Rambler Takes Flight

Local activists hope Mispillion River Brewing’s Red Knot Rambler will raise both funds and awareness for bird conservation efforts in Delaware


Last fall, the journal Science published a report showing that over the past 50 years, North American bird populations have decreased by almost 30 percent. Drawing on data collected over decades, scientists confirmed a net loss of approximately 3 billion birds since 1970.

For nature lovers worldwide, the report was alarming and discouraging. Locally, however, a collective of private and public partners refused to take the bad news sitting down.

In an ongoing effort that this year connects Delaware’s birds, beaches, and breweries—three drivers of tourism in the First State—this environmentally-minded partnership hopes to raise both awareness and funds in the fight to preserve local and migratory bird populations.

And now you can help the cause, even if it’s simply by enjoying a pint of local craft beer.  In April, Mispillion River Brewing will release the Red Knot Rambler, a red IPA. Proceeds from sales will go toward purchasing more preserved lands for Delaware’s shore birds.

Here’s the story about bird-lovers trying to preserve our beaches, and a beer that is truly for the birds.

Fighting For Fine-Feathered Friends

“If you want to improve the world, start with appreciating what’s in the world around you and learn from it,” says Sally O’Byrne.

A naturalist at Delaware Nature Society, O’Byrne has spent a large amount of her life learning about and appreciating birds, and her studies and activism have made Delaware a better place for birds.

For more than 30 years, O’Byrne also served two terms as president of Delaware Ornithological Society (DOS). In 2018, DOS awarded her its Conservation Award.

“Sally’s contributions to DOS citizen science are extensive,” wrote DOS Conservation Chair Matt Sarver, citing O’Byrne’s involvement in area bird counts and studies starting in 1993.

“In the early 2000s, Sally’s coordination of the Russell Peterson Refuge Avian Survey was paramount in the creation of the Russell Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge,” Sarver continued, also noting that, before her time at DOS, her wildlife studies along the Christina River in 1979 helped lead to the creation of the Riverfront Development Corporation in Wilmington.

“Sally has been a Delaware Bird-A-Thon Committee member and highly successful Bird-A-Thon participant for the past 11 years, personally raising tens of thousands of dollars for habitat conservation,” Sarver added.

Bird-A-Thon began 13 years ago as an attempt to focus on the plight of the Red Knots, migratory shore birds that stop to feed along the Delaware beaches on their journey back north every spring. Researchers estimate that the average Red Knot doubles its body weight while feeding on the eggs of horseshoe crabs on the Delaware Bay.

“Delaware is very important as a migratory flyway,” O’Byrne says. “The Delaware Bay is recognized as being one of the most important corridors in the world for the movement of birds. 

Naturalist Sally O’Byrne has been a lead activist in the effort to conserve coastal lands. Photo by Les Kipp

“There is a massive migration of shore birds that spend the winters in South America and nest in the tundra [north of the United States]. For many of them, a major stopping ground where they bulk up with food is in the Delaware Bay, and it’s perfectly timed with horseshoe crab eggs. The spawning of the horseshoe crabs is what feeds them.”

In the early-to-mid-‘90s, studies indicated that the numbers of horseshoe crabs and shorebirds were on the decline, a result of development on the bay shores and—although hard to believe—the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs.

“Smoked eel is huge in Europe,” O’Byrne says. “And with the Jimmy Buffett craze [in the ‘90s], conch chowder became very popular for a while. Horseshoe crab is good bait for either of them. It really ticked upwards in the ‘90s because of the growing demand for eel and conch. With demand in the Virginias and the Carolinas, they started exporting [horseshoe crabs] out of the state.”

Surprisingly, there is also a medicinal use for the horseshoe crab.

“Horseshoe crab blood has anticoagulant properties that are very unique, making it very important for medicine,” says O’Byrne. “So there are some big firms in New Jersey where they harvest horseshoe crabs.”

For DOS members, the writing was on the wall: Fewer horseshoe crabs on Delaware beaches meant fewer horseshoe crabs eggs, which in turn meant less food for migrating birds like the Red Knot. The fragile ecosystem revealed its vulnerability.

Through Bird-A-Thon, DOS members hoped to raise funds to buy coastal land that would help preserve the ecosystem and the feeding grounds for migrating shorebirds.

The goal the first year was to raise $17,000 to buy 17 acres of Fowler Beach, just east of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Bird-A-Thon teams took pledges to see how many birds they could find in one 24-hour period.

“This is an organization whose [previous] major fundraisers had been book sales and bake sales,” O’Byrne admits. “We did not have a history of raising money. We are completely volunteer.”

The event exceeded the goal by raising $21,000.

“We were blown away by our own efforts because we had never done anything like that,” O’ Byrne says. “Now in our 13th year, we have raised well over $500,000, and we have helped purchase almost 2,000 acres of preserved land in Delaware. That [effort] has been in partnership with The Conservation Fund, the Division of Fish and Wildlife, and Delaware Wild Lands. We’ve worked with all three [to purchase the land].“For all of those groups, gathering money in a partnership way creates a match, it creates goodwill, and it makes you have a sense of community. So it’s been a very successful program.”

This year the partnership looks forward to another source to generate funds for buying preserved lands. That source may be on tap at a bar near you.

Later this spring, along with the arrival of thousands of migratory birds on Delaware’s shores, Red Knot Rambler will be released by Mispillion River Brewing, and proceeds of sales will go toward the conservation effort.

Where The Wild Things Are

“The Red Knot is a poster child for the shore birds,” O’Byrne says.

It was a perfect match for Mispillion, a brewery fond of naming its beers after wild animals – e.g., Space Otter, War Badger, Lightning Bug—or featuring various comical creatures on their colorful cans. One of Mispillion’s best sellers, Reach Around IPA, has a grinning sloth, its limbs clutching a tree.

For Eric Williams, who founded Mispillion River Brewing on the outskirts of Milford in 2013, there was another reason creating the beer was a good match. As an avid outdoorsman, fisherman, and hunter, Williams values conservation efforts.

“I studied wildlife biology at University of Montana, and I focused on fisheries,” Williams says. “But my passion was always birds and birding. I was very good at picking out which birds were what, from raptors, to ducks, to songbirds.”

But even he admits he did not know how popular the Red Knot is to the international birding community.

Mispillion River Brewing founder and president Eric Williams is joining DOS’s conservation effort. Photo Butch Comegys

“I knew about the Red Knot,” Williams says, “and I knew that the Delaware Bay coastline is conducive to the survival of these birds and their migration. But I didn’t know that people from all over the world come here during the month of May for the bird counts.” 

Lauren Bigelow, who has worked at Mispillion for six years under the tongue-in-cheek title of “Marketing Ninja,” remembers the day O’Byrne and her team came to the brewery to discuss doing a beer for the project. Bigelow had been meeting with Williams and Mispillion COO Ryan Maloney when fate opened a door.

The Delaware Bay is a vital stop for the migrating Red Knot. Photo Harold Davis

“It was literally the day we were having a discussion about what organizations we wanted to be associated with in terms of nonprofit work going forward,” Bigelow says. “We talked about how both Eric and Ryan naturally geared towards conservancy efforts because they’re both hunters. And they [O’Byrne’s team] walk through the door 10 minutes later.”

It was meant to be. But kismet didn’t stop there.

“That was a weird moment, too,” Bigelow says, a touch of astonishment still in her voice. “We had been talking earlier that day about artists, and Ryan was talking about how he just wished he’d be able to create something like [Delaware nature artist] Richard Clifton had.”

Later, as the birders and the brewers talked about the project, O’Byrne asked the Mispillion team what DOS could do to help make the beer a reality. The topic of package art came up.

“They were like, ‘What was your wish list?’” Bigelow recalls. “And we said, ‘Well, Richard Clifton would be the obvious choice because he has such a reputation for painting local wildlife.” And they were like, “Oh, well, we know him; we can make that happen.”

“And then he did it,” Williams adds.

As the process continued, it gained another partner. Enter Jason Weissberg, the local sales representative for Roy Farms, a major hops grower in Moxee, Wash.

“When Jason heard about it, he said, ‘I want to be a part of it,’” Williams says. Weissberg subsequently donated all the hops for the beer on behalf of Roy Farms. “And we’re still looking for other partners to team up with to celebrate the uniqueness of Delaware,” adds Williams.

DOS secured this Richard Clifton painting for the Red Knot Rambler can art. Photo courtesy of the Delaware Ornithological Society

The Red Knot Rambler is being brewed with darker malts to give it a bright red hue. It will be put on draft at exclusive accounts and will be sold in stores as 16-oz. can four-packs. Both the brewers and birders hope it flies off the shelves.

“You go home at night feeling like you’ve not only just made some great award-winning beers, but that you’ve had a positive impact, especially when it has to do with something local,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of land that is fading away to houses and what-not and our beaches are always very, very fragile. They could go away at any moment.

“Maybe the Red Knot is the bird that helps people understand that we need to make sure that we preserve our coastal beaches.”

Mispillion will host a Red Knot Rambler Launch Party at the brewery on Saturday, April 18, with other events around the state to follow.

O’Byrne looks forward to the party after she returns from bird studies in New Zealand, where she’s spending the second half of February and the first half of March. She’s encouraged by the energy behind the project, but believes it will take a lot more like this one all over North America to get the bird population back to 1970 figures. She says the first step is getting out there in nature.

“There is not enough reflection in the world,” she says. “There are not enough people who think about their place in the world and how important nature and wildlife is.

“If you take the time to absorb the sights and the sounds and the smells of nature—whether it’s in your backyard, canoeing on the Christina, or hiking in the Rocky Mountains—you will become a more grounded person. You will have a better sense of yourself and your place in the world. And that will help you make decisions about the world.”

The Red Knot Rambler Launch Party will take place at Mispillion River Brewing on Saturday, April 18, with other events to follow statewide. To learn more about the event, go to MispillionRiverBrewing.com. To discover how you can get involved with the Delaware Ornithological Society, go to DOSbirds.org.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.