You better hurry if you wish to spot some migratory shorebirds this spring along the edge of New York Harbor. They come and go quickly, and it’s getting ever more difficult to see large flocks of these long-distance travelling birds every year.
Towards the end of April and all through May and early June, migratory shorebirds are on the move, traveling thousands of miles from South America, Cuba, the Caribbean, Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico to breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere, as far north as the high Arctic for some species.
They migrate with the moon, sun, stars, and other natural features to guide them on a long winged journey from one continent to another, from one hemisphere to another, in an eternal quest to breed, raise a family, and keep the species alive. Peter Matthiessen, the famous nature writer and world traveler called these feathery migrants “the wind birds” for their beautiful restlessness behavior to be always on the move and flying with the wind.
Over a dozen “wind birds” visit New York Harbor each year, including black-bellied plovers, semipalmated plovers, ruddy turnstones, least sandpipers, and dunlins. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, some as small as your hand, a number with bright chestnut hues or with bold patterns of black, white or ruddy feathers.
Migratory shorebirds carry out some of the most unbelievable voyages in the natural world, spanning the globe in a north-south direction. The red knot, for example, migrates each year from the tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, to the tundra where they breed during the short Arctic summer. It’s a journey over 9,000 miles from south to north every spring, making this small bird one of the longest distance migrants in the animal kingdom.
Every spring these travelling shorebirds make a leap of faith, optimistic they will find well-established natural places to rest and feed. Not all do. Human populations have been expanding towards coastal areas for decades, increasing shoreline development and modifying what was once important foraging and staging areas along migration routes.
In order to survive such a perilous journey the birds must pack on pounds and increase their body weight by up to 70 percent to build sufficient energy reserves to continue flying long distances through harsh weather conditions to northern breeding grounds. Not every bird will make it, but hopefully most will.
In New York Harbor, the birds are increasingly hard to find. Lots of local beaches are empty or nearly vacant of different species of sandpipers and plovers. In recent years, it’s increasingly difficult to see scores of dunlins, least sandpipers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, and other shorebirds. Thankfully, reduced numbers can still be discovered in certain places throughout the harbor, including at Sandy Hook, Breezy Point, and Jamaica Bay, all parks managed by the National Park Service.
Shorebird populations in North America are in a perilous state. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife listed the Red Knot as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature paints even a dourer picture. Quite a few global populations of migratory birds are in decline including semipalmated sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, and dunlins. Even populations of sanderlings, a common beach bird around New York Harbor, are declining and have been listed as a species of high concern by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
Yet, the waning of these iconic wind birds didn’t happen overnight. Years of overdevelopment and poorly planned development along the coast have left few good places for the birds to rest and feed. All along New York Harbor you can find degraded saltwater wetland habitat with polluted runoff often surrounded by encroaching buildings and parking lots. Beaches have become bullheaded or badly eroded and often inundated with garbage and trash. Human disturbances, such as people walking pets, tend to cause stress and provide little time for tired birds to rest.
One of the biggest problems facing migratory shorebirds around New York Harbor has been the lack of food, especially from the declining abundance of horseshoe crab eggs, the primary food source for many migratory shorebirds.
The lack of horseshoe crab eggs is an important reason why many migratory shorebirds are threatened. The birds are running out of high-energy food to keep the migration going.
Many migratory shorebirds do not have specialized beaks that can dig deeply into the sand to forage for food. Instead, they depend on a profusion of mating horseshoe crabs to lay hundreds of thousands of eggs. Buried eggs will move to the surface through wave action and repeated “digging” by countless other horseshoe crabs to provide an easy, quick, and superrich fatty food for the birds to gain weight and have the energy needed to continue their winged migration.
The shorebirds have linked their entire survival on one biological event: the mating of horseshoe crabs in May and June and the release of billions of fatty, protein rich crab eggs. Without enough oily crab eggs to feed hungry shorebirds, the migration will end. The shorebirds will not have enough energy to continue their long winged migration.
Efforts to protect both migratory shorebirds and horseshoe crabs can be see in Delaware Bay. In May of 1986 the governors of New Jersey and Delaware mandated the lower estuary of Delaware Bay as a reserve for shorebird conservation. Since 2008, New Jersey has banned the harvesting of the horseshoe crabs from fishermen in the hope it would boost migratory shorebird dwindling numbers. Delaware has had a ban on harvesting female horseshoe crabs since 2007. Taken as a whole these measures and moratoriums have helped to slowly rebound both populations of red knots and horseshoe crabs.
Regrettably, conservation efforts around New York Harbor for migratory shorebird protection are limited with the results that no such rebound seems to be taking place. Horseshoe crab populations continue to decline and so do populations of many migrating shorebirds.
The main issue is that New York State does not have a moratorium of any kind on harvesting Horseshoe Crabs. Since 2009, New York's commercial quota for horseshoe crabs has been around 150,000 crabs. With a certain amount of these captured crabs coming from New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and nearby coastal waters.
There are also an undetermined amount of crabs in New York being harvested illegally. In 2013 two men from Brooklyn were arrested for stealing 200 horseshoe crabs from an island, locally known as the Ruffle Bar, in Jamaica Bay, Queens. The two men were each charged with taking wildlife without a permit and disturbing wildlife breeding practices in a national park. Police had found the two men around 10pm loading crabs into a large plastic tub. The crabs were going to be sold as bait to local fishermen so they could catch eels or whelks, which in return would have been sold to Asian or European fish markets for money.
It's a global economy and our little horseshoe crabs are often seen as bait and profit by short-sighted people. In about 20 years, the price for a single horseshoe crab has jumped from 25 cents to more than $5.00 a crab.
Don’t be fooled into thinking migratory shorebirds will always be here. They can easily disappear within a matter of years. Take the plight of the Eskimo Curlew, a beautiful migratory shorebird that has now become almost certainly extinct. Despite a once vast population, the Eskimo Curlew began to decline due to over-hunting in just a 20-year period. The bird was rarely seen after 1890, and the last official reported sighting of the Eskimo Curlew was in 1962. This unique bird is now gone forever with little publicity or media attention.
One way to help is by making sure New York State restricts the harvest of horseshoe crabs in local waters. Please send emails to both Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to tell them to provide greater protection for horseshoe crabs. Success hinges on making many people aware that protecting horseshoe crabs is absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of migratory shorebirds.
Hopefully, with greater awareness and public support, coupled with increased conservation efforts, the beautiful wind birds and horseshoe crabs of New York Harbor will once again fill beaches for many spring seasons to come.