The first signs of new life are starting to show up around New York Harbor. For the next several weeks of summer, an annual natural ritual will come off, largely unnoticed and overlooked by most modern-day humans in our busy and bustling routine. Many wild animals will be raising a family in a crowded urban jungle. Parents will be vigilant, always watching their young for provoking and pesky people and predators.
It’s an exciting time. New York Harbor is jumping with new life, young of the year that have just recently been born. Courtship displays and mating rituals have finally paid off for many wild animals. It’s time to start raising a family, the next generation of life to call New York Harbor home.
Young peregrine falcons at 55 Water Street in lower Manhattan are starting to fledge, as are many smaller songbirds at Prospect Park in Brooklyn and at many parks and preserves around the harbor. Black skimmers at Sandy Hook are nesting, as well as herons and egrets on small, remote islands around the harbor.
In the murky harbor waters, both soft shell and hard clams have spawned millions of eggs. The lucky free-swimming larvae that have survived so far are developing into small clams with their own shell or exoskeleton. Eventually the little clams will settle down onto a suitable sandy surface to mature and gradually burrow into the bottom of the bay where it will spend the rest of their life.
Perhaps two wild animals that best exemplify what it takes to raise young around New York Harbor are ospreys and piping plovers. Every year, this corner of the Atlantic Ocean draws numerous fish hawks and piping plovers to breed, give birth and make sure their offspring has the best chance of survival. The odds are never in their favor, but adults seem to come back every year for another opportunity.
Ospreys are fish-eating raptors found along the shoreline and open marshes around New York Harbor and nearby environment. Unlike other raptors that primarily nest in trees, ospreys have remarkably adapted well to an ever changing urban-suburban landscape and now nest in any type of elevated, man-made structure near water.
Yet, an osprey’s ability to finding a home is what causes so much anxiety. Osprey-human conflicts are increasing around New York Harbor as ospreys try to make nests in some unlikely places, including cell towers, transmission lines, construction cranes, boats, piers, and other manmade structures close to humans. In many cases, osprey nests impede the use or function of a structure, which can affect human business or safety. Generally, conflicts are greatest when nests are constructed on telecommunication towers, electric utility poles, which creates a serious danger of fire or electrocution, transmission towers, bridges or even airport runway structures at JFK International Airport, which is located right next to a Jamaica Bay, perfect habitat for fish eating birds.
Another major threat to ospreys is mercury. As a fish eater, ospreys have exposure to mercury, which is a liquid metal. Mercury is often released into the air from human activities, through fossil fuel combustion, mining, smelting and solid waste combustion. Some forms of human activity also release mercury directly into soil or water, for instance the application of agricultural fertilizers and industrial wastewater disposal. Mercury is found in many waterways around the world and can cause reproductive issues, including damage to brain functions, and disruption to the nervous system. Mercury builds up and remains in the food chain. Ospreys are exposed to mercury by eating fish that have fed on organisms containing mercury.
Another threat to ospreys is pollution and trash. In some cases ospreys and their young have been seen entangled in mono-filament fishing line or ribbons from balloons released after a wedding, birthday party, memorial, or other special events.
Life is not any easier for piping plovers around the harbor. Although this small, stocky, sandy-colored bird resembling a sandpiper can only be found nesting at a few selected natural beaches, the threats to its long-term survival are many.
Prime breeding and feeding habitat has been replaced with shoreline development and recreational areas for people on beaches. Development near beaches, including boardwalks and restaurants, increases trash and food waste that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, gulls, skunks, and foxes. Domestic and feral cats are also very efficient predators of plover eggs and chicks.
When sandy areas do exist for plovers to nest, human disturbance often curtails breeding success. Pets, especially dogs, may harass the birds. Foot traffic may crush nests or young. Excessive disturbance may cause the parents to abandon the nest, exposing eggs or chicks to the summer sun and predators.
Despite all the challenges, the need to survive is strong. There are always some lucky ospreys and plovers that will be able to bring their eggs to maturity, the hatching and then fledging of young are a time of triumph. Positive signs that both birds are slowly making a recovery from the Shrewsbury River to the Hudson River, and in one of the largest urban jungles in the world.