It’s all happening now! Massive schools of herring and bunker are swimming into the Hudson-Raritan Estuary from the Atlantic Ocean. The activity has not gone unnoticed by hungry fish eating birds, especially many migrating Northern Gannets, a large pelagic seabird. As the birds fly north to breeding grounds, they take time out to get one last meal. Forage fish close to the ocean’s surface make an easy catch for gannets that can dive deep from death-defying heights into the water. Seeing thousands of gannets fishing with plunge diving theatrics makes this one of the great natural shows to watch around New York Harbor.
Watch a video of this natural spectacle here:
WATCH: Dive-bombing seabirds put on amazing aerial display off New Jersey coast
By Brian Donohue | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
March 29, 2016 at 2:05 PM, updated March 29, 2016 at 2:15 PM
Northern gannets — a species of seabird with icy blue eyes, curmudgeonly faces, huge wing spans and penchant for missile-like dive bombs are described by one science blogger as "the most awesome of seabirds."
In New Jersey, they can typically be seen offshore during spring and fall migrations by the handful hunting for bait. But to see gannets put on their jaw-dropping display by the thousands, we usually have to watch one of the many documentaries shot in South Africa or other locale.
In recent days, however, intrepid birders and slack-jawed passersby have been treated to a sample of the phenomenon closer to home. For several hours off Sandy Hook yesterday, massive flocks of migrating gannets by the tens of thousands plunged into the ocean in what one naturalist calls a "gannet waterfall."
"I've never seen that number of gannets in one spot in my entire life,'' said Jeff Dement, a naturalist with the Sandy Hook-based American Littoral Society. "It was unique."
I didn't have a boat or an Imax camera, but I did manage to capture some footage, which you can see in the video above.
The birds were likely feeding on schools of menhaden also known as bunker, or possibly herring, which have also been showing up in local waters in recent weeks, Dement said.
The spectacle off Sandy Hook yesterday was the latest in a recent uptick in wildlife sightings in recent years, including an influx of whales, seals and bald eagles.
Dement and others speculate that the increase in predator sightings could be a result of the change in menhaden harvesting rules by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Menhaden, or bunker, are a cornerstone of the food chain in local waterways, converting plankton, which they eat, into protein. They comprise a key part of the diet of striped bass, bluefish, whales, whales, eagles, ospreys and seabirds.
They are also caught for use as bait and also by so-called 'reduction' boats, commercial operators who process the whole fish into use as fish meal and fish oil.
In 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cut by 20 percent the amount of fish reduction boats are allowed to harvest.
"When you increase the bottom of the food chain, you're going to see more predators,'' Dement said.
Brian Donohue may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @briandonohue. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
STOP THE WILLIAMS FRACKED GAS PIPELINE THROUGH NY HARBOR!
MY TOP 5 FAVORITE BOOKS ABOUT NY HARBOR
1. Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City by Leslie Day
2.Heartbeats in the Muck by John Waldman
3. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay by Clyde L. MacKenzie Jr.
4. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate
5. The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell