Migratory Shorebirds

Migrating shorebirds including Red Knots, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstones feed among spawning horseshoe crabs in Jamaica Bay. Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/don.riepe.14" target="_blank" >Don Riepe</a>
Migrating shorebirds including Red Knots, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstones feed among spawning horseshoe crabs in Jamaica Bay. Photo: Don Riepe

Migratory Shorebirds

Each spring and late summer, New York City is visited by the “great champions” of bird migration: the shorebirds. The Red Knot flies as far as 9,300 miles each spring and fall, between wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego and nesting territory above the Arctic Circle. Along the way, it and other shorebird species such as Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstones depend on stopping and refueling in New York City’s marshes and on our beaches and mudflats. 
 
Migrating birds are on a tight “energy budget”—and if they do not get enough to eat, they may not survive the journey or be able to reproduce successfully if they do. NYC Audubon researches the food sources and movements of these shorebirds in an effort to better understand their ecological needs and support their conservation. 
 
Most of our North American shorebird species have suffered marked population declines in the past 50 years. These declines may be due to multiple factors including habitat loss, environmental contaminants, and over-harvesting of shorebird food sources. To identify threats to at-risk migratory shorebirds such as the Rufa subspecies of the Red Knot, listed as Threatened in New York State, and develop strategies to reverse their decline, we collaborate with partners in regional conservation efforts. We use telemetry to track shorebird movement, and study the nutritional value of their foraging sites via horseshoe crab monitoring and tidal mudflat sampling.
This migrating Semipalmated Sandpiper was fitted with a radio-transmitting Nanotag in Jamaica Bay. Our Nanotag work is part of a collaborative effort to identify major threats to at-risk shorebirds and develop strategies to reverse their decline. Photo: NYC Audubon "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> This migrating Semipalmated Sandpiper was fitted with a radio-transmitting Nanotag in Jamaica Bay. Our Nanotag work is part of a collaborative effort to identify major threats to at-risk shorebirds and develop strategies to reverse their decline. Photo: NYC Audubon
 

Semipalmated Sandpiper Research

To better understand the quality and importance of the City’s shorebird stopover habitat, we use telemetry to track the local and long-distance movements of shorebird species. Since 2016, we have been tagging and tracking Semipalmated Sandpipers using miniature radio tags, called nanotags, that are picked up by a network of receivers along the Atlantic coast, the Motus network
 
So far, according to the data we’ve received, our tagged sandpipers have made it as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, James Bay, Lake Ontario, and Lake Huron. This research is part of a large collaborative effort to identify major threats to at-risk shorebirds and develop strategies to reverse their decline.
Spring migration tracks of 27 Semipalmated Sandpipers nanotagged in Jamaica Bay in 2017 and 2018. Birds were detected flying inland along the Connecticut River, along the coast of Long Island Sound and Cape Cod, and eventually at locations in Canada including Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, the Bay of Fundy, Ottawa, and Hudson Bay. Photo: NYC Audubon "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Spring migration tracks of 27 Semipalmated Sandpipers nanotagged in Jamaica Bay in 2017 and 2018. Birds were detected flying inland along the Connecticut River, along the coast of Long Island Sound and Cape Cod, and eventually at locations in Canada including Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, the Bay of Fundy, Ottawa, and Hudson Bay. Photo: NYC Audubon
The map above shows the tracked spring migration of 27 Semipalmated Sandpipers nanotagged in Jamaica Bay in 2017 and 2018. Birds were detected flying inland along the Connecticut River, along the coast of Long Island Sound and Cape Cod, and eventually at locations in Canada including Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, the Bay of Fundy, Ottawa, and Hudson Bay. Hudson Bay is within the species’ breeding range, along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska—but most of these birds likely breed even further north. The scarcity of northern tracking towers currently limits our ability to detect them, however.

Volunteers tag and measure spawning Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. Photo: Akiko Togami "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Volunteers tag and measure spawning Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. Photo: Akiko Togami
 

Horseshoe Crab Monitoring

Each year in May and June, horseshoe crabs come ashore all along the Eastern seaboard to spawn— their eggs are an important food source for migratory shorebirds. Red knots in particular feed on horseshoe crab eggs, which are rich enough in calories and energy to sustain them on their long journeys. However, since the 1980s humans have been harvesting horseshoe crabs intensely and their numbers have been declining. This means that not enough horseshoe crab eggs are laid to sustain all the migrating shorebirds. In fact, the drop in migratory shorebird numbers has been so steep in the last ten years that the “rufa” subspecies of Red Knot was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. 
 
Since 2009, NYC Audubon’s corps of community scientists has monitored four beaches on which horseshoe crabs spawn in Jamaica Bay, gathering data on horseshoe crab numbers. Our monitoring is part of a state-wide project led by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to survey horseshoe crabs spawning populations, in order to inform conservation and management plans.
 
Read about the findings from our most recent horseshoe crab monitoring season on our blog, Syrinx.

A class from the William Wordsworth School (P.S. 048) in Jamaica, Queens, studies the anatomy of the Atlantic Horseshoe Crab at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. Photo: Sarah Ellis "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A class from the William Wordsworth School (P.S. 048) in Jamaica, Queens, studies the anatomy of the Atlantic Horseshoe Crab at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. Photo: Sarah Ellis
 

Education and Outreach

NYC Audubon has a large and active educational program focused on shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. This includes hands-on classroom and field projects for schoolchildren and a full roster of nature walks, birding workshops, and boat tours for people of all ages. In conjunction with our shorebird research, we have reached out to the boating community around the bay at dock parties and hold an annual summer Shorebird Festival in partnership with the American Littoral Society and Gateway National Recreation Area.

Tidal Connections Environmental Education Program

Our decade-long environmental education program with New York University’s Wallerstein Collaborative for Urban Environmental Education has given more than 600 public school students a first-hand experience of the ecology of Jamaica Bay and planted the seeds of a conservation ethic. Through in-class sessions and hands-on field trips, students study their local beach and saltmarsh ecosystem, including horseshoe crab ecology and its relationship to the conservation of migratory shorebirds.

Jamaica Bay Horseshoe Crab and Shorebird Festivals

Our May Horseshoe Crab Festival, timed to coincide with the spawning of this ancient creature, educates the public about the crab’s importance to migrating shorebirds like the Red Knot. In August, our Jamaica Bay Shorebird Festival brings together shorebird experts for a day of walks and lectures celebrating shorebirds and teaching the finer points of their identification. Both festivals are conducted in partnership with the American Littoral Society. Learn more about the Horseshoe Crab Festival, Shorebird Festival, and other NYC Audubon events.

Shorebirds visit Jamaica Bay in great numbers in both spring and late summer. Here Red Knots, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and American Oystercatchers feed amongst spawning Horseshoe Crabs. Photo: <a href=\"https://www.facebook.com/don.riepe.14\" target=\"_blank\">Don Riepe</a> "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Shorebirds visit Jamaica Bay in great numbers in both spring and late summer. Here Red Knots, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and American Oystercatchers feed amongst spawning Horseshoe Crabs. Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/don.riepe.14" target="_blank">Don Riepe</a>
 

Help with Our Migratory Shorebird Conservation Work

There are a several ways to volunteer to help migratory shorebirds in New York City:
 
Beach Clean-Ups and Marsh Plantings: We periodically conduct volunteer events to enhance shorebird habitat in the spring and fall. Learn more about plantings and clean-up events.
 
Horseshoe Crab Monitoring: Collect data on spawning horseshoe crabs by counting them in Jamaica Bay. The count occurs on 12 nights in May and June. Orientations are normally held in April. Learn more about volunteering as a horseshoe crab monitor.
 
Shorebird Blitz: In spring and fall, we conduct a one-day snapshot of shorebird activity in the City. The NYC Shorebird Blitz is a community-science effort to count the total number of shorebirds using our city during a 24-hour period, helping us answer important conservation questions, such as how many shorebirds come through our area during spring migration, how they are distributed throughout the City, and what disturbances they face. Learn more about volunteering for the NYC Shorebird Blitz.


Get to Know the Migratory Shorebirds and Atlantic Horseshoe Crab!

Click on each species below to see more photos and learn more.

Citations and Additional Sources

Citations
1)    Krisfalusi-Gannon, J., Ali, W., Dellinger, K., Robertson, L., Brady, T.E., Goddard, M.K., Tinker-Kulberg, R., Kepley, C.L. and Dellinger, A.L., 2018. The role of horseshoe crabs in the biomedical industry and recent trends impacting species sustainability. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5, p.185.
2)    Maloney, T., Phelan, R. and Simmons, N., 2018. Saving the horseshoe crab: A synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood for endotoxin detection. PLoS biology, 16(10), p.e2006607. 
 
Additional Sources for “Get to Know the Birds”
All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
 
Birds of the World (Various Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. 
 
New York Breeding Bird Atlas III eBird data courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
 
Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2015. Version 2.07.2017 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD