Soaring with ‘Moonbird,’ the rufa red knot

Author Phillip Hoose remembers the recommendation for the subject of his award-winning book “Moonbird” going something like, “You want your Johnny Depp or Clark Gable? I got him.”

What Hoose’s friend Charles Duncan at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences on Cape Cod had was a heroic character, a shorebird the size of a robin known to bird scientists worldwide as B95.

Hoose (pronounced Hose) will talk about researching and writing “Moonbird” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Louisiana State Archives Auditorium, 3851 Essen Lane. Hoose’s talk, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Louisiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“I’d been searching for a subject for a new book,” Hoose said. “And I wanted to write about extinction. I got lucky finding this protagonist, this single bird that captivated scientists around the world.”

The full title of Hoose’s book is “Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95.”

Scientists have been tracking a rufa red knot, banded as B95, for the last 18 years. The shorebird was born in the Canadian Arctic. Each year, B95 makes a roundtrip of 18,000 miles from Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic to the tip of South America.

Since B95’s first documented circuit, the bird has flown an equivalent distance of the Earth to the moon and halfway back. Hence, the name “Moonbird.”

Almost every time Hoose sits down to write, the result is an award-winning book for young readers. His book about a black teenager in 1950s Montgomery, Ala., “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” was a National Book Award winner and Newbery Honor Book.

Hoose often writes about children or his stories are told from a child’s point of view.

“Moonbird” has garnered awards for young adult non-fiction, but it’s a book older readers will like.

“I write to an audience of readers,” Hoose said. “I don’t picture them as teens or older people. I use all the devices of literature — tension, drama, foreshadowing, a strong protagonist — to engage the reader. Period.”

Hoose, who lives in Portland, Maine, has been on the staff of The Nature Conservancy since 1977.

“I work for them three days a week,” he said. “I’m assigned to the Canada staff. Over the years, I’ve developed quite a network of colleagues. Keith Ouchley, director of the Louisiana Nature Conservancy, knew I was forming a tour. He said, ‘I want Louisiana to be in the tour.’ I’ve known Keith 15 or 20 years.”

Hoose’s network of scientific colleagues played an important role in the writing of the book. Hoose wrote profiles of B95 researchers that appear between chapters in “Moonbird.”

“B95 was at least 2 years old when it was banded in 1995,” Hoose said. The “95” on the band was the next number in that day’s numerical series. It’s coincidence that the banding number and year are the same.

Rufa red knots face long odds on their 9,000-mile flight from Tierra del Fuego to Canada, a flight of many continuous hours with but a few stops, that starts in early spring and ends in early summer.

One red knot fitted with a geolocator May 11, 2009, at Delaware Bay was recaptured at Delaware Bay a little over a year later. The bird’s circuit included one northbound marathon of almost 5,000 miles during which the bird stayed aloft for six days.

Half of rufa red knots don’t survive their first year. They fall prey to predators on the ground and in the air. The peregrine falcon dives on its victims at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour. The red knots battle fierce storms, sometimes flying far out of their way. There is the ever-present possibility of starvation as the birds burn fuel at a fantastic rate. And yet. B95 is a robust 20-something.

“Scientists don’t know why he’s lived so long, but they have all sorts of ideas,” Hoose said.

“Some say it’s good genes. Or dumb luck, which I doubt. Some say he has a genius for staying in the middle of the flock” which affords protection from air and ground assault from predators.”

One theory suggests migratory birds are born with inherited flight plans.

Typically, a migrating bird that lives through its first circuit acquires knowledge, Hoose said. “Stars, landforms, electromagnetism” help the birds stay on course.

“It’s all about food and information,” he said.

As B95 soars, the number of rufa red knots plummets. There were an estimated 150,000 rufas when B95 was banded 18 years ago. Today, the flock numbers about 25,000.

Human impact on feeding grounds is the biggest threat to red knot numbers. The birds depend on an abundant supply of worms, clams and spat (young mussels) along their flying path. The eggs of horseshoe crabs around Delaware Bay are considered vital to rufa red knot survival, Hoose said.

If B95 is still among the quick, he’s likely in Tierra del Fuego as Hoose flies to Baton Rouge to speak.

“The book came out July 17, 2012,” Hoose said. “It’s sold well and has been favorably reviewed and made some best-of-year books. This May, there will be more publicity. If B95 gets seen again at Delaware Bay, it will be a big deal.”

Hoose hopes the story of B95 will mean protection for the feeding grounds of migratory birds and increased attention to birds and other creatures whose numbers are declining.