University of Delaware
delware environmental institute

WDDE: Shorebird helps attract federal grant for Bayshore protection

A small shorebird that visits Delaware Bay beaches for only a couple of weeks a year could hold the key to protecting a wide expanse of shoreline and coastal wetland from future mega-storms and rising seas.

The red knot, which stops off at this southern Delaware harbor and other bay beaches on its epic migration from South America to Arctic Canada every spring, is arguably the most important reason that Mispillion Harbor was selected in mid-June for $4.5 million in federal funds for post-Sandy restoration.

The bird, which weighs less than 5 ounces, has been the focus of vigorous conservation efforts since biologists discovered in the early 2000s that its numbers were plummeting because of the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are the knot’s favorite food.

Although the population seems to have stabilized in recent years thanks to strict limits on horseshoe crab fishing, the bird now appears to be threatened by rising seas and storms that are eroding beaches and diminishing the crab’s spawning grounds.

Mispillion Harbor, to the north of Slaughter Beach, has lost 80-90 percent of its beach since the 1980s because of repeated storms, leaving sharply reduced space for the crabs to lay their eggs, and for the knot, and other shorebird species, to feed on them.

Without radical action to close a breach in a rock barrier between the harbor and the Delaware Bay, and rebuild the beaches with thousands of cubic yards of new sand, officials fear the bird will have less chance of refueling on its more than 9,000-mile migration, and if so, less chance of breeding successfully.

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