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The Road Less Trammeled
by Steven T. Rider

Bay Migration    April 01, 2004

The Delaware Bay is an incredibly rich ecosystem in spite of the immense development pressures that surround it.

The place where New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware converge is a smorgasbord of out-of-the-mainstream diversions for those who look beyond the obvious. Aside from the well-known Independence Halls, Cape Mays, and Delaware Beaches there are other intriguing places. Even in the very midst of the sprawl of the region, there are to be found some truly remarkable places.

Check out Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River. This island served as a POW camp for captured Confederate soldiers in addition to its original purpose. The island is also known to support nesting populations of some of the bigger wading birds. This unique place is accessible from Fort Mott State Park in New Jersey or from Delaware City in Delaware. April visits will reward you with some of the best viewing opportunities along the Atlantic seaboard for waterfowl migration and neotropical migrants (summer birds).

The Delaware Bay is second to none in its richness and variety of life. Located along the Atlantic flyway, April is the best time of year to spot migrating waterfowl, for which this and its sister bay, the Chesapeake, are renowned. These birds journey north from warmer climates (some as far distant as South America) to their summer breeding grounds in the Northern U.S. and Canada. This migration coincides with a phenomenon that has been an annual occurrence since the dinosaurs were young.

For over two hundred million years the American Horseshoe Crab has been crawling ashore each spring to lay its eggs. Many birds feast on these eggs to bolster their energy stores. Sometimes doubling their weight on this protein-rich diet, this stopover will enable them to finish their migration, mate, and rear their young before returning south again in the fall.

Crab numbers have been declining in recent years along with a corresponding decrease in migrating birds. Scientists have an idea that the lower crab numbers are directly affecting the birds’ ability to store sufficient energies for their migration. The words of John Muir come to mind, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." The trick is to correctly identify which is the cause and which is the effect.

The humble Horsehoe Crab is a true survivor, able to maintain a viable population through all of the mass extinctions that have befallen our planet. Stay tuned as we try to find out why they are declining now. Check out The Nature Conservancy’s web page and look for the Edward H. McCabe Preserve. The Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, is also a great spot to get serious about waterfowl. The Refuge has an active event schedule, and you can even get involved in horsehoe crab counts. They boast three observation towers and some of the meanest biting flies this side of Hades.

Insects are very much a part of this ‘circle of life’ in the Delaware Bay. Insect repellent is only one aspect of an integrated pest avoidance strategy in these parts. Any foray into the tidal marshes or within several miles of the coast calls for prudence and preparation. Long sleeves, long pants and fine mesh netting will go a long way toward making this a memorable rather than an infamous adventure. Who cares if you think you’ll look goofy…I guarantee that anyone whose glance lingers is doing their best not to appear jealous.

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