Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shorebird migration: good news on Red Knots at Brig?

The lives of us Hidden New Jerseyans get complicated this time of year. There are always festivals, great events at historic sites and more opportunities for us to make friends within the conservation community. And spring migration gives us limited chances to see birds decked out in their finest plumage on their way to their mating territory. Even the birds that raise families in New Jersey get frustratingly hard to see as they settle down and build nests in trees whose branches have suddenly become so leafy they obscure anything within.

This larger-than-life representation of a Red Knot
memorializes Moonbird, who's been commuting
via the Delaware Bayshore for 20 years (and we hope still is!).
And then, there are the Red Knots. You might remember them from our story last year. They're the endangered shorebirds that make a pit stop on the Delaware Bayshore enroute from their winter homes in Argentina and Chile to their summer breeding grounds in Arctic Canada. The window to see them is pretty darned small: generally a few weeks or less in May and June, after the horseshoe crabs have come out of the water to lay their eggs on the shore. Knots take advantage of that ever-reliable cycle to fatten up before flying the final leg of their 9000+ mile journey.

Similarly, scientists flock to the Bayshore in large numbers this time of year to assess the health of the Red Knot population and its potential for growth. The fate of the species and the horseshoe crab are obviously intertwined, and efforts to bolster the crab population will have a major impact on these amazing travelers.

Given other obligations, we didn't have the luxury of journeying to the Bayshore on a May weekend, as much as we would have liked. And given that Memorial Day came so early this year, there was no way we were going to go as far south as the Cape May County peninsula. Instead, we took our chances with Forsythe NWR, a.k.a. Brig, figuring we'd be able to see at least some of the shorebirds we needed to bolster our year lists.

Still, I was hoping that a Red Knot or two would be in the mix. Considering how many warblers we'd missed seeing in New Jersey this spring, it seemed the fates owed us a treat.

As we started our drive along the eight-mile Wildlife Drive atop the impoundment berm, we noted that the tide was out, leaving broad expanses of mud between large islands of marsh grass. Normally conditions like that leave a lot to be desired; a bit more water would concentrate the birds into a smaller area of drier ground. As we scanned broad swaths of mud, we considered the possibility we'd have to do a second sweep a few hours later, once the tide had come in.

Still, though, we were finding occasional groups of shorebirds as we drove further along. Small Sandpipers and the occasional Willets gave us hope that we'd at least see something on our first go 'round.

Then we heard the ruckus. A pebbly expanse just past the grassy shoulder of the berm was alive with birds busily pecking in the dirt for their mid-morning meal. The noise was extreme as dozens of Ruddy Turnstones pecked and dug and, well, turned stones to search for their meal. A couple of sizeable horseshoe crab shells stood motionless nearby, sending the silent message that yes, in fact, there might just be some eggs there, fairly far from the oceanfront. This was a gathering well worth leaving the car to investigate.

Like bargain-seekers at the discount table, Turnstones pushed Sandpipers and their breed brethren aside to get a better angle on the possible horseshoe crab egg bonanza just below the surface. They were fun to watch, but both Ivan and I had the feeling a good surprise could be there for us, too. Scanning the group, I decided to get a bit closer to see if I could spy the birds that were so close to the berm they were obscured by grass. And, I saw... yes....

A Red Knot! Milling among the Turnstones, the sole bird of its kind plucked its way through the stones and sand for a good meal. While the Knot was a singleton, it looked rather healthy and plump, as if it might have been chowing down for a good couple of days. Forsythe isn't generally known as the place to go to see Red Knots, being on the Atlantic Coast rather than the Bayshore, but at least one decided to grace us with its presence.

As we later discovered when checking in with the Conserve Wildlife folks who keep track of such things, this year's count of migrants to the Delaware Bayshore has been especially good. That got me thinking about how our Red Knot found his way to a beach within viewing distance of Atlantic City. It's always possible that this single individual got a little confused or misplaced from the flock that usually ends up farther south and west, but I'd personally like to think that he's the harbinger, maybe the trendy guy who thinks he discovered the next great place for migrating Red Knots to spend their brief but meaningful Jersey Shore vacation.

Yes, I'll admit I'm anthropomorphizing, but we can always hope that these small but mighty shorebirds will become so abundant that they'll need to stretch out a bit when they visit here in future migrations. Would it be the worst thing for Red Knots to visit AC every once in a while?

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