Shorebird Migration Threatened by Superstorm Sandy

April 15, 2013

Unique Partnership Battles Against Time to Restore Critical Beach Habitats

Much has been written and said about the devastating impacts which Superstorm Sandy had on communities and families throughout the coastal areas of New Jersey. The after effects of that fierce hurricane are still being felt by displaced families and shore communities which are struggling to recover some sense of normalcy. Fortunately and appropriately, many billions of dollars have been made available by Congress and the President to help these people to rebuild their homes and their lives.

But Hurricane Sandy had similar devastating effects on the natural as well as the human world. An example of this was the near-total destruction of a handful of Delaware Bayshore beaches that happen to serve as the host for an amazing annual natural phenomena: the spring horseshoe crab spawning and shorebird migration.

Each May, thousands upon thousands of horseshoe crabs (which aren’t really crabs at all, but an ancient species more akin to spiders that was around when dinosaurs roamed the planet) lumber in from deeper waters off the Continental Shelf to spawn on just a handful of beaches along Delaware Bay. After mating, female crabs lay millions of eggs in shallow nests on sandy beaches. And each year, several species of migratory shorebirds which make an incredible roundtrip journey from wintering grounds near the southern tip of South America to breeding grounds in the high Arctic stop on these same beaches to gorge on these horseshoe crab eggs and refuel for the remainder of their flight. Thus, the very survival of these amazing birds, which weigh mere ounces, is tied to the availability of this unique food source found only on these beaches in order for these species to survive.

Red knots (Calidris canutus) are a medium-sized shorebird. They have dark legs and a thin, dark bill. Sexes are similar with a distinctive salmon to brick red coloration on their face, neck, and breast. © Mark Peck

Life is tough enough under the best of circumstances for red knots (a candidate species for the federal endangered species list), ruddy turnstones, semi-palmated sandpipers and a number of other migratory shorebird species. Coastal development, disturbance by other species like humans and dogs, and over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs for use as bait by eel and conch fishermen have all helped to push these species to the brink of extinction.

And Superstorm Sandy did not help. While rising sea levels from our changing climate and normal storms already causes these beaches to migrate inland, Sandy accelerated this process big time and essentially washed the sand either out to sea or so far inland that there almost no sandy beach habitat remains available for nesting by horseshoe crabs. To make matters worse, the erosion of the beaches exposed a thick layer of muck chock full of old pilings, jagged pieces of concrete, and other rubble placed by humans in an attempt to hold back the Bay. As a result, there is virtually no place where horseshoe crabs can lay their eggs. And no horseshoe crab eggs means the refueling station for migratory shorebirds is basically closed, which threatens the very survival of these species.

But a number of stalwart organizations and individuals have launched an unprecedented rescue effort which is currently underway to come to the aid of these species. This amazing public/private partnership includes local public works agencies, state and federal wildlife agencies, multiple non-profit conservation organizations, academic institutions and concerned individuals, who have all joined forces to restore several miles of these beaches in time for the return of the horseshoe crabs and shorebirds this spring.

This effort is funded by a major federal grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and another major grant from the NJ Recovery Fund (created by a consortium of private foundations and administered by the Community Foundation of NJ), as well as smaller grants from the NJ Natural Lands Trust and the NJ Corporate Wetlands Partnership. With this funding, the partners are removing the rubble from critical beaches and trucking in sand to recreate the beaches needed by both crabs and birds. The program also includes hiring of seasonal docents to help manage traffic and provide educational outreach to visitors to these beaches; the creation of an artificial oyster reef to help protect the restored beaches and create jobs for local Baymen; a documentary of the entire effort; and an innovative social outreach program to help us humans species to better understand the economic value of preserving these species.

This kind of creative conservation is both impressive and sorely needed. So kudos to the folks who are making this happen, including the American Littoral Society; the Conserve Wildlife Foundation; the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust; the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife; the NJ Endangered and Non-Game Species Program; the US Fish & Wildlife Service; Middle Township; Richard Stockton College; the NJ Audubon Society; Greener NJ Productions; Delaware Riverkeeper; and the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

So take a ride this May to see and enjoy the incredible natural phenomena that these groups are preserving. And, while you are at, stop in a local restaurant or store to help out the local business and show that protecting wildlife and the local economy are definitely consistent.

To watch videos of the restoration effort, click here.

Photos provided by Michael Catania