Delaware 2024: 11-18 May

Saturday 11 May

After an early start and two relatively smooth flights, eight of the WWRG team members made it to Philadelphia airport. There we met Katharine and Ema and began our drive down to Delaware. All buzzing to be back, except Chantal, who was even more excited as it was her first time on the project! This year we are on Slaughter Beach again, based in one large house with a smaller one nearby for extra sleeping space. Once everyone had paid a long-awaited visit to Mispillion Harbour, Kirsty, Jacquie and Flo made tomato pasta with salad for the jet-lagged, hungry team. Dave joined us for dinner and there was much laughter into the evening. This was definitely a happy birthday for Ema (10th May) and Flo (11th).

A landscape photograph of a harbour, with wooden pilings in the foreground. The sky and water are blue and there are slight wind-caused ripples crossing the surface of the water.
Our first view of Mispillion Harbour. Photo by Florence Turner

Sunday 12 May

Still running on British time, everyone gathered for an early breakfast and a team chat to plan the day. Kat Christie, Coastal Waterbird Biologist, popped round to say hi. She is running the Delaware Shorebird Project this year, assisted by Jessie McNulty, the volunteer coordinator, and we are very grateful for their brilliant work so far!

While Richard led a trip to Sam’s Club to stock up the house with food, Nigel checked Mispillion for a catching option recce, then led a team for the first boat survey. Graham, Ema and Flo stayed back to set up the kitchen, the office (‘data dungeon’) and all the Brit kit, and when the food shoppers returned home an efficient(ish) human chain was constructed to take everything inside.

In the afternoon, surveys were completed on Slaughter/Cedar, Prime Hook and Pickering. At Pickering Beach, a young Bottlenose Dolphin had washed onto the shore. With a catchable number of Turnstone on Swains Beach, peg markers were set in place and, after Graham’s traditional curry, Nigel briefed the team about the planned half-net, wet catch the next day. The amusement of the evening was Graham’s chilli jam: he had forgotten it was on the hob… the caramelisation did not take away from the delicious flavour however!

Monday 13 May

At 09:30, the setting team (Nigel, Richard, Kirsty, Rob, Brian and Kat) left for Swains, joined by Rebecca Linhart, a PhD student from the University of Rhode Island, who would be collecting invertebrates and taking blood samples from Turnstones for her studies on their diet. The rest of the team left at 10:10 to set basecamp along Lighthouse Road. Richard briefed the team while Nigel and Kat got into position in the Jon boat to watch the catching area from the water. It took a while for the number of birds to build and several times they lifted off completely, on one occasion due to a flyby Peregrine Falcon. At one point, Nigel radioed to inform basecamp that “it might be a while yet” before catching, to which Richard replied “well now most of the team’s gone to the loo, so it’ll bound to be much sooner than that!”.

A beach scene. In the foreground are a group of cages and boxes, while in the background, a group of people are standing in a circle talking.
Our first catch, by Kirsty Turner

We fired, and after lifting the catch up the stoney beach and extracting all the birds, processing commenced near the Nature Centre, including flagging and blood sample collection. Four Ruddy Turnstone had leg-loop harness satellite tags attached. During processing, several curious members of the public came to see what we were up to; they left greatly enthused and even overjoyed having learnt about our research. In total we caught 206 birds: 38 Ruddy Turnstone, 92 Short-billed Dowitchers, 17 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 58 Dunlin and one Willet. Several of the Dowitchers were noted to still be quite wintery in their plumage. We only had time for a quick lunch back at base before turning straight around for afternoon surveys at Ted Harvey and Mispillion Harbour.

A Short-billed Dowitcher in the hand.
Short-billed Dowitcher, by Chantal Macleod-Nolan

Tash arrived and kindly made dinner with Jacquie. Ken also arrived; the team is building day by day and it is so nice to reunite with longstanding volunteers with whom we have become great friends. Poor Nigel was beginning to feel unwell and so Richard went over the day’s catch and we discussed plans for the next day, which would likely include repairs to the net and keeping cages. Nigel tested and sadly came up positive for Covid, so went into his room to isolate. Exhausted from a crazy day, and the whiteboard predicting another busy one tomorrow, we didn’t take long to get to bed!

Tuesday 14May

The day began with a dreamy sunrise and a beautiful Green Heron was sighted by the Nature Centre. First thing, Katharine and Wendy surveyed Kitts Hummock, and Graham and Flo rattled through a few hours of data entry. Kat and Jessie visited Fowlers Beach and saw plenty of Piping Plovers. Eight exclosures have already been set up on this site to protect the nests of these birds from egg and chick predation.

Mid-morning a team set off for the first Mispillion survey of the day… not before returning twice to the house having forgotten the lifejackets, throwable, radios and boat keys – basically, everything! Rebecca, assisted by Greg, collected Horseshoe Crab eggs and nematodes from Back North to contribute to her research. Ominous clouds of stone grey surrounded the harbour. Then the rains were upon us. We leapt back into the boat, yet there was nothing we could do to save ourselves and within minutes we were soaked to the skin. Rob, Ema and Chantal had been on Osprey and were similarly soaked.  

Today Marcin joined us, and later on another team went out to Mispillion, hoping to avoid the rains. Unfortunately, Nigel remained unwell and had to stay in bed. Sally came round (with cookies!) and, with Richard, helped Katharine to make her special rakott krumpli dish by peeling a dizzying number of eggs! Flo led the team meeting after all had eaten: the forecast of continued ‘snotty weather’ (as Dave had humorously put it) meant that unfortunately the morning’s surveys were postponed until the afternoon. In the morning, Richard had looked at North Bowers and it was potentially looking like a possible site for a Sanderling and Turnstone catch in the near future.

Wednesday 15 May

Image of an Iceland Gull, seen through the lens of a telescope.
Iceland Gull by Marcin Sliwinski

The morning began rainy and blustery as predicted, with winds blowing onto the shore at 15-20mph. Without surveys to be doing, Jacquie, Rob and Kirsty had a fun morning at the malls in Rehoboth. Around midday a couple of beaches were surveyed, with many Semipalmated Sandpipers and Turnstone being seen by Chantal at the South end of Ted Harvey, and an Iceland Gull spotted by Marcin at Pickering. Richard went out to recce North Bowers again; it was too windy for a catch, but a good gathering of Sanderling and Turnstone encouraged him to plan another look early the next morning.

In the evening, Graham made some more successful chilli jam and Kirsty cooked up a very tasty meal of roasted veggies and ‘rustic’ chips. Chantal, Rob, Tash and Katharine arrived late after a birding trip to Prime Hook, highlights being Skimmers, Blue Grosbeaks and an Orchard Oriole! In the post-dinner team talk, the potential to catch on North Bowers the next day was discussed, Conch Bar was brought up as the only remaining unsurveyed beach for this three-day period, and we said goodbye to Ken who would sadly be leaving in the morning.

Thursday 16 May

Around 06:00, Richard and Kirsty went to North Bowers again to investigate the option of catching, but many people on the beach meant there were no birds. They headed to Mispillion to join Kat, Greg and Flo on the Jon Boat. Conch Bar was surveyed and an attempt at resighting on Back North and Back East. This was a challenge due to strong gusts. Meanwhile however, Jessie and Marcin were having a very successful session on Osprey, reading many flags! Back at base, Graham and Rob did a great job of fixing the semi fence.

Jeff and Marcin noticed there had been a big horseshoe crab spawning on Slaughter Beach and the north end of the beach was covered in Turnstone. Tash cooked up an incredible meal for the team and a plan was made for a catch the next day: we would set on Back North (where Turnstone and Knot had gathered), and if we hadn’t caught by the low tide cut-off, we’d reset on Slaughter Beach for the mass of Turnstone.

Friday 17 May

Rob and Chantal took a trip to Fowlers to help put up exclosures around Piping Plover nests. This important work protects these beach and dune nesting shorebirds from predators such as gulls and foxes. Back at the house, the catching and banding equipment was loaded up for the setting and basecamp teams. Richard, Kirsty, Katharine, Jessie and Flo hopped into the Jon boat and set a single net on Back North. Two Skiff-loads of basecamp arrived and were briefed expertly by Katharine.

The birds were quite jumpy and repeatedly swirled around the harbour. A Merlin also appeared and caused a fright. Despite a group of gulls initially dominating the catching area and Black-necked Stilts marching through safety (and even on the net!), a lift cleared the area, a good sample of Turnstone emerged, and Richard called to fire, just before a helicopter came by to potentially cause more disturbance. As the tide had fallen, it was a dry catch. Covering and extraction were done swiftly and calmly and soon we began processing. In total, we caught 407 birds: 89 Ruddy Turnstone, eight Red Knot, 45 Sanderling, 69 Short-billed Dowitchers, 77 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 119 Dunlin. Four of the Turnstone were fitted with leg-loop satellite tags and had blood collected.

A photo of a Turnstone in the hand.
A tagged Turnstone, ready to go, by Katharine Bowgen

After processing was complete, the majority of the team returned to the house to unpack and sort through the kit and get a well-deserved lunch. Kirsty, Jim and Katharine stayed on the beach to resight but were eventually overcome by the no-see-ums and left for home. Late afternoon, Jeff, Nigel (who was much better), Ema and Flo went to resight the Turnstones on Slaughter which had remained there in strong numbers. The latter two remained until it was simply too dark and managed to gather quite a number of flag reads! Chantal and Rob had made a tasty chilli with jacket potatoes which the tired team gratefully munched as we talked over the morning’s success. A real highlight of the day for all had been watching graceful Skimmers passing by basecamp throughout the processing.

Saturday 18 May

Throughout the day mist turned into drizzle and drizzle turned into gentle rain, then by the late afternoon it properly began to pour. During the calmer weather of the morning, several surveys were completed: Jim and Flo went to Ted Harvey (where six Royal Terns roosted at the southern end), Richard and Kirsty visited North Bowers again (unfortunately finding more human disturbance), Katharine and Margaret surveyed Slaughter and Cedar, and Tash, Graham and Ema jumped into the Jon boat for the first Mispillion round. Chantal, Jacquie and others were amazing and opened hundreds of rings, which was critical as Nigel had decided that we would attempt a Turnstone catch on Slaughter Beach.

After the afternoon boat survey, which noted plentiful Sanderling on Back North, everyone gathered on Slaughter for the catch, including Shawn, and Sam, who led the project last year! It was so great to see her again. Unfortunately, Jacquie was beginning to feel unwell and then also tested positive for Covid, and so she stayed home to self-isolate. As the tide rose steadily, the light dimmed, three Peregrines flew over at once and the rain began to sodden the team poised on the beach. But, on Kirsty’s call, a catch was made before dark! It was a wet catch, but we managed to lift the birds up the beach. They were transported back to the house where we got into action flagging and processing. In total there were 179 birds: 172 Ruddy Turnstone, three Red Knot and four Sanderling.

Guy and Ryan had flown over from the UK today and jumped straight into action when they arrived, bolstering the team with their swift processing. It was great to finally have the whole team together and, though wet and shattered, everyone was feeling decidedly joyful, especially since Graham had nobly stepped out of the catch to cook us up an incredible meal of onion bhajis, pasties and various jams and chutneys.

Thanks to Florence Turner for writing this report. Cover image by Rob Robinson.