Bird Study, Conserving Wildlife, Delaware Bay, habitat management, Science, shorebird conservation, shorebird ecology, wildlife conservation, wildlife tracking

2015 Delaware Bay Shorebird Banding Season Ends

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All our efforts to help shorebirds on Delaware Bay this year couldn’t have been better rewarded – nearly every red knot left the bay in good condition and in one of the earliest departures in the 19 years of the Project. We counted just over 24,000 knots in our aerial count of the entire Bayshore on May 26th. Just two days later, most had left and we could find only a few hundred, feeding on eggs like human shoppers feed on bargains at a half-price sale. By May 31st, virtually all were gone, along with the ruddy turnstones, sanderlings and semipalmated sandpipers. The beaches had an odd, deserted feel after the frenzy of the preceding days.

Life on Delaware Bay by Jan van der Kam

Photo by Jan van der Kam from Life on Delaware Bay

A good thing for birds and all those who love birds. The end of the shorebird stopover season also means the end of our shorebird team – at least for another year. All through the week, we lost team members—the North Americans left by car, those from other continents by air. Those who stayed shifted from research to manual labor: cleaning and storing equipment, closing up the rental houses, and reconnecting lost items to their owners.

shorebird project by Kevin Karlson

Photo by Kevin Karlson

Will our project continue? Now in our 19th year of work on the bay, one must recognize the realities of time’s passage. Clive Minton just cleared 80, and the rest of the original team will soon follow. This author, who started at relatively young 44, is now pushing his mid-sixties. Death visited our team this year with the passing of Allan Baker. Surely the rest of us will start “falling off the perch” as Clive is fond of saying.

Allan Baker photo from Wader Study

Allan Baker, the Senior Curator of Ornithology and Head of the Department of Natural History at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum suddenly and unexpectedly died in 2014. His career included many significant achievements including early work that helped build a scientific case that overharvested horseshoe crabs caused the decline of red knot numbers. Photo from Wader Study.

And yet, all committed to return for a 20th year. I worry over the fundamentals: our funding remains uncertain, the listing of knots as Threatened in the U.S. creates new regulatory hurdles, and N.J. politics seem to get more fractious every minute. Will there be a 20th year of this project?

The answer starts and ends with the willingness of our team to do it again. It starts there because good ideas and projects always seem to find support; I know we will find a way. It ends there because this team provides the best chance of a strong scientific underpinning for protection. Our team includes some of the most important shorebird scientists in the world. At our dinner soirees (generously provided by Jane Galetto’s Citizens United team), Ph.D.’s are as common as empty beer bottles. It’s no surprise that conversation drills deep into conservation biology, behavioral ecology, migration physiology, stopover ecology, virology and many other subjects of interest to all our team, both scientists, old and young, and lovers of good science.

In many ways, the lives of our team members revolve around birds. The Delaware Bay Shorebird Project provides us a meaningful excuse to pull together once more. Our team members love birds, and do everything they can to help them. It’s been that way for 19 years, and it is this commitment that has led to this year’s results.

Red Knots Plot graph 2015

This graph plots the percentage of red knots caught between May 26th and May 28th that have achieved at least 180 grams against the year of the catch. The 2015 result is still an estimate

For the first time in 19 years, red knots left in a condition similar to the lucky ones migrating through before the fishing industry decimated horseshoe crabs in 1997. After that year, the populations of knots, turnstones, semipalmated sandpipers, and sanderlings fell off a cliff. For the last four years, however, the terribly reduced populations of shorebirds have been in rough balance with equally reduced number of horseshoe crabs breeding on the Bay. Consequently, the percentage of knots reaching the threshold weight of 180 g has climbed. (Knots need at least this weight to reach the Arctic and breed successfully.) From a low of just 5% making weight in 2003, they’ve clawed their way upward 30% in 2010, 50% in 2013 and now this year’s 90%.

Fat Knot on the Scale by Philippe Sitters

Fat knot on the scale by Philippe Sitters

One must be cautious about the interpretation of this number but the catch of red knots on which it was based were truly fat birds! One weighed 226 grams, nearly 100 grams higher than its fat free weight. Whatever the figure it was a good season for both birds and the people who love them.