Like many of us this past Memorial Day weekend I headed to the beach. I left very early Saturday morning and took as many back roads as possible as I made my way south through the Garden State. My intentions were not to go partying on the Jersey shore. I was headed to the Delaware Bay where a handful of beaches had recently been restored. The restorations, headed up by Delaware Bay conservation groups, were not intended for swimmers and sunbathers, but for horseshoe crabs and the migratory birds that stop there on their journey north.
Something unique happened for conservation this year: Superstorm Sandy. The same surge of wind and water that sent the company I work for and the lives, homes, and business of many others spinning into disarray created an opportunity for conservation. Not necessarily a good thing mind you, just an opportunity. Delaware Bay conservation groups had been seeking funds and permits to improve the wild beaches of the bay in the hopes of making better nesting grounds for horseshoe crabs. The crabs are very picky about where and under what conditions they lay their eggs. In experiments in the past, captive horseshoes wouldn’t spawn until they were given sand from the exact beach they were taken from. Researchers in the bay area were eager to play with that sand. They wanted to figure out what made it good sand by horseshoe crab standards. But how do you go about replacing a beach? Well, after the storm there were no beaches. Conservation groups went into overdrive, knowing that without beaches there would be no horseshoe crabs to lay eggs. Without horseshoe crab eggs there would be nothing for the birds to eat on their way north, therefore, in years to come, there would be less birds. The money rolled in and so did the permits. In a way it was like starting from scratch, they were able to set up test zones on the beaches. Finer sand on one beach, larger grains on another, a combination of sizes on a third, and so on. Their hopes being that they would learn what quality of sand attracts and, if you will, inspires a horseshoe crab.
Through one channel or another I got in touch with wildlife biologist Larry Niles who, after a brief conversation on the phone, invited me along to photograph some of the work he and his team were doing; netting and tagging migratory shore birds. I showed up at 7am Sunday morning at headquarters; a beach house decorated with bird artwork and identification posters. When I arrived Larry was still out scouting beaches looking for the birds. He called in occasionally with updates causing flurries of excitement throughout the house. I quickly discovered that this would be a hurry-up-and-wait type of situation, something I am very used coming from the world of film production and nature photography. After about an hour and a half a serious sounding guy arrived and started giving direction. He arrived so suddenly and took the reigns so quickly it was as if he had just appeared in the middle of the room mid-sentence. When his eyes finally landed on me, him still with the room’s attention, he asked “Who are you, and who are you with?” I told him Larry Niles had invited me along, he said “I’m Larry Niles.” I told him it was nice to meet him.
We rushed to Pierce’s Point where Larry had scouted a large number of birds; specifically red knots and ruddy turnstones, two of the target species. The team filled their arms with gear and headed down the shore towards the gathering birds. The first step was to gently move the birds down the beach. We wanted them to return to the exact spot we had found them. Larry did this on his own, walking slowly down the beach as the birds hopped and fluttered to keep their distance. Once the birds had moved the team moved in to lay out the cannon-net; a long net fixed to a handful of projectiles that fire from small mortars buried in the sand. It was precision work. The net had to be gathered and buried so that it wouldn’t double over on itself. The cannons had to be settled into the sand, aimed, and camouflaged Once set we retreated from the beach, hid in the bushes, and waited patiently for the birds to return. It didn’t take long until they were in the path of the net, the countdown came over the radio, and the net fired. As soon as it came to rest the team went sprinting across the beach to the birds. Their first priority was to cover the captured birds with a weaved tarp to calm them down. The team worked quickly. They pulled the birds one by one out from the net and organized them by species into plastic crates. From there they were transferred and counted into burlap housings staked into the sand. One by one the birds were tagged, weighed, and measured. They took blood and feces to check for disease and then released the birds into the air. An exciting moment came when a captured turnstone was discovered with multiple tags already attached to it’s legs, including a green tag with a built in geo-tracker (I joked that this bird must have been slower than the rest). The team quickly traced the tag back to the Canadian Arctic.
These beaches are closed temporarily each spring to allow migrating shorebirds a chance to fuel up and rest on their way to the Canadian Arctic to breed. Its a hard time of year for them and the beaches provide an important stopover. In the few short days I’d spent in the area, I found ATV tracks leading out onto one of these beaches and the “Area Closed” sign torn from it’s post and laying face-down in the sand. I saw couples who were staying in private homes near closed beaches taking casual strolls down the shore, threatening the comfort of the birds and inadvertently scaring them from their much needed feeding grounds. I myself felt like an intruder while venturing into one of these protected areas even though I was with a team of experts who’s only intention was to help. It’s a delicate cycle that requires a delicate touch. The birds need the horseshoe crabs, the crabs need the beaches, all three need us, and I don’t know about you, but I need them.
For more about Delaware Bay conservation read this interview with Larry Niles. It doesn’t include Hurricane Sandy but gives good insight into what the birds were up against even before the storm.