We're into the third week of December. The winter solstice will arrive on Friday, December 21, at 6:12am EST, the earliest arrival of winter since 1896. The winter solstice is when the Sun reaches its southernmost point on the celestial sphere and its farthest point away from the equator. Summer is about to begin for people who reside in the southern hemisphere, like Australia or Argentina, while for people in the northern hemisphere, Old Man Winter and Jack Frost will officially arrive.
For the past several weeks, Lower New York Bay and adjoining waters including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay, have been getting ready for the arrival of winter. Bay waters have cooled off from an average of 70 degrees in the summer to the chilly mid-40s. Waters will continue to slide down to an average of 35 degrees later in the season. Plankton and much of the microscopic plant activity, primary production, that fueled life in the bay over the summer has slowed appreciably as the days have grown shorter and less sunlight is available for photosynthesis.
The biggest change, however, has been the disappearance of a large assortment of coastal birdlife. Gone are many of the shorebirds and wading birds that called Lower New York Bay home this past summer, like Night herons, terns, plovers, egrets, skimmers, and oystercatchers. Even the Ospreys have left. They have all migrated south for the winter.
In their place, only the hardiest of species can be found. Life is lean, but some birds are able to survive biting winds, freezing temperatures, and lots of snow and ice. One group that not only survives, but seems to thrive well in this nasty stuff are our coastal winter birds with their waterproof feathers and diverse coastal cuisine.
Head down to the beach in the winter and you will notice a variety of life swimming on the water's surface. Lower New York Bay is actually quite active with a huge assortment of birdlife during the winter. Prominent among these are several species of ducks with whimsical names: Greater Scup, Buffleheads, Mergansers, Coots, Brant, Scoters, Ruddies, and Goldeneyes. These birds can only be seen during the winter.
A diversity of winter ducks arrive from their summer breeding grounds generally in Canada and northern New England or New York to spend the winter here where waters are relatively warmer and there is plenty of food. According to a 1997 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report entitled, " SIGNIFICANT HABITATS AND HABITAT COMPLEXES OF THE NEW YORK BIGHT WATERSHED," the mid-winter concentrations of waterfowl in Lower New York Bay is "especially significant" and averages over 60,000 birds due to its geographic location and productive bay wetlands, flats, and related shallow waters.
One of my favorite winter ducks is the Long-tailed duck, formerly known as oldsquaw. It's a beautiful looking bird with a long-spiky tail plume often tilted high in the air and a black, gray and white feathered head frequently pointed skyward. The male is largely plump white with a black band across the breast. The female is plump too, but darker, a blackish brown bird with patches and pieces of white feathers. Both male and female have short bills.
Although Long-tails are principally known as a sea bird, the species winters here in Lower New York Bay and can be seen foraging in both the bay and ocean. From December to February, hundreds if not thousands may congregate in the bay.
Many Long-tails have returned already to Lower New York Bay. They can be seen foraging for crabs or clams. Sometimes even a small fish or two.
Last Saturday, while taking an early morning beach walk near the mouth of Pews Creek in Port Monmouth, located along Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey, I heard the familiar call of Long-tailed ducks. At that moment I knew the long-tails were back in the bay.
The birds can be highly vocal. They make a loud nasal, sort of yodeling sound. It's a distinctive two or three note call. I think David Allen Sibley articulates the call best in his field guide to Eastern North American birds. He put into writing the call as "upup-ow-oweLEP!" Strange, right? Yet, if you listen closely you may hear the call far-off in the bay.
If lucky, you may even get a chance to see some Long-tails. Through my binoculars at the end of the Pews Creek jetty, facing a chilly northwest wind off the water, I could see several Long-tailed ducks. It must have been good pickings, as they didn't leave despite a falling tide and rowdy waves.
Perhaps the birds were exhausted and hungry, having just arrived to Lower New York Bay from a long winged migration that started from their far-off summer breeding grounds in the high arctic tundra, over 2,000 miles away. They breed near ponds and wetlands on distant islands, such as the Queen Elizabeth Islands in far northern Canada and northern Greenland. The long-tails leave the tundra sometime in October to arrive in Lower New York Bay by late November or early December, in what must be a lengthy strenuous journey, especially for young Long-tailed Ducks that were born just last summer and now have to deal with strong winds and serious weather for their first migration.
Through binoculars, I could see several young Long-tailed Ducks in the bay. A good sign that another generation is coming along. In fact, Long-tails may be one of the few species of winter ducks that have not diminished in population. Since the birds nest so far north in remote areas of the tundra, there are few predators, people or pesticides that cause harm, and their strong pungent flavor makes them a poor choice for hunters. Although some Long-tailed Ducks occasionally can drown in fishing nets, becoming caught while foraging deep in the water. They are also vulnerable to oil spills in urban areas and shipping channels.
While there is still much to do to protect our bird life from human threats, Long-tails seem content swimming in the busy and bustling urban waters of Lower New York Bay and dealing with the bitter winter days on the bay with icy blasts of cold air sweeping down from the north. These distinctive sea ducks know winter well. They are hardy, resilient birds.
Let's hope Long-tailed ducks always remain so and come back to Lower New York Bay every winter season for future generations of frozen and red-cheek beach walkers and birders to enjoy. To help with conservation efforts to save these birds for future generations please consider joining either or both New York City Audubon or New Jersey Audubon societies.
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://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/