The Bay of Fundy is one of North America’s most important autumn feeding areas for migrating shorebirds, especially Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla). Semipalmated means partially webbed foot. Located on the Atlantic coast between the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy has some of the largest tidal amplitudes in the world – 13 meters to 16 meters at spring high tides. Low tide exposes extensive food rich mud flats where the shorebirds feast on a wide variety of marine invertebrates. These fabulous mudflat areas are located at the northern end of the bay.
By mid-August shorebirds have completed their breeding season in the Northern Hemisphere’s arctic, and have begun their migration south to their wintering grounds in the Southern Hemisphere. Tens of thousands of shorebirds spread out over the extensive red mudflats at low tide, and at high tide the birds cluster in dense groups along the rocky shoreline. These birds spend a week or more feeding and fattening up for their one non-stop long flight to South America. They fly over the Atlantic Ocean for over 2,500 miles (4,500 km) during several days before reaching South America totally exhausted.
Other shorebirds, the Semiplamated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), a few Red Knot (Calidris canutus), Blackbellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Short billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus), and Sanderlings (Calidris alba) also visit this staging area and feed in these mudflats. However, they are much less common than the dominant Semipalmated Sandpiper. An estimated 2,000,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers feed and fatten up at the Bay of Fundy – about 75% of the world’s population of this one shorebird species.
The amphipod crustacean (Corophium volutator) is extremely abundant in the mudflats and is the major food for the shorebirds. The extraordinary low tides of the upper bay expose expansive brownish sand and clay mudflats that are rich in marine invertebrates.
Flocks of sandpipers fly in a distinctive, synchonrized group known as “murmuration”. From a distance, these flocks look like swarms of insects swooping up and down in the sky. Upon closer inspection one sees tightly packed groups of birds flying in an intricately coordinated pattern. Generally, these murmuration flocks contain thousands of birds of one species as they swirl and swoop in the sky and over water.
Murmuration requires incredible coordination among all the birds in the flock. Often there are several flocks swirling and swooping in the sky at the same time. Murmuration provides protection for individual birds from predators such as hawks and falcons when they are part of a large flock. Beside sandpipers, other bird species that are often seen in murmuration flight are the Starlings, Dickcissels, Budgies and Pigeons.
During the past forty years conservation groups have formed to focus conservation and education attention on the Bay of Fundy’s key role in the lives of shorebirds. In 1982 the region’s wetlands received Ramsar designations. In 1987, Mary’s Point Bird Sanctuary consisting of 12 square km of wetlands and mudflats was incorporated into the Western Hemispheres Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). In 2007 the area was designated a Biosphere Reserve. The Canadian Wildlife Service manages the Shepody Bay National Wildlife Area, and operates the Shorebird Center that provides an educational focal point to many birdwatchers visiting in August.
The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network was founded in May 1986 with the designation of Delaware Bay, United States. The Reserve’s goals are to protect the most important feeding and resting areas for mixed flocks of shorebirds migrating north during the Northern Hemisphere spring in May, and for the autumn migration south in August and September.
There are 106 sites in the network from 17 participating countries. There are more than 400 participating government wildlife agencies and NGOs protecting and managing over 38 million acres of shorebird habitat.
Several Internationally Significant WHSRN sites in South America are Salina Solar Los Olivitos’ 7,482 acres in Venezuela; Bahia de San Antonio’s 41,760 acres, and Estuario del Rio Gallegos’ 10,625 acres in Argentina.
The northern part of the Bay of Fundy has several large bays and wetland areas that are significant shorebird feeding and resting areas. Protection is being expanded to the Cumberland Basin in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and Cobequid Bay in Nova Scotia.
Conservation measures have increased to protect the feeding and resting shorebirds. For decades at high tide one could sit on the sandy beaches at Mary’s Point among the resting shorebirds. Now access is restricted to the rocky beaches where the Semipalmated Sandpipers rest. Nature photographers now need longer lenses to capture the constant movement of flocks of shorebirds.
New Brunswick nature photographer, Sybil Wentzell has been photographing the autumn shorebird migration for many years:
“As a nature lover and wildlife photographer, nothing affects me quite like the arrival of the shorebirds, a life force bursting onto our Fundy shores each summer. To capture the beauty of their aerial displays and their vulnerability during rest is an emotional experience.”
“There’s a palpable excitement in the air when the first wave of shorebirds arrive here on the Bay of Fundy from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. They are expected visitors, after all.
“I love to photograph the birds in celebration of their remarkable migration and also for their artistry in the skies, dazzling onlookers with their spectacular choreography.”
“These shorebirds are a wonder to observe, photograph and contemplate. During roosting at high tide direct beach access is restricted. However, there’s a wide range of photographic opportunity from the erected viewing platforms where you can still, respectfully, get quite close to the flocks. High tide and its approach is a critical time for the shorebirds. It’s the only time they can rest and it’s often interrupted by falcon predation. Once the tide recedes, exposing the mudflats once again, feeding resumes, day or night. Protection of our visiting shorebirds is hugely important on our shores and much effort is exercised to leave them undisturbed with the hope of enabling them to continue many future extraordinary and successful migrations.”
Long time New Brunswick environmentalist’s reports that significant progress has been made during the last two decades on the conservation of key wetlands and mudflats in the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy. Wetlands have been purchased by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Wildlife management officers have implemented rules for visitors to Mary’s Point. Years ago, visitors could walk out onto the sandy beaches during an approaching high tide, and sit and wait for the shorebirds to fly to the beach, land and walk around visitors and photographers. Now, visitors and photographers are prohibited from going onto these sandy beaches at high tide. The beaches are now reserved for shorebird resting and sleeping areas.
David Christie, retired ornithologist from the New Brunswick Museum recently commented “during the past three decades Canada has implemented significant conservation accomplishments for resting and feeding areas of migrating shore birds.”
The Bay of Fundy is a world-class natural area with many impressive natural features and species –Atlantic Puffins, Razor-billed Auks, Right Whales, rocky shores, and of course shorebirds. Visitors with cameras to the Bay of Fundy region in Canada are never disappointed. The second and third weeks of August are peak times for viewing and photographing migrating shorebirds.
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