No surprise, unseasonably warm weather around the New York metropolitan region has brought a bit of spring fever to many species of plants and animals. Magnolias are in bloom, tree frogs are making boisterous mating calls, and many people who fish are chomping on the bit to get out and catch something with scales, like a striped bass or winter flounder.
Yet, it’s not only people who are seeking scaly creatures around New York Harbor. Sleek seabirds known as Northern Gannets are on the feed for fish as well.
What started over the winter with just random sightings of gannets at Sandy Hook, Breezy Point or Coney Island has increased in the last few weeks with more seabirds in sight seeking a fishy meal.
It’s far from being perfect gannet watching time, but it’s a start. The estuary is slowly coming to life.
There are reports from local anglers and commercial fishermen that herring populations are robust and the bay is alive with large populations of bunker or menhaden, and maybe even schools of bluefish under them. No doubt this has enticed many Northern Gannets from out in the sea to hit the waters near the entrance of New York Harbor. Not only does there seem to be plenty of food in the water, but it also appears as if the fish are waiting for them.
It’s one of the great natural events in New York Harbor. Sitting on a springtime beach seeing limitless numbers of gannets diving on fish.
From thirty to ninety feet above the cold and sometimes choppy water, gannets will dive into the ocean, as they attempt to catch fish. With a wingspan of over six feet, these sleek black and white birds with light butter colored heads and icy blue eyes fold back their long wings and hit the water with little splash to quickly catch a fish in their pointed beak. Watching a hundred or more gannets doing this over and over again is an unforgettable site.
Usually by the end of March or early April, many Northern Gannets are on their migration north along the eastern seaboard towards their summer breeding grounds in eastern Canada. During this time, many gannets will stop over in or near Lower New York Bay to feed on fish. The appearance of Northern Gannets tends to correspond nicely with the arrival of springtime fish migrants such as herring, shad, and bunker. This is no coincidence. These small fish are first-rate fatty food for hungry gannets.
In the past, some days a dozen or more of these large seabirds could be seen diving for fish in Raritan Bay or near the Verrazano Bridge, other times nothing. Then all of a sudden an eruption of birds across the bay, well over a hundred gannets feeding in or Sandy Hook Bay or near Breezy Point. For many people, including me, the Northern Gannet is unquestionably one of the most spectacular seabirds to see in the bay.
The sight of large numbers of gannets diving head first into the water to catch fish can only be seen during early spring, if at all. Some years it’s a bust. Few gannets could be found either due to low fish populations or the timing was just off due to colder than normal water temperatures.
Northern Gannets are pelagic, spending most of their time over the ocean when not breeding. These birds are consistently on the move. Their long, pointed design and keen eye sight gives them speed and superb diving ability; perfect for a bird that has to cover large distances in search of schooling fish out in the sea.
Soon these large seabirds will say so long to New York Harbor. They will fly north to start raising a family, migrating many miles to nest ashore on half a dozen remote, rocky islands off Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the North Atlantic.
Fortunately, Northern Gannet populations in Canada are thriving. Thanks in part to the productive waters of New York Harbor. Our local waters help provide much needed nourishment to hungry gannets on their way north to breed. This strong connection between New York Harbor and Northern Canada can only continue, however, if strong measures are taken to further prevent oil, fishing gear, plastic debris, pesticides and other forms of pollution from entering the ocean where gannets feed for fish.