Shorebirds Looney about Horseshoe Crab Eggs

RedKnot-DelawareBay-beach.GregoryBreese-USFWS

Red Knot Eating Crab Eggs at Delaware Bay Beach

Photo by Gregory Breese / USF&WS

Thankfully, the rhythms of our world are fairly predictable. Although the details differ, the overall cycles are regular:

While the earth remains, seedtimes and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)

Because of these recurring patterns migratory birds can depend on food being conveniently available when they migrate northward in the spring. In effect,  “fast food” on the beach is a “convenience store” for famished feathered fliers.

For example, consider how the annual egg-laying (and egg-burying) activities of horseshoe crabs perfectly synchronize with the hunger of migratory shorebirds (e.g., red knots, turnstones, and sandpipers) that stopover on bayside beaches, for “fast food”, right where huge piles of crab eggs have just been deposited (and where some have been uncovered by tidewaters).

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Horseshoe Crabs on Delaware Bay Beach

Photo by Gregory Breese / USF&WS

No need to worry about the birds eating too many crab eggs! – the egg-laying is so prolific (i.e., about 100,000 eggs per mother) that many horseshoe crab eggs are missed by the migratory birds, thus becoming the next generation of horseshoe crabs, plus the birds mostly eat the prematurely  surfacing eggs that are less likely to succeed in life anyway!)

Timing is everything. Each spring, shorebirds migrate from wintering grounds in South America to breeding grounds in the Arctic. These birds have some of the longest migrations known. Delaware Bay is the prime stopover site and the birds’ stop coincides with horseshoe crab spawning. Shorebirds like the red knot, ruddy turnstone and semipalmated sandpiper, as well as many others, rely on horseshoe crab eggs to replenish their energy reserves before heading to their Arctic nesting grounds.  The birds arrive in the Arctic before insects emerge. This means that they must leave Delaware Bay with enough energy reserves to make the trip to the Arctic and survive without food until well after they have laid their eggs. If they have not accumulated enough fat reserves at the bay, they may not be able to breed.

The world’s largest spawning population of horseshoe crabs occurs in Delaware Bay. During high tide, horseshoe crabs migrate from deep water to beaches to spawn. The female digs a nest in the sand and deposits between 4,000 and 30,000 eggs that the male will fertilize with sperm. A single crab may lay 100,000 eggs or more during a season. Horseshoe crab spawning begins in late April and runs through mid-August, although peak spawning in the mid-Atlantic takes place May 1 through the first week of June.

At low tide, adult crabs go back into the water but may return at the next high tide. Horseshoe crab spawning increases on nights with a full or new moon, when gravity is stronger and high tides are even higher. At the same time that migrating shorebirds arrive to rest and feed along Delaware Bay, horseshoe crab activity is high. While the crab buries its eggs deeper than shorebirds can reach, waves and other horseshoe crabs expose large numbers of eggs. These surface eggs will not survive, but they provide food for many animals. The shorebirds can easily feed on eggs that have surfaced prematurely.

Quoting Kathy Reshetiloff, “Migratory Birds Shore Up Appetites on Horseshoe Crab Eggs”, THE CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 27(3):40 (May 2017).

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Shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs on Delaware Bay Beach

Photo by Larry Niles

Notice how it is the gravitational pull of the moon, as the moon goes through its periodic cycle, that causes the high and low tides – which facilitate the uncovering of enough horseshoe crab eggs to satisfy the needs of the migratory stopover shorebirds that pass through Delaware Bay.  Notice how the moon provides a phenological “regulation” (i.e., the moon is physically ruling and correlating the interaction of the horseshoe crabs, the migratory shorebirds, and the bay’s tidewaters – in accordance with and illustrating Genesis 1:16-18).

At low tide, adult crabs go back into the water but may return at the next high tide. Horseshoe crab spawning increases on nights with a full or new moon, when gravity is stronger and high tides are even higher. At the same time that migrating shorebirds arrive to rest and feed along Delaware Bay, horseshoe crab activity is high.

Again quoting Kathy Reshetiloff, “Migratory Birds Shore Up Appetites on Horseshoe Crab Eggs”, THE CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, 27(3):40 (May 2017).

RedKnot-MigrationMap.NatureConservancy
Map of Red Knot Winter Ranges, Summer Breeding Range, & Migratory Stopovers
Map by The Nature Conservancy, adapted from USF&WS map

So, you might say that these reproducing Horseshoe Crabs, and the myriads of migratory shorebirds, share phenological calendars because they’re all looney.

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Red Knot on Beach, during Migratory Stopover
photo by The Nature Conservancy / M J Kilpatrick