has been a prolific spring for the horseshoe crab spawn, and red knots have fattened up and look healthy.

That bodes well for the breeding season in the Arctic tundra. It might also bode well for Moonbird, who will need all the strength he can muster for another journey to South America.

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