Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Delaware Part 4 – a.k.a. birds, birds, birds (but not necessarily the right ones)…

With no catching opportunities available on Wednesday morning, we planned for three boat trips into Mispillion Harbour to re-sight flagged birds. I offered to be on the early trip so at 6am, we were on the way out to Back Beach. It was a pretty high tide state so most of the birds were around the back of the beach. A couple of people headed that way whilst the rest of us positioned ourselves where we knew the birds would move to as the tide receded. Unfortunately, the high number of gulls on the beach where I was sitting made the birds spooky and they never really settled there. Just as things started to change and the birds started to be around in big enough numbers for there to be some flagged birds to re-sight, it was time to swap places with the next team and we had to leave. The slow re-sighting did give me a chance to take a few pictures though…

Pile of horseshoe crabs

Horseshoe crab eggs

Horseshoe crab egg clusters

Dunlin eating horseshoe crab egg
Short-billed dowitcher eating horseshoe crab egg
Semi-palmated sandpiper eating horseshoe crab egg
Laughing gull with horseshoe crab egg
More dunlin
There were a few knot around
Incoming dunlin
Short-billed dowitcher
Semi-palmated sandpiper in flight
Semi in flight again
The laughing gulls made great photographic subjects, despite
scaring off the shorebirds
Herring gull

Laughing gulls eatig eggs off the surface of the water

The rest of the day was spent trying to find flagged birds on Slaughter Beach and mending mouse eaten keeping cages. I never thought I would find myself sewing whilst on a trip to Delaware! That evening we all headed down to Rehoboth Beach to go for a meal out at Dogfish Head pub. I think I can safely say that my eyes were a lot bigger than my tummy and I don’t think I have ever been so full in my life!!! However, given the beautiful, warm evening we had that night, it would have been rude not to fit in an ice cream and go for a paddle in the moonlit Atlantic Ocean.
Justin, me and Rob - just been paddling!
On Thursday we set two nets on Slaughter Beach, almost in front of the house, in the hope of catching turnstone. By 7am, Jean and Paul had twinkled plenty of birds into the catching area and the rest of us were all sitting at basecamp, beginning to feel the adrenalin pumping. As Nigel debated when to take the catch (straight away or wait for a few more birds) a turkey vulture heading in our direction made the decision for us and Nigel hit the red button. The lift and extraction went very well and the birds were soon in keeping cages. Again, two flagging and processing teams were set up to work through the catch and pretty soon all 190 turnstone, 11 knot, 3 short-billed dowitchers, 2 dunlin and 1 semi-palmated sandpiper were on their way. The highlight of the morning was finding a turnstone with a geolocator on it. The bird had the geolocator fitted last year on the New Jersey side of the Bay so it was removed and taken for analysis. Hopefully, it will provide some useful information on where the bird has travelled over the past year.

Plan A on Friday was to send people out re-sighting, with a team out on Back Beach setting nets for a potential catch if there were any birds around. At 06:30, the plan changed following a phone call from the New Jersey side saying an aerial survey was happening that day. So, Plan B was hatched and we were all allocated individual beaches to count until the plane came through. Team members soon scattered to the relevant beaches whilst a group of us did some data checking and waited out a rain storm before heading out on the boat to Back Beach. Before the storm had cleared, the phone had rung and Plan C came into being. Kevin was sitting on the plane waiting to take off when the pilot decided the weather was too wet and windy to fly so the trip was postponed! Instead, we went and sat on a very wet and windy Back Beach for a few hours and re-sighted until we lost the ability to move our fingers due to the cold. The high winds also meant that we couldn’t catch that day so later that afternoon we were given a fascinating presentation by Jim Lyons from the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the analyses he has performed on the data collected across the Bay in 2011 and 2012.

Saturday was very windy again so the aerial survey was postponed once more, as was that day’s catching attempt. We were beginning to feel as though we were stuck in Groundhog Day! So, it was another morning’s re-sighting on another beach in the sunshine…it’s a hard life! On the way back, the light was so great, we had to stop and take a few more photos. The afternoon was spent checking data to get as much of it done as possible before six of us headed back to the UK.

Great blue heron
Another osprey - they really are everywhere out there!


Snowy egret - look at the crazy yellow feet!

Tree swallow where it should be.
That evening after dinner and the team meeting, a group of us went out in search of nightjars. I was keen to hear whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow as I hadn’t had chance to go looking for them last year. Bracken was good enough to offer to take us on a drive around an area known to play host to the two species and within the hour we were standing listening to both! The calls were incredible to hear, particularly the chuck-will’s-widow that was calling from a tree directly above our heads. Magical! When we got back at midnight, I nipped down to the beach to try to get a shot of the horseshoe crabs lit by the full moon. I managed a couple of shots before the cold made me shiver too much to hold the camera still!
Horseshoe crabs in the waves - Slaughter Beach
by moonlight
So, before we knew it, it was our last day in Delaware. I took the chance to join the team heading to Back Beach to set nets for a knot catch. Or, at least that was the plan. The birds obviously hadn’t been told of the plan as Back Beach was covered in (amongst other things) 25 000 dunlin, 20 000 semi-palmated sandpipers but only about 80 knot! Whilst it was an incredible spectacle, it meant that a catch on our final day was not to be and neither, it seemed, was there much re-sighting to be had. So, the camera came out again instead…

There were just a few birds on Back Beach
Dunlin in flight
Semi in flight
There was the odd knot on the beach


It must be said, however, that sitting on a beach listening to hundreds of dunlin singing is an experience that is hard to beat! We were pretty certain that as soon as the winds dropped, the birds would be on their way north to their breeding grounds as they were obviously ready to undertake the final stage of their migration journeys. This was backed up later in the morning when we saw a couple of dozen dunlins circling very high over a little town called Leipsic. It is weird seeing waders that high up and the only logical explanation is that they were getting ready for the off – they were heading north!
Any further re-sighting attempts that day were thwarted by the sheer number of people out on the beaches enjoying Memorial Day weekend. So, it was a slightly frustrating end to the fortnight due to the weather and people. Back at the house at Slaughter Beach, the six Brits who were heading home packed up and got ready to depart. It seemed we were not the only ones getting ready to fly; one of the American robin chicks that were nesting under the balcony was out of the nest and looking ready to fledge at any time.
American robin chicks ready to fledge
As we said our goodbyes to the rest of the team, we were treated to a fly-past by a beautiful, adult bald eagle which flew low over the house, almost as if it was saying goodbye (yes, I know, I’m anthropomorphising!!!). We were all sad to leave, not just because it is such a wonderful place to be, the project is such a worthwhile and important one to be involved with or because it was so nice to spend two weeks in the company of so many like-minded, lovely people but because the season barely seemed to have got going when it was time to leave.

The lack of catchable birds was frustrating to say the least and a little confusing. The data collected by the end of the second week of the project suggests that at least 10 000 knot have passed through the Bay on the Delaware side and we know that more birds were over on the New Jersey side than in Delaware but this, so far, is still far short of the 44 000 that usually pass through the Bay. The reason for their absence is not yet clear. They may be late coming through, in which case the team could have a very busy week this week, or some may have bypassed the Bay altogether for some reason. Or, they may just be very dispersed around the area and not be using Mispillion Harbour in the usual way. Hopefully the numbers at the end of the season will provide a much clearer picture.

All too soon, six of us were heading to the airport to catch our flights back to the UK. The less than frantic season had given me the opportunity to do a little birding whilst there and my tally of new species for this trip ended on twenty-seven (if you include the nightjars that were heard but not actually seen). I was also able to get much better views of another ten or so species that I had only managed quick glimpses of last year so I was heading home happy with that!

Once again, I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to partake in such an amazing project and to spend time in the company of some truly fantastic people. I would particularly like to thank Nigel for letting me join the team again this year and Kevin and Bracken for their hospitality, enthusiasm and smooth running of the project. Thanks are also due to the rest of the team members (old and new friends) for making Delaware 2013 another brilliant two weeks. I hope I am lucky enough to be able to join the team again in 2014.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Delaware 2013 – Part 3 – a.k.a. the knot are finally here post

The recces did not look too promising for a catch attempt on Sunday morning so we all headed to Port Mahon to attempt to catch some semi-palmated sandpipers in walk-in traps. A small team set the traps at the far end of the beach and we all sat back and waited…and waited…and waited…and then gave up! Unfortunately, the thick peat on the beach meant that we couldn’t put the guide walls exactly where we wanted them to be to lead the birds into the traps. Added to this the fact that the birds just didn’t want to play and it ended up being a slightly frustrating (and quite cold) morning. Those of us not directly involved in the twinkling / setting effort spent a lot of time huddled by the cars with our hoods up against the cold wind and bemoaning the newly arrived Brits for bringing British weather with them. 

Back at the house, the consensus of opinion was to attempt a cannon net catch on Slaughter Beach in the afternoon. A small set team headed out after lunch to set a net and base camp went to hide in the vegetation along the beach from the catching area. A few of us stayed back at the house doing other chores until the message over the radio came that they may need a few additional people for the lift. We headed out towards the edge of the beach, waited for the ‘boom’ and ran and ran and ran, all the way cursing the distance down the beach which the team had set the net.

The lift was a wet one but all went well and the birds were soon safely in boxes and heading back to the house to be processed in the back garden. Two teams flagged, ringed and processed the birds whilst being eaten by stable flies (I would post a photo of my ankles but it might put people off their food). The catch included (wait for it) ten knot (woop di woop), fifty turnstone and one short-billed dowitcher. It was superb to finally get my hands on some knot in summer plumage. Some of them were unbelievably skinny so had clearly just arrived in the Bay. They were quickly released to go and feed! The catch also made one passer-by’s day. She had come to look for some knot on Slaughter Beach and had ended up sitting at base camp for the catch and then helping to flag all of the turnstone. One very happy camper!

Turnstone being released
Me with my first knot of the year
On Monday morning, I was in the Jeep heading back to Port Mahon to re-sight turnstone. The huge numbers of a few days ago (6500) seemed to have moved on and we only had around 1850 birds. A good few flags were still read however, adding to the rapidly growing re-sightings database. I had volunteered to be sous chef for Guy that evening, which precluded me from the afternoon’s re-sighting activities. Instead, I spent a couple of hours learning to make flags (for turnstone as we had almost run out). The session produced numerous candidates for ‘quote of the day’ from Dave who seemed to not be able to say anything without it sounding rude! Flag making involves dipping individual pieces of plastic into near boiling water until soft, wrapping the strip around a metal rod, shaping it into a flag shape, dipping it back into the hot water then quickly into cold water. It is very hot work. Not really ideal for the hottest day of the trip so far!

When Guy returned from re-sighting at Slaughter Beach, my attention was diverted to cooking. The menu for the evening was cottage pie followed by steamed pudding a.k.a. spotted dick. This caused mass hilarity amongst the non-Brits on the team who found it difficult to use its proper name! Three hours slaving in a hot kitchen is also not ideal on the hottest day of the trip so far! By the end of the day I was roasting and very much in need of a shower!

As I had been unable to go out on a boat the previous day, I was on the boat trip into Mispillion Harbour on Tuesday morning. As we chugged along past all of the beaches, it became apparent that there were quite a few birds knocking around in the harbour. We toyed with the idea of dropping someone off on Osprey Beach but decided against it. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision as the number of birds on Back Beach was phenomenal; Back Beach looking like it should at this time of year! We were treated to a fabulous morning’s re-sighting with knot galore. The smaller species were also out in force which caused a few difficulties in terms of being able to see the flags. Still, I managed a respectable total of 82 flag re-sightings in the three hours that we were out there, including flags originally put on in the US, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Thankfully, no peregrines came through to spoil our fun today, although a bald eagle was spotted flying away from the vicinity of Back Beach as we were driving over there. It didn’t seem to be disturbing anything though.
Finally the knot are here!
Part way through the morning, I heard my name being called by Kevin from the boat over on Point. I looked up to see him waving madly and shouting for me to also get Dave. It soon became clear that the boat had beached on the sand as the tide had receded and Kevin and Paul were in need of a little help to push it off. Dave and I therefore waded through thigh deep water to help. Soon after, Lucy also joined us. We eventually managed to get the boat afloat again and we were able to return to our re-sighting. It didn’t take the birds long to return to their feast.

Now if this had been on the Wash, I would be writing about how utterly frozen I was after wading in the sea (although I would have been wearing waders if it had been there). Thankfully, this is Delaware and the water is lovely and warm. My trousers and sandals soon dried in the sun. The most disconcerting part of the event was walking over hundreds of horseshoe crabs in the water; it’s not right when the seabed moves when you walk on it. It is also slightly strange having your ankle tickled by a horseshoe crab!!!

So, the birds are arriving at last but the huge numbers of knot that we had last year are not yet in Mispillion Harbour. We had approximately 600 – 700 knot today on Back Beach but there are also a few hundred other birds spread out on other beaches along the coast. It is possible that they are spreading out to avoid the peregrine disturbance but this is just a theory. It is also possible that the majority of the birds are either not here yet or are over in New Jersey; we know they had 5000 birds last week. Presumable, time will tell.

In the afternoon, I joined a small team re-sighting at Pickering Beach which had a decent number of turnstone on it, a few knot, dunlin, semi-palmated sandpipers and the odd sanderling. Oh, and, two people with metal detectors, a dog and a fair bit of disturbance caused by huge, noisy planes from Dover Air Force Base. Despite this, we managed to find a few turnstone and knot flags along with my first semi flag of the year. On the way home, we nipped into Little Creek in an effort to find a Least Bittern. Unfortunately, I think we were in the wrong place and it was also very buggy so we gave up pretty quickly and headed back to Slaughter Beach.
One disappointing sighting at Pickering Beach was a fishing net full of dead horseshoe crabs. Whether this was a crab fishing net that got away or an accidental catch is impossible to guess. Either way, it was a sad sight to see.

Dead horseshoe crabs caught in fishing net

The rest of the team stayed in Mispillion Harbour to attempt to take a catch on Back Beach. When we arrived at the Nature Centre, we could see the team processing birds out on Back Beach. They had managed to take a great catch consisting of around thirty knot, a hundred or so short-billed dowitcher, a good number of semi-palmated sandpipers, a few turnstone and a few dunlin. The catch had been taken early enough on the tide for the birds to be ringed out on the beach before the light went so the team hadn’t needed to bring the birds over to the Nature Centre to be ringed under lights. It sounds as though it was a good catch and definitely good to get a few numbers on the board for some species that haven’t been ringed yet this year. We missed this catch but there will hopefully be plenty of other opportunities before we head home.