Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Shift change on the Hook

If the first really, really nice day of March is a gift, this year it's the winning lottery ticket. After the winter we've endured -- bone chilling cold interrupted by repetitive big snow storms, or the combination of both -- the prospect of frolicking in 60 degree weather is totally irresistible.

That's exactly why I ended up at Sandy Hook earlier today. Well, that and the fact that the Osprey should be returning any day. Among the first raptors to capture my imagination many years ago, the good ol' fish hawk is generally expected to arrive back at the Hook around March 15. Given the harshness of the winter, I wasn't really sure whether they might be delayed, but it was worth a shot. Would they resettle on the nesting platform near the still-not-replaced boardwalk deck at Spermaceti Cove? Could they already be staking out the usual spots on Officers Row and the Officers Club? (Hmm... with homes like that, could it be that Osprey are the Hook's full bird colonels?)

And besides, I might get a chance at seeing the straggler seals in the bay before they head north for the summer.

These prickly pears will soon be livening up for the summer.
Usually we're so busy looking for signs of spring -- crocuses, the first robin, budding trees -- that we don't consider that our winter visitors are getting ready to leave for points north. I was wondering whether I might be able to see both today: maybe some winter ducks and seals, within view of newly-arrived osprey and other recent migrants.

Actually, it didn't take long for me to experience the overlap. Parking at Lot C and walking the path between the dunes to the bay, I heard the call of a Red-winged blackbird just as I spotted a group of seals sunning themselves on a distant bayside beach. True, some Red-wings stick around in the colder months, but their song always puts me in the mind of sunny July mornings on the Hook.  So... mission accomplished there.

My next stop was the bayside beach near batteries Kingman and Mills, where I supposed some straggler ducks might be hanging out. A quartet of Brant swam near the water's edge; a pair of Buffleheads farther out were alternately floating along and diving. Remembering the overhead scolding I got last May, I was optimistically hoping to find an Osprey or two near the nesting platform inland of Battery Mills, but alas, it's a little too early in the season for setting up housekeeping.

This Officers Row house is being fitted with a new porch.
You can see PVC piping in the chimneys above.
That said, I wasn't too confident I'd find any down at the garrison, either, a feeling heightened by some surprising activity atop the houses on Officers Row. Several houses already sport PVC piping emerging from chimneys, perhaps a means of ventilation to stabilize ongoing decay, and a crew was fitting yet another house as I passed. While I'm all for whatever it takes to preserve and restore these amazing homes, I'm a bit saddened by the prospect that Osprey will lose their long-time nesting spaces as a result. Allowances may already have been made: one of the houses appeared to have been skipped over, and I think it's the usual nesting chimney.*

Still, though, I hadn't seen a single one of the birds that prompted my visit. I was just about passing the Officers Club (no luck) when I saw something gliding through the sky. Right shape? Right size? Pretty much. Right markings? Well, that was the question. As I pulled the car over near Nine Gun Battery to get a look, the mystery raptor's circling widened, bringing it farther away from me. Just my luck.

Patience is a virtue with birding, and I decided to wait a little to see if it would return. A clutch of Turkey vultures glided in, a few alighting on the Battery. Trying to tell me something, guys? Then I saw it: either the same mystery bird or a friend, approaching for a fly-by, but I couldn't get a bead on it. My binoculars have been temperamental lately, and they picked this moment to be especially difficult. I thought I saw the distinctive black eye stripe of an Osprey, but I didn't catch enough of its other markings to be sure. Birds, of course, don't care about your optics issues. You may get another chance, you may not.

Shaking my head, I got in the car and continued southward, in the direction the mystery raptors had flown. They seemed to be heading to the Gunnison parking lot, which, not surprisingly, held a couple dozen cars on this sunny, warm day. The vultures seemed to find the area amenable. I sat, waiting.

Well, it's often said that when you look for one bird, you often find another one that's just as interesting, and that's exactly what happened. Among the couple of "I'm not sure, but I could make it a juvenile osprey" individuals was one much different: a Red-shouldered hawk. And this fella wanted me to be absolutely sure, gliding above me so I could get a good look at his orange-tinged body and striped tail. On his departure, he wheeled to let me see his distinctive red shoulders, nicely displayed in perfect sunlight. If I wasn't entirely sure about the Osprey, the Red-shoulder was a nice consolation.

As I got back into the car, I looked in the distance to see two raptors flying a tandem pattern, apparently getting to know each other better, or maybe looking for a nice place to nest. Though they were too far off for me to identify decisively, I'm sure they were Osprey. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

*Update, April 10: the Osprey are undeterred! At least three pairs have or are attempting to set up shop on the chimneys, incorporating the PVC piping in their nest design. Scuttlebutt is that the piping was placed to discourage the birds as the National Park Service is moving to lease the houses to entities that will restore and reopen them.

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