|Reed's Beach shoreline|
Or at least, it used to be. Reed’s Beach is on the Delaware Bay about twenty miles north of Cape May. It is an old coastal fishing settlement. Weather hardened men made, and still make, a living off the rich waters of the Bay. They were, and probably still are, subsistence fishermen, always working against the economics of their time - economics that squeeze hardest on those with the least. When I first visited Reed’s Beach in the 1980s, small weathered homes still held on behind the tenuous protection of the low dunes. Driving down the single road behind the dunes, one could stop anywhere and study the masses of shorebirds along the beach.
Things have changed in the last thirty years. Some of the more ragged homes in Reed’s Beach have been replaced by recreational homes. Reed’s Beach sits on the coast, and accessible waterfront property is highly coveted. A few brand new, oversized, waterfront homes have been built, perched atop the dunes, or just behind them, sitting targets for the hurricane that will one day render them rubble. I wonder if their owners are rehearsing their woeful lament at their horrible loss and have pre-researched how to collect disaster relief.
Eco-tourism has become a significant business. Bird watchers (eco-tourist) come to Cape May in May before the summer season and in the Fall, when the summer season is over. They stay in hotels, motels, and B&Bs, and they eat in restaurants. They improve the occupancy rate during the pre and post summer season. And there are more of them.
Those wandering bird watchers sometimes forget that people live in the places where they are watching birds and that other vehicles need to use the roads. The bird watchers cannot just wander in a bird daze or park in the middle of a road. In Reed’s Beach, there are now signs along the road which prohibit stopping or parking. One must drive to the end of the road where there is a small parking area and defined viewing places. Order is imposed on the many pilgrims to this legendary birding spot.
|A dead Horseshoe Crab awaits the scavengers.|
In the early 1980s, I can remember visiting Reed’s Beach during this migratory period. The sand was littered with dead crabs, while shorebirds obscured the beach sands with a living shorebird carpet. When some whim disturbed them, they swirled in dark clouds over the water.
|The frayed carpet|
The last few years when I have visited Reed’s Beach, there have been plenty of Laughing Gulls, but very few shorebirds. As I searched the coast of the Delaware Bay, I always managed to find the shorebirds, and even my target species, the Red Knot, but never in large numbers. Most years I blamed myself. I had not timed my trip to southern New Jersey correctly. I was too early for the peak shorebird migration.
|Red Knots in flight|
At Reed’s Beach, it was also the best I have seen in many years, especially the Red Knots. I took a photo of Red Knots in flight; there are at least three hundred birds in the picture. Feeding clusters of Red Knots on the beach numbered in the hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand. An eco-tourist on that particular day might get a hint at the legendary reputation enjoyed by Reed’s Beach. If they were in need of ticking the Red Knot on their life list, they did so easily and in multiples.
|Ruddy Turnstones at Reed's Beach|
In the early 1990s, commercial fishermen began harvesting horseshoe crab females, rich with eggs, in May before they reached the beach and laid their eggs. The crabs were used for bait. And the shorebirds starved.
Unfortunately, when birds burn up their fat reserves during migration, they don’t lie around on city streets starving. No camera crews appear to document their plight and outrage the viewing public. They simply disappear.
Fortunately, the researchers were heard. In 2006 the State of New Jersey acted when the federal government did not. The state banned the harvesting of horseshoe crabs in its waters. In 2008, the Red Knot count was 15,000. In 2010, it was 24,000. Perhaps this is a sign that the crab population, and the bird population are beginning to recover.
Perhaps. I would like to think that the number of Red Knots which I saw this May at Reed’s Beach is a sign of this recovery and that Reed’s Beach may once again become a shorebird viewing site of legendary proportions. Humans have a way of messing up their environment. Occasionally, we have the good sense to fix it, or at least to get out of the way so that the earth can heal itself.
I live with hope.