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 that 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
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

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