Saturday, July 30, 2011

Robin Redbreast

European Robin - aka Robin Redbreast - aka Robin
© Whiskybottle |

The American Robin is not a robin. English colonists came to North America for religious freedom and economic gain, and to escape from poverty and oppression. Carving a life out of a strange, new land took all of their energies. The niceties and precision of the developing sciences had to wait. When they named something new, they often drew on experience from their old land, or even nostalgia for the old land.

Such was the case with the “robin.” They saw a bird with a red breast, and it brought to mind the robin back in England. This robin (now officially known as the European Robin) bore a superficial resemblance to the bird they encountered in North America; the robin back home had, and still has, an orange-red face and breast.

Ornithological precision lay far in the future for the first English colonists. They tended to call anything with a red breast a robin. The Eastern Bluebird was a robin. The Eastern Towhee (formerly the Rufous-sided Towhee) carried the name “Ground Robin.” The Robin Snipe might be the Red Knot or one of the two dowitchers.

One could say that the name, “Robin,” was strewn around indiscriminately. The Baltimore Oriole was called the Golden Robin; the Cedar Waxwing was the Canadian Robin, and the Red-breasted Merganser was known as the Sea Robin.

“Robin” seems to be of French origin, a diminutive of Robert, but the English bear the responsibility for attaching the name to the bird. The European Robin began as Redbreast, then acquired the pet name, Robin Redbreast, and eventually Redbreast was dropped. This European Robin is the Robin Redbreast of the nursery rhyme:

European Robin
© Rosteckm |
Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree,
Up climbed pussycat and down went he,
Down came pussycat, away Robin ran.
Says little Robin Redbreast, "Catch me if you can."
Little Robin Redbreast flew upon a wall,
Pussycat jumped after him, and almost had a fall.
Little Robin chirped and sang and what did pussy say?
Pussycat said, "Mew," and Robin flew away.

The European Robin also inspired:

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.

In North America, the common name, “robin,” has gradually dropped away from many of its early associations. The officially sanctioned name for our robin is American Robin. This distinguishes it from other birds in the world named Robin. For example, there are tropical and Central American robins which occasionally stray into North America, especially along the Rio Grande: White-throated Robin, Rufous-backed Robin, and Clay-colored Robin.

European Robin
© Johnbraid |
In the process of researching how our robin got its name, I encountered the term, “round robin.” The term is used for any activity in which a group participates in a circular manner. For example, in sports, round-robin refers to every player or team in a group taking turns to play one another a set number of times.

The Dictionary of Word Origins attributes the origin to a document which was signed by multiple parties in a circle to make it more difficult to determine the order in which it was signed. The first round-robin document was signed on the brig, Catherine, at Gibralter in 1612.

European Robin
© Stephen Inglis |
“The crew was discontented but well aware that the captain had the right to enforce discipline by hanging to the yardarm whomever he decided was the chief dissenter. The first name signed to a petition was likely to be taken as sufficient evidence of leadership and justify the extreme penalty. To avoid this fate for any one individual the crew decided to append their names in the form of a circle. Thus all signatures were on an equal basis and the captain could scarcely hang the whole crew. The story goes that a statuette of a Robin on a circular base was close at hand. This was used to trace a circle which formed a guide for writing the signatures around it. This device to protect individual petitioners henceforth became known as a “round robin.” (Choate, American Bird Names)

European Robin
© Nbgbgbg |
So as you see, when “robin” crops up in nursery rhymes or language idioms, it does not refer to our American Robin. Our American Robin has done nothing to earn its place in the nursery jingle except for its vague resemblance to the European Robin. The English, by the way, do not need the precision of “European” when referring to their Robin, any more than we need the precision of “American” when referring to our Robin. Robin on their side of the pond means Robin, just as Robin on our side of the pond means (American) Robin.

American Robin
In fact, our American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is not even a robin. It is a thrush belonging to the thrush family, Turdidae. Some nomenclators with a consistency obsession would like to call the Turdidae robins, thrushes: for example, the Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi) rather than Clay-colored Robin.

The European Robin which inspired the common name for our robin belongs to the family Muscicapinae, a family of Old World Flycatchers. They are thrush-like, insect-eating flycatchers in a family that includes the nightingales and Old World chats.

In the North American thrush family, Turdidae, our American Robin shares its Genus Turdus with the Varied Thrush. Other close relatives include the Eastern Bluebird (Genus Sialia) and several of our local thrushes: Wood Thrush (Genus Hylocichia) and in Genus Catharus, Veery, Bicknell’s, Swainson”s, and Hermit Thrushes.

Our Robin may not be a robin, but it keeps good family company with the thrushes.

Note: I did not take the photographs of the European Robin; their use is licensed by

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Western Birds IV

On an evening drive up Signal Mountain in Grand Tetons NP, along the side the road, this Dusky Grouse (formerly Blue Grouse) was feeding. Even when I got out of the car and slowly approached, it was unconcerned about my presence. In a world inhabited by goshawk, eagle, fox, and coyote (among other dangers), I did wonder how this seemly oblivious bird could survive ...

Dusky Grouse
Dusky Grouse
The grouse's ignorance of potential danger was a sharp contrast to the exceptional and very convincing performance put on by this "Killdeer" (at the Bowring Sandhills Ranch in Nebraska) - a superb broken wing act!

Also in the Nebraska sandhills, wetlands lined one of the highways. Just getting out of the car to scan the muddy edges and deeper water sent the avocets into something of a tizzy. Several took turns flying wide circles around us and voicing their displeasure at our intrusion. Just keep going! ...

American Avocet

Monday, July 25, 2011

Western Birds III - Raptors

My western travels yielded several raptors. Among those which also provided photo ops, three were particular treats.

In a large prairie dog colony in Badlands NP, I had several opportunities to watch this Burrowing Owl. It uses old burrows for its nest. As I took a few steps closer, it flew a short distance, and then disappeared into a burrow. It popped back into view and posed ,,,

Burrowing Owl

Also in Badlands NP, I stopped to look at a hawk perched on a fence post. For a change, the aging mental computer quickly listed and eliminated possibilities, leaving only a hawk with which I am not terribly familiar. I announced to the car, "Ferruginous Hawk."

Ferruginous Hawk

In the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone NP, I had the treat of looking down on an Osprey nest built atop a rocky pinnacle. Though safe from most predators, the parent kept a vigilant watch over the 3 young chicks ...


Saturday, July 23, 2011

American Robin

Everyone knows the robin. With its orange-red breast, it hops across the grass, pauses, listens, then pulls an earthworm from the ground and flies to its nest. The robin’s nest might be anywhere. In the bush outside your bedroom window. In the plant hanger on your front porch. On a high branch in the big old maple tree next to the road. On the beam in your car port or garden shed.

When I visit my children in Philadelphia, the robin sings on the top of old industrial buildings, forages the manicured flower beds around apartment buildings, and picks grit for its gizzard from busy streets just ahead of the rumbling urban buses.

I have just returned from a two week trip to western Nebraska, western South Dakota, and Wyoming. At a ranch in the mixed grass prairie of Nebraska’s sandhills, I watched Killdeer do their broken wing act to lead me away from their nest. Barn and Cliff Swallows swirled in the air, Western Kingbirds chased off blackbirds, Meadowlarks sang on fence posts, and robins carried food to their nestlings.

Outside of my cabin in the hot dry prairie of the South Dakota badlands, speckle-breasted fledgling robins hopped after their parent, begging for food.

At a 9500 foot pass in the Big Horn Mountains, Mountain Bluebirds and White-crowned Sparrows sang in a bird choir featuring the robin.

At Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, a robin paused on a travertine terrace, then foraged along a watery edge where steam rose. On the barren and eerie landscape of the Norris Geyser Basin, a robin found a tiny, green remnant from which it collected grass to line its nest.

In the monoculture of Wyoming’s lodgepole pine forests, there was very little bird diversity, but there were always robins.

The American Robin is everywhere: from the high tundra in the north, to the deserts in the West and swamps in the South, from the urban, suburban, and small town landscapes to the rugged and forbidding mountains.

It is like the automobile; you expect to see it wherever you go. It is so much a part of the background landscape that you barely notice it. Except that the automobile can’t go everywhere. The robin, unencumbered by the need for roads, can - and does.

The natural habitat for the American Robin is the great primeval forests. Those forests have almost completely disappeared. The robin remains, having accommodated itself to the changes we have made to the landscape. When trees were planted around homes on the great grassland prairies, the robins moved in. But if there are no trees, then a bush will do - or a stone wall, a building, a fence, or even the ground.

The scientific name for the American Robin is Turdus migratorius. I’ll have more on the name in the future. “Migratorius” is from Latin and gives our language the familiar “migratory;” it means wanderer. The robin wanders everywhere in North America. With the exception of the deserts in the Southwest, the Rio Grande valley, and Florida, it breeds where it wanders.

The wandering characteristic of the robin continually mixes up its gene pool resulting in a remarkable uniformity. Many songbird species, even those with a more limited distribution than the robin, have recognizable subspecies; geographical separation and habitat differences encourage change and adaptations.

With the robin, there are a few differences, but those differences are seen only in the most widely separated populations. Sibley’s Guide describes far western populations as, on average, paler and drabber; the white corners on the tail are nearly lacking. On the other side of the continent, Atlantic Canada robins are more richly colored with extensive black on the nape and mantle. Robins from Atlantic Canada are most likely to be seen in our area during the winter months. However, the robin is so common that most of us will only register “robin” without looking for possible differences. For that matter, the differences are so gradient that even the most experienced birders will disagree, assuming they have paused on a robin long enough to note any differences.

During our Spring and Summer weeks, nearly every place you go in North America you will hear the song of the robin. It is a cheerful warble of ascending and descending phrases; “kill’em, cure’em, give’em physic” is one way that the meter and rhythm has been rendered. “Later, in the season of summer showers, the most copious ‘rain song’ is given. Now and then a Robin appears to imitate some other sound beside his own. Thus, one may render the song of the Blue-headed Vireo, another whistles like a boy calling a dog, but in most cases the Robin adheres closely to his own characteristic but somewhat varied repertoire.” (Forbush)

As John James Audubon wandered the North American continent during the first third of the 19th century, his travels brought him to Labrador: “The first land-bird seen by me, when I stepped upon the rugged shores of Labrador, was the Robin, and its joyful notes were the first that saluted my ear. Large patches of unmelted snow still dappled the surface of that wild country; and although vegetation was partially renewed, the chillness of the air was so peculiarly penetrating, that it brought to mind a fearful anxiety for the future. The absence of trees ... the barren aspect of all around, the somber mantle of the mountainous distance that hung along the horizon, excited the most melancholy feelings; and I could scarcely refrain from shedding tears when I heard the song of the  Robin.”

Don’t overlook the American Robin. Just because it is common does not mean it is commonplace. Whatever barren landscape we may have to endure, physical or mental or spiritual, sooner or later a robin will fill that barren landscape with his cheerful song.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Western Birds II

My recent travels in the West did not bring any rarities, but it is always a treat to see birds that I do not normally see.

The Mountain Bluebird was common in many places, from the plains to high mountain passes. The blue of the male is almost surreal ...

Mountain Bluebird

The Spotted Towhee singing on a tree top in the Badlands was yet another treat. The spots on its wings are just visible ...

Spotted Towhee

The Violet-Green Swallow in the west are as common as the Tree Swallow in my neighborhoods. A gorgeous little bird, it seldom alights, and even more rarely gives a photo opportunity ...

Violet-Green Swallow

The Western Kingbird has a personality like that of the Eastern Kingbird. In the Nebraska sandhills, both were present, both were flycatching, and both were exhibiting the pugnacity characteristic of the kingbirds ...

Western Kingbird
Good birding!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Western Birds, I

For the past three weeks I have been traveling in the West - western Nebraska, southwestern South Dakato, and Wyoming. My mid-week posts during this time were prepared in advance and were "fillers." I am home now and can share some of the travels.

The trip was not a birding trip, but when the opportunity presented itself, I naturally photographed birds.

Audubon's Warbler tops the "drop-dead gorgeous" category among the birds I photographed in the West. This male cooperated while we wandered the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone NP ...

Audubon's Warbler (officially still Yellow-rumped Warbler)

If the Lark Sparrow were as common in my neighborhood as it is in the grasslands of the West, it could make my top three list of favorite sparrows, coming just behind the White-throated and Fox Sparrows - beautiful head pattern and lively song ...

Lark Sparrow

In the woodlands around Devil's Tower NM, I added to my life list with the Plumbeous Vireo ...

Plumbeous Warbler
For indefatigable and spirit-lifting song, the Western Meadowlark is without peer ...

Western Meadowlark
Good birding!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Birding Ethics

I've been traveling in South Dakota and Wyoming, but I'm back, and will be sorting photos and sharing events soon. To fill things until I get it together, here is a topic which should be of interest to all bird watchers.

Birding is a hobby which engages millions of people. Its very popularity can create problems, for the birds, the larger population, and birders themselves. The American Birding Association is the largest organization of, and for, field birders in North America. It has developed “Principles of Birding Ethics” and a “Code of Birding Ethics” for its members and for promotion and distribution to the general public.

As we enjoy birds, whether at our backyard feeders, or as birdwatchers in the field, it is incumbent upon us that our hobby not do harm. So with the good of birds and bird lovers in mind, here are those principles and that code.


Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first.


l. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.

(a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.

(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. Exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming. Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area. Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover. Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.

(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance can be minimized, and permission. has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.

(d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

2. Respect the law and the rights of others

(a) Do not enter private property without the owner's explicit permission.

(b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad. .

(c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

3. Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are safe.

(a) Keep dispensers, water, and food clean and free of decay or disease. It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.

(b) Maintain and clean nest structures regularly.

(c) If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to predation from cats and other domestic animals, or dangers posed by artificial hazards.

4. Group birding, whether organized or impromptu, requires special care. Each individual in the group, in addition to the obligations spelled out in 2, has responsibilities as a Group Member.

(a) Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as those of people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience, except where code l(c) applies. Be especially helpful to beginning birders.

(b) If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

Good Birding!

Note: The American Birding Association developed and promotes the Birding Ethics and allows them to be reproduced and distributed without restriction. This column did not include “Group Leader Responsibilities.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Brown-headed Cowbird

I don't know anyone who would say "Brown-headed Cowbird" and "one of my favorite birds" in the same sentence. I certainly don't. But in certain light, the male does shine with an iridescence that almost rivals that of some other blackbirds.

... and the males do go about their strutting and displaying with the same vigor that most other male birds demonstrate - all in the quest for that brief moment when a female will welcome his attention, coy and discriminating creature that she is ...

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Uncertain Future of the Red Knot

Red Knot
The Red Knot is a plump, medium sized sandpiper usually seen along our Atlantic coast during Spring and Fall migration. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America, began his description this way:

“The Knot, good reader, is a handsome and interesting species, whether in its spring or in its winter plumage, and provided it be young and fat, is always welcome to the palate of the connoisseur in dainties. As to its habits, however, during the breeding season, I am sorry to inform you that I know nothing at all, for in Labrador, whither I went to examine them, I did not find a single individual.”

We should not criticize Audubon for his failure to learn of the Red Knot’s nesting habits. The nest went undiscovered to science until June, 1909, when Admiral Peary photographed one in the high arctic after his dash to the North Pole.

Nor should we be too critical of Audubon for commenting on the Knot’s tastiness. He was a man of his time, and even scientists studied wildlife for their “usefulness” to society - in the Knot’s case, as a dainty delicacy. Its flavorfulness may even explain its name. One account of the name origin has the Danish King Canute, or Knut, dining on a strange coastal bird. His compliments to his chef led his courtiers to dub the bird, Knuts, or Knots.

An alternative account of the origin of the Red Knot’s name also features King Canute. This one notes that the Knot often feeds in the water, even as the tide is coming in. Where the Sanderling chases the waves, running to and fro with the coming and going of the tide, the Knot seems to hold its ground, as though trying to hold back the tide itself. A legend associated with King Canute has the Danish monarch attempting to hold back the tide, futilely we can be sure. Hence the association of the Knot (Calidris canutus)  and Knut.

Red Knot (with Semipalmated Sandpipers)
The Red Knot is a circumpolar nester. The North American subspecies (one of two subspecies) was once the most abundant sandpiper to be seen along the coast. Forbush reports that in spring and autumn “their hosts were marshaled on the flats of Barnstable County, and around Tuckernuck and Muskeget islands they collected in immense numbers and rose in ‘clouds’ before the sportsman’s gun.”

And, that was the first challenge faced by the Red Knot to its survival as a species - a combination of its habit to gather always in large flocks of its own kind, and the advent of modern killing technology. However, it was not the sports hunters which nearly did in the species, but the market hunters of the late nineteenth century. These exploiters employed technology and organization to “harvest” as many birds as possible and “reap” the profits. The numbers of Knots fell precipitously. The species was in danger of joining the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon on the list of extinct birds.

It was saved by the Federal Migratory Bird Law which went into effect in 1913. The hunting season was closed on nearly all shorebirds, and just in time for the Red Knot. In the following decades, the Red Knot recovered to some degree. Hunting still poses a danger on some of its South American wintering grounds and along migration routes in South America. But the most serious danger to the Red Knot lies in the Delaware Bay.

While a few Red Knots winter along the Atlantic coast, most winter in southern Argentina and Chile. Every year, they travel 9 to10 thousand miles to Arctic Canada to nest. On the first stage of their northward journey, they travel 3 to 4 thousand miles (usually non-stop) to the shores of the Delaware Bay. Their flight is timed so that they arrive at the Delaware Bay when the Horseshoe Crabs are crawling ashore to lay their eggs. Having burned their fat reserves, the Knots feed almost exclusively on the crab eggs.

The number of Red Knots stopping at the Delaware Day has been as high as 150,000 birds. However, by the early years of this century, the number had suddenly dropped to around 15,000 birds, a 90% decline. Surveys in South America also showed a precipitous decline. What happened?

Beginning in the 1990s, commercial fishermen began harvesting Horseshoe Crabs for use as bait in eel pots. The eels, like the shorebirds, love the eggs. The preferred time to harvest the crabs is in the spring when the females are filled with thousands of eggs. Hand harvesters work just off shore as the crabs are coming ashore and take only the females. In the 1980s, researchers normally found 100,000 eggs per square meter in the top five centimeters of soil. Now they are finding 1,000 to 5,000 eggs per square meter.

In 1982, aerial survey flights saw the beaches lined with crabs four deep (that’s vertical depth!) and miles across, and estimated the shorebird peak during the third week of May at one million birds. The survey task is much less daunting today. “Along the New Jersey coast, the ribbon of life had been abraded to frayed and broken strands. The numbers of crabs and birds reduced to a vestige,” wrote Pete Dunne just a few years ago.

The consequence for the shorebirds is that there is simply not enough food for them to regain their fat reserves for the next stage of their migration. This has been especially dire for the Red Knot, but at least five other species of shorebirds also feed heavily, if not exclusively, on the Horseshoe Crab eggs during their spring migration. All have experienced sharp population declines. For example, prior to 1988, as many as 272,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers were counted in one day along the Delaware and New Jersey shores of the Delaware Bay. After 1988, no day count has exceeded 100,000.

Conservation organizations, such as Audubon, have succeeded in convincing New Jersey and Delaware to impose limits on the harvesting of crabs along their coastlines. With abundant evidence of an ecosystem disaster in the Delaware Bay - or at least a species disaster for the Red Knot (impending extinction is rather serious disaster for a species) - one would think that the Endangered Species Act would come into play, and that the federal government would employ its considerable power to provide protection. In response to petitions, the U.S. Department of Interior said it would “fast-track”  the possibility of listing the endangered Red Knot as a “threatened” species (not endangered.) “Fast-tracking” apparently means it will take years, instead of years and years to have a decision.

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. Researchers are far from breathing a sigh of relief. Keep your fingers crossed.

Canute’s sandpiper, the red-breasted sandpiper, the beach robin - C. canutus rufa, - officially the Red Knot - may not have a couple of years. Its epic migrations are in danger of becoming mere memories, tales to be read about, but never to be witnessed.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Just because ...

No particular reason ... just because ... hope you had a good July 4 ...

Northern Cardinal

Eastern Bluebird

American Goldfinch

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Frayed Carpet at Reed's Beach

Reed's Beach shoreline
On the single day in May when I was able to find my way to southern New Jersey, one of my destination spots was Reed’s Beach. Reed’s Beach is not a place where people go to lie on the sand and acquire melanoma. For a couple of weeks in May, it is a birding destination of almost legendary proportions, a gathering place for tens of thousands of shorebirds on their way to the Arctic.

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.
The reason Reed’s Beach is legendary is the horseshoe crab. In May, this primeval looking creature crawls out of the Delaware Bay to deposit eggs in the sand. Shorebirds time their migration to arrive on the Delaware Bay when the crabs are laying their eggs. One shorebird, the Red Knot, flies without stopping from Argentina to the Delaware Bay, burning its energy reserves in the process. In a few days, feeding exclusively on horseshoe crab eggs, it can replenish its reserves and continue its journey.

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
More has changed at Reed’s Beach than just recreational homes and eco-tourist viewing areas. The legendary status of Reed’s Beach as a place to see breathtaking numbers of shorebirds is now something of a mystery. It just doesn’t happen. The carpet of shorebirds is badly frayed.

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
My timing was better this year. The flocks of shorebirds which I saw roosting at Heislerville WMA were the largest that I have seen in many years. When they flew, they darkened the sky and blocked the horizon.

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
Mixed among the Red Knots were Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers. From time to time a small cloud of the Semis would fly over the water paralleling the shoreline. It was a good day for shorebird viewing IF you had no memory from thirty years ago. Thirty years ago, the Red Knots numbered 150,000 and one aerial survey on one day recorded 270,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers.

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.


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