Big White Birds Return to Sandy Hook Bay
Both species of birds were stalking in the tidal wetlands for killifish or mummichogs, small schooling fish that can be found in or near muddy marshes and brackish creeks. The fish make up an important part of the diet for egrets.
Both Great and Snowy egrets make up a beautiful and important group of wading birds around New York Harbor. As their diet is made up mostly of fish, egrets are considered excellent biological indicators of the health of our wetland ecosystems. The more birds the better our aquatic environment.
I remember as a child growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, the sight of an egret wading in the water was very rare. Poor water quality, the loss of suitable nesting habitat due to overdevelopment and poor planning, contamination in the water from high levels of pesticides, oil, and mercury, and former market hunting during the ladies hat craze of the late 1800s, which slaughtered the bird for their feathers, had nearly decimated the population.
Today, with more protection for wildlife and water quality cleaner (though not clean, still more work to do) due to the federal Clean Water Act of the early 1970s, and efforts by countless volunteers and government and non-profit organizations, egrets can now be seen regularly once more during the breeding season around New York Harbor, including Jamaica Bay, Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay and in just about every marsh around the estuary as large white wading birds search for food.
It’s a sight I never get tired of viewing, especially during early spring. At the same time as land around the bay continues to slowly “green” up with dashes of color from yellow forsythia and the emerging leaves of red maples and red buds, the stark white feathers of egrets really stand out among the drab dormant wetland plants.
To many metropolitan residents, all egrets look the same. Though they might appear at first sight to be similar, they are certainly not the same. The Great Egret, also referred to as the Great American Egret, is a tall long-legged white bird with dark black legs and a long yellow beak. During the nesting season the bird has a patch of bare skin in front of its eyes which changes color from a mustard yellow to a bright beautiful green. This bird forges mostly by standing still or walking slowly in the water, waiting for fish to come near.
In contrast, the Snowy Egret is a smaller bird with a solid black bill and a pair of bright yellow feet, sometimes referred to as “golden slippers.” During the breeding season, Snowy Egrets will have long plumes of feathers on their back, head and neck. The birds forage for food with quick sprints and movements in the water to stir up fish and other small aquatic critters.
These are not cranes or storks either. Most cranes can be found living out west in prairies and open grassland. The Wood Stork is the only native stork in North America and it likes to live down south in cypress swamps. Egrets, on the other hand, are more widespread and cosmopolitan.
Warmer water temperatures around the edge of New York Harbor, generally in the lower to mid 50s, have brought the birds back from their winter homes down south in places like Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteague and the Virginia barrier islands, and the Outer Banks of the Carolinas. They have arrived to raise a family downstream and within sight of the great skyscrapers of New York City.
Yet, the birds just don’t nest anywhere. They are very picky. Trees have to be a certain height and a certain age with branches a certain length to hold their weight. The site has to have minimal human and predator intrusion so not to stress out the birds and their young, and of course there needs to be an abundance of food nearby.
This doesn’t leave many places in the urban-suburban environment for wading birds to nest. The degradation and loss of wetland habitats and the development of coastal areas have prevented great breeding colonies of wading birds to be widespread.
Thankfully, there are still a few places for egrets and other wading birds to nest. The birds appear to prefer nesting on small islands around the harbor, which are generally isolated and provide protection from predators such as raccoons and feral cats.
Remote islands, including Shooters Island, Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island located to the north and south of Staten Island and islands in Jamaica Bay, are good sites used year after year for nesting and near shore shallow waters around the estuary for foraging. The combination of safe and secure nesting sites and the abundance of food in the water have become a major factor in the success and return of egrets to New York Harbor.
Wading birds like the Great Egret and Snowy Egret nest in colonies with other birds including herons and ibises on islands and wetlands found in New York Harbor. The birds like to nest in groups with other birds. These colonies can contain several species of wading birds, often with hundreds of them congregating in communities of less than an acre.
According to New York City Audubon in their yearly summer survey of nesting wading birds around New York Harbor, in 2013 there were approximately 150 Snowy Egrets and 316 Great Egrets nesting in Lower New York Bay, including Jamaica Bay. Although more work still needs to be done to protect habitat and improve water quality, it’s a great comeback for a species nearly wiped out in New York Harbor.
All this can change, though, very quickly. Professor Scott Shumway reports in his book about the Atlantic Seashore that a breeding colony of egrets in Avalon, New Jersey experienced a 99 percent decline between 1995 and 1996 most likely due to the loss of preferred habitat and competition for nest sites with other birds.
Big birds need their space. No doubt wetland loss due to poorly planned development leads to a loss of habitat for egrets and other wading birds. The loss of wetland habitat is one of the greatest threats facing egrets. Another problem is disturbance to rookeries, either by predators or people, which continues to hamper recovery efforts.
To help the birds, encourage the protection, conservation and restoration of wetland habitats and nesting sites around New York Harbor in New York and New Jersey. With proper protection and planning, the population of egrets surrounding the most urban coastline in America will expand and continue be a sight of joy and splendor for forever.
For more information about egrets and other wading birds around New York harbor, please check out New York City Audubon website devoted to their Harbor Heron study, which helps to monitor the population status of wading birds (including herons, egrets, and ibis) on islands in the New York/New Jersey Harbor and surrounding waterways.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com