Birds Ride Jamaica Bay Breeze

 A laughing gull rounding into summer plumage.
A laughing gull rounding into summer plumage.

In the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge parking lot I try putting on sunscreen from an aerosol can but a stiff wind repeatedly blows it away. Love it. It’ll be cool and comfortable today. On a gravel path, a crow appears low overhead. Coming out of nowhere, directly overhead, two more are even lower. 

I meet a former colleague and fellow birder who I’ve not seen in a few years. We catch up, say goodbye and promise to keep in touch. On the bay are a mute swan, two great egrets and a snowy egret. Out of the wind-whipped, dark blue water comes a swarm of “peeps,” an all purpose term birders sometimes use for small shorebirds. These are semipalmated sandpipers whose mass of brown and flashing dull silver lands at the water’s edge disappearing in the muck. A few minutes later I see them camouflaged by mud and broken shells. There’s rich irony here. Once hunted as game birds, these 6.25-inch sandpipers were shot for their succulent flesh. Using wood and tin as decoys and occasionally clamshells to simulate a flock of peeps, these birds were lured down and shot by gunners from holes in the sand camouflaged with brush, driftwood and seaweed. Simulated calls were also used to beckon the birds to an almost certain death. Now, protected by the law, these same birds have clamshells as camouflage.

A laughing yawning.
A laughing yawning.

A dark gray back and 65-inch wingspan make a great black-backed gull lumbering in the breeze instantly visible. In contrast, 5.75-inch tree swallows, weighing a mere 0.7-oz   and close to the ground, curve through the air like greased lightning.  One lands on a nest box, slowly putting its head into the opening and disappears inside. Oddly the box is partially wrapped with vines and twigs looking like a raptor was trying to build a nest around it. A number of these swallows are screamin’ low, their midnight blue back and heads appearing like burnished metal in contrast to the vegetation.

From the vegetation several silent, gray catbirds fly to branches where their suede gray bodies and dark rust rump patches are visible. As one flies off, two red epaulets pumping like little bellows, appear flying PDQ across the grass. It’s a male red-winged blackbird, quite common here in spring. On the shore of the West Pond two glossy ibis appear. It’s good to see these brick red iridescent birds with the long down curved bills that are commonly seen here. They like fish, crayfish, grasshoppers, other insects as well as water snakes and frogs. Today they look exceptionally dark. I check to make certain they aren’t white-faced ibis which are similar in appearance when the pair suddenly take to the air. They are a sight helicoptering straight up, head slightly bent, long bill dangling, legs still slightly bent. They are gone as suddenly as they appeared leaving me to wonder whether they were surprised by my appearance.

A snowy egret looking for fish.
A snowy egret looking for fish.

There are two small shorebirds in whose direction I look but not for long because nature  is resembling art. The tide has soaked the grass leaving a large number of little tuffs of it in the muck like so many little haystacks. The scene resembles a puzzling abstract painting.

At a break in the path caused by Super Storm Sandy, which has yet to be repaired, there are a hundred laughing gulls in shallow water feeding, possibly on crustaceans, snails, insects and small fish. They don’t stay put but walk en masse down the beach, stopping, feeding then again moving. Overhead comes a loud persistent call which sounds like a laugh, hence the name laughing gulls. Off to the side is a large sandbar with another hundred laughers on its edge.

Two Canada geese have gone into the grass by the West Pond. They appear now with a few weeks old gosling. The fuzzy little youngster goes down the gravel path with its parents, through the grass and onto the dark sand. There it proceeds along the beach, on thick sturdy legs and feet, pecking at the sand. One parent stays near while the young one is learning how to be a bird in the wild.

A gosling learning to be a wild bird.
A gosling learning to be a wild bird.

Going back on the trail a male yellow warbler lands on a bush showing the thin red lines on its breast. The bird nicknamed the “wild canary,” moves fluidly from brand to branch even with the wind in its face. A bright red male cardinal is standing at one side of a gravel path while its mate, a sedately elegant brown and orange female stands on the other side, tails facing each other. Exquisite bookends that too soon fly. The sky has clouded now and the water turned a dull gray. By the shore of the West Pond is what looks like an old wooden hand basket. Huh? Looking through binoculars I see that the “basket” is a Canada goose sitting bunched up. There are more of these “baskets,” but they are all Canada geese.

Two great egrets are in the near shore and even closer is a snowy egret whose reflection slowly follows as the heron patiently stalks fish. Someone nearby comments that the scene is beautiful. It is. In the bay eighty semipalmated sandpipers lift off into the breeze first showing silver then brown, their trademark in flight. I’m expecting the mass to swirl as one in the opposite direction as I’ve seen so many times before. They start to go to deeper water but a group within the mass pushes in a different direction. What follows is mixed, not synchronized movement. I’ve never seen this before but I’ve also not watched this movement through binoculars before. Is it the binocs, the stiff breeze or both? Who knows? But  I know poetry when I see it. And this is avian poetry.

Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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