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Archive for the ‘horseshoe crabs’ Category

Early days on Delaware Bay – Horseshoe Crabs Just Beginning To Breed as Shorebirds Arrive

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

by Larry Niles

Horseshoe Crabs Just Beginning To Breed as Shorebirds Arrive

 

Delaware Bay horseshoe crab eggs reach sufficient levels to give red knots and other shorebirds a good start on the fat they need to fuel the last leg of their yearly journey in the first week of the stopover ( May 12-19).  Knots need at least 180 grams to fly to the Arctic and breed successfully.  This week we caught birds that weighed 93 grams which is 30 grams below fat-free weight.  These birds had just arrived from a long flight, probably from Tierra del Fuego, Chile or Maranhão, Brazil.  In the same catch, we weighed red knots as high as 176 grams or only 5 grams from the 180-gram threshold.  These birds are probably from Florida or the Caribbean wintering areas and so arrive earlier,  resulting in them having more time to gain weight.  All together it looks like a normal early migration and a modest horseshoe crab spawn, just barely enough for the birds in the bay.

shorebirds in a net

Our team prepares a catch of knots turnstones and semipalmated sandpipers for extraction to keeping cages. The birds will be covered to prevent feather abrasion before extraction (Photo by Stephanie Feigin)

However, we are still short of about half the population.  Our bay wide count won’t take place until next week on May 22 and 26. At this point it looks like we have about 14,000 knots in the bay, of which 8,000 are in New Jersey. In the last 5 years we have had a bay wide population of about 24,000 red knots.  The situation is similar for ruddy turnstones and sanderlings.  The southernly winds of the next few days will almost certainly bring in the rest of the flock by mid-week.

The Stopover Habitat is Growing

 

The condition of the stopover is mixed.

The work of Niles & Smith Conservation Services, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, and American Littoral Society continues to supply high-quality habitat for horseshoe crabs. We have developed an efficient system for maintaining the essential requirements of a good spawning beach, deep and large grain sand with berm heights that prevent over washing in a way that keeps cost down. First, by creating low oyster reefs to break waves in lower tides, thus protecting beaches from wind waves at low and mid tides.  Second, by placing sand on beaches that typically erode fast losing sands to adjacent creek inlets and the next beach south.  This way we can use one restoration to restore three different places.  For example, Cooks Beach loses sand to South Reeds.

 

restored beach in Delaware Bay

Thompsons beach before and after restoration by American Littoral Society and partners. (Photo by Larry Niles)

Oddly these successes may be contributing to the next big problem for the birds. The state of Delaware has been carrying out much larger scale beach replenishment projects that have added significant new sandy beach for crabs spawning.  At the same time the Atlantic States Marine Fish Commission has failed to deliver on its promise to increase the number of crabs.  The population is still 1/3 below carrying capacity or the number that existed 20 years ago.  The same number of crab divided by more beach equals decreasing crab densities.  Decreasing densities means fewer eggs reaching the surface because crabs are not digging up existing eggs to lay their own.

In other words, we need more crabs.

The Industry Finds New Ways around the ARM Quota

 

But the resource agencies seem perfectly happy to keep killing adult crabs for both bait and bleeding at near historically high numbers. Bait harvests recorded as coming from the bay have stayed the same, however other states such as NY are still taking and landing large numbers of crabs despite having no known crab historic population of their own. Additionally, Virginia states that a crab population still exists in the state, even though most field biologists consider them lost.  The truth is they are very likely taking Delaware Bay crabs and landing them as their own.

The Conservation groups are no longer satisfied with this loose regulation and are calling for regulations similar to those used for Striped Bass.  The Delaware Bay harvest should be restricted to just the quota agreed upon by everyone through the Adaptive Resource Management system.  All other landed crabs should be genetically linked to a source population, and if they do in fact come from Delaware Bay they should be taken out of the ARM quota. No one should be allowed to get away with killing our crabs outside the quota.

Or just stop the senseless killing of these valuable animals as bait for the dying couch fishery.

 

crab eggs graph on Delaware Bay

This graph compares the finding of Botton et al 1994 from horsesoe crab egg surveys done in 1990 and recent counts done in 2017

 

The same goes for the killing of crabs by the companies bleeding crabs.  The industry makes untold millions (the numbers are hidden from the public) but does virtually nothing to conserve the crabs while killing thousands. Their own estimate is well over 65,000 a year, but independent estimates double that.  This killing could also stop because a new synthetic lysate is available and can be used now, potentially cutting the need for natural lysate by 90%.

An Ecosystem Collapse and the Need for More Crabs

 

Why kill such a valuable animal?  It all started because the fishing industries saw little value and figured why not destroy the population until they are no longer economically viable.  Its called economic extinction and sadly it’s a tradition amongst Delaware Bay fishers still carried out this to this day on eels, conch, and other species.  But they didn’t know back in the early 90’s they would wrecking the entire ecosystem.

In 1991, we counted an average of 80,000 horseshoe crabs/meter squared.  Now we count 8,000.  Then the eggs stayed at that level for all of May and June then hatched young at similar densities. In other words, the horseshoe crab was a keystone producer of an abundant resource that maintained the bay ecosystem.  It was not just chance that at the same time the bay has one of the most productive weakfish and blue claw crab fisheries in the Atlantic coast.  Fish populations blossomed with the flush of horseshoe crab eggs and hatched young each year.

Now we must bring it back.  For the birds, for the fish, and for the people who love to bird and fish.

 

storm delaware bay horseshoe crabs

A storm looms over Delaware Bay. The last 4 days have been rain, some intense and cold. The water temperature needs to be 59 degrees or so for Crabs to spawn. On Saturday the 19th the water temperature fell below and the spawn virtually stopped in many places. It should resume with the warmer temperatures of Saturday and Sunday.

We are grateful to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other donors who make this project possible.

Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.

Tierra del Fuego: The View from Above

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Just above and to the right of the plane shadow, thousands of shorebirds gather. Photo by Joe Smith

CWF scientists recently returned from a trip to Tierra del Fuego where they studied red knots and other migratory shorebirds that spend the month of May at New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore.

CWF consultant Joe Smith captured some incredible aerial images of the coastline holding a flock of thousands of shorebirds in his blog story. See more photos of the flock and read Joe’s introductory overview about the trip here. Stay tuned for more installments about this vital trip.

Shorebirds lift off to an uncertain end from Delaware Bay

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

By Dr. Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates, LLC

Red knot by James Fiorentino.

I am reviewing a new paper by Sjoerd Duijns, a student working on the benefits of being a fat shorebird. Still, a draft, the paper analyses data from radio-tagged red knots leaving the Bay in good condition (i.e. fat) and finds they may leave later from Delaware Bay than lighter birds but arrive earlier in the breeding grounds because they can pick the best time to leave. They are also more likely to breed successfully and survive the Arctic breeding season to the following fall. In other words, being a fat knot on Delaware Bay makes life good.

So, in light of this new information, how did the red knots and other shorebirds fare in this year’s Delaware Bay Stopover?  One must not be firm, with so many unknowns, but here’s a working biologist’s best guess.

By all accounts it was one of the worst years in recent memory, but with a twist that offers a glimmer of hope.

First, the Bay’s water reflected an unusually cool May and never really warmed to the levels necessary for a really good horseshoe crab spawn until the very end. This caused odd occurrences of crab spawning. For example, crabs bred in greater densities at the southern beaches this year, more than in previous years. The spawn at Norburys Landing, just south of the commercial oyster aquaculture development zone (ADZ), was one of the best this year, and knots and other shorebirds used the area in great number. One can only guess the water temperatures warmed over the wide inter-tidal flats provided just enough to elicit spawning. The same process was true of all the creeks on the Bay.

Laughing Gulls and shorebirds feast on horseshoe crab eggs at Norbury’s Landing just south of the Aquaculture Development Zone. (below)The southern portion of the bay was much more important this year because waters warmed faster on the large inter tidal shelf of this portion of the bay.

Second, the knot numbers never really climbed to the levels of the last three years. I’m guessing this was illusory, a consequence of the count being done on two days at the peak. It’s likely many more birds came to the Bay and seeing many birds for too few eggs, left for better resources elsewhere. Those that left were probably short distance winterers – those from relatively close in Florida and other nearby areas. The Bay’s horseshoe crab eggs would help them too, but they can get by on Atlantic Coast clams and mussels. The long-distance birds are the ones that need the Bay’s resources.

Third, when finally, the spawn got underway, a freak concurrence of wind and tide killed many thousands of crabs, potentially damaging the population and very likely ending any possibility of a really great spawn. The cobblestone road of crabs on the water’s edge. We saw none of that this year. Not once.

 

 

The upper graph compares predicted high tides ( in blue) with the actual high tide (in Red). On the night of 26 May. This occurred during the lunar spring tide, the highest in May. Finally, a brief burst of NW wind pushed the abnormally high tide into waves breaking across the beach berm, carrying with it tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs.

In a freak concurrence of wind and tide, waves pushed horseshoe crab over the beach into the marsh by the thousands.

Grim results, but here’s the twist. In good years, knots leave near the 27th of May. One day they jam the beach gobbling up eggs, the next day there gone. In bad years, they linger. In 2003, we caught birds on the June 10th.  There’s a cost to this of course, in lower survival and failing production. This year was a new in between. By the time of departure on May 27th, less than a quarter of the knots were prepared to leave. But they hung on until the 30th, blessed with a new flush of horseshoe crab eggs created by a middling spawn and a northwesterly wind churning up the beaches and exposing deeply buried eggs. Did the birds gain enough weight?

It’s hard to say, our last catch of just 33 knots suggests they might have, but an end-of-the-season catch makes a poor assessment. Once birds start leaving, the ones behind could be the light birds not ready to leave, or the heavy birds waiting for better weather. We won’t really know until the fall counts in the southbound stopover or the winter count in Tierra del Fuego.

This, our 21st season of intense research and conservation on Delaware Bay by all accounts will be like no other. Throughout all of it, the team of scientists and volunteers remained inspired, energetic and resourceful. In this one month, we conducted more scientific investigation and conservation than most projects do in an entire year. Whatever the outcome of this year’s stopover season, our team can look hopefully to the north and know that all that could be done for the birds was done.

Those of us that were paid for our time sincerely thank those who volunteered their time including; the stewards that manned the closed beaches helping hundreds of people understand why closures were needed; the volunteers in the banding team who endured long hours of preparing equipment, making bands, sewing nets and keeping cages and of course counting, catching and processing birds; the volunteers who doggedly pursue opportunities to resight flagged birds to estimate numbers and yearly survival; the volunteers that provided meals every single night, a welcome relief from a hard day’s work; and finally, the volunteers that went out all over the Bay to save horseshoe crabs in weather both good and bad. We all did our best. God help the birds and horseshoe crabs.

Our banding team on a catch at South Reeds.

Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.


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Scarcity and Abundant – Shorebirds Near the Finish Line on the Delaware Bay

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

By Dr. Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates, LLC

Our latest catch of red knots and ruddy turnstones two days ago (May 27) suggests 2017 to be one of the most challenging years for our 20 years of work on Delaware Bay. It challenged the birds for certain.

For example, as of two days ago (May 27), the average weights of red knots remain mired in the mid 160’s when it should be in the 180-gram range. This seems a minor difference but to red knots it means a flight through the cold and often inhospitable north country of Canada and dropping out of the sky never to be seen again or landing and never attempting to breed. We really don’t know for sure what happens to ill-prepared shorebirds, except they are less likely to be seen ever again. In 2017 most birds will be ill prepared.

This histogram of the red knot catch made on May 27, 2017 shows the range of weights and the number of birds in each weight category. The average of 168 is far lower than the 180-gram threshold necessary for a successful flight to the Arctic.

This season also challenged our understanding because it lies so far outside the norm. To be sure the cause of this dramatic scarcity of horseshoe crab eggs springs from the cold weather this May. We started with a good crab spawn in the first week of May, when water temperatures rose somewhat faster than normal, a consequence no doubt of one of the warmest winters on record. Then cold and wet weather dogged the Bayshore until the day of this post. Today, temperatures will rise no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the prospects for warmer weather are unlikely for the rest of the week. The cold air temperatures forced down the bay temperature in the second week and although it has gradually improved it is still low by normal standards.

The Delaware Bay water temperature as measured by the bour off Lewis Delaware. The Bay warmed early until the second week of May when cold weather chilled the Bay.

All of this led to generally diminished horseshoe crab eggs especially on the beaches, the mainstay of most stopovers of the past. This year crabs mostly spawned in the creek mouth and outer creeks shoals, mostly spurred to spawn by tidal waters warmed by the movement in and out of the small estuarine systems. Water moves in with the tide and out again to the creek mouths twice a day warming the shoals.

The Importance of Tidal Creek Mouths and Shoals

A shoal at the mouth of BayCove creek and the crab spawn on Reed creek.

The creeks also accumulate sand leaving them loose and perfect for crab spawning. Even in good years, egg densities in the creeks top all beaches, no matter where they occur. The sands of the shoals loosen by the waves of the Bay and release more buried eggs than those buried in the beaches, making more available to the birds. The creek mouths on the Cape May peninsula from Green Creek to Moores Creek saved the birds from an even worse fate this year and the best were those that benefited from the restoration of Reeds, Cooks, Kimbles and Pierce Point Beaches. As it happens a major portion of the Bay’s knots stayed in this area throughout the entire month but flying widely in search of pockets of good spawning in other places. This year Norbury’s in the south and Goshen in the north stood out, and extended the core stopover area.

Horseshoe crabs breeding at Reeds South shoal.

Spawning Starts Again

Then in the last three days all changed. The new moon tides, reaching around 8 feet for four nights in a row, spurred spawning despite the relatively cool water. Today, May 29, the crabs shifted into high gear.

It takes a lot of crabs breeding to bring eggs to the surface on the beaches, there must be enough breeding for one crab to dig up the eggs of another. For the first time, this occurred in the last few night and we finally saw green eggs on the sand. A welcoming sight for the birds, who could barely stand still and gobble up the fat producing eggs. With most of these Arctic nesting shorebirds remaining in the Bay and apparently feeding right into the night, they still might reach the fat gain finish line and only lose a few days reaching the Arctic. The next few days will tell.

Horseshoe crab eggs litter the surface of North Reeds Beach.

A close up of the same beach. The immense number of eggs on the surface of the beach is in part due to the number of crabs spawning and the wave action of the Bay.

Shorebirds and Gulls feeding near dark in the intertidal flats and creek shoals of Reeds, Cooks, Kimbles and Pierce Point Beaches.

Can they though? A good question and just one of the many that have challenged our team’s knowledge of this well-known stopover. With literally centuries of combined experience (many of our team, including this author, are long in the tooth as the Brits would say) we still kept guessing what would happen next throughout the season. Would the birds suffer mighty declines as a consequence of the generally diminished spawn of horseshoe crabs?  Or will they build weight in time to get to the Arctic in good condition? This is usually the central question.

Why Are There Fewer Knots?

An equally intriguing question, however, is why have red knot numbers in Delaware Bay declined this year? We estimate shorebird numbers in two ways, direct observation by aerial and ground counts and a statistically derived estimate based on the resighting of birds flagged with unique IDs. Our aerial and ground counts tell us how one year compares to another because we have been doing shorebirds counts by airplane, boat and on the ground since 1981. This year the number fell dramatically.

Guy Morrison, Christian Friis and Joe Smith survey shorebirds by airplane near Egg Island Point.

At the start of our project on Delaware Bay in 1986, we had nearly 100,000 knots on the Bay and nearly 1.5 million shorebirds of all species. The number of knots declined to around 15,000 in the mid-2000’s, then jumped to over 24,000 over the last four years. This year our best estimate is around 17,969, a 5,000-bird decline. Why did this happen?

One must always consider the possibility of a large group of birds dying. But this is not likely.

More likely, some portion of the knot flock came to the Bay, and on finding too few eggs or too much competition, moved on to better places. The ones moving on could have been the short distance migrants, those who spent their winter in Southeast US or the Caribbean. These birds travel a shorter distance and so have a longer time and lower energy needs than those that winter in South America. These long-distance migrants would have a very difficult time gaining weight on anything other than crab eggs (I explained this in a previous post). There are two reasons to believe the short distance birds moved on from the Bay this year.

The first is the discovery of birds banded in Delaware Bay this year and reported elsewhere. I reported on Mark Faherty’s Ebird report of a knot he saw in Cape Cod, that was flagged by the Delaware Bay Shorebird Team on May 16, 2017. The second line of evidence is the 1,300 birds seen by our team feeding on a 10-mile stretch of the Atlantic Coast marsh from Cape May to Stone Harbor. Play this out over the entire coast of New Jersey and other places with sand and marsh, like Cape Cod, and one could easily imagine 5,000 knots using other places.

About 200 knots feeding and roosting on the inter-tidal shoal of Hereford Inlet on the Atlantic coast.

But this reduction in population also suggests an explanation for the sudden rise in numbers found in 2013. Did the restoration of habitat on the Delaware Bay coast bring back knots that once used the Bay but stopped because of the lack of available eggs? In other words, did the increase in numbers seen in the Bay reflect a return of birds and not a population increase? This year’s loss may simply be a result of those returning birds, leaving once again.

Let’s hope so. At any rate, eggs are now available to all birds in the Bay and we should start seeing them leave for the Arctic. Let’s hope for that too.

Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.


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Horseshoe Crab Rescue

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

What do CWF biologists do in their spare time?

Higher than usual tides last week caused an extraordinary stranding event of Horseshoe crabs all along the Delaware Bay. From Fortesque Cumberland County to beaches in Cape May County horseshoe crabs were washed up into the marshes, tidal flats, roads and other areas where they were unable to get back out to the water.  ReTurn the Favor coordinators jumped into action and after an initial survey of the strandings organized rescues at the various beaches. On Saturday a team met at Pierce’s Point at sunset so as not to disturb feeding shorebirds. The group was made up of ReTurn the Favor coordinators from the Wetlands Institute and volunteers including CWF staff. The group was able to move ~3,000 crabs back to the water in a few hours. Over the next few days, rescue efforts continued at Pierce’s Point and other beaches. Allison Anholt from the Wetlands Institute reports that 7,900 crabs total were rescued at Pierce’s Point.  Thousands of more crabs were rescued at other beaches over the weekend, due to the dedication and help from the various groups and wonderful volunteers involved.

Efforts like this show that caring, dedicated people can make a difference. Thanks to all involved!

Horseshoe Crabs stranded in marsh behind Pierce’s Point beach 5/27/17

 

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