Researchers study migratory shorebirds; say numbers look good following Sandy

22275395_BG1-vertMIDDLE TWP. – Following Hurricane Sandy, many were wondering how migratory shorebirds that stop along South Jersey’s beaches during their annual trek, might be affected. Researchers who have been studying the endangered birds for nearly two decades, got back to work in Cape May County.

It was a frantic scene as researchers collected more than a hundred migratory shore birds on the beach in Pierce’s Point. Mainly red knots and ruddy turnstones, these endangered species will help provide insight on how the populations are doing. “Delaware Bay is one of the most important shorebird stopovers in the world,” said Biologist Larry Niles, who works for both the American Littoral Society and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation.

And every year, volunteers from around the world help collect data, tag the birds, and even take blood samples. “That way we can determine when, how long they survive,” said Niles, “and when you add all the birds together you can determine something called survival rate.”

“This is my 17th season helping study the shorebirds,” said Clive Minton, who flies in from Australia each year for the month of May. The reason why volunteers from all around the world come here to the South Jersey Delaware Bayshores is because this is where the birds come this time every year to fatten up before continuing on their massive trek.

“Delaware bay has the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world,” explained Niles, “and there are so many crabs that when they lay their eggs about 6 inches down into the sand, crabs will dig up other crab eggs and they come up to the surface and the shorebirds can eat them.”

But following Hurricane Sandy, many worried about how the battered beaches would potentially impact the entire cycle. “We were expecting to come to devastation,” said Minton, “and wondered how the knots were gonna manage, how the horseshoe crabs were gonna manage this year.”

Just two months ago, an emergency beach replenishment project spread 36-thousand cubic yards of sand on these beaches, just in time for the horseshoe crab’s breeding season. “Having these beaches restored was a really big deal for the birds and the crabs,” said Niles, “but I think it’s really early in the season, so it’s really hard to tell, but so far, so good.”

With these birds now documented, they’ll double their weight before taking off to their Arctic breeding grounds.

Researchers, many of which have been returning here for the past 17 years to continue this work, hope they’ll one day see them again, as they continue to monitor these small birds that travel great distances.

Biologists say the birds travel amazing distances in their lifetimes…one documented bird even flew the distance to the moon and halfway back.

If you’re interested in learning more about these incredible species, this weekend, the Wetlands Institute will hold the first annual shorebird and horseshoe crab festival with many different activities and lectures.


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