Nature Notes: Early Spring on Sandy Hook

Standard
Birding on Sandy Hook, Highlands, New Jersey

Birding on Sandy Hook, Highlands, New Jersey

Today, I enjoyed a beautiful, warm and sunny, early spring day on Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey. After the winter we had, today seemed like a long awaited miracle.

I chose to spend my morning and early afternoon birding with a friend. We joined Monmouth County Audubon Society‘s walk and saw a ton of early spring migrants!

The most exciting moment of the walk was when a large group of gulls on the Bay took off flying and cleared the sand bar they were sitting on. A few seconds later, soaring through the sky, came an immature Bald Eagle! The leaders of the walk estimated that the eagle was about three years old.

Gulls on the move before an immature Bald Eagle flew over the Bay.

Gulls on the move before an immature Bald Eagle flew over the Bay.

Today also brought three new additions to my life list! The Black-crowned Night-Herons we saw sitting in a tree above Nike Pond, the male Northern Harrier (known to birders as the “Gray Ghost”) flying over our group and the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers my friend and I saw on a later walk to North Beach were all life birds for me.

"Gray Ghost" Male Northern Harrier

“Gray Ghost” Male Northern Harrier

We estimated at least twenty ospreys have returned to Sandy Hook, many were carrying fish in their talcons and some were carrying sticks to do some “housekeeping” on their nests. We saw a number of Northern Gannets diving offshore as well.

Northern Gannet by Gavin Shand on Vimeo

Northern Gannet by Gavin Shand on Vimeo

A full list of the birds that we saw today:

Birds of Monmouth County Checklist

Birds of Monmouth County Checklist

  • American Crow
  • American Kestrel
  • American Oystercatcher
  • American Robin
  • Bald Eagle
  • Black Scoter
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Brant
  • Bufflehead
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Fish Crow
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Horned Grebe
  • Laughing Gull
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Flicker
  • Northern Gannet
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Osprey
  • Piping Plover
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sanderling
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Surf Scoter
  • Tree Swallow
  • Turkey Vulture

Walks led by local Audubon Society chapters are great for beginning birders! I would recommend them to any 20-something environmentalist looking to learn more about birds. Find a chapter near you!

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count on Sandy Hook

Standard
Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Today marks the start of National Audubon Society‘s 115th Christmas Bird Count (CBC)! From December 14 through January 5, thousands of volunteers across North America are invited to go out, count birds and contribute data to an early-winter bird census.

When looking at the CBC Map, you will see that every state offers a significant number of local counts, which cover about a 10-15 mile diameter circle each. Since every CBC is a real census, and since the 15-mile diameter circle contains a lot of area to be covered, single-observer counts are not allowed. To participate on the CBC, you need to join an existing CBC circle. You can find one near you online!

All data from the local counts across North America gets compiled, reviewed and documented. The Christmas Bird Count allows researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

For example, in the 1980’s, CBC data was used to document the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck. Conservation measures were put into effect shortly after, to reduce hunting pressure on the species.

Learn more about how the CBC data has been used recently in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change and Common Birds in Decline reports.

I joined the local Sandy Hook Count this morning, which covers a 10-mile radius around Gateway National Recreation Area – Sandy Hook Unit in Highlands, New Jersey.

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

The Sandy Hook Count is split up into smaller territories, since there is such a large amount of bird habitat to cover in the park. I joined members of Monmouth County Audubon Society and helped count birds in the South Sandy Hook territory. We scanned Sandy Hook Bay for waterfowl and gulls, walked to Nike Pond and looked for songbirds, and we also traveled through the ancient Holly Forest, where we saw a few raptors. Many areas of Sandy Hook that are usually closed to the public were open to us for the CBC.

In the short three hours that I joined the group, we watched a number of Harbor Seals sunning on Skeleton Hill Island (!) and saw and heard a number of great birds:

  • American Black Duck
  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Brant
  • Bufflehead
  • Canada Goose
  • Carolina Wren
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Gray Catbird
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Herring Gull
  • Horned Grebe
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Sanderling
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • White-winged Scoter
Bufflehead. Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Bufflehead Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Wondering how this incredible citizen science initiative all got started? The first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was completed on Christmas Day of the year 1900 as an “alternative activity to an event called the ‘side hunt‘ where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds as they could.” The group that came in with the largest number of dead birds was declared the winner of the event. Frank Chapman, a famous ornithologist, recognized that over-hunting would only exacerbate declining bird populations, and proposed to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.

To get involved in this historic event, visit The National Audubon Society’s website.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Part III: Ecology

Standard

According to the Hidden Risk Report, a publication from the Biodiversity Research Institute in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, “invertivores” are greatly affected by mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Songbirds and bats are referred to as invertivores because they eat a variety of invertebrate species like spiders, snails and worms; not just insects.  Invertivores are an integral part of healthy ecosystems, functioning as seed dispersers and insect controllers.  Mercury emissions are threatening their chances for survival and therefore the health of ecosystems throughout the nation.  There are large declines in reproductive success and developmental issues in some species.  For example, Common Loons have to spend roughly 98% of their time on their nest incubating eggs in order for the eggs to successfully hatch.  After over 5,000 hours of observation, it has been determined that Loons with high mercury levels spend only 85% of their time incubating eggs.  The eggs do not hatch and the species reproductive success decreases (Evers, et al.).

Early research on mercury and wildlife focused primarily on fish-eating birds and mammals, but now it is clear that mercury affects a wider range of species at varying trophic levels.  A simple food chain: a spider eats a fly, and a bird like a Northern Water Thrush or sparrow eats the spider, the song bird will have more mercury in its blood than a Bald Eagle.  While blood samples are taken from humans to determine mercury exposure, feather samples are taken from birds.  The average level of mercury for all sampled individuals was 20 ppm, while the maximum level detected was 40 ppm.  Mercury exposure is dependent on species characteristics, like trophic level, and habitat.  Wetlands, especially estuaries, bogs and beaver ponds, allow for a high rate of methylation, producing high mercury levels in organisms that live there (Evers, et al.).

While wetlands are mostly threatened by mercury pollution, point-source mercury has been shown to persist in rivers more than 80 miles from its original source.  This makes mercury a danger to species far beyond wetland areas.  Methylmercury has been connected with organic soil and leaf litter, so even forest species are at risk of exposure.  Songbirds that feed primarily on forest floor by moving around leaf are affected, as are the invertebrates on the forest floor (Evers, et al.).

Mercury exposure also causes physiological rarities in songbirds, impacting their migration patterns.  If a bird’s left wing is five percent different in shape than its right wing, the bird has to fly in an odd way to compensate for the difference.  This requires more energy and affects survival rates of song bird species when migration already accounts for 75% of all annual mortality rates in some songbirds.  Mercury exposure becomes an added burden on the species (Evers, et al.).

Saltmarsh Sparrow

Many invertivores are already at risk because of pollution, loss of habitat and invasive species.  In combination with environmental stressors like acid rain and climate change, wildlife species are suffering from a synergistic reaction of all of these threats acting together.  Mercury exposure adds another “ecological burden” on songbird and bat populations.  Bats with high levels of mercury often experience compromised immune systems, making it difficult to fight infections like White-Nose Syndrome.  The saltmarsh sparrow has a “very high mercury risk,” according to The Hidden Report, because it is endemic to estuaries, spends its entire life cycle in saltmarsh habitats, and eats high in the food chain.  The saltmarsh sparrow is also especially vulnerable to sea level rise as a result of climate changes, piling one “ecological burden” on top of another (Evers, et al.).

Standardized monitoring of invertivores is needed to show how the new MATS affect changes in mercury emissions because these species offer valuable ecosystems services.  A single colony of big brown bats eats nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year. Pest suppression services provided by native bats in US agricultural landscapes is valued at $22.9 billion per year.  A bluebird family of two parents and five nestlings requires 124 g of insects per day.  The presence of nesting birds in vineyards reduces the amount of pesticides that are required to maintain healthy crops (Evers, et al.).

While standardized monitoring of wildlife, laws and regulations like Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), and scientific health studies help to address some environmental problems, other means could be used.  Social media has played a large role in the environmental movement in 2012.  Facebook and Twitter has helped to spread the word about fracking throughout the United States and the development of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in the Great Plains.  Greenpeace used Facebook as part of their clean energy campaign.  The organization urged citizens to “defriend coal.”  The Unfriend Coal campaign showed Facebook’s new data centers that draw energy from coal-powered plants.  After this blitz, Facebook announced that finding renewable energy sources would a priority in future data centers and agreed to lobby utilities powering their existing centers to increase their reliance renewable energy.  Facebook also allows organizations to expand their membership into new countries (Kaufman).

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are similar to other environmental policies in many ways.  There has been criticism from economists, claiming that MATS will contribute to unemployment and negatively affect the economy of the United States.  MATS will be subjected to gutting by conservation politicians and vague language and claims protecting the privileged few.  The risk of mercury emissions to wildlife, such as invertivores like bats and songbirds, will be examined at length by wildlife conservationists.  New age environmentalists will stay informed and advocate for MATS through social media.  MATS, however, will stand out among other environmental policies because of its clear, scientific connection to public health and the strong lobby of mothers that will fight for their children’s health.

Sources:

Evers, D.C., A.K. Jackson, T.H. Tear and C.E. Osborne. 2012. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Northeast. Biodiversity Research Institute. Gorham, Maine. BRI Report 2012-07. 33 pages.

Kaufman, Leslie. “For Green Groups, a Shift in Tactics.” Green Blog. New York Times, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/for-green-groups-a-shift-in-tactics/?src=tp&gt;.