shorebird ecology

a new day on the delaware bay


I first started working on the Delaware Bay shorebird stopover in 1984. Then horseshoe crabs cobbled the bay beaches, creek mouths and creek edges. They even carpeted many of the mud flats. Every spring they emerged from the depths of the bay to lay eggs, so many crabs that they unearthed eggs of other crabs. These unearthed eggs fed a hungry shorebird population that stops over on the bay every spring to prepare for their long flight to breeding areas in the frozen Arctic. This had been going on for thousands of years. The crab had crawled ashore on the bay (and all of its geologic variations) for 400 million years. But In just the 15 years it had all been undone by a massive overharvest fueled by greed and bureaucratic incompetence.  Now I hope for a new beginning.Crabs on Delaware Bay ( Univ. of Del)

We started our 26th field season on Thursday, May 11, with a catch of 75 sanderlings and a few ruddy turnstones and red knots. The next day we caught 87 ruddy turnstones. This data is vital to the bay’s shorebird and crab restorations. With it we will calculate the number of crabs that can be safely harvested so that both the crabs and birds can be restored back to stable and robust populations.  You would think after all this time we would be burned out, bored by the same thing. But I am not. 

This is so because my colleagues, my wife, Mandy Dey, and I are stewards and can’t walk away until this restoration job is done.  We are also scientists intrigued by the mystery of bird migration, the crabs and the land.  Each new answer seems to always bring a new question in what seems to be a perpetual puzzle with no final answer. We are also inspired by the growing number of people who care. When we started our work on the bay there was our core group and a small number of people who helped.  Now there are many people who help, including the members of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River, who provide dinner for us almost every night.  

There are also many more people along the flyway working on red knots and other species of shorebirds. Before we even set foot on the sandy beaches of the bay this May we know what Ricardo Matus, Carmen Espos and Guy Morrison saw in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, or what Patricia Gonzales and Allan Baker have found in Rio Grande and San Antonio Estes, Argentina. We hear from Carmen Fridrizzi in Brazil. We work with and hear from Nancy Douglas and Amy Schwartzer in Florida, as well as David Newstead in Texas. Each of the southern states have projects, with Brad Winn in Georgia, Felicia Saunders in South Carolina and Brian Watts and Jim Fraser in Virginia. Kevin Kalasz leads a companion effort in Delaware.Red Knot working group meeting in Georgia

I wish the shorebird stopover on the Delaware Bay had never been damaged. It nearly destroyed the red knot and significantly impaired the bay’s ecosystem. But if we caught it in time, which I think we did, all of these people in all of these different places will make sure it never happens again.