Endangered shorebirds to benefit from 13th Annual Delaware Bird-A-Thon

Conservation efforts planned to purchase last remaining Mispillion Harbor Reserve Tract

Every year a group of visitors travel for five to seven days nonstop, up to 7,000 miles, to dine at the best all-you-can-eat buffet high in proteins and fats along the Delaware Bay.

A rua Red Knot photographed by Kim Steininger.

The journey is long but worth the wait for those on this flighty migration.

With a whistle or flute-like song about them, around 80 percent of the travelers stay on the Delaware coastline at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve just seven miles east of Milford for two weeks, according to The Conservation Fund. They will then continue their yearly journey to the Arctic tundra where they will mate and eventually return home to South America where the journey first began.

But the travelers, rufa Red Knots, are struggling to remain populated despite their yearly efforts, much like the spotted owl, osprey, common loon, tundra swan, piping plover and many other species of birds.

The endangered rufa Red Knot population alone has plummeted since the 1960s, according to Delaware Bird-A-Thon Founder Bill Stewart.

As recorded by surveyors volunteering through the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a 25-percent decrease in rufa Red Knots was noted in 2018 as they migrated back to Tierra del Fuego, South America. Their survey revealed a whopping 9,840 birds compared to 13,127 recorded in 2017.

Insufficient food was cited as a possible cause in the recent drop in numbers. But it’s not the first time the rufa Red Knot has been in trouble.

Human developments, like coastal homes, businesses and horseshoe crab egg harvesting, have been threatening the Red Knot species and other shorebirds for decades.

“I’ve been an avid birder for like 40 years. About 14 years ago, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said in a big, broad statement that scientists believed the Red Knot would be extinct in a decade. I said, ‘Time out. I’m a Delawarean. I’m a birder. We can’t let that happen. We need to try to do something,’” Mr. Stewart said. “If there was not the Delaware Bay, or a habitat for the horseshoe crabs and birds, that population, along with other shorebird species, would go extinct.”

So, he started the Bird-A-Thon, sponsored by the Delaware Ornithological Society, in hopes of positively affecting hundreds of species of birds through habitat conservation.

Hundreds of avid and new birders alike have participated in the annual event, like Sharon Lynn of Rehoboth who is excited about this year’s event knowing the impact it can make for the rufa Red Knots.

The Mispillion Harbor Reserve – Photo by Andrew Martin

“Every year I try to go see the Red Knots, I’ve seen a decline. When I lived in Northern Virginia, we didn’t have Red Knots. I used to go over to Delaware to see them. Now that I live here, I don’t have to go very far to see them. The Delaware Bay is the perfect place for them to refuel,” she said. “They have to get the habitat where the horseshoe crabs are spawning and laying their eggs. The Red Knots need to refuel. So, we need to preserve the habitat that means something to these birds. These birds are very endangered. If they lose their habitat or their resources, they’ll go extinct. My team works really hard, but we have a lot of fun. And we’re definitely looking forward to this year’s event.”

By combining funds raised through the event and resources already available through The Conservation Fund, a leading national environmental nonprofit organization, the 13th Annual Bird-A-Thon “will be used to purchase the last remaining tract of private property and incorporate it into the 74-acre Mispillion Harbor Reserve. . .,” according to the Delaware Ornithological Society.

Teams chose a 24-hour period between May 4 and 12 in which they tried to see as many bird species as they can, receiving a point for each species seen. They also received a point for each dollar raised, although they can start raising funds before the event begins. Prizes will be given out at the end of the event during an awards ceremony and picnic in June.

Sponsors are also needed to donate to teams or even pledge donations per bird seen to any one of the Delaware birding teams participating in the event.

Their collective fundraising goal is $200,000, which includes an anonymous $100,000 matching grant. Previous Bird-A-Thons in Delaware have raised more than $450,000 for the conservation of more than 1,900 acres of habitat.

The Conservation Fund has also worked hard at land preservation in Delaware and previously purchased 73 acres of the Mispillion Harbor Reserve in 2006 for $305,000, according to Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. They have also purchased portions of Redden State Forest and other important areas throughout the state.

“Currently, most of the properties bordering the shoreline of the Mispillion Harbor Reserve are protected and preserved. One privately-held, crucially-located property remains.  Having the opportunity to secure and protect this fragile link in the lifeline for the Red Knot and thousands of other shorebirds is a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true,” Andrew Homsey wrote on the Delaware Bird-A-Thon website.

Mr. Stewart added, “It is naturally protected by the Mispillion River and Delaware Bay, and manmade protected by jetties. It has a perfect substrate with a mix of sand, pebbles and broken shells. It makes it easy for the horseshoe crab females to come up from the Delaware Bay in May. The substrate in the Delaware Bay. . .  There’s no other place on earth and this isn’t an exaggeration, like the Delaware Bay shoreline in May. You can’t go to New York or Massachusetts or Georgia to see this spectacle. About a million and a half shorebirds are on our coastline in May on their way to the Arctic tundra. Colorado has the Rocky Mountains; we have a million and a half shorebirds and all those horseshoe crabs.”

For more information or to donate online, visit https://delawarebirdathon.com/.

Reach staff writer Jennifer Antonik at jantonik@newszap.com

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