Now that the “short” distance migrants have pretty much gone through (e.g. the warblers), it’s time for the long-distance migrants to shine. Many shorebirds come all the way from the southern tip of South America — an incredibly long flight, and they’re hungry.
Fortunately, each spring, horseshoe crabs also spawn by the millions on the beaches of Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey, an ancient affair timed to the cycle of the moon in the late spring. The crabs lay down a thick green carpet of eggs, and it’s these little packets of energy that the fat-depleted shorebirds gorge on, refueling the birds for their long (usually nonstop) next flight northward to their Arctic breeding grounds.
It’s also time for birders on the U.S. East Coast to make a pilgrimage to birding hotspots to watch shorebirds. Delaware’s bay beaches are the closest for me. I spend time at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge and other nearby beaches such as Pickering, Ted Harvey Wildlife Management Area, and Slaughter Beach.
A scope and tripod are shorebirding musts. Binoculars will not do, because the birds are too far away — and most are too small — to see their subtle feather patterns and other features without high-powered optics. The tripod is necessary because it is nearly impossible to hold a scope steady by hand. Without a scope, shorebirding is frustrating at best. You will be able to see the larger and more distinctive birds such as Whimbrels and Avocets, but not the little guys that birders call “peeps.” Most birders will be happy to let you look through their scopes for a few minutes and explain what you are looking for — but for a full morning or day of shorebirding, you will be wanting your own gear.
Another thing to bear in mind are the tides. The birds feed in different places according to the tide level. At low tide you want to be at the beaches. At high tide the birds will be inland in the marshes and refuge impoundments. The best time is the midpoint between tides, because at low tide, birds can be quite a distance out. This is generally not an issue in the Delaware Bay, where even at low tide, there is not a large amount of exposed mud.
Other musts are bug spray – the horseflies and mosquitoes are fierce; sunblock; a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. By Memorial Day weekend, a day in the full sun can be quite hot. Most countries offer large blinds (with seats!) at coastal and marsh birding sites, but we U.S. birders seem fond of standing out in the midday sun while watching shorebirds. And don’t forget your field guide!
And lastly, if you are going the Delaware beaches (in the Bombay Hook area), pay a visit to the du Pont Nature Center (great for Red Knot observation) at Mispillion Harbor and Slaughter Beach. They will have scopes set up, people to help you, and the Center has lots of great information about shorebirds, and specifically on the plight of the Red Knot.
For more, visit the following websites for information about the birds, their migration, and where to go shorebirding:
- Delaware Birding Trail (http://www.delawarebirdingtrail.org/index.html) (which also has places to go and tide charts)
- Delmarva Ornithological Society (http://www.dosbirds.org)
- New Jersey Birding and Wildlife Trails (http://www.njwildlifetrails.org/)
(Image 1: Ruddy Turnstone on Delaware Bay shoreline. Image 2: Turnstones, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Dunlins on Delaware Bay shoreline. Image credits: Timothy Boucher/TNC.)