Roughly 50 days after the winter solstice and old man winter still seems to be going strong around New York Harbor. Snow, sleet, and ice with predominately gray skies and strong arctic winds dominate the landscape, making spring seem far away.
Yet, the days are getting longer and the sun is slowly climbing higher in the sky. Along the bare beach that surrounds the estuary this time of year, tenacious and tough forms of life can be seen struggling to survive. Small things with feathers and long drooping bills with narrow eyes peaking out for safety. Like everyone, they are waiting it out for the promise of warmer weather.
On another overcast frostbite morning, I was greeted with the sight of more than 50 visitors at Cliffwood Beach in Aberdeen Township, a bayside community located along Raritan Bay and directly opposite the southern shore of Staten Island.
Small, chunky (Northern Cardinal sized) shorebirds were resting on a narrow rocky groin. The birds are known Dunlins. Little “dun-colored” birds in winter plumage. The Dunlin’s goal for the moment might have been cumulative body heat. They were packed tightly together all plumped up, probably thinking that winter had lost its charm.
The birds are familiar winter visitors to New York Harbor. Dunlins will gather in huge flocks on rocky structures and on beaches and tidal flats to rest and forage, mostly for marine worms, small snails and crabs, sand fleas and amphipods. When the birds become startled, they will all fly off together, turning and flying in unison, performing impressive aerial maneuvers, twisting and whirling with beautiful harmonization.
Dunlins are migratory shorebirds. The birds don’t nest here. They almost never see New York Harbor in the summer.
Dunlins breed far up north in the coastal tundra, from western and northern Alaska east to the Hudson Bay, Canada. They make nests on the ground, usually well hidden under clumps of grass. Females will lay 2 to 4 olive to blue-green eggs. Incubation is done by both sexes. Young Dunlins are hardy birds. Soon after hatching, they will start to take care of themselves, especially finding food such as insects. After a few weeks, the young are able to fly, and then eventually everyone is off to escape the lack of food from a winter spent in the tundra.
Unlike quite a few shorebirds that will fly far south for the winter to warmer climates, Dunlins will fly relatively short distances to winter along the coast of North America, almost never flying towards the Equator. They will fly to the coast of New England, Long Island, New York Harbor, and down the Jersey Shore to spend winters in littoral habitats.
Make no mistake, the coast plays an important role in the life of these birds. After a brief breeding season in the high arctic, many Dunlins will fly to the shore to rest and feed. Time spent during the winter feeding and roosting before their migratory flight north is essential. Without adequate fat reserves they will literally run out of fuel, and plummet to an untimely death, before they reach their nesting grounds in the far tundra. Wild coastal places with abundant food sources and free from frequent human disturbance are vital for their existence.
Every acre along the coast is significant wildlife habitat. Please do what you can to protect, preserve, and clean-up the coast, especially in urban and suburban areas. If you are walking near a flock of shorebirds, keep your distance so they don’t take flight. If you have a dog with you, keep it leashed. Many dogs love to chase shorebirds.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com