Nesting Seabirds at Nickerson Beach

Growing up on Long Island, with the Sound almost at our doorstep and the Atlantic Ocean just a 30-minute drive away, you would think that I would be better at shorebirds and seabirds than I am. Unfortunately, my propensity to wilt in the face of heat and humidity, coupled with my general aversion to the beach when it’s not cold enough to require long underwear, has made the opposite true. Now that I’m landlocked, though, I find myself longing for the ocean and the birds make their homes upon its shores.

Common Tern
Adult common tern (Sterna hirundo)

Common terns are listed as threatened in New York State, after having been almost extirpated in the late 19th century by a lethal combination of the millinery trade—their feathers were quite stylish on ladies’ hats—and, later, habitat loss and degradation. They have made a comeback thanks to protections afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other conservation regulations, but they and other shore-nesting birds still inhabit a precarious place on our beaches.

Common Tern
Possible nest…with bonus tampon applicator

These “sea swallows” are abundant on Long Island during the summer and can be found nesting all along the south shore. One colony that seems to be a magnet for bird photographers is located on Nickerson Beach, a popular county beach on the Long Beach barrier island. I was visiting my family this weekend, and it didn’t take much convincing to get my sister to join me on my first visit to the famed tern colony.

Early morning at Nickerson
Morning at Nickerson Beach

We arrived early at 7:30 am in order to bypass the steep parking fees—$35!—that the county charges non–Leisure Pass holders. As we made our way down to the beach, we crossed paths with a phalanx of photographers on their way back to the parking lot, well sated from a morning spent snapping baby birds in the dawn light. The sand was surprisingly cool, the sun bright but not oppressive, and the air was filled with the kips and kee-arrrrs of terns. And when the wind changed direction, it smelled exactly like you might expect a tern colony to smell.

Terns typically lay their eggs from late May through June, with incubation taking around 3-4 weeks and first fledge happening about 28 days after hatching. The colony was filled with fledglings begging for food from their parents, their red mouths gaping and ready for some sweet, delicious sandlance.

Common Tern
“MOOOOM, FEED ME.”
Common Terns
Strutting around with its breakfast
Common Tern fledgling
Scarfing down some delicious sandlance

Although most of the terns that we saw were annoying fish-grubbing teenagers (I say this with love), we were delighted to catch glimpses of some hatchlings as well. Even if the temperatures weren’t already heating up at this point, I think one look at these tiny fuzzballs would be enough to melt even the stoniest person’s heart.

Common Tern
Awwwww.

Terns are semi-precocial, meaning that even though they are mobile, covered in down, and able to see as soon as they hatch, they remain close to their nests and dependent on their parents for food until fledging. Their down was sandy brown and speckled with black, perfect for camouflaging themselves in the sand as they hide from predators, and their bellies were creamy white. Their little pink beaks were tipped with black. They were…ridiculously adorable.

Common Tern
This little fuzz hid behind vegetation until its parent came back with food in beak…
Common Terns
…at which point it was safe enough to trundle forward

In addition to hosting this most photogenic tern colony, the beach is also home to innumerable American oystercatcher families with their adorably gawky young, protected piping plovers (which we did not see, sadly), and one of the largest colonies of black skimmers in New York State.

Baby American Oystercatchers
Oodles and oodles of American oystercatcher noodles—er, legs
Black Skimmer
Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) with its distinctive underbite

According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the Nickerson colony averages around 150 to 200 mating pairs of skimmers every year. No young appear to have hatched when we visited, but those little fuzzballs should be begging for food by the end of July or beginning of August. Nevertheless, I was just as happy to see the adult birds loafing on the beach, resting flat on their bellies farther back in the dunes among the vegetation, and skimming for fish in the surf.

Black Skimmer Colony
Skimmers tend to choose nesting ground with more protective vegetation than do terns

We capped off the morning by watching a young oystercatcher explore the receding waves with its parent. As they gingerly made their way down the shore, the adult oystercatcher patiently nudged food toward its offspring’s little beak—and my heart melted again. Awwwwww, indeed.

American Oystercatchers
Banded American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) and chick

Housekeeping

January saw us stalking rare geese on Long Island and making grand resolutions to bird more, write more, and generally make better use of this blog. But seven months have passed, with nary a peep.

Peep!
Peep!

Perhaps this was not surprising, but what happened? Well, instead of spending my spring brushing up on sparrows, memorizing songs and chip notes, and chasing warblers, I was instead consumed by planning our own migration from New York City to Western Massachusetts. It involved far more boxes than birds. (And I could have bought a very nice scope with what we ended up spending on the move.) New jobs are good things, but missing out on spring migration made it bittersweet.

Now that we are mostly settled in our new home in the Pioneer Valley, we are beginning to get a better sense of our natural surroundings. One definite benefit of living here—and, indeed, one of reasons we moved—is that it is so much easier to get out in nature. Not that the city didn’t have good birding or opportunities for urban naturalists, because they were actually plentiful; it just required a lot more effort and planning on our part to take advantage of it. Weekend birding trips no longer involve a 2-hour round-trip subway ride or just as long spent idling in traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway; instead, breeding cerulean and worm-eating warblers are just a 10-minute drive—and one mountain—away. (Not that I’ve seen a cerulean…yet.) We’ve exchanged skyscrapers, pocket parks, barrier islands, and salt marshes for undisturbed woodlands, rolling farmland, mountains and ridges with sweeping vistas, and peat bogs filled with wild orchids.

There so much to explore. Sometimes, I don’t even know where to start—but start we must.