Early morning is always a great time to walk and look for birds through Cheesequake State Park, a nearly 400 acre natural area located near Raritan Bay in Old Bridge Township, NJ, situated across from Staten Island. Over the weekend I saw and heard many birds, including Barn and Tree swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, Yellow Warblers, Goldfinches, Bluebirds, Great Blue herons, Great Egrets, Catbirds, Cardinals, Robins, and lots of Ospreys either in their nest or circling over head.
Yet, in one of the swampy areas that was more characteristic of the Pine Barrens of South Jersey than the wetlands of Lower New York Bay, I spotted a curious and interesting find. Out in the open, but blending in nicely with its shadowy natural surroundings, was a very dark bird, about two feet high, with a distinctive, long curved bill.
Was it a curlew? It would have been a nice find if it was, but I didn't think so. Curlews are mostly western birds related to sandpipers with extremely long bills. They tend to pick and probe deep in the mud and sand to gather up prey.
The bird I was looking at appeared more like a wading bird. Foraging mostly by walking in the shallow water, probing into the soft mud with its bill for insects. What could it be? Luckily, as the sun started to rise in the sky to shine, glimmer, and gloss on the bird's feathers I began to clearly see what this bird truly was.
It turned out to be an adult Glossy Ibis in full breeding plumage. The body feathers were dark brown, almost chestnut in color with glossy blue-green wings that gleamed in the sun. The face was dark, but with a pale border of feathers. It had a dark iris. There was no doubt in my mind that I was looking at a single Glossy Ibis that was happily probing the soft earth and finding lots to eat.
It might have looked awkward with its long bill, but the Glossy Ibis moved with grace and swiftness as it foraged in the water. Its long, lanky legs served it well to navigate the obstacles of the water, such as stumps and drift wood.
Seeing an ibis within the New York City metropolitan region might be shocker for some. Let's face it, it's an unlikely place. Lots of folks may well believe an exotic looking bird like this can only be found someplace more wild and biological.
Yet, don't give up on Lower New York Bay. Although there is still more work to be done to clean up its waters, this urban estuary provides what the Glossy Ibis and other wading birds, like herons and egrets, need to survive. The rich tidal waters of the bay provide these wading birds, which nest in colonies, several remote and protected islands to raise their young.
Known as the Harbor Herons Complex and managed, in part, by New York City Audubon, there are several nesting islands and foraging areas throughout the New York City area that provide quiet places and protected places to feed and care for their offspring. Nesting islands include Pralls Island and Shooters Island, located near the north and west coastal waters of Staten Island, and Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, both found on the far southeastern end of Staten Island.
From these isolated islands within hectic New York Harbor, adult wading birds will fly off during the day to forage in shallow waters of the estuary. The food they find will then be brought back every evening to feed their young. It's a wonderful routine for the birds and an ideal habitat. The islands provide a fitting nesting home with minimal human and predator intrusion, and are close by to rich feeding areas, such as Cheesequake State Park.
Who would have thought that the busy, bustling waters of New York Harbor, an unlikely place to see a rich assortment of birds, is actually Ibis country. In fact, Lower New York Bay is home to a sizeable population of Glossy Ibises during the spring and summer. Certainly you can say that the islands of the bay belong to the birds! What a great estuary.
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/