Monday, November 26, 2012

Back to the Brig: life continues at Forsythe after Sandy

It had been a good long time since Ivan and I had been to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, a.k.a. Brig. Looking back at my birding notes, our last visit was in August, when we went to see the ever amusing, rare to New Jersey reddish egret. We've had a good year at that location, with plenty of new life birds for me and a reportable sighting of two black-bellied whistling ducks for Ivan. Even without a big-name spotting, a couple of hours at Brig always leaves me with a warm feeling about the future for our regional wildlife. There's definitely a home for threatened and endangered species to nurture and raise their young.

A three month gap between visits doesn't seem like a lot, unless you consider that for a couple of weeks in that time, we couldn't have gone there if we'd wanted to. You see, Hurricane Sandy was as unkind to Brig as it was to most of the other Federal lands in the New Jersey area. Storm surges severely damaged the refuge's Wildlife Drive, pushing salt water to breach berms separating the Atlantic from freshwater pools, and strewing detritus around some of the more ecologically-sensitive areas. We were saddened to hear about the storm's impact on one of our favorite birding spots and hoped the problems could be resolved before the ecosystem suffered any further negative impact. Had the birds been so disturbed, had their habitat been so affected that they'd avoid the place for a while?

It was a question that was answered in less time than we thought. About ten days after the storm, Refuge staff reported on Facebook that the numbers of birds were continuing to increase day by day. Then on November 16, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened portions of Brig. The visitor center and walking trails are accessible, and portions of the land-based roadways are open to foot traffic, but the Wildlife Drive through the impoundment pools remains closed until repairs can be completed.

Obviously, we had to check it out. We knew that the inaccessibility of the impoundments meant we'd see fewer water birds close-up, but the Refuge's pines might yield the winter finches that have been eluding us. And yes, we had to see Sandy's impact for ourselves, if possible.

When we got to the parking lot yesterday, we found the place to be unusually quiet for a Sunday morning. Only one other car was in the lot, and since the drives were closed, we knew we had to be just about the only visitors to the property.

Undeterred, we started exploring the wooded areas nearest the lot. A quick check of the kids' area behind the restrooms revealed a wealth of species, including towhee, golden crowned kinglet and Carolina wren as well as your general winter yardbirds like cardinal, Carolina chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch. The pine grove near the administration building didn't yield any crossbills or grosbeaks, but the area looked fine, little changed by the storm.

The visitor center was open by the time we were about to walk past to go to the gull pond, so we stopped in. Staff members there corroborated what I'd been thinking: maybe the relative quiet of a human-light environment would encourage birds to get a bit braver about roaming closer to the public areas. One woman even mentioned she'd seen a larger number of harriers scanning the area than she had in quite a while. It seemed that if we weren't going to be able to see the hundreds of ducks and geese normally on the impoundment pools, we'd still find a good range of late fall and winter species on the property.

The gull pond is usually a reasonably short drive via a hard-packed sand road. Now open only to foot traffic, it offers a good view of a couple of expanses of water that often produce a variety of egrets, ducks, gulls and shorebirds. This time was no exception, including a large group of killdeer whose distinctive vocalizations announced their arrival. True to form, harriers were scanning the marsh grass, and we spied two adult bald eagles in the distance, apparently enjoying a nice flight together.

It was those eagles who gave me a real show later on. As Ivan and I were walking the Leeds trail on the other side of the visitable refuge area, I noticed the two raptors high up in the distance, performing a sky ballet together. They'd fly near each other, briefly part, and then soar almost in synch, one ahead of the other. A few times, one would fly almost upside-down beneath the other in what looked like a show-off stunt. I've seen birds hassle each other, but this was clearly not what these two were doing. Perhaps they were... flirting? Were they a mated pair?

I watched bare-eyed as they danced, enjoying the performance that apparently Ivan and I were the only humans present to see. Then, improbably, I saw one fly upside-down under the other, locking talons to perform the classic eagle maneuver of tumbling together toward the ground below. Was I witnessing a true mating ritual? "Omigod, omigod omigod..." I exclaimed, trying to get Ivan's attention as I brought the binoculars up to my eyes. And then they disengaged after a few tumbles, righted themselves and flew onward, out of view.

That experience brought me farther along the bald eagle circle of life that's been forming for me during visits to Brig. On my initial trip there last year, Ivan pointed out an immature eating its prey on an ice-covered impoundment pool. Since then I've seen enough juveniles and adults to realize that the refuge isn't just a stop-over for bald eagles; it's a place they count on for sustenance. And maybe now my dancing friends are preparing to raise a family there, if they haven't been doing that already.

Maybe there's still a lot of work to be done to bring the refuge back to its pre-storm state, and maybe only part of the property is open for visitation, but there's still a lot of life there, and tons to observe. You should get out there, and let us know what you discover for yourself!

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