With Old Man Winter melting away, the wonderful summer wading birds of New York Harbor are starting to return. Longer days and warmer temperatures are attracting a variety of wading birds, including great and snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons, to nest and raise a family.
The last several weeks I’ve spotted a number of great and snowy egrets foraging for fish within tidal wetlands in either Sandy Hook Bay or Raritan Bay. The birds were among the russet colored marsh grasses near brackish waters quietly stalking for killifish and mummichogs, small schooling fish that can be found in or near muddy marshes and brackish creeks. The fish make up an important part of the diet for wading birds.
To the causal birder, egrets might be confused with cranes, but these are not cranes or even storks. Most cranes can be found living out west in prairies and open grassland. The Wood Stork is the only native stork in North America and it likes to live down south in cypress swamps. Egrets, on the other hand, are more widespread and cosmopolitan.
Warmer water temperatures around the edge of New York Harbor, generally in the lower to mid 50s, have brought back the birds from winter homes down south in places like Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteague and the Virginia barrier islands, and the Outer Banks of the Carolinas. They have arrived, as they have for many years, to raise a family within sight of the great skyscrapers of New York City.
Yet, wading birds are picky, they don’t nest everywhere. Trees have to be a certain height and a certain age with branches of a certain length in order to hold their length and weight. Nesting sites also have to have minimal human and predator intrusion so as not to stress out the birds and young. Of course there also needs to be an abundance of food nearby.
Fortunately, there are still a few places for egrets and other wading birds to nest around New York Harbor. The birds appear to prefer nesting on small islands with whimsical names around the harbor that are generally isolated and provide protection from people and predators such as raccoons and feral cats. These largely obscure islands include Shooters Island, Prall’s Island, North and South Brother Islands, Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island both located to the north and south of Staten Island, and islands in Jamaica Bay. They provide relatively safe sites for nesting and plenty of nearby places around the estuary for foraging. The islands have become a major factor in the success and return of wading birds to New York Harbor.
Wading birds like the great egret and snowy egret nest in colonies with other birds including herons and ibises on islands and wetlands found in New York Harbor. The birds like to nest in groups with other birds. The colonies can contain several species of wading birds, often with hundreds of them congregating in communities of less than an acre.
According to New York City Audubon in their yearly summer survey of nesting wading birds around New York Harbor, in 2015 there were approximately 271 Snowy Egrets, 381 Great Egrets, 79 glossy ibises, 571 black-crowned night herons, and 2 tri-colored herons nesting around New York Harbor, including Jamaica Bay. Although more work still needs to be done to protect habitat and improve water quality, it’s a great comeback for a group of birds that were nearly wiped out from New York Harbor during the bad old days of the 1950s and 1960s.
Wading birds make up a beautiful and important group of birds around New York Harbor. As their diet is made up mostly of fish and other aquatic species, these long-legged birds are considered excellent biological indicators of the health of our wetland ecosystems. The more birds the better.