Every Spring along the mid-Atlantic coasts of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, Horseshoe Crabs come to the shore by the thousands to breed. It’s a slow, alien invasion of the earth, carried in by the tides. At first there are but a few dark bumps in the water, briefly visible beneath the waves. As more and more appear up and down the beach, struggling to drag their armored bodies through the sand and surf, one eventually begins to realize the massive scale of the phenomenon, stretching across beaches for hundreds of miles. The alien armada converges into groups of slow-motion frenzy, laying their tiny green eggs in the wet sand by the millions. Most of them then retreat back into the sea with the receding tide, but some don’t make it. Overturned by the waves or perhaps just exhausted, they remain in the sand and die. Like clockwork, to meet these strange visitors is a host of shorebirds, well aware that in the month of May when the moon is fullest or weakest and the tides are at their most extreme, the crabs will come. They fly by the hundreds in to row up along the beach, awaiting a feast of eggs without end. Gulls of all types, Plovers, Wickets, Sandpipers, Dowitchers and on and on, the volume of birds easily eclipses the numbers of the crabs. They time their arrivals with the low tide, knowing that this will lay bear the countless eggs in the sand. They form up in a row, up and down the coast for as far as we could see. Moving and picking through the sand, and occasionally squabbling with one another. For a few years now Catherine and I have wanted to photograph the spectacle taking place only a few hours away from our home, but have never had the opportunity until 2015. We took a few days off to be in Delaware during the mid-May full moon, checking the beaches from Bombay Hook to Henlopen. We spoke to the locals and park rangers to learn more about the event and where to find the most action and rarest birds. We were rewarded with extremely interesting sights and learned a great deal about the Horseshoe Crab season, so the trip was absolutely a success. As is always the case with nature, however, this sort of excursion does not always turn out perfectly, and despite the advice we were given the truly amazing spectacles occurred farther north in New Jersey where, ironically, we were erroneously told they don’t travel that far up into the Delaware River. At least this year, they did. There are actually a large number of small beaches along this way that could host Horseshoe Crabs, though not all of them were bustling with activity when we looked. Why the crabs appear more in some areas than others is a mystery at least to me — and considering the poor intelligence we received from some of the locals, apparently a mystery to a lot of people. Obviously, rangers at these seaside parks are extremely knowledgeable and taught us a great deal. Even they can’t predict nature, but they know where the crabs and birds have appeared in the past, and oftentimes are well-informed about what has been happening over the past few days. Thanks to smart phones and social media, Facebook and birding forums such as MD Birding (which we belong to) can be the best real-time sources of information that a natural event like this is peaking. However, it can be difficult for a working couple like us to have the flexibility in our schedule to be able to react on that news in a moment’s notice. That just means we will try again next year, planning with a better idea of what could happen and prepared to cast our net even wider.
Most of the beaches we visited were of the generic sand and crushed shell variety, usually with rows of private beach houses overlooking them. Salt marsh areas don’t seem to be the right conditions, so we were told that Prime and Bombay Hooks weren’t really candidates for Horseshoe Crabs. One of the more interesting locations we visited was Port Mahon, where the shore was covered in rocks. Surprisingly, the crabs were in large numbers that evening despite the difficulty of the locale, clambering up the rounded stones while being battered by the crashing waves. We photographed the crabs and birds up-close until it was dark. We spied an Osprey nest with chicks, high up on a man-made structure built for them, but it was too dark at that point to take advantage of the find. Another highlight was the Dupont Nature Center near Slaughter Beach, our two first experiences of the trip. Slaughter Beach featured a massive number of Laughing Gulls and other shorebirds stretched for miles. The Dupont Nature Center had a nice museum with helpful staff (the most informative conversations of the trip), a nice pier, lots of varied bird activity, and several large scientific research groups out on the sandbars and little islands, much closer to the the birds. Near the facility, we came across a veritable feast occurring right off the road, and were able to photograph Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones and Plovers from a very close distance. Near another beach that featured no activity, the very nice drive to it passed by some beautiful marshlands, and we stopped to photograph a pair of Black-Necked Stilts, as well as some Herons and Egrets.The weather was not too extreme, but ranged from cool to warm on the beach, and hot inland, so I would recommend wearing layers for changeable conditions. A storm rolled through on one of the evenings, and although this one was brief, they can be quite severe along the coast at that time of year. I personally prefer thin, long sleeve shirts with good ventilation and roll-up sleeves, and thin pants. All the major outdoor wear brands make clothing like this. They are versatile and keep me comfortable as the temperatures rise or fall, are quick to dry and take up little room in a pack. Sandals are usually enough for the sand, but hiking shoes or boots are also useful. Because I am bald, a hat is essential. I avoid baseball caps or anything with a long front bill, as they get in the way of the camera.
Catherine was using the E-M1 with the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens and a 1.4 teleconverter. In the low light of the evening, she switched to a Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 prime lens, the brightest lens I own at the moment. I was using the Canon 7D Mk II, so because this is a Micro Four-Thirds site, any Canon picture posted here is flagged as such. The rest were shot by my wife.The elements were not a problem for either camera on this trip, probably due to the wet environment damping down the sand and relative lack of wind and sea spray. Nevertheless, sand can be a real concern even for weather-sealed bodies. Even more of a danger is saltwater. Sea salt can wreak havoc on a sensor, and even void your warranty. Take care when changing lenses not to get either on the sensor. My recommendation would be to arrive with a telephoto or super-telephoto lens already attached. As the birds will fly away when humans get too close, this is about all that is needed. That said, pulling back and taking in the scene from a wider perspective provides scope and environmental context, so have either a zoom lens or a second body with a wide-to-normal focal length lens already attached. Fortunately, many of the small beaches are very close to the street, so it is easy to make a lens change from the security of the car. While I did take plenty of environmental shots with my telephoto, simply from a greater distance, haze and fog in the mornings can limit the results. Because one can never be sure if nature (the weather and/or the animals) is going to cooperate in such excursions, we always make it a point to have other activities planned when we invest in such expeditions. My wife and I toured several local breweries, ate very well, and enjoyed a bird photography trip to Bombay Hook (one of our favorite places, but which I will write about in another post). That said, wildlife photography requires patience. One must gain the knowledge of when and where to be best positioned for a spectacle, but be prepared for a long haul. We spent hours at each beach, taking in the views and enjoying ourselves, relaxing from the daily grind of our regular lives. Sometimes, luck is not on our side and we see very little, but just being together in the outdoors, leisurely exploring and learning, is its own reward. With time, nature will do something amazing before our eyes, and make all of it worthwhile.