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Sex on the Beach

If you want to see the crabs without counting over the next several weeks, you don't necessarily have to go out in the middle of the night. (But it's much more spectacular if you do. They like the full and new moons.) For the less ambitious watcher, horseshoe crabs also show up at high tide during the day.

But midnight it was as we walked along the beach. I spent most of my time turning upended crabs back over. Hall directed some back toward the water. "C'mon, lady of the night, you'll find your way," he coached them. "When you see them try to right themselves, you wonder how they survived 300 million years."

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn by the thousands along Delaware Bay beaches. (Jim Graham - For The Washington Post)

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Horseshoe crabs are the same phylum, arthropoda, as the true crabs, but they belong to a different subphylum and are actually more related to spiders, scorpions and mites. As militaristic as they look in their spiked armor, the crabs are no risk to handle. They don't bite or pinch. About the only way you could get hurt by a horseshoe crab is if someone threw one at you.

In fact, I realized as I got ready for my drive back along that dark road, the horseshoe crab is the least scary thing out here.

ESCAPE KEYS

BE A VOLUNTEER HORSESHOE CRAB COUNTER: This year's Horseshoe Crab Spawning Survey continues for the next several weeks at beaches around the Delaware Bay, on both the New Jersey and Delaware sides.

The greatest crab activity tends to be at high tide on nights of either full or new moons. Upcoming dates include: May 24, 26 (full moon), June 8, 10 (new moon), 12, 22, 24 (full moon), 26. To sign up, visit www. aegis.er.usgs.gov/groups/stats/Limulus. You can specify your date and choice of Delaware or New Jersey sides, but researchers will assign you to a specific beach, with directions.

STAYING THERE: On the Delaware side,Dover is a good base for most of the survey beaches. Try the Little Creek Inn (2623 N. Little Creek Rd., 302-730-1300), a historic, pet-friendly inn with Jacuzzis. Rooms start at $125. On the New Jersey side, Cape May is the natural base, with plenty of options. One good one is the Hotel Macomber (727 Beach Ave., 609-884-3020), a landmark brick pile with rooms starting at $75.

BIRDING: All those horseshoe crab eggs attract a remarkable number of birds, particularly famished migrant songbirds on their long way north from wintering grounds in the southern tropics. Known as the Feast on the Bay to birders, the bacchanalia of crabs spawning and birds feeding attracts almost as many people with field glasses and life lists as it does animals. Contact the Cape May Bird Observatory for information on the best viewing beaches and times. Details: 609-884-2736, www.njaudubon.org/Centers/CMBO.

INFO: Kent County (Dover) Tourism Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-233-5368, www.visitdover.com. Cape May Chamber of Commerce, 609-465-7181, www.capemaycountychamber.com.


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