Each year, thousands of sandpipers and other shorebirds make extraordinary odysseys from one end of the earth to the other and back — some migrating an astonishing 19,000 miles. While writing a book about how shorebirds — some weighing no more than a coffee cup — manage such a feat, I tracked them down — on lonely, wind-swept beaches in Tierra del Fuego; bug-infested hunting preserves in South Carolina; beaches ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in Delaware Bay; and their nesting grounds on remote, Arctic tundra. I found them in surprising and unexpected places, but after logging more than 40,000 miles myself, I came to see the salt marsh, bay, and barrier beach by my Gloucester home with new eyes. I traveled to the distant ends of the earth and returned home to find, in beautiful Essex Bay behind Crane Beach, a way station for migrating birds, hidden in plain sight.
Shorebirds aren’t as easy to spot as the larger, showier wading birds that spend much of the summer here. Those large birds are on their way here now: great blue herons gliding in to stand, ever so still, in the mud; snowy egrets with their black legs and bright yellow feet, crouching in the creek, waiting to snap up a fish; great egrets with long, feathery white plumage, regally poised in the grass. In a kayak, it’s possible to gaze at these majestic birds up close without disturbing them. Hunters once shot several million egrets, ibises, herons, and other wading birds, taking their cascading plumage to adorn ladies’ hats. The birds, now protected, are coming back. Quietly paddling down a tidal creek, I’ve seen as many as 60 in an hour or two.
Other large birds are also returning to the bay. Ospreys will be nesting here shortly. Only a few weeks ago, my husband, gazing across the water through his binoculars at what looked to me like a large rock, recognized instead a very large juvenile bald eagle hunched at the water’s edge. We nearly lost our national bird when eagles, eating prey riddled with DDT, laid eggs with shells so thin they cracked. After 40 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers are rebounding, all these birds a welcome sign that we can restore what we have diminished.
The shorebirds are less conspicuous. Walking the beach on summer days, I’d seen flocks of sanderlings chasing the waves, and baby piping plovers making their first dashes across the sand. What I hadn’t realized is that at least 27 species of shorebirds come through Essex Bay on their way north or on their return trip south. Eventually, I’d begin to recognize them. In April and May, yellowlegs appear, running quickly through the mud on their long legs, bobbing their heads as they bend over to grab prey. A bit skittish, they can easily be frightened. Once their warning call pierces the air, the other birds take off. We keep our distance, and move very slowly when we see them.
In the spring black-bellied plovers come into the bay on their way north. Handsome birds with black and white tuxedo plumage, we find a few nestled against a mud bank or roaming a sandflat. In the Arctic, it took hours, sometimes days of walking to find their nests spread few and far between on cold gravel ridges rising above the tundra. Knowing how arduous their flight and how inhospitable their destination, I give them wide berth. They return in the fall, stopping here to rest and refuel. A few hours before high tide, they flock — 100, 200, and sometimes even 300 birds — on shoals of sand and grass not yet submerged by the incoming 10- or 11-foot tides. We’ve found them roosting near the river channel, where on the weekends, Jet Skis and high-speed power boats whiz by. As the river deepens on the rising tide, boats skirt the roost, and the birds take off. Once we began seeing black-bellied plovers, I was astonished I’d missed them all those years.
One day we pulled our kayaks up onto the mud and ever so slowly crossed the flat, trying not to cut our feet on broken clam shells. We headed up a tiny rivulet, behind a large clump of marsh grass. Beyond the grass, shorebirds feed as the tide comes in: white-rumped sandpipers; and a ruddy turnstone, a calico-patterned shorebird busily flipping bits of seaweed and shell to find food beneath. I’ve seen them in the Arctic, too, their patterned plumage a perfect camouflage in the stony tundra. I was mesmerized watching the birds, waiting to see who flies in as the water rises, and we lost track of time. When we made our way back to our kayaks, it was high tide, the mudflat had disappeared, and our boats were floating out in the bay.
This stand of marsh, now mostly covered with water, wasn’t here when we first moved to Gloucester. Storm surges are carrying sand into the bay as the beach retreats from a rising sea: When enough sand built up, the marsh seeded in. Rising water is beginning to inundate the marshes closer to shore. As the water continues to rise in the decades ahead, the marshes may not be able to move inland quickly enough to keep pace. Shorebirds may help. Some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, when the glaciers receded, leaving behind bare mud and rock, birds carrying seeds on their feathers and feet planted what would become New England’s vast expanse of lush salt marsh, its fertile tidal waters a nursery for fish, its thick, quickly growing grasses a sink for carbon dioxide, and its soft contours a haven for wildlife. Perhaps this time, as they did so long ago, a few shorebirds, carrying a few seeds, will drop them a bit inland, giving the grasses a fresh start on new ground and a chance for survival.
By day, we find shorebirds in the marsh and along the bay’s mud- and sand flats. By night, the marsh yields other hidden wonders. Horseshoe crabs, ancient animals who’ve inhabited the earth for some 475 million years, live offshore, coming up onto beaches along the Eastern Seaboard once a year to lay their eggs in the sand. Ruddy turnstones feast on millions of these pin-size, energy-rich eggs to fuel their migration. On moonlit nights of spring’s highest tides, when the entire marsh is flooded, we’ve glided through the grasses, looking for horseshoe crabs. They were once plentiful. A couple who live along a nearby creek and now have children and grandchildren told me of long ago spring nights when their yard was awash in horseshoe crabs. I’m lucky if I see two. Fishermen took so many for bait that their numbers plummeted, jeopardizing the journeys both of ruddy turnstones and red knots, a shorebird with russet plumage that also comes through here, and whose numbers have dropped by at least two-thirds.
It’s an easy paddle across the bay to the southern tip of Crane Beach. One day I met a man there, Dave Williams, who works for the Trustees of Reservations safeguarding the nests of piping plovers. A member of the Brookline Bird Club who knows more than a thing or two about shorebirds, he told me he’s seen a handful of red knots on Crane Beach, and been moved to tears by these small birds flying thousands of miles every year between the remote Arctic and the Strait of Magellan.
This year, as spring comes into the marsh, I wonder what new avian secrets the bay may reveal, what other shorebirds may fly in for sustenance on their long journeys. Perhaps I’ll see an American golden plover, a bird whose soft call I first heard on a mudflat in Delaware Bay and whose nests I tracked in the Arctic; or a Hudsonian godwit, a plump bird with a two-toned, upturned bill I last saw in Tierra del Fuego. These birds, like the ruddy turnstones and knots, are declining: Since I first began walking the beach, the number of North American long-distance migrating shorebirds has dropped by almost 50 percent. The knot that flies through here has just been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
I hope we will make room for them on this increasingly fragile and congested shore, and give them safe harbor. For me, the endurance of shorebirds and their miraculous flights along the edges of entire continents represent the hope that we too can rise to meet seemingly impossible challenges. And any day now, I expect to see once again the grace and beauty of a huge flock of sandpipers lifting into an evening sky, signal that a hard winter has turned to spring.
Deborah Cramer is the author of the newly released “The Narrow Edge:
A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.” She can be reached at www.deborahcramer.com.