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
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Pink Feet and Red Heads

The pink-footed goose is a compact goose with grey-brown plumage, a short pink beak, and as the name might imply, pink feet. Their breeding territory is far to the north in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, and they generally winter in northwestern Europe—Ireland, the UK, Denmark. Sometimes, though, they get a little discombobulated on their way south and end up in the Long Island suburbs. Such has been the case with Valley Stream’s seemingly resident pinkfoot, who has been quite happy to paddle Hendrickson Park’s man-made pond for the past two months.

By the time December rolled in, it seemed like every birder in the New York metropolitan area has seen it…except for me, of course. So over the holiday break I decided to drag my family out on a wild goose chase.

“Where are we going?” they asked.

“To Valley Stream! To a town park! It’s gonna be great!” I said excitedly.

“What. Why?” They were dubious. The North Shore/South Shore divide is alive and well on Long Island.

“There’s a goose! It has pink feet! It’s very lost, and I swear it will be worth it!”

So kudos to my mom, girlfriend, and sister for hearing the above and gamely piling into the car to drive 40 minutes to a tiny Canada goose–encrusted town park. We parked in a municipal lot, trekked through the residential neighborhood dotted with plastic nativity scenes and inflatable Santas, and immediately started scanning the lake for anything out of the ordinary in the flocks of Canada geese.

And there were a lot of Canadas. A conservative count brought me to at least 500, at which point I gave up trying to do a complete tally. Scattered among the geese were a good number of mallards, a couple of hooded mergansers, one stalking great blue heron, and then…something smaller. Something with a brown head, grayish coverts, and a pair of pink feet looming just below the surface of the water.

Pink-footed Goose
Which of these things is not like the other?

We waited around for it to raise its head and flash its beak, all the while being careful not to get too close. Eventually a public safety officer accomplished that for us, zooming by and flushing the flock to the other side of the lake—but not before I snapped a shot. What a perturbed little face and stubby little bill! That’s one cute goose. Thanks, officer.

Pink-footed Goose
Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Satisfied with our photos, we made one more stop to the north of the lake, as I’d heard there had been a red-headed woodpecker in that area. Red-headed woodpecker populations have been in decline over the past few decades, primarily due to habitat loss and competition with invasives like the European starling, and they are considered species of Special Concern in New York State. Although a handful of individuals turn up each year on Long Island and in the city, I’d never been lucky enough to see one. Would we continue our winning streak today?

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

After a couple of minutes craning our necks, my sister spied a medium-sized woodpecker industriously caching its acorns in a snag above us. There it was. The red-headed woodpecker actually is one of the few woodpeckers in the world known to hoard its food, and I was excited to see this charismatic bird engaged in one of its characteristic behaviors.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Chomp, chomp, crunch.

The late-afternoon sun was working against us, but you can see the bright red feathers just starting to come in on its head. Hopefully it sticks around long enough for us to see it transition into full adult plumage!

Bayberrying

Winter is Sarah’s favorite time for walks on the beach. From November to March, she is a faithful pilgrim to Long Island’s shores. While she gazes at the sea, undaunted by the bitter winter wind, I (an inland creature), often scout out a nice sheltered rock or dune. This is how, on Black Friday, I found myself wandering the dunes, busy with the unlikely and decidedly uncommercial task of gathering bayberries for candlewax.

Bayberries

Also known as candleberries and wax myrtle, northern bayberries grow on the dry hillsides, dunes, and abandoned farms of the northeastern coastland. The grey-blue berries ripen in September, but cling to the bushes throughout harsh northern winters. They are rimed in a waxy coating that was used in colonial times to make candles. While refining bayberry wax was an arduous process, the resulting tapers were more economical than beeswax and finer than smoky, smelly tallow. They were traditionally burned on Christmas or New Year’s Eve for luck, as in the rhyme “a bayberry candle burned down to the socket will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.”

With help, I gathered a scant pound of berries, leaving fruit for other foragers. Today the principal foragers of bayberries are yellow-rumped warblers, whose unusual ability to digest lipids in the berries’ coating allows them to overwinter where others of their genus cannot. Indeed, the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is known as the myrtle warbler, after its reliance on the fruit.

bayberry
Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)

Of fruits & labor

As described by capable DIY bloggers, the process of refining the wax seemed simple. First, the berries are boiled in a few inches of water, until the waxy coating has melted and risen to the surface. Then, cooling wax is skimmed off the top. Once hardened, the wax can be re-melted and strained to remove impurities.

Spurred by romantic notions of perfuming my kitchen with their balmy fragrance, I eagerly boiled my berries.

After 15 minutes, the resulting brew was the color of bog water and smelled of briny oregano. The wax burst from tiny bubbles, then bloomed on the surface of the water like algae.

Bayberry brew
Bayberry brew

I was able to remove a brittle saucer of wax, littered with seeds and stems and mottled with purple berry juice from a too-long steep.

Unfiltered bayberry wax
Unfiltered bayberry wax

After re-boiling, re-melting, and straining through cheesecloth, I produced a far more attractive wax and then, finally, three misty green tea lights.

Bayberry votives
Far Left: pure bayberry, poured after partially cooling; Top: bayberry & paraffin, inexpertly blended; Far Right: nailed it!

After working hours for my small candles, it is easy to understand why this practice has been all but abandoned. But my yield was greater than a few ounces of wax. Now I know the bright scent of fresh-picked berries on my hands, their deep herbal tang when boiled, and the woodsy aroma of their smoke.

We plan to burn one down to the socket this Christmas.

Warm Winter Birding at Point Lookout

How strange it is to be wandering the beach in January without hat or gloves and not feel one ounce of regret.

Birding in winter is one of my favorite activities, although I recognize that it may seem to skeptics an exercise in futility and masochism. There is some truth to that, certainly. Winter birding is long underwear and two layers of gloves, a scarf wrapped thrice around your face and glasses fogging up the minute you lift your binoculars to your eyes. It is walking what feels like miles on the beach in the bitter wind and sleet, feeling your fingers stiffen as you attempt in vain to distinguish plastic bag from snowy owl…and then pure joy as you spy a flock of snow buntings whirling like flurries over the dunes. It is invigorating, but sometimes miserable. In short, it is not what we experienced last weekend.

Jetty
Point Lookout

When we got out of the car at Point Lookout on Sunday, we were met with 50-degree temperatures, a pleasant breeze, and rapidly melting snow. Point Lookout is located on the easternmost tip of Long Beach Barrier Island, just a stone’s throw across the inlet separating it from the more popular Jones Beach. The parking fees are steep in the summer, as are most town beaches to nonresidents, but in the winter the crowds dissipate and the sea ducks—and birders—arrive.

Sunday’s target bird: the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Named for their striking and somewhat gaudy plumage, harlequin ducks winter along the rocky Atlantic and Pacific shorelines and breed in cold, fast-moving streams in the northern U.S. and Canada. Their breeding range actually extends as far south as Wyoming, and we had hoped to see them in Yellowstone over the summer. But alas, we came up empty; plenty of bison, but no harlequins. So when I learned that they are fairly regular winter visitors at Jones Inlet, a mere 28 miles from our apartment, I knew where I wanted to go.

Three breakwater jetties jutting out from the shore form the centerpiece of Point Lookout, and it was there that I focused most of my attention. These jetties serve as both navigational guides for incoming ships and invaluable defenses against beach erosion. They also attract a wide variety of birds. Elizabeth found herself a rock to sit on, and while she sketched, I walked. And counted.

Brant
Brant (Branta bernicla)

Three brant swimming from jetty to jetty. Two common loons stretching their wings further out to sea. Three scoters, two black and one surf.

Long-tailed Duck
Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis)

One, two, three…fourteen long-tailed ducks diving just off the beach.

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

One Bonaparte’s gull, buoyed by the waves.

Purple Sandpiper
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

Four purple sandpipers skittering over the rocks.

O Christmas Tree
O Tanenbaum

And one abandoned Christmas tree, destined for the bottom of the sea.

Then, as I scanned the roiling surf, I noticed a small duck bobbing in and out of the waves, backlit against the afternoon sun. Not as large as a long-tailed duck, it was just as distinctive with its slate blue breast, chestnut sides, and daubs of white “paint” on its head. A harlequin drake! But despite what its scientific name might imply, this bird was clearly only hungry for dinner, not attention; as I fumbled for my camera, it dove beneath the waves and disappeared. A brief look, but a worthwhile one.

Escalloped

I grew up in a sea of corn and soy, some 800 miles from the ocean. Like many Midwesterners, my acquaintance with marine life was limited to the pale, flash-frozen creatures unfortunate enough to end up on my plate.

This was a surprisingly frequent occurrence. My mom worked in the seafood department of a local grocery store. She was an expert lobster-bander and fish-filleter, and often came home smelling of brine. One of my favorite childhood dinners were her scallops, breaded and fried in butter.

It’s easy to forget in a place like Queens, but now I live on an island in the sea. Today Sarah and I drove east to Point Lookout. I saw a harlequin duck diving in the surf of a jetty. I saw a long-tailed duck, its plumage swept in a cat-eye curl. But my favorite discovery were the shells. A clear winter’s day as the tide is going out may be the perfect time to spy them.

I took a picture of my favorites. They were deep slate and heavily ribbed. And they were—as I later discovered—bay scallops. Or, more properly, the exoskeletons of bay scallops, whose sturdy little adductor muscles I so enjoyed drenched in butter.

scallops
Bay scallop (Argopecten irradians)

To my surprise, the bay scallop is a fascinating animal. Their shells are variably colored, ranging from grey to red, yellow, and purple. Their bodies are ringed in dozens of bright blue eyes, their visage something like a nautical Wheel of Galgallin. They see movement and shadow, and unlike most mollusks, can swim in quick bursts to escape predators. To swim, a scallop rhythmically contracts its adductor muscle, opening its shell and expelling a jet of water to propel itself forward.  (This activity accounts for the fact that their muscles are meatier than that of oysters and clams.)

Because a frightened scallop is capable of jetting ten feet away, prime scalloping season is in the active mollusk’s period of winter dormancy. Indeed, for over 100 years scalloping was the main economic activity of many Long Island towns during the winter off-season.

Since 1985, the rise of brown tides has caused a sharp declination in the bay scallop population. These algal blooms destroy the eelgrass meadows that shelter developing scallops from tides and predation. From 1986 to 2008, the average yearly landing of scallops has dropped from an average of 62,400 bushels to only 3,500. The CCE Eelgrass Program is working now to restore eelgrass habitat to Long Island and to protect related species like the scallop. Here’s what you can do.

It’s funny to think there’s so much history resting on one little half-shell.

Winter Birding

Although my year got off to a nice start, with my second snowy owl of the season and a flock of particularly vocal long-tailed ducks off Hobart Beach on New Year’s Day, the polar vortex did me in soon after. It’s just unpleasant to go out when the highs are in the single-digits (and the windchill is in the subzero range)—so I didn’t.

Snowy Owl
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Sure, I saw house sparrows and and European starlings every morning on my walk to the subway, then more pigeons and the usual assortment of gulls wheeling over the platform as I waited for my train, but for the most part I, like many in the Northeast, stayed hunkered down under blankets and copious amounts of tea. My blood cooled. I entered a period of stagnation. Hibernation. It was not a completely bird-free two months, though. The temperatures showed signs of warming up by President’s Day weekend, which nicely coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count. Elizabeth and I don’t have a yard or outside space  of our own (our apartment looks out into an alleyway—we hear sparrows, starlings, and the occasional mourning dove, but that is it), so we headed out to New York’s backyard: Central Park. And it was well worth it. The Ramble was a-buzz with the usual winter residents, including droves of my favorite white-throated sparrows singing their sweet song, a skulking brown creeper, and two very handsome fox sparrows.

Baltimore Oriole
Male Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula)
Baltimore Oriole
Female Baltimore oriole

The highlight was definitely a stunning pair of Baltimore orioles who have apparently been overwintering by the feeders at Evodia Field all winter. I was glad to see that they at least seem to have a steady supply of fresh oranges to give them sustenance. Still, the frigid mid-Atlantic is no place for an oriole, not when they ought to be wintering in Central America. By the time our hour was up (but before Miss E’s fingers turned purple), we were quite happy to take shelter in the Boathouse for some mediocre tea and cappuccinos. If only the orioles were so lucky.

The following weekend saw temperatures hit the upper 50s, so I headed out to Long Island with the hopes of taking advantage of the weather, spending some time with my parents, and hopefully seeing some birds. We headed to Caumsett State Park, one of my favorite places on the island, and it seems like the rest of the town had the same idea. The parking lot was filled to capacity, but although the park was crawling with walkers, joggers, and cyclists, not a bird was to be seen. We ran into a group of birders on the way back, and it seemed like we were not the only ones who came up short. In the end, though, I didn’t mind; I was just happy to be outside.

My mom and I swung by Centerport Harbor on the way home, and there at least we were finally able to get some good views of waterfowl, including a flock of around 100 Canvasbacks. Now that I think of it, I think that canvasbacks were one of the first ducks that my mom taught me to identify when I was a kid (after the obvious mallard and wood duck); even though this was long before I actually started birding in earnest, there was something about those handsome ducks that stuck with 7-year-old me. Must have been that aquiline profile (I do like a good nose)!