Brrrrr, I was shocked by the cold air mass over the region early last Saturday morning. It was as if Mother Nature had flipped a switch. Sure, it was a beautiful, blue-sky morning, but with low temperatures in the mid to upper 30s along Sandy Hook Bay and around Lower New York Bay, there was certainly a touch of winter in the air on this young autumn day.
Yet, despite the frosty temperatures, an early morning walk around the bay reveled a great deal of wading bird activity. Mother Nature must have rang the breakfast bell. The tidal waters were lively during daybreak with a dozen cold, hungry, but gorgeously white Great Egrets. All foraging for a fish in a morning hunt for food.
With an outgoing tide, many of the egrets were wading in the shallows of the bay looking for a slow moving fish, an easy catch to provide some quick energy. At first, the birds appeared idle, just standing still. But egrets are great fishing birds, they know how to grab hold of a meal. These tall, stately white waders were waiting for a fish to come near to them.
Standing totally still so as not to scare away their prey. The birds would catch a small fish with a quick drive of their long, spear-like bill in the water. Then swallow the fishy meal down their long neck. An effective way to go fishing on a cold, crisp autumn morning.
In the water, I could see swarms of various species of killifish, small and abundant schooling fish, swimming close to shore. With water temperatures in the upper 50s to low 60s, the fish were not affected by the unpleasantly cold air, but nevertheless were famished. The fish were feeding on whatever they could find, mostly phytoplankton, mollusks, and small crustaceans.
Soon these killifish will be migrating upstream in nearby tidal creeks, where the salinity conditions are lower than in marshes, to spend the winter under a protective layer of ice and also buried in the mud. But for now, the ancient predator-prey competition was taking place right before my eyes between birds and fish. A fixture in a natural estuary, but made more special because it was taking place downstream from New York City, one of the most urban and busiest coastlines in the world.
Surprisingly, many of these hungry egrets feeding in Sandy Hook Bay most likely nested this past summer not in Sandy Hook Bay or even in New Jersey, but across the bay in the New York City area. The birds feed here during the day, but fly to New York City to nest at night. Lots of bird watchers and local scientists have come to recognize the important connection between New York and New Jersey when it comes to the protection and preservation of wading birds.
Many of the egrets, herons, and ibises that we see foraging for food in the shallow waters of Monmouth County and Middlesex County, NJ or in Staten Island, NY do not necessarily nest there. Instead the tall birds nest in colonies on abandoned and remote islands in New York Harbor, including Hoffman Island (located south of the eastern end of Staten Island), North and South Brothers Islands (located in the East River), Shooters Island (located on the north shore of Staten Island), and islands in Jamaica Bay. Many of these islands are in possession by federal, state or local park systems and are preserved as wildlife refuges and as part of the Harbor Heron Project managed by New York City Audubon.
The isolated islands and nearby rich shallow waters provide wonderful habitat to raise a family, steady abundant food with minimal human and predator interference for nesting wading birds. According to New York City Audubon, more than 20 percent of New York State's total Great Egret population nests in New York Harbor. Numbers not seen since perhaps the 1940s.
The egrets are migratory. More than three thousand herons fly up in the spring from southern regions to nest on islands around New York Harbor and forage in the tidal marshes and shallow waters in New Jersey. It's unexpected wild nature in sight of the Manhattan's skyline.
In fall, the NY Harbor egrets are migratory again. They travel hundreds of miles southward for the winter to Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteague and the Virginia Barrier Islands, or Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where shallow waters rarely freeze.
The migratory birds know from experience that October is a crazy transitional month in New York Harbor. It might start off summery green, but will often end cold and overcast. So the New York Harbor egrets congregate gregariously one more time in salt marshes around New York City to forage and feed before their long southbound flight. They will not return here until next spring.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/