In general, Arctic-breeding waders leave non-breeding grounds in Australasia from March (New Zealand) to mid-April (Northwest Australia). Here we provide evidence from radio-tracking and visual observations that many red knots Calidris canutus do not leave Roebuck Bay, Northwest Australia, until early or mid-May. Late-departing red knots probably belong to the subspecies piersmai, which breeds on the New Siberian Islands, 10,400 km from Northwest Australia. Based on comparisons of temperatures on the breeding grounds of different knot subspecies, we predict that piersmai knots would not arrive on the breeding grounds until early June, leaving at most 3–4 weeks refuelling in Asia. Using a model of fuelling capacity in relation to prey quality and gizzard mass, we show that these knots must fuel very differently in Australia and Asia. In Australia, knots have seemingly suboptimal gizzard sizes and deposit fuel slowly. In the Yellow Sea, birds could only fuel up within the available time if they either enlarged their gizzards substantially or encountered prey qualities much higher than in Australia, for which we provide quantitative predictions.