Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eider way, it was a productive morning

This past weekend's Sandy Hook jaunt was one of our classic birding/history mixed trips. Ivan had heard about a rare sighting of a male king eider in full breeding plumage at the north end of the hook, and the National Park Service was running its annual Coastal Defenses Day at Fort Hancock.

Given how exhausted we were after the South Jersey jaunt, and the overcast outside, we got a bit of a late start, but fortunately that doesn't really matter when it comes to shore birds. When we got to our destination, we stopped first at New Jersey Audubon's Sandy Hook Bird Observatory to check the log for sightings. Was the eider still around? Apparently he was still somewhere at the end of the Fisherman's Trail, but according to another birder, there "wasn't much else." Well, one person's feast is another's famine. Off we went to determine what our own menu for the day would become.

The Fisherman's Trail is at the very northern tip of the hook, accessible from the parking lot just to the west of the Nine Gun Battery. It winds past the small and decaying Battery Peck and the adjacent hawk watching deck (funny how they watch birds from Peck, don't you think?), and then through the dunes to the shore. It's very sandy, with no firm base below, which means you're essentially spending about 15 minutes wading along with things shifting below your feet. It's not an easy walk, but it beats having to do the stairmaster at the gym.

At the end of the path, you're rewarded with a broad beach littered with all sorts of flotsam, from driftwood to whatever plastic trash happened to find its way there. Substantial parts of the beach dunes are blocked off for the endangered piping plovers to nest, and the occasional human-built enclosures mark where some of them have chosen to raise their young. They're great little shorebirds, and as Ivan noted, they're pretty high up on the cuteness scale. Seeing them on the beach is always such a treat.

The top of the hook isn't a bathing beach -- it's far too much work to get there -- but plenty of sport fishers will make the hike for a good catch. Just off the coast, plenty of fishing boats large and small anchor for a few hours, and the buoys marking the shipping channels are visible. On a good day, you can see Brooklyn and Staten Island along with the connecting Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In really clear weather, you might even be able to see a hint of lower Manhattan in the distance. Sunday, though was overcast and even a little foggy. Not a great day for sightseeing.

We came upon a birder carrying a scope and tripod, returning from his walk. He told us that he'd seen two eiders just out of view of where we were then standing. Ah, good news! We walked along the beach looking for the elusive fowl both on the sand and in the water; an online report had included a photo of him nestled comfortably on the beach, so it was quite possible he could be anywhere.

Alas, though, we were not destined to meet the king eider on this trip. It's the way it sometimes goes: you don't always see what you came to see, but you often still see something very worthwhile.

For me, it was another view of one of my favorites, the black skimmer. They tend to fly in flocks and then rest on the beach almost in formation. To me they look like airplanes parked on the tarmac, just waiting for their next flight. And of course, it's always fun to watch the smaller shorebirds dart their beaks into the sand for food, and then run quickly as the tide washes in.

Looking through the grounded birds, Ivan noticed a couple of red knots, glad to see a few of this rapidly decreasing species. Maybe we didn't see the eider, but perhaps the knots were just as good, if not better. The birder at the Audubon office was wrong: there was 'much' out there.

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