Documenting the Birding Adventures of Scott Whittle
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
The Tern Defense
I went out to Jamaica Bay and Breezy Point today. It started off misty and rainy, and then turned into a flat, cool and hazy day. I got to Jamaica Bay around 8am on a falling tide, and there were lots of shorebirds. Also in the inlet at Big Egg Marsh (part of Jamaica Bay, just south of the visitor center) were hundreds of horseshoe crabs, apparently mating and laying eggs. They ranged in size from salad plate to serving platter, and as I walked along the beach I flipped over the ones that were lying helpless on their backs (if horseshoe crabs have backs). After the recent debacle with the fishery's overuse of these creatures, I figure they can use any help they get. The shorebirds were mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, as well as Ruddy Turnstone, a few Red Knots, Sanderling, and a single White Rumped Sandpiper (a new bird for me). No Whimbrel, but it's really more of a fall bird--like many of the shorebirds I'm looking for now, it will be more common in the fall migration than the spring.
At the West Pond of Jamaica I worked over the marshes and tidal flats. The "best" birds were a Tricolor Heron, Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis, and (out in the open for a few seconds!) a Clapper Rail. A couple of Willow Flycatchers were calling along the path, and there were a few terns plunge diving out in the bay. I've been checking the Glossy Ibis each time I go for White Faced Ibis, but no luck so far...I'm also hoping a Sora will show itself as one did last year, but still no sign of it, either.
I made a stop at Plum Beach at low tide for Black Skimmer, but just found some Least Terns and more horseshoe crabs, so I decided to go all out and hike out to Breezy Point, one of the primary breeding areas for Black Skimmer. Breezy is difficult to access: basically a private community that has co-opted an entire penninsula at the end of the barrier islands of Long Island. I parked in Fort Tilden and started the long hike west...I've never made it all the way to the point, but I figure it's at least a 45 minute hike on the beach. There were no people on the beach, but there were plenty of birds. First gulls, then Common and Least Terns, and then Black Skimmer, in groups of 20 or more. I saw about 75 of these odd birds, including one resting in classic Skimmer fashion on the sand with it's body flat and head laid out like a dog. The birds also make a kind of doglike barking call, and a few flew by noisily and then dropped down and skimmed the water with their giant orange bills.
There were also lots of Sanderling, and a few Piping Plovers, a single Semipalmated Plover, and a Least Sandpiper. After walking and watching for about an hour I turned back, and headed a little closer to the dunes. I noticed a bunch of terns on the sand there, and got a little closer. As it turns (terns) out, it was a nesting colony. When I was about 100 feet away, the entire colony of several hundred terns lifted up into the air...I had accidentally set off the alarm! They swarmed forward and one after another terns dive bombed at me, loudly sqwaking their displeasure. Not realizing what was in store, I took a couple of photos of the attacking birds, planning to move off momentarily. Well, the terns starting squeezing off shots of their own, and before I new it I was splattered with tern poop. I beat a retreat and assessed the damage...shirt, pants, camera, bag and binoculars were all hit. I was laughing as I waded out into the water to wash off what I could, chastised and baptised by the terns.
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.