Coming to Dinner
Over one million migratory shorebirds stop to rest and feed
on the shores of Delaware Bay en route to northern breeding
grounds. Meet ten of the species of birds that are observed
most frequently in Delaware Bay during the spring migration
This starling-sized bird has a
longish bill that is drooped at the tip, black legs, and
a hunched, "neckless" look. It feeds in loose flocks
along the water's edge on estuarine mud flats, preferring
mud to pure sand or rocky
shores. Up to 1,500 dunlins
have been counted in a square kilometer of habitat in Delmarva's
||Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla)
So named because of its loud, high-pitched "ha-ha-ha-haah-haah," this
black-hooded gull frequents estuaries, nesting on piles of dead grass in
salt marshes or sand dune swales. It prefers sites
with tall grass and often nests in colonies, with nests only a few feet apart.
It reuses the same nesting areas from season to season. The laughing gull migrates
to the Mid-Atlantic region from South America and the Gulf Coast. This bird
was rarely seen along Delaware Bay beaches in the 19th century. Its population
now is rebounding.
||Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
Least sandpipers begin to arrive from Mexico and the Southeastern U.S. by mid-April.
Their abundance on the shores of Delaware Bay peaks in late May as the horseshoe
crabs begin to spawn. During the stopover, least
sandpipers derive a large portion of their diet from horseshoe crab eggs, but
they also forage for polychaete worms and other aquatic invertebrates. After
replenishing their energy reserves, they migrate to breeding grounds in Nova
Scotia and northern Canada.
||Least Tern (Sterna antillarum)
The smallest of the terns, the least tern migrates to Delaware Bay in mid-April.
It scrapes out shallow nests in sand,
soil, or pebbles. This bird is a federally endangered species. Very rare in
the early 1900s due to human disturbances in breeding areas, the population
now is recovering.
||Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)
These sparrow-sized birds
are a federally threatened species; coastal development and dune stabilization
have decreased their nesting habitat along the Atlantic
coast. Scientists estimate that fewer than 1,400 pairs remain
in the Atlantic population. Most piping plovers winter along the Atlantic
coast between North Carolina and Florida.
||Red Knot (Calidris canutus)
Arriving from Tierra del Fuego and southern Argentina, 33% to 50% of
the red knot population uses Delaware Bay as a staging site. After consuming
thousands of horseshoe crab eggs during their stay, the birds fly off to the
Canadian high Arctic to breed. This robin-sized bird is gray on top and reddish
underneath, with the red turning whitish in the fall. To view red knot breeding
and wintering grounds, click
||Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
Each spring, after wintering along the Atlantic coast from South America to
South Carolina, ruddy turnstones stop to rest and refuel in Delaware Bay en
route to Canada and Greenland. Flipping over small stones and shells or digging
shallow holes in the sand, they forage for thousands of horseshoe crab eggs
to provide energy for the northern migration. Scientists estimate that 75%
of the eastern North American population uses Delaware Bay as a stopover.
||Sanderling (Calidris alba)
Called the "wind-up toys of the shorebird world," sanderlings
are one of the easiest sandpipers to identify. They are
small, pale-colored, highly active
waders with black bills and legs. During breeding season, their plumage is
bright white below and streaked chestnut and brown above. En route to nesting
grounds in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, sanderlings from Brazil, Peru,
and Chile probe Delaware Bay beaches for horseshoe crab eggs. Nearly 30% of the
population wintering in South America passes through Delaware Bay in the spring.
||Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla)
These birds arrive in Delaware Bay from the mudflats of Suriname. Their feet
are slightly lobed, which makes walking on mud easier. Although aquatic insects
comprise a significant portion of their diet, semipalmated sandpipers also
consume large quantities of horseshoe crab eggs. After refueling, they head
to their breeding grounds, from Northern Labrador west to Victoria Island.
Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus)
These birds are common visitors during the spring
migration when large flocks may be seen feeding in salt marshes
and mud flats, using their long bills to rapidly probe for
small marine animals. Rusty brown during summer and gray
in winter, short-billed dowitchers range from Alaska to eastern
Canada, wintering in the southern United States and South
Are the Birds Right Now?
With the help of the Western Atlantic Shorebird Association, click
here to create your own migration tracking maps for most
of our Delaware Bay visitors.