I read on the Maryland Bird internet group that Red Knots were back along the coast of Delaware in large numbers. The writer implied that one could be within ten feet of these impressive birds and named three locations. That was enough for me. I already had planned to go over to Delware, but this finished the decision.
The shore birds of a number of varieties show up on the coast of Delaware Bay, both in Delaware and New Jersey, to feast on the eggs of the ancient Horseshoe Crab. The birds need this rich source of protein to fuel their flights to the arctic and sub-arctic to breed. They have been doing this for many centuries.
Horshoe Crabs have been substantially reduced in number by harvesting for eel bait and for medical purposes. The latter bleed the crabs for the blue blood and then release them, but it is unknown how many actually survive this process There are now some limits placed on taking crabs for eel bait, but it will require some time for the crabs to return to historic levels.
Without a bounty of eggs, the knots and other birds have also showed a decline, precipitous in the case of the knots., to the point that the sub-species found here might not survive. The birds spend the winter in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, so complete a round trip of thousands of miles, one of the longest migrations in the bird world.
One bird, that has been tagged as B95, has made this trip an unbelievable 20 times. He was orginally tagged on the winter grounds but has been spotted in NJ and this year on the Mispillion River shore very close to Slaughter Beach. A book has been written about the bird, and it is entitled “Moon Bird.” A sighting brings tears to the eyes of most birders.
After an uneventful drive of 2.5 hours, Chris and I arrived with great anticipation at Slaughter Beach. Entrance to the beach is a narrow path between two of the several dozen summer homes here, all of which prohibit walking on their pivate land. Fortunately, the beach itself is public land.
I grabbed my binocs only and headed east on the path to the beach wanting to assess the situation before getting my photo gear out of the car. I was very disappointed to see quite a few crabs, but only two knots which quickly flew away. The large flocks of shore birds were mostly Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and a few other species.
There were lots of gnats out and about and only the strong east wind kept them off our faces and hands. The wind, however, had overturned many of the crabs that have a hard time righting themselves when this happens. They often are baked to death in the strong sun. While many birders see this scene very few make an effort to help out, for reasons that escape me. Chris and I righted many of these hapless creatures before departing here.
Finding little here to photograph, we returned to the car and drove a couple of miles north to Mispillion Light Visitors Center, a visitors center that focuses on the Horshoe Crabs. Outside is a big statue of a Red Knot that has now been named “B95.” Chris posed with it again.
As usual, we found the staff inside this visitors center to be friendly and helpful. One lady told us that 1500 knots had been counted the day before on the sand flats along the Mispillion River, just to the north. Unfortunately, that area is out of bounds except for researchers and can only be reached by boat anyway. With a scope one could probably see some knots, but with only binocs and bad eyes, we could not see any.
From here we drove a few miles further north to Pickering Beach where knots had also been seen. Nothing here except the usual Semi-palms, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin. Back in the car we went and drove further north to Port Mahon. From this tiny village there is a deadend road that goes east to a boat launching ramp and parking lot. There are a few large piers that go out into Delaware Bay also. On the left side of this road is a large salt marsh. Delaware Bay is immediately on the right side. Every year high tides damage the road. The Delaware transportation folks have emplaced large boulders now between the road and bay to try to protect the road
Practically the only people who use this road, except in Horshoe Crab season, are fisherpeople going out to launch their boats. During crab season, which brings the birds, it also brings the birders, people who typically drive from Baltimore, Washington areas or even further. The road ten years or more ago was a very good place to see the shore birds. It is no longer because the sand beaches are largely gone.
In any case, as we drove along the road we finally spotted four Red Knots on the edge of the bay, and, of course, on the wrong side of the boulders. There was only one way to photograph them: to make a Uy, park along the wrong side of the road and photograph with Big Bertha (my 600mm lens) from the window. If one got out of the car, the birds would immediately flush.
Since there was not another car on the road at this point, I made the turn, and parked. Almost as soon as I had made my first knot photos, a large pickup truck appeared coming towards us. We had our emergency lights flashing and I motioned to the guy to just go around us. He refused and just drove up bumper to bumper and was screaming at us. It was amazing. The guy would not go ten feet out of his way and allow me to photograph. I pulled out to my proper lane, opened my window and listened to the guy bellow. He wanted to make sure that I knew he had “the right of way.” Oh well, another nasty local red neck fisherman. There have been many confrontations with such people and birders in the past, so this was no big surprise.
From Port Mahon, we drove into Dover, ate lunch, checked into our motel and I took a short nap. When the unforgiving sun had past its peak we went on over to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, one of our favorite nature spots on the Eastern Shore. Entering there in the late afternoon, we spotted three Forsters Terns hovering above a tidal cut, awaiting minnows at the surface. With a mild wind blowing, it allowed me to photograph them in flight.
Driving further along the Wildlife Drive, we came across a Stinkpot Turtle right on the road. It was clearly up there to lay eggs and this and the next day proved to be big for turtles ashore. I made this shot lying on my stomach in the gravel. It was not comfortable.
Further along, we came across a cottontail. Whereas there are lots of these animals on the refuge, the only time that they are usually seen is early in the morning. There are plenty of predators that prey on these animals, paricularly foxes. We usually see at least one fox here, but on this trip, not a single one. Mange kills off foxes in most places and perhaps is responsible here.
We decided to make one last run to Port Mahon hoping to get better shots of the knots. We found not a single one, but did observe multiple Ruddy Turnstones resting on the boulders like these three. Note the birdband on
the leg of the middle bird. These birds are also arctic breeders and indeed I have seen a few on their nesting grounds on Victoria Island. This image was made at 7:30 as the sun had almost set and finished our day for us.
We were up and out early from the Sleep Inn and back to Bombay Hook. Before we even got across the border, here was a big female Snapping on the road. It was the first of ten of the species we saw on this day. Later we saw one which we believe was this very turtle lying over a hole it had dug and probably laying eggs. We did not life her up to confirm this. Not the big claws on this reptile!
Further along we came across this Blue Grosbeak, a bird that was quite common on the refuge and very much in evidence. It is a breeder, of course, and the males were “showing their stuff “as we passed by.
At a fresh water marsh we came across a patch of blooming Blue Flags, a wild iris that is widespread in the US. Sometimes we see Wood Ducks in this marsh, but not this day.
Driving back to the main loop we came across a pair of BobWhite Quail. For reasons that are not understood, this once common bird has declined over much of its range by as much as 90% even in places where they are completely protected, such as on this refuge. While habitat destruction is one of the main factors, it cannot be the only one. I used to hunt this bird, but would not even consider doing this now.
Making another loop around the wildlife drive, we came across several other birds, including this male Orchard Oriole. He was singing his heart out in hopes of attracting a female, but this species does not come into full breeding plumage until its second spring and the first year males have difficulty acquiring a female.
Leaving Bombay Hook, we retraced our steps to the south, first stopping at Port Mahon, where we saw nothing to photograph other than a dead porpoise. Then on to Pickering Beach and finally to Slaughter Beach. At Pickering, there were flocks of shorebirds and I made a number of photos of flocks in flight, mainly Semi-palmated Sandpipers. As one can easily see, these flocks have large numbers of birds.
When we arrived at Slaughter Beach, the tide was completely out and the scene was amazing. There were simply thousands of crabs lying in the mud
This is a scene that we hope will be repeated for centuries more, and the birds that are attracted here to the feast of crab eggs will continue ad infinitum.