Delaware 2024: 19-25 May

Sunday 19 May

Our second week in Delaware began warm and sunny and everyone made a great effort to survey the beaches over the morning. Two Mispillion surveys were completed as usual and, after the afternoon boat trip, Nigel, Richard, Guy and Ema returned very happy with lots of flag resightings. Poor Graham, however, did not have such joy on Osprey. Nigel and Richard had found there to be a decent number of Sanderling still on Back North and so began planning a catch.

Many more rings were opened throughout the day in anticipation of a big forthcoming catch. Ryan and Flo baked veggie lentil lasagna, using layered potatoes instead of pasta (which surprisingly worked very well!) and a couple of batches of flapjack – this really didn’t last long, 24hrs at most!

Nigel led a thorough evening team talk to go over plans for a Back North catch the next day.

Monday 20 May

As soon as the whole house was up and breakfasted we leapt into action packing the vehicles with setting and catching kit, then laughed because we realised we were quite ahead of time, which made everyone feel uneasy! Once we’d arrived at the boat launch and the Jon boat and Skiff – full of equipment and excited team – had pushed out into the water, we chugged over to Back North.

The tide, though dropping, was still quite high, so we waited a moment in the sand. A small setting team soon laid the net, with the assistance of everyone else to clear a path of Horseshoe Crabs! Nigel, Richard and Kat got into position to watch the catching area. The net had to be repositioned at one point, and Shawn expertly twinkled from the Jon boat to encourage some Knot over from Back East.

Keeping cool in the shade while processing, by Chantal Macleod-Nolan

All  of a sudden, Nigel spoke over the radio “We… are beginning to get itchy fingers…”, and Katharine, Chantal and Flo simultaneously tensed up, poised to sprint; for a split second they thought he was counting down to fire with “Three…”! We did fire in the end however and dashed to the net. It was a completely dry catch, and we surrounded all sides of the net; this was a special plan of Nigel’s to encourage the birds not to run out of the sides of the net – and it worked very well. Once covered and therefore calmed, we began extraction of the birds, and there were certainly a lot of them. Despite our efforts, some of the Turnstone were clever enough to use their mass to push out from under the net!

As s we were unable to process all the birds within our time limit, some Sanderling were released (numbers noted). Because it was so warm, a shade cloth was lifted high over the processing area and keeping cages. We set to work flagging Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, and (briefly and accidentally) one Dunlin. When discovered by a processing team this caused much hilarity, and Nigel will not be allowed to forget it for a while. Our team was bolstered by a group of keen raptor ecologists, led by Bracken Brown, a past volunteer coordinator of the Delaware Shorebird Project. We were grateful for their help, it made all the difference, and they too were very thankful to us in return. It is an important role of our team, and a privilege, to help fellow biologists gain experience and to share our knowledge. Before the last Skiff-load of us departed Back North, Guy, Ryan, Katharine and Flo squeezed in a bit of resighting and spotted one of the tagged Turnstone feeding among a large flock.

In total, we caught 848 birds: 52 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 11 Dunlin, 6 Short-billed Dowitchers, 21 Red Knot, 394 Ruddy Turnstone and 364 Sanderling. An incredible catch; everyone was buzzing all evening. Everyone was desperate for a shower, and once we were washed and had eaten, Kat led a team meeting, giving thanks to everyone for their hard work throughout the day. We were shattered to say the least! An aerial survey was planned for the following morning and so we discussed the method and where each of us would be positioned. And then bed, at last!

Tuesday 21 May

the morning, the whole team dispersed up and down the Bay to position themselves along the beaches for the aerial survey counts. The basic method is that, once in position, we do a ground count of Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot every 15 minutes before the plane arrives (and again just before), and then those in the plane count the birds as they are flushed into the air. However, mist covered the land and so visibility was too poor for take-off. The flight was postponed until the next day. Many beach surveys were completed nonetheless and so it was quite a productive start to the day!

Richard and Chantal helped catch and colour-band four adult Piping Plovers today, a great success! Those leading the Piping Plover projects are hoping that by next week some chicks may have hatched.

Rob and Chantal made a very yummy gluten-free vegetable puff pastry tart in the evening. It was in fact a very special day as it was Katharine’s 40th birthday! So, after dinner we all sang and gave her many happy wishes. Chantal led the team meeting and Kat explained that the aerial survey would be moved on an hour when we reattempted it in the morning.

Wednesday 22 May

Kirsty and Flo had unfortunately tested positive for Covid and were feeling quite tired, so they stayed back at base with Jacquie in the morning while the rest of the team went out to complete the aerial survey. However, the three of them did manage to use the time productively by getting lots of data checked! This did not include the ever-growing pile of catch data, which continues to loom…

The aerial survey plane approaches Mispillion, by Katharine Bowgen

Richard and Kat spent some time today at the Dupont Nature Centre teaching high school students about the Red Knot migration and the importance of the Horseshoe Crabs. Later, Richard went resighting and noticed an increasing number of Knot in the harbour, as well as a rise in number of those with orange flags, meaning more birds were arriving from Argentina. This led to more discussion to plan a big catch of Knot on Back North on Friday. First however, Nigel felt it would be good to do a small catch of Turnstone to get the last of the tags out, so he went to recce Swains and decide on a setting position for Thursday.

Two Mispillion surveys were completed in the afternoon and as dusk fell a beautiful pink moon rose out of the sea, almost full. Katharine and Chantal cooked up a deliciously spicy paprikash for the team – there were fewer leftovers than anticipated!

The day began with a super Turnstone catch on Swains Beach. Nigel led a team to set the net then went to recce Back North again. By the time he was back the net was just about in position. Birds soon began flying back in and Nigel had to encourage the basecamp team over the radio to be swift with their briefing and get themselves ready. Then BANG! We caught! The total catch was 85 birds: 82 Ruddy Turnstone, two Dunlin and one Semipalmated Sandpiper. Four more Turnstone were fitted with tags, these ones glue-mounted rather than permanent with leg loops (as were fitted on the first eight birds). We will be comparing the data collected from the two types of tags. The birds were processed (including flagging of Turnstone) back at the house. Again, we collected blood from a sample of Turnstone, with the aim to analyse DNA and stable isotopes.

A team went out into Mispillion in the afternoon to gather up some flag reads. It began to rain and become increasingly buggy, an increasingly common inhibitor of our resighting efforts as the weather here warms up and the humidity rises.

The great event of the day was our annual trip to Dave Carter’s. It was truly a wonderful evening, full of laughter and time for a proper catch up with old friends. We went for a group walk before the BBQ and found some very special birds: a White-breasted Nuthatch, Red- and White-eyed Vireos, a Great Crested Flycatcher, Barred Owls, and Eastern Bluebirds. We also saw some toads, dragonflies and, as the darkness enveloped us, glinting fireflies. Just like last year, we ended the night with a guitar sing song. We are so grateful to Dave and Marg for their overwhelming kindness and hospitality, it is a highlight of every year to spend this happy time with them.

Friday 24 May

The plan for the morning was for another catch on Back North. However, the weather had other plans… A storm was brewing on the horizon and as soon as the net was set, thunder and lightning descended on the team. This was not entirely expected! Those on the beach dived under a tarpaulin and remained there for quite some time. The storm cleared and the morning turned hot and buggy. To stay hidden, the ‘tarp team’ remained covered, slowly cooking in the sand.

Team ice cream! Photo by a member of the public.

Unfortunately, the birds were very unsettled and with every lift from the catching area the number of Red Knot that returned reduced. We reset once (as they were not landing near the catching area), but in the end we had to admit defeat and abandon the plan. Back at base, once everyone had washed off the muggy morning, we replanned the same catch for the following day.

The afternoon was made much more positive for some by a jolly trip to the ice cream shop in Rehoboth – the flavours wild and varied to say least! Nigel returned from a peaceful evening resighting in Mispillion, where he saw several flocks of shorebirds departing for their migration northwards. Guy made a grilled aubergine chilli in the evening, and this was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Saturday 25 May

A small setting team whipped over to the harbour in the Jon boat and put down a net on Back North first thing. The rest of the team quickly appeared on the Skiff and we got to work building shade and readying the keeping cages. This time, since the birds had been so jumpy the day before, Nigel decided to use a hide for the firing team.

The tide rose, and then it rose some more. Basecamp had damp toes, and then before they knew it those nearest the water were up to their knees in it. There was repeated shuffling, crab-style, up the beach to stay dry (relatively). Before the tide had reached its full height, we fired! There were several gulls under the net which had to be carefully extracted first to avoid them potentially harming the shorebirds.

One of two Black-necked Stilts caught on Back North, by Chantal Macleod-Nolan

The total catch was 382 birds: 32 Dunlin, 302 Semi-palmated Sandpipers, 15 Short-billed Dowitchers, three Ruddy Turnstone, 35 Red Knot, and, some special highlights, two White-rumped Sandpipers and two Black-necked Stilts. It was very positive that we managed to catch a sample of Red Knot. Their weights were quite varied, with some very low, having only just come in from the south, and others nearing the top end after some rapid feeding up on the Horseshoe Crab eggs over several days. One of the Semipalmated Sandpipers we caught had a dark blue flag and we later found out that it had in fact been caught by a team with Rebecca (who had collected blood from our Turnstone for her PhD in our first week) in Brazil and was originally fitted with a nanotag!

As usual, a boat went out into Mispillion in the afternoon for some resighting, and shorebirds were counted on a few beaches. Ryan and Flo went running at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge and it was beautiful in the afternoon sun; the mosquitos agreed, and were out in force, a certain incentive for a sprint finish! Ema was a star and made lasagna for the team after surveying two beaches with Katharine. We had thought that there was enough food left over from last night, but it disappeared rapidly at lunchtime.

After our second week in Delaware, the team is feeling the fatigue settling in. A certain sad atmosphere filled the house this Saturday evening as we anticipated the departure of four members of the Brit team tomorrow, but spirits are still high, unsurprising with such a positive and encouraging group. It has been a wonderful season so far and we have much more still to look forward to!

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