It was a humid, misty, and muggy morning near the tip of Sandy Hook. The Memorial Day weekend has begun. I set off down the beach to discover what birds might be calling the far-off northern end of Sandy Hook home this time of year.
First, though, I had to step through a gauntlet of mosquitoes and biting flies. They turned out to be the welcome delegation on this day. One bug after another keep buzzing around my head or biting my skin. Half-way down the sandy path my bare legs, arms, and neck were being nailed every few seconds by every blood-sucking bug on the beach. This wasn't exactly the exciting activity I was looking for. Slapping and scratching, I staggered on with camera and binoculars in hand, though I wish I had a few extra hands to keep the flies away.
Finally at the tip of Sandy Hook, a westerly breeze helped to shoo the blood-suckers away, at least for a bit. I welcomed the temporary relief. I can respect that a blood-sucking bug has to do what it has to do to survive, but I just wish I wasn't the main course.
It wasn't long, though, that I heard the sharp, shrill voice of a tern. The beach in fact was alive with dozens of Least Terns. This was an extraordinary sight, especially considering these little birds really shouldn't be located here in one of the most urban coastlines in the world.
Least Terns are an endangered species in New Jersey and a threatened species in New York State. One of the main reasons that Least Terns are endangered or threatened is due to their choice of nesting areas. This smallest of American terns, weighing only about an ounce and measuring just about 9 inches in length, like lots of open space and solitary stretches of sandy beach as a nesting area. Of course, this is no easy request when you have loads of people who are also looking for their own deserted stretch of sandy beach to rest and relax. Conflicts can arise, and it is usually people that win.
Can the over-whelming numbers of summer visitors to beaches and the tiny, finicky Least Terns co-exist? This is the experiment that has been going on for years downstream from Lower Manhattan at Sandy Hook.
Fortunately, the tip of Sandy Hook is inaccessible enough to keep the hordes of beachgoers away. Except for some fishermen, beachcombers, and birders, Least Terns feel comfortable enough to still hunt, feed, and nest here as they have I am sure for at least hundreds of years. It helps too that the National Park Service has installed a rope fence around the beach nesting sites to keep people away.
Least Terns are very small birds, but conspicuous enough in flight that they are a joy to watch. The way the terns use the wind and their sprightly bodies to skim atop the surface of the water. They hover at heights over 50 feet, then quickly plunge head first into the water to catch a fish in their beak. Then they glide around the air and over the beach and back out far beyond the shore. Terns are the masters of the air as no plane can ever be.
This time of year Least Terns are at their breeding grounds. The Least Tern breeds in colonies of up to 200 birds. Nests are scraped in sand, shell or gravel, and may be sparingly lined with small shells or other debris. Eggs are commonly laid in clutches of 2 from late May through June, and are incubated by both sexes for 21 days. The young fledge in 19-20 days.
The Least Terns were courting over the Memorial Day weekend. The male was catching and carrying a fish in its bill to present to a female to demonstrate that he can be a good provider. A mating ritual that must be as old as the tides.
This is the real deal, right. As long as Least Terns still have that rush to reproduce and raise a family, there is always hope. Sure, there is still hard years ahead, but watching the flight of terns over Lower New York Bay always brings optimism, as long as a majority of people can share the beach with tiny, nesting shorebirds.
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/