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Fleet and Fleeting Shorebirds


by Clay Sutton

It never ceases to amaze me, no, flabbergast me, no matter how long I’ve been birding, or continue to bird. No it’s not the red of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, not the prowess of a Peregrine. Not even the majesty of an Eagle, nor even, for example, the sheen of a Wood Duck or the wonder of a Painted Bunting.

What never fails to thrill or amaze is the fleeting nature of migration. Here today, gone tomorrow is not a cheap phrase when applied to migrants.

I went to Thompson’s Beach on the Delaware Bayshore today, not really birding per se, but stealing some quick relaxation driving home from a meeting.

Thompson’s was pleasant, summertime hazy, hot, and humid, but pleasant. A breeze kept away the flies (no small blessing in summer on the bayshore . . . if you know the bay’s “green-heads,” you’ll understand how a windy day with no birds can be better than a windless one with say, a flock of Hudsonian Godwits).

The birding was good at Thompson’s -- Osprey with small chicks, a distant Peregrine, hundreds of Laughing Gulls (still feeding on horseshoe crab eggs), and treats such as Seaside Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and lots of Glossy Ibis.

There was one thing missing, no...actually many. And even though they weren't expected, it was still a shock.

There were no shorebirds. None. Zero. (O.K., there were a couple of local breeding Willet?)

The migratory shorebirds are gone.

Just two weeks ago there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher...literally standing room only. Maybe not even that. At high tide when no mudflat was exposed, a fallen limb over the water held a hundred Semipalmated Sandpipers, and twice I actually saw a sandpiper perch on the back of another.

Now they are gone, gone with the spring. Spring migration is fleeting and particularly so for shorebirds, migrating north with an urgency not usually seen in fall.

The Arctic tundra is defrosting, its myriad pools filling with mosquito larvae. Mosquitoes are to Arctic shorebirds as krill are to whales – life giving food. Then there are prime nest spots to procure, territories to establish, not to mention the pumping hormones. The Arctic summer is brief and the birds can’t waste a day.

The shorebirds at Thompson’s had fattened for just maybe two weeks on the bounty of Delaware Bay, on the miracle of the horseshoe crab egg food resource.

Some had doubled their weight during their short stay. They would convert these fat reserves to distance, in a line stretching from Delaware Bay to Hudson Bay or even further, maybe Baffin Island.

Fortified by their refueling on Delaware Bay, many of the shorebirds will make the flight to the Arctic non-stop. There is a timeless arrangement wherein they arrive in the Arctic just as the tundra thaws. Accordingly, shorebirds leave Delaware Bay en mass. One day there are thousands, a few days later just hundreds, and now, two weeks later . . . none.

I spent a lovely night on Delaware Bay, May 30, to be precise, and it was a lovely dark, moonless, star-spangled evening. We fished quietly, anchored about a mile off of Bower’s Beach, Delaware.

Flocks of shorebirds washed over the boat nearly as regularly as the waves slapped on the hull. Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Least Sandpipers, all climbing out, gaining altitude, leaving the beaches behind and embarking into the night sky. They were chattering, either nervously and excitedly, as they began the final leg of their journey north.

We momentarily stopped fishing, to listen, to wonder, and silently wish them well.

But if there is a nostalgia in the shorebirds gone, there is the promise that they’ll be back. Soon.

The brief Arctic summer is as fleeting as the spring. The first southbound, returning shorebirds, usually yellowlegs, reach Cape May airspace by the last week of June.

By July 4 those same Semipalmated Sandpipers will be back -- some of them at Thompson’s Beach.

I had better mark my calendar now, reserve some days afield, lest I miss it. You too -- don’t miss it. The passage of migrant shorebirds is fleeting. It just amazes me . . . Every time.


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

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