My hands were almost trembling with delight as I held for the first time a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Seconds earlier I carefully manipulated the net around its wings and over its head and freed it from the "woosh net." I was to transfer it to the holding box and then remove the next one. The safety of these small shorebirds was the top priority.
I admired the little shorebird in my hand, an adult starting to gain its breeding plumage, as if to assure it that all would be fine and it would be back with the flock in short order. I admired its bill and the partial webbing between its toes from which it gets its name, and its plumage starting to show the rusty browns of the season. It's eyes were bright and full of life. My grip was loose and it barely struggled, as if to say "you got me, now just don't eat me and it will all be good." In to the holding box it went where others were waiting and it could relax.
Each spring during the last few weeks of May, Semipalmated Sandpipers descend on the shores of Delaware Bay in great numbers to feast on the fat-rich eggs of Horseshoe Crabs. They probably spent the winter on the northern coast of South America in Suriname or French Guiana. For most, this may be the last stop before they reach the Arctic where they will breed during the short Arctic summer. The eggs are the fuel they will need for the final leg of migration. To say that Delaware Bay and Horseshoe Crabs are important to Semipalmated Sandpipers would be a gross understatement.
I had the pleasure of joining Dr. David Mizrahi, Director of Research for New Jersey Audubon Society, and his team who have long been studying Semipalmated Sandpipers in Delaware Bay and in South America. Part of his research involves capturing the shorebirds, weighing and measuring each individual, and then banding the birds with the hopes they will be encountered again at some place in the hemisphere.
Each bird provides valuable data used to better understand how well Semipalmated Sandpipers are doing, where they stop during migration and spend the winter, and potentially where they breed. The weights and measures provide a good indication of their fitness. Over time, data from Dr. Mizrahi's research provides a picture of the well-being of the overall population and helps in making informed conservation decisions.
The assembly line for weighing, measuring and banding the birds was already set up, and the banding team took their stations to process each bird. They had done this before and moved through each bird quickly and efficiently. The 25 sandpipers we captured were finished in short order and within about an hour from the time they were captured, they were released back on the beach so they could rejoin the flock. Each was no worse for the experience and contributed to the conservation of their species.