Early May is the best part of beach season on some parts of the East Coast—for Red Knots, that is. In lieu of human crowds, the sands are filled with prehistoric swarms of horseshoe crabs, as well as feasting flocks of the threatened shorebirds numbering well into the thousands.
In New Jersey, hungry Rufa Red Knots should be touching down along the Delaware Bay by the end of this week. (Last year, the first wave flew in around May 7.) Joining them to gorge on fresh horseshoe crab eggs will be Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Dunlin, and—as your ears will confirm—one of the world's largest colonies of Laughing Gulls.
During their visit to the region, which lasts between two to three weeks, the knots nearly double their body weight in preparation for the last leg of their epic spring migration to the Arctic. (Learn more about the bay's importance and the risks the species faces there in the new documentary, Birds of May.) To allow the shorebirds to feed in peace, states like New Jersey close prime public beaches for almost the entire month of May. When you arrive, you'll find yellow ropes blocking off the shoreline, along with colorful signs, hand-drawn by kids, asking human visitors to please respect the birds’ space.
So be mindful, but don't be deterred: The springtime feeding frenzy is a natural spectacle that’s not to be missed, especially if you live anywhere near Delaware Bay. The map below features five places in New Jersey that have designated areas for birders to watch knots from a safe yet satisfying distance.
The middle of May is the perfect time to see Red Knots in New Jersey, but if you can't make it to the Garden State, keep in mind that there are additional viewing opportunities along the East Coast, from South Carolina all way up to Massachusetts. See the map below for suggested beaches and further sources of information.
Further tips: To fully experience the coastal ecosystem, pay attention to the tides. The beach looks like two entirely different places at low tide and high tide, and it's this movement of water that disperses the eggs on which the birds feed. At high tide, you'll notice the shorebirds in clusters. At low tide, the birds will be more widely dispersed, spreading out over the sand and mud flats that become exposed. Good birding etiquette is simple: Avoid wild movements and any loud screaming, and leave your dogs at home if you’re looking to get close to the knots. Also, make sure to stay for the sunset—and bring bug spray. Lastly, full moons and high tides offer great nighttime spectacles as the horseshoe crabs come to the beach to mate and nest.