The crab, the bird and the bay: More about all

"Life along the Delaware Bay - Cape May, Gateway to a Million Shorebirds" book jacket to go with HS1REDKNOT04

In this morning's newspaper, I wrote about a shorebird called the red knot and efforts to save it. Here's more:


This year, as they have so many times before, the bird researchers converged on Delaware Bay.

In early May, as the crabs began moving ashore and the birds began swooping in, the New Jersey crew was hauling gear into Reed’s Beach shore house that they rent for the month.

It was Larry Niles, who first called attention to the red knot when he was head of the Endangered and Nongame Species Program in the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. (Read his blog here.)

And Mandy Dey, who is a principal zoologist with the DEP.

And so many more. As usual, there also was a contingent of bird researchers from around the globe, all intent on figuring out what’s happening with the red knot, and how to make things better. This year, they were from Australia, England, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands and Kenya.

The crew hooks up a bank of computers in the living room, catches birds by day and talks about birds long into the night.

How to catch a bird? Sounds easy, probably, but it’s not.

I’ve been out with them, and it requires probably equal measures luck and skill.

For starters, the researchers try to anticipate where the high tide will force the birds to gather.

In “cannon netting,” they’ll partly bury or camouflage a gathered net nearby. Lines from a small cannon connect to the front of the net.

As the birds approach and land, they may not be in the front of the net, so the researchers will send out someone to “twinkle” the birds, subtly shooing the toward the sweet spot.

Then — three, two, one, BANG! The net flies out and, if all goes well, the birds are trapped beneath it, unharmed.

Then begins the mad dash to pick up the birds and put them in dark, protected enclosures. One by one, each gets put on a tiny scale to be weighed.

The red knots arrive on the bay emaciated, their organs shrunk, from the long flight. They weigh maybe 110 or 120 grams, and scientists know the birds need to reach an optimum weight of 180 grams. The scale tells what proportion of the birds are making it.

The researchers assess the birds’ overall health. They take measurements. They swab each bird’s cloaca, getting samples to be tested for parasites or other problems. They take blood samples. They pluck feathers.

All of it adds to the data bank that, in effect, is trying to connect the dots of the birds lives. Where do they go? What do they eat? How long do they live? How are they faring?

Meanwhile, a mirror team in Delaware, led by Kevin Kalasz, was doing the same thing.

Red knots aren’t the only birds being studied.

Sanderlings, ruddy turnstones and semi-palmated sandpipers also have declined — perhaps just not as precipitously as the red knot.

New Jersey Audubon’s David Mizrahi has been studying the sandpipers for years, following them to their wintering grounds on the north coast of South America.

In the 1980s, based on aerial surveys, it was believed there were 2.5 million sandpipers in French Guiana, Suriname and Brazil. In 2008, the same crew did another aerial survey and estimated there were just 400,000.

Semi-palms, as the birds are often called, face a hurdle the red knots don’t. They’re hunted in their wintering grounds.

How odd that they’re nevertheless one of the most common shorebirds seen by birdwatchers in North America. “It’s so common that you can’t appreciate the declines,” Mizrahi says. “People can’t grasp those kinds of things with casual observation.”

All the birds that are caught get leg tags. And any time they’re scanning a flock of birds, researchers are always looking for the tags. If they can use binoculars or a scope to read the tag, they can find out when and where it was tagged, how many times it’s been spotted since then, and so on.

More data for the data bank.

A surprise visit from a celebrated bird

If this spring on the bay was full of good omens, perhaps none was as welcome — or as surprising — as the find by Argentine researcher Patricia Gonzalez.

A week ago, Gonzalez was scanning a flock when she spotted an orange band. It was marked B95, and when she saw it her heart began to beat a little more quickly.

She’d been part of a team that banded the bird in 1995 in Tierra del Fuego. It was probably about two years old at the time, they figured.

But B95 was even more special than that. Based on subsequent spottings, a few years ago researchers calculated it had flown as far as to the moon and halfway back.

Captivated by this, Gonzalez proposed that author Philip Hoose write a book about B95 and use it to tell the saga of red knots and the researchers who study them. Look for “The Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95,” in July.

As if scripted for a happy ending, here was B95 again, on Reed’s Beach.

“That’s pretty amazing, a bird that old,” said Niles.

As it happened, B95 was in a flock the researchers were trying to net. But before they could shoot the cannon, a man who the researchers said was angry with them walked toward the birds and scattered them.

More significant catches

There were other significant catches this spring, including ten red knots fitted with sophisticated, lightweight data loggers.

Weighing about the size of two pieces of toilet tissue — I verified this comparison a while back by asking a researcher at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University to weigh the tissue — the device contains a clock, a microprocessor, a memory and a battery. All in miniature, of course.

They’re expensive, but by logging the length of day where the bird is, researchers can pretty much pinpoint the location.

Two years ago, researchers recaptured two birds with the devices and got their first intimate view of a yearlong journey. One bird had crossed the Amazon rainforest and the open Caribbean Sea. Another detoured 620 miles to avoid a tropical storm.

This year, the researchers recovered ten dataloggers from the red knots they caught. The information still has to be recovered and analyzed.

Data, data and more data

The quest for more and more data is amazing. It's vital for efforts to save the bird and regulate the crab harvest.

Researchers count the birds.

Even though their numbers are down, the migration on Delaware Bay is still impressive, still worthy of how some birders describe it — a Serengeti for shorebirds.

Researchers count the crabs — on the beaches, in the bay, in the ocean. They set up grids in the sand and they see what comes up as they drag trawl nets behind ships.

Each survey seems to come up with different numbers, so there’s little agreement on what’s actually happening to the crabs. Are the harvest restrictions working or not?

Only one thing seems clear: “we aren’t seeing decreases,” said Danielle Chesky, the horseshoe crab coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory agency.

Recovery may be slow, partly because horseshoe crabs take about a decade to reach sexual maturity. “We may be in a situation where we’ve done what we need to do, but we’re waiting,” said Greg Breese, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Researchers also count the crab eggs. As with the crabs, they lay out a grid, collect the top layer of sand and literally count the eggs.

More crabs would mean more eggs, but weather and other conditions also affects how many eggs wind up on the beach.

When science isn’t enough ...

I find the research fascinating, and the plight of the birds compelling.

But it’s sometimes tough to generate interest, and that’s why the scientists are hopeful about the social marketing campaign.

“Efforts to regulate the harvest of horseshoe crabs have been inadequate,” Manomet notes in a description. “To save the red knot, we must help its human neighbors find value in this incredible bird.”

The Delaware Bay campaign got its start when Niles and Manomet’s Charles Duncan were at a presentation describing the Argentina campaign.

As Duncan recalls, Niles looked at him and said, “We’ve got to do this on Delaware Bay.”

Manomet chipped in $112,000 to do a survey about the attitudes of people who live near the bay.

An $82,500 grant from the William Penn Foundation will pay for the next phase — developing the campaign. The idea is to get people to care enough to do something, to acquire a new awareness of their place and what distinguishes it from other places in the world.

They don’t have to become birdwatchers. “You don’t have to be a baseball player to care about the hometown team,” Duncan said.

Manomet is working with EnviroMedia Social Marketing, which helped develop the successful “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-littering campaign.

Click here to see the Facebook page with YouTube videos and research reports.

The Delaware Bayshore Initiative

The scientists figure the social marketing campaign will dovetail nicely with Delaware’s bayshore initiative, announced Tuesday. You can read more about it, plus see a list of projects, here.

To Niles, the initiation brings the promise of political leadership.

And the economic benefit to the people who live near the bay.

In both states, the rural bayshore people “are suffering,” Niles said. There’s a lack of jobs and a lack of opportunity. “Conservation on the bay is really only secure if the people who live in the area are secure.”

Which brings us to the book...

A few years ago, the bird researchers were sitting around talking, and one of them suggested a book. With them was Jan van de Kam, a wildlife photographer who had published other shorebird books. What if they did something similar for the Delaware Bay.

This month, Rutgers Press is releasing "Life Along the Delaware Bay: Cape May, Gateway to a Million  Shorebirds." Niles, Dey and Rutgers professor Joanna Burger did the writing, and van de Kam added more than 300 glorious photos.

“We wanted to tell this story in a way that didn’t just focus on shorebirds and horseshoe crabs, but on all the bay,” Niles said. So there are chapters on rivers, the cultural history of the bay and a wonderful one on gulls — those raucous scavengers that compete with shorebirds for the horseshoe crab eggs.

Sort of like the social marketing campaign, they wanted people to enjoy the book, to learn something …and then be inspired to support conservation.

“We did it,” Niles said, “because we love the bay.”

A successful spring, a worrisome future

The good conditions on the bay this spring notwithstanding, people like Mandy Dey still worry about the red knot.

The bird has a long way to go to reach recovery, and “there’s the constant fear that it’s going to take too long, and that something else is going to happen to the birds somewhere else,” she said.

There might be snowy summer in the Arctic. Or an oil spill in Argentina. When the population was 100,000 birds strong, it could lose 1,000 individuals and be okay. But not if there are only 20,000 birds.

“It’s kind of a race against time at this point,” Dey said.

After last Tuesday’s ceremony in Delaware, boats took participants to one of Delaware’s most protected and prolific beaches, near Mispillion Harbor.

Here, researchers this spring had counted 750,000 to a million horseshoe crab eggs per square meter, as much as ten times that in other sites.

Nearby was the Fitzgerald Marsh, a 52-acre marsh that will be reclaimed and preserved as a roosting area for red knots.

At the edge of the water, horseshoe crabs were crowded so close they seemed to pave the beach.

Just beyond, red knots, dowitchers and ruddy turnstones jabbed their beaks into the sand, devouring the eggs.