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Sex and Gluttony on Delaware Bay
Before my hand found third gear, New Jersey's famed pine barrens had closed in on both sides of the road, buffering us from the Wawa and its mayhem. Much of eastern Cumberland County falls within the boundaries of the Pinelands National Reserve-a 1.1-million-acre tract of mostly forested land. Not a park or refuge where human endeavors are strictly proscribed, the reserve is a jurisdictional hybrid according protection to areas of high environmental or cultural value and permitting compatible development in others. Created by Congress in 1978, operating under a comprehensive management plan, and governed by the representatively diverse Pinelands Commission, both the reserve and the plan are variously acclaimed and decried.
People who want to see the environmental and cultural heritage of the region preserved generally applaud it. Large property owners and developers whose ambitions might undermine environmentally sensitive areas commonly fault it.
Like it or not, what is certain is that this creative initiative resulted in the protection of 22 percent of the most crowded state in the Union and preserved the largest body of open space between Boston and Richmond. Those shorebound travelers taking old Route 47, as Linda and I had done, are tracing the southern boundary of the preserve.
For some reason, the Delaware Bayshore was not placed beneath the umbrella of the reserve's protection. Its heritage and biological riches have, thus far, been preserved largely as a result of good fortune.
We passed several turnoffs, marked by weathered signs, directing travelers to communities with names that skirt all but local recognition-names such as Dorchester (pronounced, in the syllable-compressing dialect of the bayshore, DOR-ster), Leesburg, and Heislerville. While few travelers ever do turn off to explore these obscure towns, those who do wander into a New Jersey that is alien to nine out of ten residents of the state.
A land of black ducks and blue mud. Tight-knit communities composed of cedar-roofed and dowel-framed houses that hark back to a time when two-masted schooners and two-story homes were built by the same men.
Pickup trucks, not cars, occupy most of the driveways. Cats keep watch from behind age-rippled glass, and dogs, slumbering on porches, stir only at the sound of unfamiliar feet. And when you happen, as is certain you will, upon one of the old church cemeteries that command the high ground, you'll find the gate unlocked and age-blackened stones bearing the same names as the mailboxes you just passed.
Until recently, saying you lived on the bayshore was as good as saying you were born on the bayshore. This means you have roots that go back very far.
Not every road off Route 47 delivers as promised. Travelers bold enough to follow now rusting highway signs to Moores Beach and Thompsons Beach are headed for consternation. In two decades, these bayside communities went from shore towns to ghost towns to no towns as the roads leading out to them surrendered to marsh and the houses fell (literally) under the dominion of the tide.
Today, if you own a four-wheel-drive vehicle that you don't mind marinating in salt water, you can still drive to Moores Beach and the rubble-strewn strip of sand that borders the bay and once supported a town. But the road leading out to Thompsons Beach is impassable and gated. Beneath its blanket of salt grass there is macadam. At low tide it is navigable to foot traffic (or, more accurately, knee-high-boot traffic). But under the very best of conditions, the road that once led to this fishing community is treacherous. A person (or persons) would have to be very foolish, or very motivated, to attempt it.
“Eahhh!” Linda cried, the sound of her protest barely audible over the cries of laughing gulls and the belly-laugh grunts of clapper rails-both of which are common summer residents.
“What?” I asked, turning, looking back at my wife, who was swaying, ominously, at a better than twenty-three-degree list, in the middle of a puddle that was the size and depth of a kiddie pool, though a good deal muddier.
Why ominously? Because the pack on her back was crammed with about twenty thousand dollars' worth of camera equipment and, as the Nikon owner's manual cautions, digital cameras and salt water don't mix.
Linda's no stranger to portaging stuff on her back. A onetime National Outdoor Leadership School instructor, she once climbed Denali wearing a hundred-pound pack-a pack that weighed as much as she did. Concluding, therefore, that ballast was not the source of my wife's consternation, I explored the possibility of an equipment malfunction.
“Boots leak?” I asked, when her gyrations had stabilized enough to support conversation.
“No!” she shouted. “They're too large. The muck keeps sucking them off my fee--Ehh; ahhhh.”
I tensed as Linda survived another arm-swinging battle with gravity. Search the world over, you'll find hardly anything more slick, slimy, and boot-suckingly treacherous than good ol' Delaware Bay blue mud. The fine particulate matter, ferried and deposited by the waters of the Delaware River, has the color and consistency of graphite and the sulfurous smell of hell. Dark spatterings of the stuff were already marring Linda's pretty face. But since she wasn't going to be on the receiving side of the cameras she was carrying, it hardly mattered.
“We're almost there,” I encouraged. “The road's better ahead.” This was true as far as it went. What I didn't say, which was also true, was “and then it gets worse again.”
Ten minutes later, our boots, still numbering four, were planted on packed white sand. In front of us was a sun-splashed Delaware Bay. Around us the rubble that used to be Thompsons Beach.
“There are no birds,” Linda couldn't help noticing.
“Well, there were,” I asserted.
“When?” she wanted to know.
“About twenty years ago,” I said, smiling quickly to let her know it was a joke.
“This way,” I said, turning east. “Another quarter mile. I scouted it yesterday. An hour earlier. The tide should be about the same, and there absolutely were birds.”
“Including knots?” she asked, pinning a name to the poster bird of Delaware Bay's famed spring shorebird concentrations.
“Including knots,” I said. “Some. Ready to go?”
She was, and we did. Walked east along the narrow strip of sand and through the remains of the town. But I couldn't help thinking of the way it had been twenty years ago - both with the town and with the birds. And how the diminishment of what was one of the planet's greatest natural spectacles was anything but a joke.
Crabs and Shorebirds for Lunch
My introduction to the now-famous spectacle of spawning crabs and migrating shorebirds came in May 1977. I was responding to an invitation by Jim and Joan Seibert, residents of the bayside hamlet of Del Haven-a cluster of houses clinging to the land about halfway up the Cape May peninsula.
They said that the beach in front of their house was awash in birds.
“Fantastic,” they assessed. “Unbelievable,” they promised. “Come to lunch.”
I did. And while, as the newly minted naturalist for the incipient Cape May Bird Observatory, I would have come just to see the birds, the promise of a free lunch was irresistible.
Naturalists the world over are opportunistic feeders. Since my position with the New Jersey Audubon Society was earning me a whopping $250 a month, such flexible feeding habits had clear survival advantages. In this regard, naturalists are much like the shorebirds that concentrate here in spring. They, too, are in it for the eats.
Lunch was enjoyable, the birds as advertised. Fantastic, unbelievable. A pulsing, vibrating ribbon of shorebirds stretching as far as the eye could see - tiny gray-backed semipalmated sandpipers, sanderlings in their rarely seen brick red breeding plumage, harlequin-patterned ruddy turnstones, and, best of all, red knots! Big, burly, silver-backed shorebirds and high-Arctic breeders. There were more knots on that single stretch of beach than I'd ever dreamed of. More knots, as it turned out, than were estimated to be in all of North America.
But just as impressive, perhaps more, was the concentration of breeding horseshoe crabs, whose tiny gray-green eggs were the foundation and objective of the feeding birds-the tiny loaves that fed the multitudes.
Hubcap-sized, bronze-colored, and helmet-shaped, the 340-million-year-old sea creatures absolutely carpeted the beach. There were hundreds of larger female crabs, half buried in sand, and thousands of attending males.
To the crabs, it was all about sex. To the birds, it was all about gluttony.
Many years later, I would read an account of the spawning crabs written by Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology. Writing in the early 1800s of the stretch of beach east of the mouth of the Maurice River-the stretch of beach Linda and I were walking now-Wilson noted that a person could walk ten miles upon the carapaces of horseshoe crabs and never touch the sand.
It was this way, too, in 1977 and for about a decade after, and my experience here is firsthand.
Starting in 1981, I was part of a three-person team fly_ing aerial surveys to gauge the magnitude of the shorebird concentrations along New Jersey's bayshore. We counted a peak one-day total of 350,000 birds during those inaugural survey flights, including 67,000 red knots. The following year, adding the cross-bay beaches of the state of Delaware to the survey route, our totals reached 420,000 birds, including 95,000 red knots.
Given a turnover of fourteen days, biologists projected that a total of a million to perhaps a million and a half shorebirds were foraging on bayshore beaches between May 10 and June 10, making the spectacle on Delaware Bay one of the greatest concentrations of shorebirds on the planet. From there, fully fueled on the fat of reconstituted crab eggs, the birds would fly nonstop to Arctic breeding grounds and arrive in fine shape to go about the serious business of replicating the species.
The crabs were estimated to number 10 to 20 million, by far the greatest aggregation of this living fossil known to science. On every high tide, when the crabs would emerge, the shells in the surf sounded like crockery rattling in some great sink. As the tide receded, it looked as though the beaches were paved in animate cobblestones.
That was the celebrated phenomenon. An annual massed gathering of living things on the narrow beaches of Delaware Bay. Nobody knows how long it had been going on. But everybody knows how long it lasted after it was rediscovered. About fifteen years.
Past the pilings that once supported the homes and docks of Thompsons Beach, and the rubble that is all that is left of them, there is a quarter mile of open beach. The tide was still rising. Here and there along the old high-tide line were shallow craters that marked the location of newly deposited horseshoe crab eggs. Every ten yards or so, Linda and I encountered an overturned crab-mostly male. We righted these with our boots, to the annoyance of the onlooking host of herring gulls, who enjoy scavenging rights to all dead and dying crabs.
The winds, light and northerly, were projected to go slack, then southerly by afternoon. Good news for crabs and birds primed to migrate. Not so good for writers and photographers, who would have to contend with the clouds of biting midges called “no-see-ums.”
“Almost there,” I said once again to Linda, who was overturning crabs, so lagging behind. Near the mouth of the creek, projecting out into the bay, was a sod bank that the birds had been using at low tide. Birds were still there: a couple of dozen turnstones, and a handful of knots. It wasn't the throngs of birds we'd been hoping for, but at least the trip wouldn't be a total bust.
I reached the end of the beach. Edged myself around a tall stand of reed grass, and . . .
There, clustered about the sandy bar, were about a thousand shorebirds, all busily foraging for eggs. Lots of semipalmated sandpipers, lots of sanderlings, lots of ruddy turnstones, and best of all, lots of red knots-not the 6,000 that were reported to be up in the bay (about one third of the current estimated populations). But six hundred at least-most of them decked out in their breeding plumage, the silver backs and ruddy breasts that were the source of the old market gunners' name for the bird, “robin snipe.”
Linda turned the corner. Stared. Smiled. Here, on a spit of sand some forty feet wide and two hundred feet long, was a concentration of birds that harked back to the wonder and bounty that greeted visitors when shorebird numbers were at their peak.
Linda slipped out of her pack. Cracked the cover. Starting fitting lenses to cameras.
“I'll open the tripod,” I offered.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Are you going to stand or kneel?” I asked.
“Kneel,” she said. “Crawl. I want to be eye level with these birds. I want to taste horseshoe crab eggs. Do you want to shoot?”
“You might have to dig,” I said, suddenly conscious of the fact that the birds were not foraging on exposed eggs. All of them seemed to be probing and rooting. It was an adaptation I'd never seen. Back in the days of plenty, only the turnstones were egg mass excavators. Now, it seemed, all the successful birds were doing it.
“I'll leave you the two-hundred-to-four-hundred lens,” Linda said, not waiting for my reply. “It's set for program, and you've got a new memory card.”
“This is so awesome,” she said, lifting her camera fitted with her favorite 500-millimeter lens (named “Big Bertha”). “This is so cool,” she assessed. Then she waded slowly into the birds, whose ranks parted to receive her. In less than five minutes, Linda was seated in the sand and surrounded by birds. A 50-millimeter lens would have served her better.
It was awesome. It was affirming. In fact, it was perfect.
Undoing the Knot
I didn't start shooting immediately. And I didn't take notes, which, being the scribe in this endeavor, I should have been doing. What I did instead was savor. The spectacle. The day. The miracle that is a shorebird. The study in pure, applied hard-shelled tenacity that is a horseshoe crab.
The red knot, owing to the rapid and dramatic decline in its numbers, has been studied and written about extensively. In less than two decades' time, the population of the rufa subspecies, the subspecies whose strategy for survival seems tied to Delaware Bay, went from an estimated high of 160,000 to about 18,000. In cold, clinical mathematics, its population is now just over a tenth of what it was when I first set eyes on the spectacle, over thirty years ago.
The undoing of the phenomenon was unnecessary and preventable. But, as so often happens when our species ascribes value to another species, it happened anyway.
What happened? The overexploitation of a natural resource-one of the oldest stories in a long, sad book that is the history of our species and the environment.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, horseshoe crabs were harvested as bait. First, by New England fishermen who would drive down to Delaware Bay beaches like this one in tractor-trailers, load up on crabs, drive back to New England, and sell their catch for lobster bait.
Later, in response to a burgeoning Asian market for conchs and eels, local watermen got into the game and started harvesting the animals, first by hand, later with offshore dredges working just off the beach. Halved or quartered, the crabs were put in pots and used for bait. The larger females were, of course, favored.
At market, watermen were getting a dollar apiece for female crabs. Good money on the economically strapped bayshore.
Ten to twenty million is a lot of horseshoe crabs, but with up to a million animals being harvested from the breeding population every year, it didn't take long for the population to falter. Female crabs lay a plentitude of eggs-nearly four thousand at a sitting-and a female can breed as many as twenty-five times in a season.
But only a fraction of the eggs deposited in the sand hatch. Of the larvae that emerge, only about one out of thirty thousand lives to celebrate a birthday. They move into deeper water as they develop, taking another eight to eleven perilous years to attain sexual maturity. Then, lured landward by the tug of the moon and the spurs of procreation kicking their carapaced flanks, the adult crabs return once again to the beaches of Delaware Bay to spawn.
Being a mature, sexually active horseshoe crab constitutes one of the planet's greatest single accomplishments, but insofar as Limulus polyphemus has been on this planet for about 340 million years and inasmuch as the crabs Linda and I were righting on the beach were the products of a long line of superachievers, if it ever comes down to a contest between my species' survival and the crabs', my money is on the crabs (not that I'll be around to collect it).
Things are different for red knots and other long-distance shorebird migrants. Their winning streak goes back only a couple of million years (if that) and their strategy for survival is riskier than that of the crab, predicated as it is on long, nonstop migratory jumps with the promise that there will be a surfeit of food waiting at the end of that flight, allowing the birds to refuel quickly and reach Arctic breeding grounds in time and in shape to breed. Red knots winter in extreme southern South America-about as far south as a migrating bird can go. They breed on the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago-about as far north as a breeding bird can go. Delaware Bay, on the red knots' current flight plan, is the refueling point on the northbound trip.
When knots reach Delaware Bay, after having spent many hours in the air, they are literally skin and bones. All of their winter-stored fat, and some of their muscle tissue, too, has been burned to get them to their midflight fueling depot.
Refueling takes about two weeks given optimal feeding conditions. If successful, birds about double their weight. This was how it was when crab populations were high and free-floating eggs were there for the picking. Now, with crab numbers depleted and eggs hard to come by, the starved birds cannot make flight weight. They aren't reaching the Arctic in time or in condition to breed. Given poor breeding success and normal attrition, the numbers of knots and other crab-dependent shorebirds have, like the crabs that supported them, dwindled.
It's still a spectacle. It's still worth seeing. And it is probable, given a moratorium on the harvest of crabs in the bay, that the crabs and the birds will recover to preharvest levels. Some experts believe a significant recovery is no more than a decade away.
So it might well be that here on Thompsons Beach on the twenty-fourth of May 2008 what Linda and I were experiencing wasn't a window to the past. It might be that what we were seeing was the future.
The wind held for most of the morning, making the temperature ideal and keeping the hosts of biting midges at bay. No sky shines quite so blue as a cold-front blue. The Arctic air that spawns these dry, fair-weather systems seems to whet the sunlight and put an edge to all it touches.
Likewise, there is no green like salt marsh green. It is deep and rich and pure; untainted by blue, untinged by yellow. Just pure, pure green. Green enough to make the Emerald Isles want to trade up. Green enough to make you wonder what the rest of Eden was like, because after its equilibrium was shattered by a simple act of harvest, it is pretty clear that some of it washed up here, on the shore of Delaware Bay.
I heard the sound of the motor long before the small commercial boat rounded the point of land. A sixteen-footer, with barrels to hold the drift net in the bow and a capped and handkerchief-hooded figure in the stern. Working the tide, just as we were, he turned into the wind and started hauling net by hand. His was the only commercial boat we'd seen.
I recognized the fisherman (his makeshift legionnaire headdress was unmistakable) but couldn't say I knew him. His name was George Kumor, “Captain George,” as he is universally known and addressed. He fishes the waters off Thompsons Beach, putting in on every tide at the boat ramp by the gate.
George was a curious mix of talkative and taciturn. Straight talking, critical of environmentalists and regulators, but candid about his commercial colleagues, too.
In one sense, we were adversaries. He a waterman, I an environmentalist, both competing for the same resources-the environmental riches of Delaware Bay. But we were allies, too. Both of us wanting, ultimately, the same thing: a healthy and environmentally rich region.
Because that is what we need to sustain us, and that is why we live here.
No, I didn't know George. Not yet. But the story of the bayshore is the story of people and nature, and how each has molded the character of the other. Telling his story is as much a focus of this book as is extolling the virtues of the region. At that moment I knew, or at least hoped, that George's story was going to figure in this one.
You better hurry, I thought to the man hauling net. You're losing your tide. But the caution was wasted, because when it comes to knowing the water, there is nobody better than a bayshore waterman. Chances were good that the bayman was thinking, you better hurry whatever it is you are doing, Mr. Bird Watcher, because the wind is dropping and in about a Thompsons Beach minute you are going to be sitting in a cloud of no-see-ums.
And he was right. But before that happened, I had just enough time to lean back, sweep my eyes across the unencumbered landscape, inhale the good, salty tang of the marsh, feel the bite of sand on bare elbows, and take stock of this moment in time.
I was on a beach with the person I love, who, sensing my study of her, turned and smiled-the smile of a happy person doing what she loves most to do. I was surrounded by a miracle whose magic vaults ages and hemispheres. It was as sunny as a summer day, as cool as a morning in spring, and there was a breeze in my face. Except for the lone waterman, now heading toward the mouth of the inlet, there was not the hint of any other soul.
It was Memorial Day weekend. We were alone on a beach in the most crowded state in the Union. The world was perfect and we were complete.
Somewhere there were people sitting in traffic, knowing that they were going to be late for the barbecue.
But it wasn't here.
Somewhere someone was engaged in a third circuit of Cape May streets, searching for a free parking space.
But it wasn't us.
Somewhere there was a shopper who could find every size for the shoes she wanted except the size that fit; a homeowner discovering that flipping the circuit breaker for a water pump that hasn't been used since he closed up the shore house last autumn doesn't guarantee water; and a young father and husband just discovering that in the rush to get all the stuff needed into and onto the car, he left one bicycle behind. Hers.
But none of these things troubled the perfection of here, and the reason I know that this moment was perfect was because it ended. The wind suddenly stilled, then turned. The sound of a low-flying single-engine plane rose above the chatter of the sandpipers and the stutter of turnstones, and as the plane drew near, hugging the beach, the birds erupted into flight.
It might have been the shorebird survey team doing their census, or perhaps a plane chartered by a photographer who aspired to get some aerial shots of the birds. The irony that it was those who were interested in the birds, not the commercial fishermen, who were forcing the birds to burn precious fuel, wasn't lost on me.
After climbing and circling, the birds lit on the nearby exposed sod bank, then lifted off again, settling on the far shore of the creek, the side away from us. Thirty seconds later they were up once more, and Linda used the opportunity to rise, gather her gear, and head to where I was waiting.
The birds circled, then settled for good. Though they were initially flushed by the plane, it was nervous anticipation that was keeping them aloft. The birds had also felt the shifting wind, the turning season. Birds heading for the Arctic like a tail wind to see them home. The wind, coming in off the bay, was fanning their anticipation.
There is a German word to describe the nervous energy exhibited by these birds: Zugenruhe. It means “premigratory restlessness.”
“Did you get some decent shots?” I asked when Linda drew near.
“Maybe,” she said, trying to hide a smile.
“Quit 'cause you filled your memory cards?”
“No. Quit because the light is too harsh and the plane spooked the birds.”
I nodded. “Wind shifted, too,” I observed, not certain Linda had noticed.
“Felt it,” she said. “No-see-ums came out as soon as it dropped.”
“I'll bet some of these birds go tonight, maybe all. Need help with that tripod?”
We made it back to the car without losing our boots (or balance). The Wawa was still jamming; in fact, it was busier than ever. Filled with people on their way to someplace else. People who've never heard of Thompsons Beach and never seen the wings of a thousand shorebirds reaching for the sky and maybe never will.
That evening, about an hour before sunset, as Linda was downloading images and I was monitoring two Memorial Day weekend steaks on the grill, I heard the xylophone-strumming stutter of short-billed dowitchers. I looked up and saw a V-shaped flock speed overhead, climbing and calling as they went. Their direction was north. Their destination, the tundra just east of Hudson Bay. The season's last great exodus of northbound migrants had begun.
Within a minute the first group of two hundred birds was followed by another and, before the steaks were done, two more. Next stop, the Arctic, where summer is more a visitor than a resident.
As I lifted the steaks onto a plate, a baby robin chirped from beneath a nearby hedge. The year's first fledgling. One season ends, another begins. If the song of blackpoll warblers sounds Taps for spring, the chirp of newly fledged birds is the fanfare for summer.
Posted May 2, 2012
Another top read from a top writer/naturalist. One tiny glitch I found: There is no "Congressional Medal of Honor." The nation's top military award is given by the president, not Congress, and is simply called the Medal of Honor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.