One day in March, not exactly sure of the date, I spotted a lone Great White Egret wading in a tidal wetland near Sandy Hook Bay. The bright white-feathered bird was foraging in the water seeking a fishy meal, probably killifish or mummichogs, which are common critters in the harbor’s muddy marshes and tidal creeks. Some mummichogs will even bury themselves in mud to avoid freezing temperatures during winter and early spring.
As time went forward, I started seeing more egrets foraging for food in just about every available wetland. Their numbers grew and included other wading birds including Snowy Egrets, Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night Herons, and Glossy Ibises. The hungry and tired birds had migrated to the harbor from far away coastlines along the Carolinas or down to the Gulf of Mexico where they had just spent the winter.
Look out into the wetlands and you will probably see at least a few egrets feeding or standing together with other wading birds. The rookeries are now getting active and the birds are anxious to start another busy breeding season.
During April, coastal herons, egrets and ibises are beginning to nest. A good percentage of wading birds that will breed around New York Harbor will do so on approximately 17 small, isolated islands located in the estuary, including Hoffman Island situated near the eastern shore of Staten Island. Hoffman Island is an out-of-the-way ten-acre landfill-created island. It doesn’t look like much from a distance, but it’s used annually by wading birds due to the island’s lack of disturbance from people and predators.
Recent surveys by New York City Audubon have shown that six species of waders: Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Little Blue Heron, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron have been confirmed as nesters at many isolated island around the harbor. It’s a remarkable thing when you think of all the bright lights, big buildings and bridges surrounding the islands in one of the largest urban coastlines in the world.
Yet, these wading birds seem to have adapted well to the remote islands and wetlands surrounding the harbor. They are sanctuaries among city life that provide unique isolation and vegetation in a crowded and congested environment. What’s more, nearby wetlands in both New York and New Jersey provide rich areas to forage for food to bring back to the nest. This sets in motion a sort of daily "commuting" or back and forth movement pattern from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey. Something many of us can relate to.
The travel distance can be up to 20 miles in some cases. Favorite foraging grounds include Sandy Hook, Jamaica Bay, the Hackensack Meadowlands, the tidal wetlands of Pews Creek and Comptons Creek in Port Monmouth and Belford, Conaskonck Point in Union Beach, Cheesequake State Park in Old Bridge, and the saltwater islands near the mouth of the Navesink River and along the Shrewsbury River. Without the existence of these valuable natural areas our wading bird population would most likely be on the decline.
It wasn’t so long ago when I was a kid, the sight of a heron or egret was a special treat. Pollution was abundant and breeding herons or egrets were nowhere to be found around the harbor.
Wading birds were rare after decades of mistreatment. During the turn of the twentieth century, market hunters in search for the bird’s beautiful breeding plumes or long feathers had decimated populations of wading birds. The plumes were considered fashionable adornment for women's hats. Since fancy plumes often occur during the breeding season, many birds were killed in large numbers and populations were never able to recover.
Thankfully, after much education about the demise of birds from Audubon societies, an enlightened public and aggressive protection of the few remaining breeding colonies in the United States slowly allowed many wading bird populations to rebound and return to New York Harbor.
Right now, as these birds build large stick nests in tall trees, the egrets, herons and ibises we see are the direct result of many good deeds done decades ago to protect open spaces, restore coastal habitat and improve water quality. More work still needs to be done though to improve water quality further and protect foraging areas from encroaching development to continue the sight these great water birds in the wilds of New York Harbor.