Saturday, July 4, 2015

Life, Death and Protecting the Endangered Piping Plover at Breezy Point; May & June, 2015

For this blog entry we will take a little side-trip over to Breezy Point, where we will examine the way in which the nests of the endangered Piping Plover are protected by park employees and local volunteers. At this time of the year, there are other species that also nest in the same area and we will meet some of them as well as their young. While there is much new life during this season, there is also the every-day demise of all sorts of creatures; this too will be seen in some of the accompanying images.
Note that this series of images were made over several visits: May 7, May 16, May 30, June 13 and June 27, 2015.

When a clutch of Piping Plover eggs are discovered, what is called an “Exclosure” is erected to protect them from various predators, be they natural or human. The Exclosure is constructed using metal wire-mesh with openings spaced in such a way as to exclude any animals much larger than an adult Piping Plover.
The mesh is unrolled, stood up, and the ends are brought together. The resulting cylinder is closed off with electrician’s plastic wire ties. The top, or “roof”, of what is essentially a four- to five-foot tall cylinder with a ten- to twelve-foot (approximate) diameter is covered by fine plastic netting. The entire construct is anchored by four lengths of steel “re-bar” (reinforcing bar), each of which is hammered into the sand about eight- or ten-inches deep. Wire-ties anchor the mesh to the re-bar, while smaller ties, similar to what seals the bag-end of a loaf of bread, secures the plastic netting for the roof.

Most of the construct is assembled away from the nest and then brought over and emplaced. The rods are hammered in, the roof is added and everything is tied-off; the edges of the roof are trimmed away. It is imperative that this final action is done as rapidly as possible in order to produce as little stress as possible for the pair of adult Piping Plovers who guard their nest.

While this last step is completed, one or both parent birds will make frantic attempts to distract the erection crew, in order to draw them away from their precious eggs. This includes moving rapidly away from the egg clutch to, hopefully, draw away what the birds can only conceive of as predators. Similar to several other species, the most characteristic motion the parents will make is to simulate an injury, by appearing to have a broken wing. They will shiver somewhat, peep quite a bit, and sometimes flop around, often looking over their shoulders to see where the predator is.

In this instance, a clutch of four eggs was discovered on the bay-side of Breezy Point and a volunteer crew, headed by Tony and consisting of Kim-Nora, Lisa and Chuck, took on the job of erecting the Exclosure. I was fortunate enough to be invited to tag along and document the exercise, which enabled me to capture some interesting imagery. Preferring to walk to the site, I left the Potluck gathering (see below) ahead of the rest of the crew. This enabled me to walk the bay-side beach in search of interesting bits of nature, as also documented here. I arrived on-site a few minutes ahead of the crew, who came along in the truck that hauled the construction materials and tools.

A second pair of Piping Plovers were observed a little further along the beach. Close observation showed dozens of nest “scrapes” (small depressions) in the sand, along with many, many sets of foot-prints. Apparently, these scrapes were made to provide a choice of spots for the female to lay her eggs. At Tony’s request, I remained behind to make observations while the rest of the crew departed after the erection of the above-mentioned Exclosure.

My observations were inconclusive, although one bird did occupy a scrape for the remaining time I was present. A visit a bit more than a week later revealed no activity, probably because several Great Black-back Gulls were loitering on the exact spot where the plover scrapes had been observed. The gulls love nothing better than to devour any eggs or hatchlings, so it is small wonder the plovers abandoned this particular site at that time. Several days later still, an Exclosure had been erected on the spot, so apparently, things for this nesting pair went well enough.

There is also life-and-death drama playing out daily on the beach. Creatures are born, while others die and their remains litter the beach. Many bird species have hatched and the young must be protected by their parents as they grow to a size where they can fend for themselves. There are predators that will easily snap-up a defenseless hatchling if given half a chance. Small dramas play out wherever one cares to look.

This pair of Sanderlings (Calidris canutus), a very common local species at various times of the year, was resting in between feeding as I passed them by. What caught my eye was the green “flag” on the left leg of the bird on the right. These flags, as well as the more commonly-seen “bands” are a means that naturalists use to track migration patterns in order to gather conservation data. Date: 05-30-2015.

This Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) is quite large and is probably a female; males are noticeably smaller. She is encrusted in barnacles as she makes her way out of the surf, possibly to lay her eggs. This prehistoric creature is actually related to the arachnid family and is not a crustacean. Date: 05-30-2015.

I’ve always wondered what the critters that occupy these large snail shells look like “naked”. This poor Hermit Crab had been mangled and killed by a predator, but not completely devoured; I only noticed him when I picked-up this rather attractive shell. He was easily slid out of his apparently ineffective fortress for a portrait. Date: 05-07-2015.

This pair of Sand Sharks was part of a larger group of these creatures that were left high-and-dry in the receding tide. What I find puzzling is that scavengers generally leave the flesh of these carcasses alone, preferring to feast only on their eyes. Date: 05-30-2015

Sporting a facial expression akin to that of a chagrined cartoon character, this dead and partially decomposed Skate was discovered amongst several others in the mud-flats. The first image shows the creature’s underside, including the mouth and nostrils. These bottom feeders are a common sight on the bay-side beach as they are either stranded by wave and tidal forces, or caught and cast aside by fisher-folk. The lower image was made many weeks later and shows the top-side of another specimen. Although humans consume Skate meat, apparently its eyes were the only things felt to be edible by the local scavengers. Dates: 05-07- & 06-27-2015.

As I walked along the beach at Breezy bay-side a peripheral movement caught my eye. Observing a Great Egret (Ardea alba) that had just taken to the air from behind the dunes, I snapped a parting image. Back behind the dunes and in the general area of the maritime woodlands, are some shallow ponds, which is what may have attracted this species. Date: 05-07-2015.

The goal of the exercise on May 7th was to protect this clutch of Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) eggs. This species commonly produces four eggs per clutch. In this locale, past data has indicated that only one chick (actually 1.1) will survive to migrate south at the end of the season. These eggs are of a shape described as “oval” and “pyriform”; the latter type is more pointed and elongated. They typically measure 24.2-mm wide and 31.4-mm long, which would allow one to fit through the “window” of an old-style 35-mm color slide mount. The incubation period is approximately 28 days. Date: 05-07-2015.

While Tony, Lisa and Chuck begin assembling the Exclosure, Kim-Nora has fun un-tangling a wad of the smaller tie-wraps that are used to secure the roof. When this phase is complete, the structure is moved to the nest, the re-bar stakes are pounded in, the roof is fixed in place and trimmed; the crew immediately departs. The final part of the process is a short period of observation to ensure that the adult birds return to incubate the clutch. Thankfully, this happened rather quickly. Date: 05-07-2015.

The completed Exclosure in place over the nest site. Date: 05-30-2015.

These two images depict the frantic efforts of one of the adult Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) to distract us from doing harm to the contents of the nest. In the upper image, the bird is simulating a broken wing, all the while keeping an eye on us. At other times, as seen in the lower image, the bird would peep and kick up some sand. Date: 05-07-2015.
This Piping Plover was sitting in one of many, many scrapes (potential nest sites) situated about 60- or 70-yards further along the beach from the above described nest; the distance between nests is typical of the species. Eventually, a nest was discovered here and put under the protection of an Exclosure. Date: 05-07-2015.
Several weeks later, while inspecting the previously-described Exclosure, I noted this adult Piping Plover sheltering behind this piece of driftwood as it moved away from the nesting site. Date: 05-30-2015.
What may be a recently-fledged Piping Plover was doing quite a bit of low flying before it alighted on the shore-line. This behavior was a bit unusual, as these birds generally make a rapid retreat on foot; perhaps this youngster was “feeling his oats”? It was spotted in the general area of the above-described nesting 
A number of other species nest at Breezy Point, to include Common and Least Terns (Sterna hirundo & Sternula antillarum), Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), and American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). This clutch of three eggs, typical of the last-mentioned species, was discovered between both of the above Piping Plover nesting sites. These eggs are described as being “oval” and “long oval” in shape, and are approximately 38.7-mm in diameter and 55.7-mm long; incubation is about 27 days. Date: 05-07-20.
Approximately five weeks have passed and an adult American Oystercatcher escorts a chick along the outer face of the bay-side dune line, again in the same general area. Date: 06-13-2015.
On this day, I observed two pairs of Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) parents, each with two young. The second pair had younger, smaller offspring, which attracted a predator in the form of a Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), below. To counter him, the parents closed in together almost touching, parallel to each other, with the hatchlings between them. This removed them from a clear view and also put a physical barrier in the way of the gull. Date: 05-30-2015.
Here is the hunter, hovering over his potential prey. The tactic of the parents being quite effective in concealing their chicks, he eventually tired of this fruitless endeavor, and departed. Date: 05-30-2015.
A couple of weeks later, I observed these much larger chicks in the same area as those above. While still flightless, they are of a substantial size and probably can quite easily stand-up against a gull. Date: 06-13-2015.
This Common Loon (Gavia immer) provided me with one of my most memorable birding moments, quite simply because it attacked me! Having encountered loons in several Breezy Point locations at different times, while they were seemingly immobilized on the shore, I am used to being able to get close. In this case, the bird gave several of its mournful calls and then launched itself at my left leg and foot, pecking me. Laughing as I hurriedly backpedaled, I quickly put my right foot beneath its rump and gently (but firmly) moved the bird away; no harm done to either party! Date: 06-27-2015.
This pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) chicks was encountered on the access road which runs from the B222 parking lot to Breezy Point’s ocean-side beaches; I often take this route while hiking completely around the far western tip of the Rockaways. These birds prefer open areas for nesting so they can see predators a long way off. These young consistently retreated before me, never once disappearing into the roadside vegetation; their genetic programming would not allow any other action. In order to relieve them of the stress from what they thought was a hunting predator, I had to run past them. Date: 06-13-2015.
The final image in this entry depicts a meeting of park staff and volunteers at Riis Landing for a Potluck Lunch on May 7. Such occasional social gatherings help further weld together an already devoted group, who seldom are able to gather together in any significant numbers at any single time. It was also an opportunity to bid farewell to Hanem, who is headed west to the Rocky Mountains, as well as to welcome Tami to Gateway. This “Dirty Dozen” consists of the following individuals. From L to R, top: Eileen, Lisa, Genie, Tami & Russ. From L to R, standing: Jim, Chuck, Kim-Nora, Lisa & Tony. From L to R, kneeling: Ron & Hanem.

All text and photos by Frank V. De Sisto.
References consulted for this entry include the following:

“Birds’ Nests, Eastern”, by H.H. Harrison. 1975, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395092.
Part of the Peterson Field Guides series, it details a large number of nests using color photographs and line drawings. An introductory chapter provides a basic overview.

“Fishes”, by M. Filisky & S. Landry. 1989, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 13-9780395911792.
Peterson First Guides provide an inexpensive introduction to a number of subjects. A color illustration and a block of text details over 200 species.

“The Shorebird Guide”, by M. O’Brien, R. Crossley & K. Karlson. 2006, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 13-9780618432943.
Packed with information and filled with excellent photographs, this is the “go-to” guide on the subject, with information on the Piping Plover and American Oystercatcher.

“Lives of North American Birds”, by K. Kaufman. 1996, Haughton Mifflin. ISBN 0618159886.
“The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior”, by C. Elphick, J.B. Dunning, Jr. & D.A. Sibley. 2001, Knopf. ISBN 9781400043866.
These two titles, combined, give an excellent overview of what it is to be a bird. Both titles have a distinctly different, yet complimentary point of view, and the graphic presentation also differs.

“Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition”, by J.L. Dunn & J. Alderfer. 2006, National Geographic. ISBN 0792253140.
A concise, well-illustrated guide, this guide has several means of quickly accessing a species account.

“Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City”, by L. Day & M.A. Klingler. 2007, Johns Hopkins. ISBN 13-9780801886829.
The informative text provides an excellent starting point for anyone exploring NYC and its environs. Color photographs, illustrations and maps round out the package.

Rocky Point needs your help. To volunteer, contact NPS Ranger Tony Luscombe at:

For more photos of the various segments of the Gateway NRA complex, visit

Friday, June 5, 2015

Birds of Rocky Point Salt Marsh, Part Four, August 2014 to May, 2015

This is the last installment in this four-part series, which starts at the end of August, 2014, and ends in May, 2015.

As I worked through this project, I was able to observe and photograph three more species: Turkey Vulture, European Starling and Red-throated Loon. This brings the count to 78 species which I have personally observed and photographed in the marsh’s environs.

For the purpose of these blog segments, I have very loosely defined Rocky Point Marsh as everything lying within borders defined by Rockaway Park Boulevard and Beach 201st Street, to the south and west, respectively (note that all compass points are “approximate”). The far-east border is delineated by the jetty at that end of the cove; the jetty then runs back into Rockaway Park Blvd. at Beach 193rd Street. The marsh’s northern side is fronted by Jamaica Bay.

For references consulted, please see part one of this series.

08-23-2014, Black-bellied Plover, (Pluvialis squatarola). These two individuals were photographed on the shore directly in front of the marsh. A frequent visitor on both the bay and ocean shores of the Rockaways, this species eats insects, mollusks, various marine creatures and crustaceans.

08-30-2014, Snowy Egret, (Egretta thula). The smaller cousin of the Great Egret, this species often frequents the marsh pond, especially when a high tide is in effect. This particular individual was extremely successful during the time I observed him, striking prey numerous times.

09-16-2014, Osprey, (Pandion haliaetus). It has long been the hope of the people working to restore the marsh that this species would choose to make a nest here. In particular, the late summer of 2014 saw frequent sightings of both perching and hunting Osprey, sometimes two at a time. However, comparing photographs made on five separate observations during the months of April and May, 2015, revealed no nest-building activity on the platform.

09-20-2014, Northern Mockingbird, (Mimus polyglottos). This handsome and common species can be seen in the Rockaways year-round, the marsh being no exception. This individual appears to be in the final stages of replacing its molting feathers.

10-17-2014, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle), (Dendroica coronate). On some days, many dozens of these warblers can be seen in and around the marsh; this is the so-called “Myrtle” form, which is seen in the east year-round. When such prey is available, insects are the preferred diet; in other seasons, waxy berries, including those seen on Poison Ivy are readily consumed.

10-17-2014, Cooper's Hawk, (Accipiter cooperii). This image capture came as I happened to look up while this very agile raptor appeared low overhead from behind; in this case my very flexible camera rig worked as it should. This individual, true to form, disappeared low into the woodlands at the marsh’s western edge, threading its way between the trees in search of a meal.

10-25-2014, Hermit Thrush (Cartharus guttatus). A late south-bound migrant, this species will often raise and lower its tail in a distinct fashion, helping to distinguish it from the less common Wood Thrush. Feeding on insects and berries, this hardy species can sometimes be seen during the winter in the north.

10-25-2014, White-throated Sparrow, (Zonotrichia albicollis). Another common local sparrow, this species will winter in the NYC area. This particular individual has a tan stipe behind his eye, which is one of two morphs that can be seen on this species; the other has a white stripe.

10-25-2014, Song Sparrow, (Melospiza melodia). Another common species in the NYC area, this New World sparrow is very often observed at the marsh. An insectivore in season and a seed-eater at other times, this species will also feed on small mollusks and crustaceans, making the marsh an ideal habitat.

11-08-2014, Northern Cardinal, (Cardinalis cardinalis). A bird that really needs no introduction, the adult male of the species is a striking red color as seen here. Its large, strong bill is ideally suited to cracking open seeds, but it wall also feed on insects of various kinds. It is a permanent resident in the NYC area.

11-08-2014, Great Blue Heron, (Ardea heridias). Like a sentinel on guard, this stately individual stands tall in the surf just outside the marsh. Its long, sword-like bill is perfectly suited to hunting aquatic prey in shallow water, be it in the marsh pond, or as here, in the shallows of the bay.

11-08-2014, Dark-eyed Junco, Slate-colored, (Junco hyemalis). A relative of the sparrow, this species if very often seen feeding at ground level. Normally, the breast and sides of this bird are white, but this individual appears to be of the “pink-sided” or “mearnsi” type.

11-08-2014, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, (Regulus calendula). An extremely active forager, this species rarely stays in any one place for long. Although barely seen here, this little guy has a red crest hidden on the top of his head, which will be deployed if he becomes overly excited.

11-08-2014, Winter Wren, (Troglodytes troglodytes). Comprised of several “races” this individual is most probably of the “hiemalis” type, common in the east. As its name suggests, it will often be observed in woodlands during the winter months.

11-29-2014, American Goldfinch, (Carduelis tristis). Seen in the more cryptic winter plumage, this individual still shows some yellow on the throat. This time of the year, seeds make up a large part of its diet, so this individual is searching for a meal on a stand of Seaside Goldenrod.

11-29-2014, Downy Woodpecker, (Piciodes pubescens). This small, rather common woodpecker is a very frequent visitor, where it will hunt for prey on the thinner trees situated around the marsh. On this particular day in November, this was the dominant species at the marsh, with at least a dozen spotted throughout the area.

02-28-2015, American Wigeon, (Anas americana). A pair of these dabbling ducks were spotted cruising in Jamaica Bay, in front of the mouth of the marsh. They later alighted, but came back around and landed again, this time slightly closer in.

02-28-2015, Northern Harrier, (Circus cyaneus). This adult male was briefly sighted flying low over the marsh, prior to winding its way low through the woods. This relatively small, agile hawk will eat other birds, small mammals and small amphibians, making the marsh an ideal hunting ground.

05-07-2015, European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Introduced to the New York/metropolitan area in the 19th-century, this handsome bird is very hearty, thriving in close proximity to humanity. In this image, the bird is apparently gathering nest-building materials.

05-07-2015, Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Not often seen over the Rockaways, I first thought this was an Osprey. This individual made a couple of lazy low-level circles as it worked westwards over the marsh, finally swinging back towards the south-east.

05-07-2015, Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellate). This photograph was taken in early May and shows an adult in non-breeding plumage; this is likely to change shortly. Note the characteristically, slightly upturned mandibles. This individual was hunting in the shallows in front of the marsh, very close to shore.

All text and photographs by Frank V. De Sisto.
Rocky Point Marsh needs your help. To volunteer for service contact National Park Services Ranger Tony Luscombe at:

For more photos of Rocky Point as well as other locations within the Gateway NRA complex, visit:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Birds of Rocky Point Salt Marsh, Part Three

This, the third installment in this multi-part series starts at the beginning of January, 2014, and ends in mid-August, 2014.

For the purpose of these blog segments, I have very loosely defined Rocky Point Marsh as everything lying within borders defined by Rockaway Park Boulevard and Beach 201st Street, to the south and west, respectively (note that all compass points are “approximate”). The far-east border is delineated by the jetty at that end of the cove; the jetty then runs back into Rockaway Park Blvd. at Beach 193rd Street. The marsh’s northern side is fronted by Jamaica Bay.

For references consulted, please see part one of this series.

01-01-2014, Rock Dove (Pigeon) (Columba livia). Seen in urban environments worldwide, pigeons come in a bewildering variety of colors and this example is no exception. This species is extremely adaptable and is a frequent visitor to Rocky Point, often seen foraging along the shore fronting the marsh.

02-22-2014, Canada Goose, (Branta canadensis). This species is fairly common year-round, with large groups often seen along the shore fronting the marsh. These individuals are foraging within the marsh in the remnant of February snows.

05-10-2014, Chestnut-sided Warbler, (Dendroica pensylvanica). Seen in the early spring, this is the first recorded observation of this species within the marsh environs. This handsome individual is in full breeding plumage; note the chestnut-colored streak on the side; hence the name.

05-10-2014, Greater Yellowlegs, (Tringa melanoleuca). In season, this species is common in the Rockaways, both bayside and oceanside. A shallow water forager, the marsh pond, where this individual is located, offers perfect conditions for hunting.

05-24-2014, Least Tern, (Sternula antillarum). One of two tern species often seen at Rocky Point, this is the smallest member of its family living in North America. It typically hunts by diving into shallow water to grab fish; it will also catch insects in flight and feed on marine worms.

05-24-2014, American Robin, (Turdus migratorius). This familiar bird is common in the area and is often seen in and around the marsh. It feeds on insects and berries and is noted for pulling earthworms out of the ground; it is also quite fond of bathing, as seen here.

05-24-2014, Brown Thrasher, (Toxostoma rufum). This species is usually seen on the ground in thickets and underbrush, although it will also perch high on trees to sing. Its diet primarily consists of insects, supplemented by nuts and berries.

05-31-2014, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, (Calidris pusilla). At certain times of the year, several hundred Semi-palmated Sandpipers have been observed on the shoreline in front of the marsh. Easily confused with the very similar-looking Sanderling (at least by yours truly!), this species has been known to travel up to 2,000 miles non-stop during migration.

05-31-2014, Spotted Sandpiper, (Actitis macularius). This species is unusual in that it will nest relatively far south of the arctic. It hunts on and below the surface of shallow water and will dine on various fish, mollusks, worms and crustaceans.

05-31-2014, Semi-palmated Plover, (Charadrius semipalmatus). A very common visitor at Rocky Point, this species has been observed feeding both within and outside the marsh; it favors both environments. It takes a wide variety of prey, including insects, mollusks, worms and crustaceans.

06-07-2014, Mourning Dove, (Zenaida macroura). An extremely prolific breeder, this species is common and widespread throughout North America. A ground forager, it is often seen below bird feeders picking at seeds that other birds discard.

06-07-2014, Ring-billed Gull, (Larus delewarensis). One of four gulls that call Rocky point “home”, this species is an opportunistic scavenger and will steal food from other birds whenever it can. An omnivore, it will eat everything from potato chips to carrion.

06-07-2014, American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). Common in the Rockaways, this species nests mostly on the ocean-side of these barrier islands, but is often seen foraging on the shore-line in front of the marsh. As its name suggests, it favors mollusks, which it hunts in the shallows by sight.

06-07-2014, Willet (eastern) (Tringa semipalmata). As many as two pairs of this species have been seen at one time in the marsh, year after year. Despite their noted propensity to nest in salt marshes and their often extremely territorial behavior, no evidence of young has been found here at Rocky Point. On the other hand, the abundance of feral domestic cats noted in the area could be the cause of nest failure.

06-07-2014, Great Black-backed Gull, (Larus marinus). The largest gull native to North America, this predatory species often feeds on nestlings of other species, making it especially dangerous to the Piping Plover. In this image, an adult is taking flight outside the marsh, while two others, with plumage somewhere between 1st winter and 2nd summer look on; note the drain pipe, at left, which emanates from the marsh pond.

07-05-2014, Black Scoter, (Melanitta nigra). A sea duck, also known as the Common Scoter, this species nests in the far north. At sea, it feeds by diving for prey such as mollusks; in fresh water small fish, insects and fish eggs are often on the menu. The male is at top of photo, female at bottom.

07-26-2014, Black Skimmer, (Rynchops niger). An extremely specialized hunter, the skimmer’s lower mandible is longer than the upper, allowing it to be deployed to catch fish by touch as it flies low over shallow water “skimming” the surface for prey. Its long, thin wings, with their high aspect ratio (ratio of length to width), allow it to glide some distance, further helping it skim the waves for prey. Often seen in good numbers, in this area it prefers to hunt on the bayside of the Rockaways, where it is seen flying past the marsh.

08-13-2014, Black & White Warbler, (Mniotilta varia). Unique in its family, this warbler behaves like a creeper or nuthatch as it travels up and down tree limbs in search of prey. It feeds exclusively on insects, unlike some warblers that switch to seeds and berries in colder months.

08-13-2014, Great Egret, (Ardea alba). Salt marshes with their shallow ponds are perfectly suited to the foraging style of this large, elegant bird. The Great Egret is often seen at Rocky Point, with this particular individual being photographed flying low over the pond.

All text and photographs by Frank V. De Sisto.

Rocky Point Marsh needs your help. To volunteer for service contact National Park Services Ranger Tony Luscombe at:

For more photos of Rocky Point as well as other locations within the Gateway NRA complex, visit: