Brrrrrrrr. No doubt this was a cold winter season. Just how cold? February officially made it into the record books as the coldest February in Central Park, New York City in more than 80 years, with the month's average temperature at 24.1 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes February 2015 the third coldest February since people started recoding temperatures in Central Park starting in 1869. There hasn’t been a February this cold since 1934, many generations ago, when the average temperature was a bitter 19.9 degrees.
The prolonged stretch of unseasonable cold has set up a great cover of ice in Sandy Hook Bay. The ice sheet reaches well into surrounding brackish waters in both the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, located downstream from New York City. You could be forgiven for thinking the landscape looks a little bit like Alaska.
The consistent cold snap and level of icing has left many waterfowl scrambling to find open water. They desperately ice-free water to rest, find food and survive this winter.
Flocks of hundreds of bay ducks including Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, and Long-tailed Ducks have wintered in Sandy Hook Bay and its environs for many years. They fly down here to flee the cold and ice from their nesting habitat in northern Canada.
This winter, though, there was no running away from polar cold temperatures. Below freezing temperatures stretched all the down to Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks. What is a duck to do?
Fortunately, the Atlantic Ocean on the opposite side of the Sandy Hook peninsula has not frozen over. The briny deep tidal waters of the ocean has been a refuge for many waterfowl. The birds have flown from icy bay waters where they spent most of January to the high seas for most of February.
I’m not taking about just a few ducks either. There is an abundance here. On some days thousands of sea and bay ducks can be observed resting, foraging, and flying. It’s a good thing the ocean is deep, wide, and rough. Plenty of room and a place of protection against icy waters.
Most noticeable has been heavy concentrations of Greater Scaup. A large raft of scaup could be seen swimming all along the length of the peninsula. Some days they are located along the southern end of the isthmus, other days they can be found at the northern end of the neck of land. Wherever food is located. They swim back and forth.
The scaup can be seen foraging for clams, probably juvenile surf clams. Many of these birds dive to the bottom to feed on small shellfish and marine snails. Their survival means that there is a diverse benthic community thriving at the bottom of the ocean, near the coast. It is not only supporting scaup, but scoters, buffleheads, brant, and long-tails. They all seem to be overwintering in large numbers in the ocean.
Hopefully the ample marine food resources will continue. With more snow and cold temperatures in the forecast, there is no idea when the bay ice will eventually break-up for the ducks to return. If they ever do return this year. Sooner or later, the ducks will be off to migrate up north to raise a family in the cold of the tundra or boreal forest. The ducks are no wimps. Hardy birds built for the arctic, and right at home this winter in New York Harbor.
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