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Posts Tagged ‘Delaware Bay Shorebird Project 2016’

20 Years of Conservation

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
Delaware Bay Shorebird Project Begins 20th Season

By: Dr. Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates LLC

We begin the 20th year of the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project this year with many of the same team members that helped start the project in 1997. That’s 20 years of studying one of the most intellectually challenging and endlessly fascinating species of wildlife in the world. Few have had the good fortune to do so.

The 2015 Delaware Bay Shorebird Project Team

The 2015 Delaware Bay Shorebird Project Team

Unfortunately, we do not start this year with the same shorebird population. In the last twenty years, the Delaware Bay stopover fell precipitously from its once lofty perch as one of the top three stopovers in the world. Where once we counted over 1.5 million shorebirds, we now see less than 400,000, a sweet number but far less than the bay’s heyday. Red knot numbers have crashed from over 90,000 to a low of only 13,000. Ruddy Turnstones, the virtual working man of shorebirds, fell from 135,000 to just over 16,000. In this time, many intrepid shorebirds came to the bay to find succor provided by a once endless bounty of horseshoe crab eggs only to find empty beaches and no way back to their Arctic home.

 

Much of this was caused by short-sighted decisions made by the commercial fishing industry in the 1990’s, which decided to spend this bay’s natural (and publicly owned) wealth of horseshoe crabs. They needed bait and relentlessly pursued the crabs. Horseshoe crab populations fell to a quarter of their historic number and may have been driven to extinction without the work of the bay’s conservationists who fought bravely and with determination to stop them. Atlantic sturgeon, weakfish, herring, eels, and many of the bay’s once abundant fisheries weren’t so lucky.

crab harvest

Now a new industry, the oyster aquaculture industry, wants to consume another public natural resource, the bay’s intertidal flats. Cultivating oysters on metal racks placed on the bay’s extensive tidal flats is cheap and easy when you can use public trust lands. The expansion got a vital assist from the state agencies who side lined crucial environmental reviews to determine impact to species like the red knot, and required no public hearing, comment period or the involvement of any shorebird experts. This could have been corrected when the red knot was federally listed.

Thousands of red knots, ruddy turnstones sanderling, semi palmated sandpipers use the inter tidal flat near Kimble’s Beach, Delaware Bay. They forage on eggs washed out from the beaches and spread across the flat.

Thousands of red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderling, semipalmated sandpipers use the inter tidal flat near Kimble’s Beach, Delaware Bay. They forage on eggs washed out from the beaches and spread across the flat.

Unfortunately, the red knot’s federal listing has not helped in this controversial expansion of aquaculture. Instead, it proposed growers should be compensated for economic losses caused by the listing, and allowed the controversial expansion despite the obvious impacts to birds and crabs. Such decisions speak to Desperate Environmentalism, a term coined by Yale School of Forestry’s Joshua Galperin, describing the increasingly fraught position of conservationists who feel they must play ball with politically powerful industries or lose all. This desperate conservation could have been avoided if growers and conservationists worked together to expand aquaculture without significant impacts  because after all everybody loves oysters!

Horseshoe crabs rely on the intertidal flats to forage for marine invertebrate like small clams.

Horseshoe crabs rely on the intertidal flats to forage for marine invertebrate like small clams.

But this dark cloud cannot diminish the progress made by our team and groups like American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Just one example is the successful effort to restore horseshoe habitat on 2.7 miles of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab breeding habitat. The effort, funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overcame the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and prevented what could have been another shorebird disaster. This work has blossomed over the last four years into a network of activities that provides new hope for a long term protection of the bay. This conservation is not desperate but inspirational for hundreds biologists, land managers and volunteers.

Moore’s Beach before and after restoration by the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Moore’s Beach before and after restoration by the American Littoral Society and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

So our 20th year is much like our first year, a group of conservation-minded shorebird scientists and volunteers gathering to help these poor birds find a way to make it home.  As with most conservation stories in this time, it’s a David and Goliath story that hopefully has the same result.

Red Knot photo by Al Janerich.

Red Knot photo by Al Janerich.

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

International Migratory Bird Day Series: Red Knot

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016
CWF is Celebrating International Migratory Bird Day all Week Long

by Lindsay McNamara, Communications Manager

CWF’s blog on the red knot is the third in a series of five to be posted this week in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). IMBD 2016 is Saturday, May 14. This #birdyear, we are honoring 100 years of the Migratory Bird Treaty. This landmark treat has protected nearly all migratory bird species in the U.S. and Canada for the last century.

Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

The iconic red knots have returned to New Jersey! These famous, mid-sized shorebirds are state endangered and now federally threatened — the first bird ever listed under the Endangered Species Act with climate change cited as a “primary threat.”

 

Red knots are only 10 inches long but are among the world’s most extreme long distance flyers  traveling vast distances  some over 18,000 miles in the course of their annual migration from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina all the way up to the Canadian Arctic (and back again). During their trip, the red knots make a vital stop at New Jersey’s Delaware Bay.

This map shows the flight path of a red knot that was banded and fitted with a geolocator along New Jersey's Delaware Bay.

This map shows the flight path of a red knot that was banded and fitted with a geolocator along New Jersey’s Delaware Bay.

Each spring in Delaware Bay, throughout the month of May, the largest concentration of horseshoe crabs in the world comes onshore to spawn. At the same time, tens of thousands of shorebirds arrive at the Bay, thin and spent from what has been a non-stop, four-day flight from South America. They are en route on a remarkable round-trip journey from southern wintering grounds to Arctic breeding territory, and Delaware Bay is their most critical stopover on this 8,000-mile trip. The shorebirds need to quickly double their weight to complete their migration north and breed successfully. To refuel at such capacities and in only a ten-day window, high-energy horseshoe crab eggs provide essential nourishment. In recent years, countless horseshoe crab eggs have been lost because of the devastating storms that swept away the beaches they depend on.

 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Conserve Wildlife Foundation and American Littoral Society worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the New Jersey Recovery Fund to remove 8,000 tons of debris and added 45,000 tons of sand to the beaches just before the annual spring arrival of the red knot in 2013. Additional work after 2012 restored another mile of shoreline, including two new beaches of poor quality even before Sandy. To date, the groups have placed over 85,000 cubic yards of sand and restored seven beaches along New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore.

 

To restore one of the beaches, Thompsons Beach, our team removed debris from the area, removed rubble from the road leading to the beach, and placed over 40,000 cubic yards of sand onto the beach. We were delighted to learn that in the spring of 2015, Thompsons Beach had the highest abundance of horseshoe crab egg clusters out of all the beaches that our team monitors on Delaware Bay.

Horseshoe crabs spawning at Thompsons Beach in May 2015. Photo by Joe Smith.

Horseshoe crabs spawning at Thompsons Beach in May 2015. Photo by Joe Smith.

But since the early 1990s, there have been major declines in both the number of adult horseshoe crabs and their eggs. The cause is an exploding crab harvest that grew from only tens of thousands in 1990 to over 2 million in 1996. With the decline of their critical food source, shorebird numbers also plummeted  the Delaware Bay shorebird populations remain around 26% of its historic population size. Over 25,500 red knots were seen in 2015 versus over 90,000 in 1989.

 

Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish & Wildlife have partnered for 20 years, working to conduct research on Delaware Bay shorebirds in order to prevent further decline. Each year, CWF’s Larry Niles and ENSP’s Amanda Dey lead a team of shorebird experts from around the world – from countries as far as Argentina and New Zealand – to conduct research on shorebirds during their stopover. These experts also follow shorebirds to other locations along their migration, including South America and the Arctic. With scientific research and concerted conservation efforts, our hopes are that someday Delaware Bay’s skies will be once again filled with shorebirds.

Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

Last year, nearly every red knot left the bay in good condition, with over 77% reaching weights exceeding 180 grams, the threshold weight required for a successful flight to the Arctic breeding areas. The improvement in the number of red knots reaching 180 grams is a milestone for our shorebird project. The birds left in the best condition recorded since 1998, just as horseshoe crabs were being overharvested. This good news must be tempered by the continued low numbers of birds and horseshoe crabs. We report no improvement in horseshoe crab numbers, so the improvement in the number of red knots making weight is likely a consequence of the restoration of horseshoe crab habitat on Delaware Bay beaches.

 

Because shorebirds don’t only spend their time in Delaware Bay, shorebird scientists must study them throughout the Atlantic Flyway to get the best understanding of their unique ecology. This year, shorebird project team was awarded a 2-year grant to create detailed shorebird habitat maps in the states of Maranhão and Pará, Brazil. This project will set the foundation for conservation planning and action for decades to come at a shorebird wintering site of hemispheric importance that has received little conservation and research attention with regard to shorebirds thus far.

 

Over the last 6 years, CWF also has partnered with the USFWS Monomoy Refuge to develop a better understanding of migratory shorebird use on Cape Cod and at the Refuge. Cape Cod, like Stone Harbor and Brigantine, New Jersey, is an important southbound stopover for red knots. At each location, red knots come from their Arctic breeding areas and either build up weight for a flight to South America, or remain to molt and replace vital primary feathers before moving onto shorter distance wintering areas in Florida and Cuba.

Banded Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

Banded Red Knot photo by Mark Peck.

Another important piece of CWF’s shorebird research has been the attachment and recovery of geolocators, small devices that track movements through one to two years of battery life. The migratory tracks from recovered geolocators have greatly expanded our understanding of red knot migratory behavior. In CWF’s last two years of research, we focused on capturing juveniles, which move through the Cape in early September. Red knot juvenile #254 was a recapture two years after release on Delaware Bay. It first left Cape Cod and wintered in North Carolina. In their first year, juvenile red knots don’t go to the Arctic to breed and so #254 flew back to Cape Cod to summer. The following fall, it flew to Cuba to winter, then to North Carolina, then to the Arctic. This was the first known track of a juvenile red knot and one of only a few of any avian species! CWF is continuing our geolocator project this year, so follow along on our blog and social media channels to receive updates on cutting-edge red knot research!

 

Learn More:

 

Lindsay McNamara is the Communications Manager for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Shorebirds Arrive in New Jersey’s Delaware Bay

Monday, May 9th, 2016
The Birds are Back – Red Knots Arrive Along the Bayshore

by David Wheeler, Executive Director

Photo by David Wheeler.

Photo by David Wheeler.

The 2016 mass shorebird migration is officially underway, with the thrilling spectacle of over 1,100 red knots spotted today at North Reeds Beach in Cape May County, New Jersey. A host of other shorebirds, including ruddy turnstones, dunlins, semipalmated sandpipers, and sanderlings, accompanied the red knots at this Delaware Bay hotspot.

 

The famished flocks fed on horseshoe crab eggs, while much larger laughing gulls congregated along the shoreline and a few crabs used the incoming waves to flip themselves over and return to the bay.

Photo by David Wheeler.

Photo by David Wheeler.

Researchers began seeing a large number of shorebirds arriving over the weekend, and today’s sightings are high for such an early date. A number of the red knots wear leg bands, with a few indicating departure points as far south as Argentina and Chile. Such lengthy migrations for those individual birds only add to the intrigue of their early-season arrivals in New Jersey.

 

Some red knots fly over 18,000 miles each year in their migrations from southern South America to the Canadian Arctic, with Delaware Bay serving as an irreplaceable stopover.

Photo by David Wheeler.

Photo by David Wheeler.

Yet these migratory shorebirds have suffered a sharp decline over the past few decades, with red knots dropping by around 75%. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the red knot as a federally protected threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in December 2014.

 

A team of international researchers and trained volunteers, led by Dr. Larry Niles, Conserve Wildlife Foundation, and the State Endangered and Nongame Species Program will spend the next month surveying and studying the at-risk shorebirds during their stay in New Jersey.

Infographic used from http://www.fws.gov/northeast/redknot/.

Infographic used from http://www.fws.gov/northeast/redknot/.

 

 

 

Learn More:

 

David Wheeler is Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation.

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