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A Bird’s Eye View: July 16, 2010

A May Day at Jamaica Bay

On a Saturday at the end of May a year ago, my wife and I went to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of the premier spots in the NYC metropolitan area to witness the annual avian spring migration. The first things we hear are the sounds of birds. In my high-powered scope is a vocalist, the rufous-sided towhee. It’s a striking black and white bird with an amber eye and a generous dash of rust on its side. Its bill opens, sending out calls into the morning air.

A tree swallow in shimmering metallic blue breeding plumage spills out of a new nest box onto a nearby branch to exercise its vocal cords. With its bill closed, the tiny bird emits short, high calls and with each note its little chest expands.

We walk on a path between the bay on one side and a large pond called the West Pond on the other. The edge of the West Pond is ringed by cattails with two yellow-crowned night-herons with greenish/gray-patterned backs flying over its rippled water. Looking as if they are about to land, they continue around and fly out of sight. The oystercatcher is a black-headed bird whose bright red, long, thick bill is used to pry open oysters and mussels. There’s one in the shallow waters of the bay walking among dozens of brant geese. Disappearing and reappearing, it finally stops and digs its bill into the water, coming up with possibly a mollusk or marine worm.

The results of nature’s DNA dance are on display down the ¼ mile long Terrapin Trail. On the beach below the trail is a Canada goose with a tea colored stain on the white of its neck. Standing directly in front of us is its mate. Next to her is a depression in the sand in which there are two eggs. One looks as if there are cracks in it. Is it about to hatch? Looking closely I think there may be strands of grass lying across the eggs, which resemble cracks. The mother-to-be eases herself onto the eggs to incubate them. She stretches out her long tube-like neck, moving it side to side, seemingly eating grasses. Later I see that she’s using the grasses to fill in the area around her “seat”, which doesn’t completely cover the eggs. How long before these eggs hatch?

Sitting on the otherwise deserted beach are two other adult Canada geese with a fuzzball of a chick between them. The fuzzball is an unmoving, almost featureless mass of dull white, tan, yellow and gold. Could it be more than a few days old? At the trail’s end, not far away, we see that the fuzzball has moved close to one of its parents. It is poking at the adult’s breast as if looking for an insect to eat. Soon the fuzzball is up and walking over broken shells stopping at the water’s edge. It then walks into the water, settles down and is met by two small waves and starts paddling, joined on either side by its protective parents.

Over thirty small semipalmated sandpipers are lumped together, tails in the air amidst a mass of broken shells, eating morsels from the wet sand. Their backs are a bright tan and black, indicating that they are in their breeding plumage. Some are grouped together by a hole in the sand filled with water. It is breezy here and two brant geese start to amble out of the water very close to the sandpipers. They resemble two Gullivers among the Lilliputians. Surprisingly, the sandpipers don’t scatter but walk in groups not far from the two brants. Later they fly, pausing to hover above the water, the white V pattern on their wings showing, looking as if they are suspended in midair.

As we walk the main trail, which rings the West Pond, an urban scene comes into view: it’s the Manhattan skyline, tall Brooklyn buildings and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which is slightly obscured in haze. Soon we start seeing herons. A tricolored heron, formerly called the Louisiana heron, is in the grass. A yellow-crowned night-heron with a trailing breeding plume flies in. It has a yellow crown on a black face that has yellow on the sides and a red eye. A suede smooth gray neck and delicately patterned folded wings add subtly to the bird’s otherwise stunning appearance. In back of it is a pond with light green, spring colored algae. The heron bends down and, motionless, it waits for prey. Further on there’s a wooden blind that overlooks a small pond. There water is deep as it rained yesterday and two smooth-as-suede gray catbirds, which get their name from their mewing sound, are splashing.

My wife has had a good morning and sits in the car doing both Saturday’s and Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzles. I walk across Cross Bay Boulevard to the east side of the refuge where in Big John’s Pond a black-crowned night- heron flies in and lands on some thin branches that rise above the water. The bird is still and partially in shade, making it almost invisible to the naked eye. The black-crown is primarily a nocturnal hunter. The bird’s scientific name Nycticorax, which means “night raven,” comes from its distinctive harsh call.

The heron, while silent, vigorously preens itself as a lone dragonfly goes by. Afterwards, at a local diner, my wife is having a tuna salad sandwich while I eat an egg white omelet. We go over a bird checklist supplied by the refuge and tally 25 species of birds that we’ve seen. We are still savoring the richness of the morning, including hearing birdcalls as they emanated from birds’ bills and the mystery of unhatched eggs. It’s all part of the experience of Jamaica Bay in the spring.