The Delaware Shorebird Project

Shorebirds are an important part of the ecology of Delaware’s shorelines. But they are under threat; populations are declining. DNREC’s Delaware Shorebird Project works to mitigate that threat, through research and monitoring, habitat protection, and management planning.

The Shorebird Project team has conducted research and monitoring since 1997. They have studied the health and status of several shorebird populations. These include the Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper and the federally threatened Rufa Red Knot.

The professional staff and dedicated volunteers of the Project are part of a team that includes state and federal scientists, local and international researchers, local volunteers and birders who collect high-quality data.

Shorebirds are small to medium-sized birds that take advantage of a variety of habitats for migration and nesting. They are uniquely adapted to aquatic environments such as ocean shores, rivers, lakes and marshes.

Shorebirds can forage at different water depths based on the length of their legs. They can access food at various soil and water depths due to the length and shape of their bills.

Some shorebirds live their entire lifecycle in one region. Others migrate between breeding and wintering grounds each year. Some migratory shorebirds fly great distances, spanning multiple continents and hemispheres, making stops at key sites to rest along the way. Some, like the Red Knot, travel as many as 5,000 miles, non-stop.

Along Delaware Shorelines

A variety of shorebird species use Delaware’s bay and ocean beaches, tidal rivers and coastal marshes throughout the year and can be seen in particularly large numbers during spring migrations.

Shorebirds arrive emaciated, but during their brief stay can double their body weight. They consume vast numbers of protein-laden horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus) eggs. To endure the long migration, Red Knot muscle mass and fat reserves increase while stomach and gizzard size decreases. This change to the digestive system makes the soft, easily digestible horseshoe crab eggs a crucial food source. It will sustain them for their remaining 2,000-mile trip to the Arctic.

Shorebirds at DuPont Nature Center
Photo by Rob Robinson

The farthest ranging Red Knot populations spend the winter at the southern tip of South America. Other populations winter in Brazil and the Southeastern United States. In spring, they fly north to the Arctic and sub-Arctic where they breed during the short summer. The Delaware Bay is the final and most critical rest stop for these migratory specialists.

In recent decades, this amazing natural cycle is being disrupted. Where nearly 100,000 Red Knots once made their springtime stopover, only about 40,000 visited the Delaware Bay in 2019. Other species such as Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpipers have declined in number as well.

The exact causes are complex. Continued research and monitoring are vital for population management and species recovery.

What You Can Do

You can help shorebirds in many ways. You might want to become a Shorebird Project Volunteer. But you can also take many small actions to help protect shorebirds as you live and work along Delaware’s shore.

Shorebird Project Volunteers

Volunteers work side by side with scientists and researchers during an intensive field season. They collect data that will be used in conservation and management decisions for shorebirds and horseshoe crabs.

Volunteers help with numerous tasks at various skill levels including daily bird surveys, banding operations, flag making, equipment repair, data entry, and more. The Project also welcomes talents such as public speaking, teaching, and photography.

Volunteers must complete online training modules, attend one training session prior to field work, and be able to commit to at least three consecutive days of volunteer work.

What’s in it for you?

Volunteers for the Delaware Shorebird Project have the rare opportunity to work side-by-side with research scientists, professional ornithologists, and volunteers from around the world.

This interaction and hands-on involvement offers an exceptional opportunity to learn about shorebird conservation and gain skills in observing, catching, handling, measuring and banding shorebirds.

Volunteers also gain opportunities for resume-building and experience for careers in the conservation science field.