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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 2


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New Brunswick, Nova Scotia project set to protect shorebird habitat

By Kate Merlin

Starting in late July to mid-August the Upper Bay of Fundy caters to massive flocks of shorebirds, numbering in the millions. For weeks the birds gorge on a diet of invertebrates before migrating on to South America. Now nearly a thousand acres of critical habitat used by the roosting birds will receive protection under the recently launched Upper Bay of Fundy Shorebird Project.

The semipalmated sandpiper migrates from the Arctic to South America each year with a stopover in the Upper Bay of Fundy. Photos courtesy of the Nature Conservancy of Canada

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) spearheaded the initiative and is working in partnership with the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as the federal Canadian Wildlife Service. The major areas Johnson’s Mills, Dorchester Cape, and Mary’s Point in New Brunswick and Evangeline Beach in Nova Scotia have been recognized internationally by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network as regions of international significance. They are important to many migratory birds and critical to the survival of the semipalmated sandpiper because about 95 percent of the world’s population of the species visit the area each summer.

“The fact that such a large percentage of the population depends on these mudflats for their survival makes this area highly significant,” says Josette Maillet, the science and stewardship coordinator for the NCC’s Atlantic office in Fredericton. “If the natural features of this area were altered by human activities, or otherwise, it could be devastating for the entire population.”

More than two million sandpipers, including the least sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper and short-billed dowitcher, visit the Fundy mudflats each year to feast mostly on the protein and fat rich Corophium volutator, which occur in huge numbers there. In just one square centimeter of mud, there can be over 3,000 of these scavengers, which resemble tiny shrimp. As the tide ebbs, they scurry along the surface and each sandpiper can gobble up between 9,000 and 23,000 of the amphipods before the tide rises again.

At high tide, the birds huddle together on the beach in huge numbers and rest until the tide ebbs again so they can feast once more. After 10 to 15 days, the birds have doubled their weight and they are ready to fly non-stop to their over-wintering grounds in South America— 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away. Their marathon flight will take about four days and consume almost all their accumulated fat reserves. If the birds are harassed while they are resting on the beach, they may not have the necessary fat reserves to make the journey south.

But protecting the birds isn’t easy. The Canadian federal government manages them under the Migratory Bird Act, the inter-tidal region where they feast is under provincial jurisdiction, and those critical roosting beaches are often in the hands of private landowners.

“Birds roost on beaches that people like to use,” says Peter Hicklin of the Canadian Wildlife Service, who is a world-renowned expert on the semipalmated sandpiper. Unrestrained dogs, all-terrain vehicles, and even people swimming and playing on the beach can disturb the flocks of roosting birds, causing them to burn off those vital fat reserves.

Some of these beaches are already protected. Stewards Mary Majka and David Christie started to guard the roosting birds over 25 years ago and the NCC has purchased about 100 acres of critical habitat near Johnson’s Mills since 1994. Now as part of the shorebird project, the NCC and other partners of the Eastern Habitat Joint Venture/North American Waterfowl Management Plan, plan to purchase 650 acres of habitat and obtain conservation easements and agreements for another 320 acres, which they will manage in conjunction with their numerous partners.

The NCC also plans to extend their interpretive programs to accommodate the thousands of birders that visit the area. Last summer, they had four interpreters at Johnson’s Mills to explain the importance of the site and monitor the crowds so that they did not disturb the resting birds. This summer, they hope to hire six interpreters and eventually have an interpretive program at Evangeline Beach. A similar interpretive program has worked well at Mary’s Point where Majka finds that visitors are interested in the survival of the birds and do not disturb the roosting flocks.

“Everyone concerned about the welfare of the shorebirds should be very grateful for the work done by the Nature Conservancy of Canada,” Hicklin says. With the Upper Bay of Fundy Shorebird Project, they will be able to secure even more of this critical habitat and the sand-pipers and other migratory birds can continue to rest and fatten up on the mudflats of Fundy.