by Terry Rogers
Many people are aware of efforts to preserve wildlife in Slaughter Beach, from protecting natural habitats where migratory birds nest, saving horseshoe crabs and turtles who spawn on the beaches and creating areas designed to attract monarch butterflies who travel through the beach town. However, what many people may not realize is that Slaughter Beach became the third town in Delaware to be named a Certified Wildlife Community in May 2015. According to Mayor Harry Ward, Slaughter Beach was one of the fastest towns to become certified in the country.
“Being named a Certified Wildlife Habitat Community primarily benefits our wildlife,” Mayor Ward said. “But, it also shows we understand the importance of this area and are taking actions to protect and preserve it for future generations. We have about 50 properties which have had their yards certified as Wildlife Habitat yards, with more added each year. We will add another Osprey nest this fall and continue to do things which not only benefit wildlife but also help to educate the public of the ecological significance of the area.”
Slaughter Beach has been synonymous with horseshoe crabs for many years. In the early 2000’s, residents began to notice a decline in the spawning populations. At this time, Mayor Ward and others sought answers from Glenn Gauvry of the Ecological Research Development Group, a leader in horseshoe crab conservation. One of the main problems with the horseshoe crab population was overfishing, but mortality due to waves flipping the crabs over on their backs also played a part. When a horseshoe crab flips onto its back, it cannot turn itself back over and it will die.
“By becoming a sanctuary, the town banned live harvest from the beach and also did outreach to residents and visitors of the importance of them,” Mayor Ward said. “Since we became a sanctuary, where I once saw a stranded crab with a footprint in it, I know see footprints and the trail of the crab going back into the water.” The town also participates in the “Just Flip ‘Em” program which encourages people to flip a crab over when they see it upside down on the beach. The best way to flip a crab is to nudge them gently with your foot or hand. Never pick them up or flip them using their tail. There are also information signs that provide education about horseshoe crabs and the town participates in the annual horseshoe crab spawning survey operated by the Delaware Nature Society.
Horseshoe crabs provide a vital link in the ecological chain as their eggs help to fatten shorebirds as they take the long flight to their breeding ground. Red Knots, a migrating bird that appear to be in decline throughout the world, fly non-stop from South America to the Delaware Bay. Some must eat their weight before they head off to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. In addition, blood from horseshoe crabs is extracted for biomedical purposes. Horseshoe crabs have copper-based blood which can be used to test drugs and vaccines for bacterial contamination.
“If you find a horseshoe crab with a tag, look for a phone number or website on the tag where you can call in to report the tag number, location and other information,” Mayor Ward said. “Never remove a tag from a crab. The crabs spawn on the highest tide, so they often burrow into the sand and wait for that tide. If the crab has burrowed into the sand above the tideline, they need to be picked up and moved down below the tide line. Horseshoe crabs cannot pinch or bite, so they can be handled easily.”
Although the conservation of horseshoe crabs at Slaughter Beach has often been highlighted, many area residents may not be aware that Slaughter Beach is also in the flight pattern for Monarch butterflies. Numbers of monarch butterflies have dwindled over the years and conservation efforts are growing to create habitats for the butterflies. In Slaughter Beach, residents who have earned certification plant milkweed and other flowers that are beneficial to monarchs and other species. Monarchs lay eggs in milkweed as their caterpillars only eat that plant.
“In cooperation with Delaware Nature Society and DelDOT, we are looking to monitor milkweed and monarchs within “no mow” areas of DelDOT’s right-of-ways in several spots in Sussex County. We are hoping we can create one within Slaughter Beach limits,” Mayor Ward said. “Monarchs will start migrating north later in the spring as the temperatures warm up. The fall migration back south usually starts in late September and into October. The migratory path in the fall can lead them over the Delaware Bay from New Jersey, a wonderful sight if they are migrating en-masse.”
Diamondback turtles are another species that are suffering from dwindling habitats. They are the only turtle that can live in brackish water all the time and adults can live in bay waters as well as marshy areas. The area surrounding Slaughter Beach provides an important environment for diamondback turtles, although erosions in beach dunes can hamper hatchlings as they try to get from the marsh to the bay. Some diamondback hatchlings winter on the beach and, in the spring, after the sand warms, will start the trip to the marsh. Although this normally happens in April, the migration is dependent upon the weather. Female diamondbacks begin nesting on the beach in late May with the nesting season continuing into July. Anyone who encounters a hatchling on the sand should place them in the marsh and not return them to the bay. Adult females can be placed in a safe location, pointed in the direction they are going.
“Spring brings shorebirds and the majority of the shorebirds that visit are the Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Sanderling and Dunlin,” Mayor Ward said. “Others that are common are the osprey, eagles, heron and egrets. Some will be here only a short period of time while others will stay through the summer and into the fall before migrating south. Fall brings migratory water fowl. From time to time we see birds which are not common in this area, such as the snowy owl. Great viewing areas are at the DuPont Nature Center on Lighthouse Road and Primehook National Wildlife Refuge.”
For more information about horseshoe crab preservation, Mayor Ward suggests visiting www.horseshoecrab.org. To learn more about Slaughter Beach’s conservation efforts, visit www.slaughterbeach.delaware.gov.