Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

Ready or Knot

1 Fortescue Birds_9899 acs Pan 2Ah, Memorial Day Weekend at the Jersey Shore. Sun, sand and surf. Arcades, shops and amusements on the Boardwalk. Saltwater taffy and crab fries. Traffic and crowds. Dowitchers, Turnstones and Knots… Wait – what?

4 Cooks Beach_0437 aWelcome to the OTHER Jersey Shore – the length of coast that runs along the Delaware Bay. While humans are basking in the sun oceanside, another drama is unfolding bayside. The players: Horseshoe Crabs, and tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds. Many species use the area as a stopover, but none are more representative of the journey and hardships they must face than the Red Knot. (below, with smaller Semipalmated Sandpipers)

1 Fortescue Red Knot_9878 aRed Knots are Robin-sized shorebirds that winter at one end of the world and breed at the other. They make the 9300 mile journey in two hops, flying NON-STOP from their wintering grounds in Tierra Del Fuego to the shores of Delaware Bay. They arrive famished and emaciated, with only one thing on their mind – FOOD. Before they can continue their journey to the Canadian Arctic, they must double their weight. They need LOTS of easily available nutritious food. That’s where the Horseshoe Crabs come in.

7 Reeds Beach Crabs_0651 aMay is the start of Horseshoe Crab spawning season, and thousands come ashore at night to lay their eggs. These little greenish balls of energy provide the nutrition Red Knots and other Shorebirds need to refuel. Look closely, and you will see the eggs at the feet of this Sandpiper.1 Fortescue Eggs_9987 a

Thousands upon thousands of birds flock to the Bayshore every May and early June for the feast. And flocks of birdwatchers follow them. Better bring a spotting scope or a long lens though! Each spring the beaches are closed for a month or more to allow Red Knots and other migrating Shorebirds to rest and refuel in relative peace. So getting close is not an option.

CONSERVATION PIECE: As recently as the 1980s, there were nearly 2 million Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware Bay, and 150,000 Red Knots traveling through the area. Then the Crabs were overfished for whelk and eel bait, and their numbers plummeted to an estimated 200,000 today. Red Knot numbers crashed with them, to 15,000. Knots are now an endangered species in New Jersey, and a moratorium on Horseshoe Crab fishing there was enacted in 2008. The passage of Superstorm Sandy last fall further imperiled these animals, as nearly 70% of Horseshoe Crab habitat was lost. Efforts were made to clean up and rebuild the beaches, but only time will tell what effect those efforts had.

Here are some of the other birds feasting at the Shore.1 Fortescue Dunlin Dowitcher_9870 aAbove: Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin.

Below, clockwise from top left: Ruddy Turnstone, Killdeer, Sandpipers in flight, Willet with lunch.Collage

FUN FACT: Horseshoe Crabs are not crabs at all, but marine arthropods closely related to spiders and scorpions! They are so ancient – they’ve been around over 450 million years – they are considered a living fossil. And they have blue blood! That’s due to the copper content in the hemocyanin in their blood that carries oxygen. Not quite the prototypical High Society “blue-blood”.

Here’s a typical Memorial Day crowd at the Shore. This Red Knot is no doubt wondering where he can get some peace and quiet.1 Fortescue Red Knot_9864 a

Coming up: Driven To Abstraction