Little Bit of Blue

It is good to find one’s place. In New York City, for this bird, it was hard to find. Sometimes I found it while walking around the Central Park Reservoir in February, glasses fogged and fingers numb, scanning the water for anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes I found it in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under Diana’s watchful gaze. Sometimes at Jamaica Bay, where glossy ibis mingled with jet liners in the air. But I usually had to leave the city to find it.

Last week, I found that all I need to do now is drive 9 minutes—to this.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
Fitzgerald Lake

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area is a 560-acre swath of wooded wetlands, lake, meadows, and forested uplands in Northampton. The conservation area is managed by the Broad Brook Coalition, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of open space and the promotion of affordable housing in the city—two goals that are often thought to be at odds with one another. I’m glad to see that is not the case here.

The lake itself is manmade, created when Broad Brook was dammed in anticipation of a housing development in 1965. Conservation restrictions eventually led this project to be abandoned, and the landowner, Harold Fitzgerald, sold the lake and surrounding land to the city 12 years later.

There are a couple of entrances, the closest being just beyond a shopping center that we frequent for pet supplies, but I decided to explore that route another day. Instead, I took the entrance on North Farms Road, which featured an accessible paved trail winding through the woodlands and—most appealing to me—close proximity to a boardwalk. As I made my way through the woods, American goldfinch (probably fledglings begging to be fed, judging by the cacophony), eastern wood-pewee, and a couple of rather insistent mosquitoes provided a fitting late-summer soundtrack.

Elizabeth makes fun of me all the time for my love of boardwalks (bonus points if they go through wetlands), but there is just something about hearing my hollow footsteps over the water that puts my mind at ease. And, what’s more, they provide excellent vantage points for birding, which leads me the reason for my visit: a little blue heron.

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

These small waders are not uncommon in my hometown on Long Island during the summer months, but I had not seen one yet this year due to our move. I was actually surprised to learn how rare they are in Western Massachusetts; according to eBird, this is the first one sighted west of Boston all year. Adult little blue herons are quite striking creatures, with light blue beaks, purple or even maroon heads, and deep slate-blue bodies. The Fitzgerald Lake bird, however, is a juvenile and blue in name only.

Little Blue Heron and Mallard
Size comparison with a mallard

Although they have similar plumage, juvenile little blue herons can be distinguished from snowy egrets by their greenish-yellow legs (versus the snowy’s black-with-yellow-socks), pale beaks tipped with black, and their more sedentary style of fishing. Compared to snowy egrets, whom you might see dashing about in the shallow water as they chase fish, little blue herons take a watch-and-wait approach and only strike when necessary. As a similarly methodical creature, I admire and appreciate their patience.

Little Blue Heron
Seeing double

After getting my fill, I continued my walk along the shoreline, following the white- and blue-blazed trails until I reached a point marked “The Narrows” on my map. The lake was perfectly still, save for some wood ducks paddling on the opposite shore and a stray swallow swooping after insects. And even though I could still hear the fairgrounds in the distance, when I looked across the lake it felt like I was the only human around for miles. Yes, I think this is the place.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
The Narrows

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

Jamaica Bay

Last weekend, I found myself with a sudden inexplicable longing for shorebirds. This was somewhat surprising for me, as you’d think I would have been instead seduced by those reports of a cerulean warbler in Central Park. Was it foolish of me to think that those jeweled songbirds would stick around for another week? Perhaps, but more will come (she says to herself); the need to spy on long-legged waders was too much for me to resist.

I was off to Jamaica Bay.

It’s an hour-long ride on the Q53 from Woodside to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—not everyone’s idea of a good time, but to be honest, I’m rather fond of like it. (Part of this must come from my not having to rely on the bus system on a regular basis, I’m sure.) I like seeing the different parts of Queens where I otherwise haven’t ventured. The bus follows Woodhaven Boulevard through Elmhurst and Rego Park, Woodhaven and Ozone Park; it’s an endless stream of people coming on and off, stop and go, Chinatown and chrome-plated bodegas. It’s a congested, built-up, and somewhat lurching route to find yourself on at any time of day. Once you hit Howard Beach, though, everything starts to open up—and then you cross the bridge, and you are in another world.

Tree Swallows
Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)

Like so many of New York City’s green spaces, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is not quite as “natural” as it appears at first glance—but then, what wild landscape can you truly call untouched? From the West Pond, you can see the Freedom Tower just over the horizon and the Verrazano Bridge looming in the distance. And every so often, the racket from above is not from a laughing gull, but a cargo plane taking off from JFK, soon to be jetting off over the Atlantic. It’s a peculiar, wonderful place—and a vital stop on the Atlantic Flyway, home to an immense diversity of species. The East and West Ponds, the two large freshwater/brackish ponds in the refuge, may be manmade but they play a critical role in an ecosystem that has lost 99% of its freshwater marshes to development and pollution.

Or they did.

Morning rain
Morning rain

The refuge was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the damage is still very evident. The East Pond has been repaired by now (proximity to MTA-owned tracks will do that for you), but it is impossible to ignore the gaping 100-foot breach in that now bisects the West Pond Trail. Salt water from the surrounding bay now flows freely into the West Pond, effectively turning it into a tidal lagoon. The salinity levels are now high enough that the pond can no longer support freshwater species. It is a shame, and I can only hope that the National Parks Service be convinced to act quickly to prevent further damage.*

This was my first trip of the year to Jamaica Bay and Elizabeth’s first visit ever. I always like seeing the diversity of visitors there: birders young (!) and old (but of course), nature photographers, and New Yorkers of all races, all happy to be out enjoying this rare spot of calm. And there were no massive groups of people to navigate around that day, for which I was grateful. I find that as my field skills are improving (slowly but surely!), I’m growing increasingly fond of birding in smaller groups, or simply on my own. On this day, it was nice to be there with just the two of us; we could take our time and linger for as long as we pleased, without feeling like we needed to hit the next spot before we run out of time. I may add fewer species to my lists than I would on a guided walk, but I see more.

Tricolored Heron
Blurry tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor)

We saw 29 species total, with a good handful of them being year birds for me. Highlights included glossy ibis, tricolored heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, American oystercatchers, greater yellowlegs, boat-tailed grackles, both tree and barn swallows, and lots of snowy egrets out hunting. I was especially pleased to see the tricolored heron, which is not a species that I’ve seen outside of Jamaica Bay. There was no sign of the nesting barn owl at Big John’s Pond, but that came as no surprise—serves us right for birding in the middle of the day. We took that as our cue to leave, and our departure was well-timed, as it started to rain just as we spotted the Q53 barreling down the Cross Bay Boulevard.

Back to the bus, back to the crowds, back to the city. Until next time, Jamaica Bay.

*A couple of months ago, NYC Audubon issued proposal recommendations for restoring the West Pond to its original freshwater state. I encourage you to read it if you have the time—and if you are moved to do so, please consider signing the related petition.