It's late February and every day the sun is setting later and later. The other day, while walking along a rock jetty that jutted out into Sandy Hook Bay, I spotted a few small, stout shorebirds making good use of the sun's fading light.
The small birds were wandering around from rock to rock in search of a tasty meal of small critters: tiny mollusks, crustaceans, worms, or aquatic insects. I imagined this must have been their last meal of the day before finding a safe place to roost for the night.
The Pews Creek jetty located in Port Monmouth and situated downstream from New York City is not well-known for its shorebirds. Upstream, the adjoining 137 acres of tidal wetlands along the creek embodies one of the largest uninterrupted area of salt marsh habitat along Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay. The Pews Creek floodplain is home to a wide assortment of wildlife including feeding and breeding Great Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Mallards, Harriers, Fiddler Crabs, Ribbed Mussels, Blue Crab, Spearing, Killies, and Diamondback Terrapins. Yet, for whatever reason, many small shorebirds seem to turn their backs here.
For today, however, a little more nature seemed to have found the tidal mouth of Pews Creek. These were Purple Sandpipers in winter plumage. Not a common visitor to Pews Creek, but occasionally they show up in small numbers to forage among the mussel beds and washed up seaweed.
Unlike some other sandpipers that can be found scurrying around the beach in search of food, Purple Sandpipers are regularly encountered on man-made coastal objects including jetties and breakwaters. They birds seem to love the strong surge and tidal action found on low wave-washed rocks near the water's edge.
With camera in hand, I observed as these "rock" birds moved rapidly among the cracks and crevices on the rock jetty in a quick quest for tiny tidbits of food. Seemingly unafraid of either me or the surf. The Purple Sandpipers would only pull out to scuttle up onto drier rocks to escape large pounding waves or maybe take a quick nap. Afterward they would flutter down one by one onto the wet rocks to forage once more. This waltz went on over and over until sundown. Then the birds took wing eastward towards Sandy Hook or the Atlantic Ocean, but not to be seen again by me.
Purple Sandpipers are part of the winter bird population that calls the urban-suburban waters of Lower New York Bay home, including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. Small numbers of these birds arrive to New York Harbor from remote, isolated breeding grounds on islands in the Canadian high Arctic, over 2,000 miles away. In all likelihood the birds follow the coast down during fall migration to their favorite winter habitat, usually long rock jetties along the Atlantic Coast.
Purple Sandpipers often occur in small numbers at their much loved winter sites, about a half-a-dozen to maybe 30 or sometimes more. Purple Sandpipers are relatively quiet, dark-colored birds that blend in well with their dim rocky surroundings. If not careful you could miss seeing them altogether. The birds were less than 10 feet away before I spotted them on the jetty.
As I headed home in the early evening I was happy to have taken time out to observe some wild nature within metropolitan New York City. All it took was the sight of Purple Sandpipers to remind me that the urban-suburban sprawl caused by decades of poor-planning by ill-informed people is not all embracing. Due to former preservation efforts by local citizens, the natural world can often be no farther away than a short journey down to your local waterway, in this case Pews Creek.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com