Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hitchcock on Sandy Hook: My adventure with The Birds

Spring this year has been hit and miss, with very few warm days. Any nature lover with a flexible schedule would have headed to a favorite birding spot when the temperatures promised to reach 75 degrees on a sunny day.

For me, that's Sandy Hook. It's one of the state's top birding spots any time of year, but during spring migration, it's especially promising. I had no specific reason to believe it would be spectacular today, but you never know. And to paraphrase a popular saying, a mediocre day at Sandy Hook is still better than a great day in a lot of other places.

What I didn't realize was that my visit would land me a screen test for a remake of a Hitchcock movie. No, not Psycho (I'm not that obsessed with birding). Yes, The Birds!

Now, over the past several years, Ivan and I have seen plenty of large flocks of small avian visitors, and smaller flocks of large avian visitors, and sometimes they take flight in ways that might be scary to those who aren't familiar with their general behavior. Like anyone else would, I sometimes make Tippi Hedren jokes, especially when gulls or blackbirds are involved, but I've never felt stalked.

This time, though, I got a fish's view of a predator, totally by mistake.

Sandy Hook's varied habitats offer several different places to bird, depending on what you'd like to see. My first choice today was an area at the tip of the hook called the locust grove, known to attract warblers and other songbirds. It's nestled between Battery Peck and the northern end of Nine Gun Battery, accessible from a gate in the chain link fence, and it leads out toward the pond on the Fisherman's Trail.

An Osprey overhead -- photo not taken
during the event described in this post.
The farther north you go on the hook, the more likely you are to see Osprey, and I was thrilled to see a half dozen or so in the air as I got out of my car. Where it was once news to see one nesting pair at Sandy Hook, the population has soared in recent years. By my informal count, there are at least five active nests on the hook this year. Some are on platforms built by the National Park Service specifically for the Osprey. Others capitalize on existing man-made structures like a radar tower on the Coast Guard base and, despite the efforts of the NPS, the chimneys of a few Fort Hancock buildings. Their success says a tremendous deal about the improved health of Raritan Bay and the efforts of environmentalists to make the region more hospitable to the ol' fish hawk.

Thing is, there are so many of them that you have to wonder where else they're nesting. A couple of years ago, I was scolded away from Battery Kingman by an angry Osprey parent protecting its young, and there are other platforms tucked away in locations less accessible to human wanderers. I think that's how I got into trouble today.

I was probably about a third of the way down the locust grove path when I heard insistent peeping from the sky. Looking up, I saw three Osprey -- two circling broadly and a third hovering almost directly above me. I kept walking, only to look up again to see the same bird over me, now flapping its wings busily. I'd seen that flap before, but over water: it's the maneuver of an Osprey readying itself to strike at a fish.

Hmm. Perhaps it's time to look for birds elsewhere.

In the Hitchcock masterpiece, the birds' hostility comes out of nowhere. My experience is easily explained. The closer I got to my car, the less disturbed the Osprey seemed to be, leading me to conjecture that I'd unknowingly approached a nest. By this point in the season, they're well-established and already incubating two or three eggs, one parent keeping the unhatched offspring warm while the other guards the area or goes fishing for the family. They've got enough to worry about from predators without having to warn me off.

A big part of birding is understanding the place of the human. We're there to observe and enjoy but not to disturb or harass. When a normally-quiet bird like the Osprey starts to vocalize, or a usually sweet-sounding songbird calls harshly, it's a cue to depart. We know our intent is pure, but the bird doesn't.

Birding is good all over the hook; I had no specific need to be on the locust grove trail. If the Osprey wanted me gone, I was more than happy to cooperate.

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