A new set of galleries has been added to the website today featuring a few photographs taken in Delaware on the east coast of America. The images were taken during visits to volunteer with the Delaware Shorebird Project (DSP) in May 2012 and 2013.
Delaware Bay is positioned on the Atlantic Flyway and is the final staging area for thousands of shorebirds on their migration from their South American / South-eastern US wintering grounds to their Arctic breeding grounds. In spring, the Bay is also home to horseshoe crabs. These prehistoric looking creatures spawn on the beaches in their millions and their tiny green eggs are full of protein – just what the hungry shorebirds need to replenish their body fat and to provide them with enough energy to complete their journey north. In the short time that the knot spend in Delaware Bay (1-2 weeks) they can double their body weight by foraging on crab eggs!
Horseshoe crab surrounded by tiny green eggs
Unfortunately, for a number of complex reasons, the shorebird populations have diminished in recent years. In 1997, the Delaware Shorebird Project was established to research and monitor the health of the birds in order to better understand the connection between the birds, Delaware Bay and the horseshoe crabs. The data gathered are helping to identify and protect the resources that are so critical to the success of the shorebird migration. The DSP works in partnership with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) and it is through the latter that I have been able to join the project over the past two years. A sister project, the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project runs concurrently on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. The birds use both sides of the Bay to feed, often swapping shores to avoid inclement weather. Having data from both sides is crucial for researchers to gain a full picture of the state of the shorebird populations using the Bay.
Sunrise over Back Beach in Delaware Bay
Small part of the flock of birds on Back Beach, Delaware Bay
Project work involves catching and flagging birds, counting the numbers of birds using each of the beaches each day and re-sighting the colour flagged birds. Target species for the project are red knot, ruddy turnstone, sanderling (all of which are colour flagged) and semipalmated sandpiper (not flagged on the Delaware side). Other species that are ringed but not flagged include dunlin, short-billed dowitcher, semipalmated plover and least sandpiper.
Semipalmated sandpiper being released after ringing
When not catching, time is spent counting the birds in the Bay and attempting to find and read leg flags using telescopes. Team members visit the key beaches along the Bay shore, including Back Beach in Misspilion Harbour, where the largest numbers of birds congregate. Re-sighting colour flagged birds gives information on arrival and leaving dates of individual birds, movements of individual birds within the Bay and information on survival of individual birds.
Re-sighting flags from a boat
Approximately 10% of the red knot population passing through the Bay is estimated to be flagged, along with smaller percentages of turnstone, sanderling and semipalmated sandpipers. Flagging projects are undertaken in a number of different countries; the flag colour indicates which country the bird was flagged in. In the US, lime coloured flags are used, Canada uses white, Argentina orange, Brazil blue and Chile red. Percentage counts are also taken of knot and turnstone to ascertain how many birds in the group are flagged e.g. 50 clearly visible birds of one species will be counted and the number of flags noted. Researches can then use this data to extrapolate the percentage of the population that is flagged.
Red knot with an orange flag on it indicating that it was originally ringed in Argentina
The project work is quite intense (seven days a week) however, there is always time to fit in the odd birding trip too. There are a number of local wildlife refuges such as Prime Hook and Bombay Hook which are well worth a visit. As the project drew to a close on my first visit in 2012, most of the birds had already departed for their breeding grounds so the local staff took us out for a fantastic day’s birding down to Redden State Forest and to Cape Henelopen. Before setting out I (as the only person never to have visited the States before) was asked what I would like to see. I proceeded to reel off a ridiculously ambitious list knowing I would be happy to see only half of what was on there. Well, I wish I had asked for the lottery numbers because we (and by we, I mean the locals who knew the area backwards) found every single bird on the list including blue jay (ridiculously common over there but I hadn’t seen one), red-headed woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, scarlet tanager, brown-headed nuthatch and the pièce-de-résistance, piping plover!
The gorgeous piping plover
In 2013, a sneaky birding trip saw three of us join the Sussex County Bird Club / Delaware Audubon on a birding trip to the Great Cyprus Swamp in the south west of Delaware State. The area is a privately owned habitat that is managed for deer. It has previously been drained but is currently undergoing management work to try to restore the habitat to its former glory. This includes removing the trees (sweet gums / tulip poplars) that are colonising the drier areas and re-wetting the woodland. The trees being removed are being ring-barked, leaving large numbers of ‘snags’. The by-product of this is a large increase in the number of red-headed woodpeckers. We managed to see ten! The trip highlights included a cracking male American redstart, yellow-throated warbler, Louisiana water thrush and wild turkey. We also managed to see a black rat snake hassling ovenbirds (some very worried looking adults trying to protect their chicks) and tiger swallowtail butterflies (both the yellow and the black morphs) – stunning!
The most iconic species in Delaware Bay is the red knot. This species is currently being considered for extra protection in the US through listing it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Threatened means it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant proportion of its range due to habitat loss, lack of food, asynchronies in timing of migratory cycle and predation on breeding grounds. Hopefully a ruling will be made in 2014 and if successful, will mean a recovery plan can be created and implemented to protect the species and start to restore the ecological health of the population.
The Delaware Shorebird Project is an international partnership effort between the DSP, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Delaware Museum of Natural History, the BTO, WWRG and local volunteers. As a direct result of the project, the decline in the red knot population has been halted. Recovery may take a while longer yet, but the fact that the decline has been halted is a wonderful indictment of the fantastic work that this project has done over the past fifteen years or so. More information on the DSP can be found on the project website: http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/shorebirds/Pages/default.asp
It has been a privilege to be a part of the team over the past two years and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the WWRG for allowing me to join them and to the staff and volunteers at the DSP for their support and for welcoming me into the team. I am very much looking forward to joining them again this May. This year I also have a cracking new lens so am very excited about the images I will be getting whilst I am there. I will of course be adding the best shots to the American galleries.