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 Some of the more ragged homes in Reed’s Beach have been replaced by recreational homes.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.


Anonymous said...

As I began to read the post, I recall seeing a documentary about the rapid decline of the Red Knot. The program talked about the struggle of the fishermen who adopted the horseshoe crab as bait for eal and the dwindling numbers. The fear was that there would be a tipping point where not enough Red Knots would be able to find mates once they arrived up north. I'm heartened to ear that perhaps the situation is on the mend. But a storm at the wrong time can erase these gains easily.

chris said...

Totally agree with Steve... But it is already ncie that some people were intelligent enough to do something to improve the situation. Now ywe just have to cross the fingers... AS you said, human being have a tendency to mess up the world, but unfortunately, they do not always do the right thing and alsmot never make the effort to repair their mistake...
By the way, your pictures are amazing!! What a number!!

eileeninmd said...

Great post. I do not think I have been to Reed's beach! I enjoyed this post and your photos. I have seen the Red Knots In Delaware and was just amazed at how many were in one spot.


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