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Delaware’s Shorebirds – Counting On Us!


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Atlantic Flyway MapAn incredible and spectacular display of nature’s majesty occurs every spring on the Delaware Bay – a unique phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the world. Each spring, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds converge on the shores of the Bay. They’ve been traveling a long way. Some, like the Red Knot, travel as many as 5,000 non-stop miles. The farthest flung red knot populations spend the winter at the southern tip of South America, while other populations winter in Brazil and the Southeastern U.S.  Come spring, they’re all on their way to the Arctic where they breed during the short Arctic summer. Delaware Bay is the final and most critical rest stop for these migratory specialists.

They’re drawn to Delaware Bay by the promise of food; they time their arrival to coincide with the horseshoe crab spawning period. During this time, vast numbers of protein-laden horseshoe crab eggs are just waiting to be gobbled up in a dazzling feeding frenzy on the beach. The horseshoe crab eggs sustain the shorebirds for their remaining 2,000 mile trip to the Arctic. During their brief stay here, shorebirds that arrive emaciated from a long flight from South America can double their body weight!

But today, this amazing natural cycle is being disrupted. The exact causes are complex and under debate. But the bottom line is this: Delaware’s shorebirds are in trouble. The numbers are alarming: where nearly 100,000 Red Knots once made their springtime stopover, only about 25,000 visited in 2009. Other species such as Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpipers have declined in number as well.  Clearly, our natural legacy–unique to Delaware–is in serious jeopardy.

Shorebirds take flight. Photo by Dr. Rob Robinson

Photo by Rob Robinson

The threat to Delaware’s shorebirds is what fuels the dedication of the people involved in the Delaware Shorebird Project. This team of state and federal scientists, local volunteers, local and international researchers, birders and others is working to mitigate the threat to our shorebirds.

Since 1997, the team has researched the populations and health of migratory shorebirds in the Delaware Bay. Their research contributes to an international shorebird network that supports and directs shorebird habitat protection and management plans.

The purpose of the research is to improve our understanding of the importance of the Delaware Bay in the life cycles of migrant shorebirds and their connection to spawning horseshoe crabs. The sound management of the resources upon which shorebirds depend is vital to preserve this breathtaking, awe-inspiring natural cycle for our children and grandchildren.

Shorebird volunteer 

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