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July 3, 2000

For more information contact:
Jim Myers at 609-292-3795 or Amy Collings at 609-984-1795

Internet users will be able to take a virtual trip to the Canadian Arctic during the next few weeks as state biologists tracking endangered shorebirds file daily updates during their 19-day expedition to the birds' northern breeding grounds.

Researchers from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife will trek to the cool, Canadian terrain to locate and study breeding red knots, a shorebird that feeds on horseshoe crab eggs along the Delaware Bay in May before heading north to breed.

Between Tuesday, June 27, and July 15, biologists from the division's Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) will file daily updates and photographs and will make the reports available to researchers, residents, birders and others interested in the findings, via the division's home page:

"We in New Jersey take very seriously our responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the horseshoe crab population which is critical to the survival of these migratory shorebirds," said Governor Christie Whitman, who supports realistic caps on horseshoe crab harvests along the eastern seaboard, and who imposed an emergency, 60-day ban on harvesting in state waters in response to initial reports of sharp declines in the number of crabs and the migratory birds in the Delaware Bay area.

The red knots, which winter in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, essentially double their weight during their Delaware Bay stopover before embarking on a non-stop 2,000-mile flight to their breeding grounds on the edge of the Arctic north of Hudson Bay. During their New Jersey shore stopover, the tens of thousands of birds create a spectacle that attracts numerous ecotourists and generates millions of dollars for the state and local economies.

"This is essential research that will help determine if the commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs for bait is reducing crab numbers and threatening the supply of crab eggs that the red knots and other shorebirds, such as ruddy turnstones and semi-palmated plovers, depend upon for survival," said DEP Commissioner Bob Shinn.

To measure what effects such an egg decline might have on the red knots' ability to reproduce, the 14-person expedition plans to locate the nests of some of the 140 red knots that were outfitted with lightweight radio transmitters during banding operations on the Delaware Bay in May.

"If the crabs do decline, which we think is already happening, we want to establish some baseline data so that we will be able to have hard data concerning the impact of such a decline on the red knots," says ENSP Chief Larry Niles, who is co-leading the field trip with Mark Peck of the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto. "If the crabs fail, the possible consequences include some red knots failing to gain enough weight to make the flight to the breeding grounds. Others could get there late or fail to breed, and still others might not produce as many chicks."

Prior to last summer, no one had ever located nesting red knots from the Western Hemisphere. But, last July, conducting an aerial survey of Southampton Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay, within a matter of hours Niles' team located eight birds transmitting signals within a stretch of 2,500 square kilometers. Those eight were among 65 that had been outfitted with transmitters months earlier on the Delaware Bay. One nest and its female were ultimately located on the ground.

Based on a statistical analysis, ENSP estimates that that area alone probably harbors 5,000 pairs or 10,000 adult red knots -- one-sixth of the estimate of red knots that travel from South America through New Jersey and into Canada.

This year's expedition goals are two-fold:

Study in-depth the breeding birds on Southampton Island. The team hopes to locate about 30 birds with transmitters.
Conduct an aerial survey of lands to the north and west of Southampton Island, including a more than 500-mile stretch from Baffin Island westward to Victoria Island. This survey for other birds with radio transmitters will focus on terrain that, according to LANDSAT satellite images, is similar to the rather barren, rocky terrain where the red knots are breeding on Southampton Island.
The 14-person expedition includes four Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists, two Royal Ontario Museum biologists and a videographer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, a biologist from The Nature Conservancy, a Rutgers University ecologist, a biologist from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, a graduate student from Argentina, and an Inuit guide and an educator who will establish a sister-school relationship between an Inuit school on Southampton Island and a southern New Jersey school.

The expedition has been funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Dodge Foundation, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Jersey Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy. DEP's ENSP receives no direct state funding. It is supported through the wildlife check-off option on state income tax returns, the 'Conserve Wildlife' license plate and other donations.