Shorebirds that migrate through the Delaware Bayshore continue to decline, to the frustration of biologists studying and hoping to reverse the trend.
But awareness of the importance of the region to birds continues to grow.
New Jersey Audubon and the National Audubon Society have announced that the New Jersey portion of the bayshore -- an area encompassing about 50 miles of coastline, from Cumberland County to Cape May Point -- has been recognized as a globally important bird area, a program of BirdLife International.
The designation is more than a pat on the back. John Cecil, director of the Important Bird Areas Program at the National Audubon Society, said in a press release that prioritizing sites "helps the conservation community to direct very limited resources to the places harboring the most significant bird populations, facing the greatest threats or having significant management needs. This recognition will raise the awareness of the Delaware Bayshore's importance, not just locally, but throughout the western hemisphere and the world, facilitating conservation of critical sites for these birds species where they nest, migrate through, and winter."
Last spring, officials marked the 25th anniversary of the bayshore being designated the first site of hemispheric importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
That network now has 85 sites in 14 countries. The Important Bird Area program has 449 sites in the U.S.
The bay is a crucial stopover for migrating shorebirds en route to Arctic breeding grounds. Every spring, just as the birds are arriving from their wintering grounds in South and Central America, horseshoe crabs are making their way ashore to deposit their lipid-rich eggs in the sand. It's a vital food source for the weary, emaciated birds.
The rukus of feeding birds and breeding crabs -- thousands of them at a time on any given stretch of beach - has been described as a natural wonder akin to the wildlife on the plains of the Serengeti.
However, shorebird numbers have declined, and biologists blame the harvest of horseshoe crabs. There are still enough crabs to sustain the crab population, but not enough to sustain the bird population.
The species that is most worrisome is the red knot, whose numbers have declined from nearly 100,000 in the 1990s to about 16,000 or fewer today. Ruddy turnstones also have declined, along with semipalmated sandpipers and sanderlings.
"All of these shorebird species rely on the resources of Delaware Bay," said David Mizrahi, Vice-President of Research and Monitoring at New Jersey Audubon. "The tens of thousands of migratory birds of prey and millions of songbirds that use Delaware Bay habitats during migration will also benefit greatly from this very important designation."