Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Egrets, I've had a few: visiting the osprey and more at Sandy Hook

The history at Sandy Hook is a big draw for my repeated visits, but the real reason for my recent trip was to check in on the osprey. I've been doing this for years, stopping by the bayside observation deck across the road from the Spermaceti Cove visitor center to see if the ol' fish hawks were nesting on the usual platform. They've become more and more common since I started my vigil, but it still warms my heart to see them pairing off and cultivating their broods.

This year I've been a little impatient, hoping that some of February's warm weather spurts had somehow encouraged the osprey to show up a few weeks early, but they waited until their usual late March date to arrive. As I approached the visitor center parking lot from the access road on Saturday, I saw one of the nesting pair fly off, no doubt looking for lunch. I was hoping to get some decent photos of the pair, but the platform was out farther than my lens could get an acceptable shot. Besides, nothing interesting was happening there, beyond a squawking conversation once the second osprey returned to the nest.

Undeterred, I went to my other reliable nesting site: Officers Row. That's the group of houses on Fort Hancock, facing Sandy Hook Bay, where the base's lieutenants, captains and commanding officer lived with their families. With only a few exceptions, they've been closed up since the Army left in 1974, and they're silently deteriorating in the salt air. It breaks my heart to see them slowly rot, but at the same time it's gratifying to see a little bit of life nurtured atop the chimney of one of the houses. I only just noticed them last year, and when I checked over the winter, the nest was still there. That bodes well for continued habitation, as long as the conglomeration of sticks and detritus doesn't get blown off the chimney by a gust off the bay.

I parked my car behind one of the adjacent houses and pulled out the camera and long lens, kicking myself for not bringing the tripod. As I got out of the car, I heard the splat of bird droppings hitting the car roof. Welcome to Officers Row, Sue. This was going to be fun.

I knew from last year's observation that the osprey would probably be a bit pissed at me for getting within camera shot, which in this case is the sidewalk in front of the house. They don't seem to realize that it's a long way from there to the top of a chimney on a three-story house. I figured I'd give it five or ten minutes and take my chances.

I got several clicks off as one of the osprey came by with lunch for the other, but much of the activity seemed to alternate between evasion and intimidation. First, the birds left the nest and flew far off behind the house, beyond the parade ground, back by the sergeants' family housing. Then after several minutes they came back closer to me, flying in front of the house, over the road and multi-use path and out to the bay. I was fortunate not just to get the photos, but to get a closer view of the pattern on the underside of their extended wings through the binoculars. I'll admit it was kind of intimidating to see them hover directly above me. Kinda made me feel the way the fish would, if they could see up to the sky to see they're being stalked. And after all, you never know if the osprey will poop on you, and osprey poop stinks, probably like fish.

Though I had positive intent, I started feeling a bit guilty for scaring them from their nest, so I packed up and hit the road. Out of habit, I looked quickly to my right just before passing the bayside platform. Distracted by a large flash of white, I was delighted to see a great egret perched atop a cedar on the side of the road. Good thing nobody was driving directly behind me; I pulled to the shoulder and grabbed the camera to squeeze off a few shots. I've seen egrets perched in deciduous trees, but never in a cedar. There's a first time for everything, I guess.

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