Delaware 2023: 25 May–4 June

Thursday 25 May

After two full weeks at Slaughter Beach, we were all well into the swing of the Project and another cannon-net catch was planned for midday at Osprey Beach. It was a gusty, chilly morning, but began to warm up and settle down around 09:00, by which point those who joined Shawn for mist-netting in the Ted Harvey woods had been up for many hours! Other activities of the morning included the construction of more exclosures around Piping Plover nests at Fowler Beach.

The morning Mispillion survey came up blank for shorebirds on Osprey, and so catching plans were swiftly redesigned. By mid-afternoon a basecamp team was settled on Back North while the firing team watched a catching area from the Jon boat. The wind got up again and so we rotated the net by 90 degrees to ensure the wind did not affect the net. At around 18:15 the net was fired. Only a short lift was required as just the front edge of the net landed in the water. Catch totals were: 44 Dunlin, 15 Red Knot, 93 Ruddy Turnstone, two Sanderling and 48 Semipalmated Sandpipers. During flagging and processing, we realised that some of the Knot were getting very fat! However, we also had thin birds with prominent breastbones. Once again, very efficient throughout the whole process, all birds were released before dusk.

There was that fantastic post-catch buzz throughout the evening, and back at the house we shared a meal kindly prepared by Sam and Shawn.

Friday 26 May

Three Mispillion boat surveys were completed today; there were again large numbers of Turnstone gathered on Osprey; however, when Richard, Ryan, Graham and Cathy went on the final boat trip of the day, they found a nice catching option for Sanderling on Back East.

A photo of a dense flock of Turnstone taking off from a beach. Phot by Cathy Ryden.
Turnstone flock, by Cathy Ryden

The team dispersed around mid-afternoon to complete ground counts for the second (and final) aerial survey. When everyone returned to base later and shared our findings, we thought that there were far fewer Knot around than during the previous survey. Perhaps they had all left us for New Jersey, was a common idea! In positive news, we received the first location points from two of our GPS-tagged Red Knot, showing that they had migrated north and were currently around Toronto on Lake Ontario!

Today was Greg L’s birthday, and so Judy had dedicated the day to cooking a delicious cottage pie and apple pie in his honour. Katharine then led a team meeting, and we made plans for the proposed catch on Back East.

Saturday 27 May

In the morning a team set the net on Back East and basecamp was set up along the rock dyke at the back of Mid North. Unfortunately, although a lot of Sanderling were still on the beach, they were feeding lower down near the shore and not really entering the catching area much at all. So, we shifted the net down and right. At first the same net-shape hole appeared in the foraging flock, and Sanderling even began to walk around the back of the net! Richard, Ema, Graham and Greg L did a bit of twinkling and soon those in the firing position were able to count a sample of at least 30 Sanderling catchable. Kirsty took the catch after very careful and skilled observation of the safety area by Guy and Ryan. Everyone ran to the net, covered, extracted quickly and processed all the birds.

Our total catch was: 50 Sanderling (a nice surprise!), 47 Ruddy Turnstone and 271 Semipalmated Sandpipers. Oh yes, we also caught one Dunlin, which Graham banded and took measurements from after proudly announcing, to much laughter, “I am going to process all the Dunlin!” Hen joined us on this catch and it was just fantastic to be working in a team with her once again.

In the afternoon, a few of the team went to the annual Horseshoe Crab Festival and a few beaches were surveyed. Ryan and Rob Rob made a fantastic barbecue and salad spread in the evening and some of us sat outside to watch the fireworks lighting the night sky in honour of Memorial Day. An unforgettable memory will certainly be when Rob Rob suddenly remembered the chips and, in understandable panic, lifted a flaming tray from the oven!

Sunday 28 May

Guy, Judy and Greg L went birding at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a group went out in the Jon boat for a morning Mispillion survey and, back at the house, banding and processing boxes were emptied and sorted. The seemingly-endless data checking continued with honourable tirelessness. A little later on, Graham and Flo made a load of pasta bake to last for a few days and to use up the excess of ragu sauce that had been bought. Flo forgetting to actually add the ragu probably wasn’t part of the plan.

In the afternoon, as a special treat, Dave took Rob Rob, Ryan, Mark, Kirsty, Katharine and Flo for a meander down a beautiful winding creek in his kayaks. Lush green woodland looked down at us from all around, gnarly, flooded tree stumps poked out of the mud, Bald Eagles and Ospreys drifted between the canopies overhead, and an Eastern Kingbird was gently perched on a low reed. We had a very fun and truly relaxing paddle. Marg and Dave treated us to some food in their garden and we sat munching and chatting, pleasantly tired and achy, albeit a little damp. Guy arrived to collect Kirsty, Katharine and Ryan, and all too soon it was time for these four to head off to the airport and back to the UK. It was very sad to see them go, knowing their enthusiasm, knowledge and joyfulness would be greatly missed over the last week and a half of the Project. Thank you for all your hard work! We are already looking forward to seeing them again at The Wash very soon. 

Mark, Rob Rob and Flo stopped off at the Nature Centre on the way back to Slaughter Beach in the evening and watched Skimmers hunt low over the water, and puffs of shorebirds drifting up from the harbour on their northwards migration to their breeding grounds.

Photo of flagged Knot. The Knot is standing on a beach with by others shorebirds in the background. Cathy Ryden.
Flagged Knot, by Cathy Ryden

Monday 29 May

Today we made our seventh and final catch! We were down on four very experienced members yet still had a strong team, boosted as usual by local volunteers, and by mid-morning, on Back North, had secured a good catch of 50 Sanderling, 11 Red Knot, two Dunlin, five Semipalmated Sandpipers, over 100 Ruddy Turnstone and… two Willet! Willet are not very often caught during the Project, so this was very exciting. All Sanderling, Knot and Turnstone were flagged as usual, and our success in catching Turnstone this year has been made evident by the fact that we only have a handful of Turnstone flags left! Creating a full circle by reminding us of the very first catch in Mispillion Harbour this year, we once again managed to strand a boat on the beach. And so heave ho and into action we did go! Many several coordinated shoves later, using the strength of nearly the entire team, we managed to get her floating once more. What a relief.

The wind picked up in the afternoon and this made resighting quite tricky, though we had an enjoyable time all the same and Rob Rob found that the evening light made perfect conditions for a spot of photography.

Tuesday 30 May

Greg L and Judy departed in the morning, and it was a great shame to see them off. We hope to see them again one day.

A morning Jon boat was set to head out into the harbour at 07:00, but in the end we delayed by an hour as high winds had pushed the tide in quite high. The harbour camera, angled on Back Beach, showed nothing but water! While some surveyed Mispillion others went out on different beach surveys and Ema discovered a Killdeer nest in the carpark at Ted Harvey.

A colossal tidy-up of the house began in the afternoon in preparation for departure to different accommodation the next day. A group surveyed Fowler Beach, making note of Piping Plover colour rings, some did an evening boat survey, several cracked on with the data checking, and still others continued to get the house in order, sorting, cleaning and packing away the catching equipment, Brit kit and kitchen supplies. Sorting the food (of which we had succeeded in purchasing vast quantities of surplus, especially tinned tomatoes) alone was a mammoth task. Cathy made her traditional roasted vegetable curry. So tasty and just what the team needed!

We made several plans for the morning, but the main one was, as Richard put it, “The Great Escape – Part One”. Admittedly, we were all beginning to feel a little sorry to be leaving what had become our home for the last three weeks.

Wednesday 31 May

Everyone was up by 06:00 and after a quick breakfast began busying around the house, cramming things into boxes, packing filing cabinets and chairs into the trailer, gathering up various miscellaneous items forgotten by those already back in the UK, and somehow also managing to get together our own personal kit too. In fact, we were very efficient and completed the task before 09:00, so played a last couple of table football matches.

It was again a bit of a blustery morning, but despite this, a decent number of flags were resighted on Back East on the morning Mispillion survey after the great pack up. After this, Flo joined Sam and Shawn to put up another Piping Plover nest exclosure and catch a couple of adults for colour banding in the dunes of Cape Henlopen. Meanwhile the rest of the house team split to move into accommodation for the last few days of the trip. Some stayed in a rented apartment on Slaughter Beach, and the rest went inland to a little cottage surrounded by woodlands and meadows.

Photo of three ringers on a beach looking through telescopes to record colour-marked birds
Resighting on Back North, by Cathy Ryden

We joined up again in the evening to have dinner by the river at JP’s with Dave, Marg, Sam and Shawn.

Thursday 1 June

How fast the time has flown is indescribable. No one could quite believe it was already the first of June. To start the month, in the early hours of the day, the apartment fire alarm went off! There was no fire to be seen and, certainly quite bemused, Ema and Mark – who were staying there – managed to silence it. It was not until later that the dots were joined, and we also learned what the mysterious bluish-purple haze drifting over the land and the water in Mispillion Harbour was smoke from wildfires in Nova Scotia that had blown all the way down to us in Delaware Bay, 1,000 km as the Knot flies!

On Back North in the morning, resightings were few and far between, but yet again Osprey was very productive with large numbers of Turnstone still present. Those on the morning boat survey then joined Ema and Mark, who were busy bees checking data in the apartment, and shortly after Cathy and Richard went with Shawn to catch and colour-band some more Piping Plover chicks on Fowler Beach. They were very successful and caught 13! Graham and Flo returned to the cottage (arriving safely even with Flo’s dubious navigational skills) to enter data and rattle through some corrections over a cup of tea.

Everyone returned to the cottage in the evening after completing another Mispillion and beach survey, and we planned the next couple of days as a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers perched just outside on an old dead tree.

Friday 2 June

Cathy, Rob Rob and Flo explored the woods and strolled along the riverside boardwalk of Abbots Pond Nature Preserve before breakfast, spotting a Downy and a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Prothonotary Warbler among several other warblers, chickadees and flycatchers which filled the trees with their wonderous song.

In startling contrast to the previous smoky day, this morning’s sky was a soft blue and the milky water so still and calm that, looking down the channel beyond the breakwall in Mispillion, you could not tell the difference between sea and sky. Every day there are fewer and fewer shorebirds on the beaches and today we reckoned there were no more than 40 Red Knot in the whole Harbour. After a boat survey Rob Rob and Cathy conquered a load of data checking at the apartment and Flo surveyed Fowler Beach.

Richard, Ema and Mark surveyed Mispillion in the afternoon and then we all went to Sam and Shawn’s house for dinner. It was really lovely to spend the evening with them, telling them stories of The Wash, reflecting on our time here and thanking them for all they’ve done. They have been such supportive leaders of this project and kind to us all during our stay.

Saturday 3 June

And so, with a sure feeling of sadness, we began the final “Great Escape” in the early morning and packed up the cottage and the apartment, loading everything into the cars. Richard, Rob Rob and Flo did one last session of resighting on Osprey, staying as long as they possibly could before they had to bounce back over the choppy waves. They joined Sam, who had just returned from surveying Ted Harvey, to finally lift the faithful Jon boat out of the water at the public launch.

A final farewell to Slaughter Beach, then we all bundled in the cars to begin our journey northwards to Philadelphia. Along the way we stopped at the famous Little Creek Deli and at the Delaware Fish and Wildlife offices to help Sam and Shawn unload the last of the boxes, scopes and other equipment into their storage sheds. It was a real shame to have to say goodbye to Sam and Shawn, and Ema too who would be staying a little longer. The time really did go too quickly. Our final stop before the airport was at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and here we were delighted to see Wood Ducks with ducklings!

And so at long last we arrived at the airport and it didn’t seem like much time before we were boarded on the plane and on our way, flying high over the sea towards the UK.

Another field season finished, and such a fun one too. We really enjoyed staying together in the big new house, and many, many laughs were shared over the three and a half weeks we spent in the Bay. As has been an increasingly reoccurring theme over the recent years, we believe there have not been as many Red Knot on the Delaware side of the Bay as there have been previously, and observations suggest that birds were quickly moving to the New Jersey side as there are better roosting sites. We are very pleased with the successful deployment of five GPS tags early in the field season and look forward to following up with more tags in the future to further understand the birds’ use of the Bay during the season.

Thank you to all the other volunteers and the Delaware Fish and Wildlife team for your amazing work and the fun we’ve had gathering data together. Until next year, when many of us will hopefully see you again!

All banding, marking, and sampling is conducted under a federally authorised Bird Banding Permit issued by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thanks to Florence Turner for writing this blog.