Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shorebirds at Jamaica Bay

Last Friday my sister Belinda and I visited Jamaica Bay, a wildlife refuge in Queens. The refuge is part of the Gateway Recreation Area and consists of several low-lying islands. The areas accessible to visitors are served by a subway stop on the 'A' line. It is easy to get there if you are willing to take a long train ride.

Since we got to the refuge late in the morning, we missed out on the early morning songbird activity. Songbirds are not the real reason to visit the refuge, though. In late summer the islands serve as a gathering point for for waterbirds on the move, especially herons, shorebirds, and gulls.

On the West Pond we saw eight species of herons. The highlights were two tricolored herons near the west end of the pond and several yellow-crowned night herons. The latter were in both adult and immature plumages. Both species were life birds for Belinda. In addition we saw a glossy ibis in flight as we entered the refuge. Any day that involves nine long-legged waders is a good day! In addition to the usual waterfowl, there were several substantial flocks of gadwall and a contingent of black ducks. A short spur called the terrapin trail provides egg-laying habitat for terrapins. We found numerous terns resting there. All the birds on the beach were common terns, though we also spotted a few Forster's terns in flight. Belinda found a pied-billed grebe in the bay.

Our next stop was the north end of the East Pond, which features mud flats where shorebirds congregate in migration. When we started walking north on Cross Bay Boulevard, the sun was shining with hardly a cloud in sight. By the time we reached the good birding spots, the sky was growing dark and a few rain drops were falling. Soon the ominous signs turned into a steady drizzle accompanied by thunder and lightning. At that point, there was little we could do to find shelter, since the visitor center and nearest blinds were all about a mile away. So we pressed on to check out the mudflats.

The flats on the bay side of the north dike featured a small group of American oystercatchers and a single black-bellied plover, in addition to the more common semipalmated plovers and greater yellowlegs. We followed openings in the phragmites on the south side of the dike to view the full East Pond. The trail there is wet and sloppy even under the best of conditions. As we made our way along the edge of the pond, a harried-looking northern waterthrush preceded us. Large flocks of gulls, terns, and shorebirds loafed on distant mudflats. Unfortunately, in bad visibility and without a scope we were unable to make much out of them. On the flats closer to us, we did see some least and semipalmated sandpipers.

Once we were done at the north end, we headed back towards the visitor center via a trail that parallels Cross Bay Boulevard. The rain had mostly stopped by that point, so we had an opportunity to dry out. Near the north end of the trail, we came across a wounded short-billed dowitcher. It appeared that some predator (cat? fox?) had broken one wing and possibly a leg. It limped ahead of us and disappeared into the underbrush.

As we reached the south end of the trail, the rain suddenly started again, this time as a downpour. This time we were able to take shelter in the blind at Big John's Pond. Once the rain stopped, bird activity resumed. First, there were catbirds and red-winged blackbirds. Then an immature black-crowned night heron perched on a stick a few feet from the blind and stared at us for a while before flying off.

Our last stop were a few viewing points near the middle of the East Pond. From there we spotted a long-billed dowitcher and lesser yellowlegs. By that point we had done a full day of birding, so we started the long trip back to central Jersey.


Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Mute Swan
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
American Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Laughing Gull
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Mourning Dove
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Yellow Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle