Sunday, November 9, 2014

Late Summer Creatures of Rocky Point Marsh, August & September, 2014

Salt marshes, with their varied habitats, host a wide variety of life forms. Rocky Point Marsh is no exception. Dozens of bird species have been observed over the years and they are by far the most visible of the marsh’s visitors. Insects abound and quite a few are easily visible, particularly butterflies, dragonflies and grasshoppers. Smaller insects will reveal themselves to close observation; disturbances in the water’s surface will also reveal fish going through their daily survival routines. Various crustaceans and mollusks are also to be seen.

For the purpose of this blog segment, 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.

A variety of conifers and broadleaf trees, most relatively young, surround the marsh on the higher elevations. Everything from algae to seaweed can be seen in wet and muddy areas, while a variety of wildflowers can be seen in the meadows. Grasses and vines abound with some rather tangled areas on the western fringes.

At the end of October 2012, a large amount of driftwood and manufactured lumber was deposited on the western edges of the marsh as a result of Super-storm Sandy. With two years of natural growth added, formerly interesting areas such as these are extremely treacherous and are best avoided.

 Mammal signs have been observed, but most are nocturnal types and rarely seen during the daytime. Aside from natural residents such as the Northern Raccoon and Eastern Cottontail, invasive feral cats, irresponsibly released into the wild by humans, are also on the prowl for a meal.

These images were created during August and September, 2104. I must also apologize for not being able to identify some of the creatures shown here.
A European Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae), pauses on a leaf. One of the most common butterflies in North America, it is not a native species, being introduced here about 125 years ago. Its caterpillar is considered an agricultural pest, known to ravage crops such as broccoli and cabbage; thus its name. Timestamp: 08-19-14, 0930.

The Primrose Moth (Schinia florida) is rarely seen, but when it is seen, here is where to look. Tony found this tiny treasure recently and was kind enough to forward the image and some information regarding this little guy from Mr. John Himmelman. Timestamp: 08-21-14, 0955.
One of the most common and beautiful of all butterflies is the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). The Monarch has been known to fly 2,000 miles or more during migration from North to South America and has also been seen in Hawaii and Australia. This specimen was photographed in the woods on the western edge of the marsh. Timestamp: 09-20-14, 0811.
A Rubbed Dart (Euxoa defers) perches atop Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) on the far western extremes of the woods that enclose the marsh. Seaside Goldenrod is part of the Aster family, one of the world’s two largest plant families. Timestamp: 09-26-14, 1221.
This stand of Seaside Goldenrod is also host to two different insect species (aside from the two seen in the upper left of the image, note the smaller one at right), both of which remain unidentified. Timestamp: 09-26-14, 1407.
This odd-looking fellow is also among the unidentified. Aside from using its legs to move from place-to-place, this little guy also “hopped” about 8-inches as I approached closer. Note how well his color helps him blend into the sand. Timestamp: 08-09-14, 0910.

Here we see a Harlequin Cabbage Bug (Murgantia histrionica). This tiny insect attempted to hitch a ride on one of my camera’s straps, when his movement caught my eye. I deposited him in the sand, where he is seen attempting to make his getaway. Also called Calico Bug and Firebug, it is often seen in crop fields and is considered an agricultural pest. Timestamp: 09-20-14, 0900. 
Another insect perfectly-colored to blend in with his surroundings presented himself for a portrait. This Grasshopper was flushed ahead of me as I walked through some tall grass just behind the dune-line. Using an internet source, it is tentatively identified as a Mottled Sand Grasshopper (Spharagemon collare). Timestamp: 09-20-14, 1056.

This school of Striped Killifish (Fundulus majalis) is seen feeding on the carcass of a defunct Horseshoe Crab (Limulis polyphema). The crab was situated in the flooded section of the marsh. Timestamp: 08-09-14, 0914.

Strike!! A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) takes prey from inside the marsh pond. It is quite probable that the fish he has taken is a Striped Killifish, as seen in the image above. It is not impossible that one of the fish seen above, feeding on the Horseshoe Crab, is now a meal for the Snowy Egret. If so, this is an excellent example of the “food chain” in action. Timestamp: 08-30-14, 1411.

Snowy Egrets also feed in the surf, within a few feet of the water’s edge. This bird was seen one week prior to the bird above, on August 23. Timestamp: 08-23-14, 1124.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is also a frequent marsh denizen. Egrets as well as Herons are often seen roosting in trees. Snowy Egrets, in particular, are often seen in relatively large groups as are various Night Herons. Timestamp: 08-13-14, 1016.

This Great Blue Heron (Egretta caerula) was seen in the surf just outside the marsh’s old entry. Similar in size to the Great Egret, as a wading bird, the Great Blue is also attracted to water of a low depth, where it will stalk game. Timestamp: 09-16-14, 1237.

The Long-tail Duck (Clangula hyemalis), previously referred to as an Oldsquaw, is a frequent visitor to Jamaica Bay, which fronts the marsh. This example is still molting, which accounts for its extremely scruffy appearance. Timestamp: 08-09-14, 0829.

Gulls are by far the most common birds seen at Rocky Point Marsh. Greater Black-back, Ring-bill, Laughing and Herring Gulls are often seen, sometimes in relatively large numbers. Here we see a specimen of the latter bird (Larus argentatus), casting a wary eye at the photographer. Timestamp: 08-23-14, 1107.
One of the larger Plovers, these Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) were part of a group of three photographed in the surf, just outside the marsh. Note the bird at right, which is more mature and therefore sports a partial black face. Timestamp: 08-23-14, 1111.
A fairly secretive bird, this Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) was seen in the woods on the western edge of the marsh. This particular bird appears to exhibit the plumage of the female of the species. Timestamp: 08-13-14, 0831.
As recently noted on this blog, there has been a surge in Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) sightings throughout August and into September. This handsome fellow was observed and photographed on the morning of August 9, 2014. Timestamp: 08-09-14, 0938.  
This Common Loon (Gavia immer) was “caught” on the beach just to the west of the marsh. Loons and other waterfowl will molt their flight feathers prior to migration; this essentially immobilizes them, making them vulnerable to predation. The placement of the legs is optimized for diving for prey, but these birds are extremely ungainly on land. Loons can only move by using their legs to push themselves along on their bellies, as seen here. Timestamp: 08-09-14, 0856.

Another bird species recently seen at Rocky Point is the Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra). They have been sighted at least three times off-shore in Jamaica Bay by this observer. Timestamp: 08-30-14, 1455.

The Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) is a frequent marsh visitor, with up to a dozen seen at any one time along the shore, or inside the marsh proper. Timestamp: 08-13-14, 1125.

 Mammals inhabit the marsh and its surrounding area. These are the very distinct fore-prints of the Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor). They are the most common prints yet encountered, although their nocturnal owners have never been seen by this observer. Timestamp: 08-23-14, 0852.

Rabbits are also denizens of Rocky Point, with the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) representing the species. Note the distinct pattern of the wind-worn prints, which will easily reveal the direction of travel; in this case it is from right-to-left in the image. The other marks at lower right are a bit of a puzzle as they are the only ones seen and therefore do not seem to represent a “trail”. Timestamp: 09-20-14, 0916.

At certain times of the year, Jamaica Bay and the beaches that border it are teeming with Horseshoe Crabs (Limulis polyphema). The nearly intact remains of a juvenile was seen inside the dune line which borders the marsh. Timestamp: 09-26-14, 1224.

This headless mammal skeleton is probably the remains of a domestic pet, either a dog or cat. Feral cats continue to be a hindrance to the natural reproductive process of birds throughout the Rockaways, with as many as a half-dozen observed in a single day. Although Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 saw the virtual extermination of feral domestic cats, in the last few months of 2014 they appear to be making a comeback. Timestamp: 09-26-14, 1251.

These two images depict the western fringe of the marsh, approximately one month apart. The upper image was captured on August 23rd at 854AM, with that on the bottom being made on September 20th 1105AM.

Probably the largest avian entity to pass over Rocky Point is the enormous Airbus A-380 commercial airliner. Weighing 1.25-million pounds at take-off, it can carry 525 passengers 8,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 587 mph. Up to 853 passengers can be carried on considerably shorter flights. This one is in the landing pattern for Kennedy International Airport, with its landing gear in the process of being deployed and locked. Timestamp: 08-23-14, 0946.

This US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is in the landing pattern for JFK as part of the support flight for the President of the United States, during a recent visit to NY City. The C-17 weighs 585,000 pounds at takeoff and can carry 102 paratroops, or up to 80-tons of cargo. Since it can refuel in the air and land on short runways, this aircraft can deploy nearly anywhere in the world. Timestamp: 09-20-14, 1039.

Rocky Point isn’t the only section of Gateway NRA meriting special attention from birders and students of the natural world. This White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) was spotted for just a few seconds, while the camera laid in wait at the pond below Battery Harris East, in Fort Tilden. It was my first sighting of this species. Timestamp: 08-31-14, 1558.  
One week later, on September 6, a walk along the shore in Fort Tilden revealed another new species for my life-list. This Whimbrel (Numinius phaeopus), with its distinctive downward-curved bill was observed closely for nearly half-an-hour. Timestamp: 09-06-14, 1048.

A very common year-round resident at Gateway NRA is the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). This particular specimen is in the final stages of molting, which accounts for its very disheveled and scruffy appearance. He is perched on the guard rail that sits atop the casemate at Battery Harris East. Timestamp: 09-06-14, 0915.

Credit where it’s due:
Special Thanks to Tony for the photo of the Primrose Moth and to Mr. John Himmelman for the accompanying information. Thanks also to Rich for helping with the identification of the Rubbed Dart. Any errors of fact or omission are mine alone.

Published works consulted for this posting included the following:

“The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America”, by R.T. Peterson. 2008, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN9780618966141. This is THE classic work by the legendary Roger Tory Peterson. I have two versions; the cited volume includes both east and west field guides between the covers of an enlarged-format book. Simply stated, no serious birder should be without a copy.

“The Sibley Guide to Birds”, by D.A. Sibley. 2000, Knopf, ISBN 9780679451228. Building on Peterson’s work, David Allan Sibley took the idea a step further and this wonderful title is the result. This enlarged volume also covers eastern and western North America, combining two existing field guides. If you have Peterson, you should also have this!

“Mammals of North America”, by F.A. Reid. Peterson Field Guides, 2006 Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 9780395935965. Roger Tory Peterson started something that spawned dozens of field guides for the student of nature, including this title. Profusely illustrated, it also features images of mammal tracks.

Peterson First Guides: “Butterflies & Moths”, by P.A. Opler. 1994, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN9780395906651.

Peterson First Guides: “Wildflowers”, by R.T. Peterson. 1986, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN9780395906675.

Peterson First Guides: “Fishes”, by M. Filisky & S. Landry. 1989, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN9780395911792. All of the above titles are small primers on their respective subjects and are by no means comprehensive. They are extremely economical, although narrowly-focused.

“Field Guide to Insects and Spiders”, by L. Milne & M. Milne. 1980, Knopf, ISBN9780394507637. A fine guide covering only a small portion of a vast subject, this book should be one of several on the subject in the naturalist’s library.

“Field Guide to Wildflowers, Eastern Region”, by N.C. Olmstead, W.A. Niering & J.W. Thiret. 1979, Knopf, ISBN0375402322. In the same style as the book above, this title only scratches the surface. Regardless, as a novice I have found this a useful addition to my reference library.

“The Sibley Guide to Trees”, by D.A. Sibley. 2009, Knopf, ISBN9780375415197. Mr. Sibley doesn’t only paint birds! This beautifully-illustrated and hefty tome has helped me solve a mystery or two.

Except where noted, all text and photos are 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:


Sunday, September 21, 2014

“Super-Moon”, High Tides and Visiting Osprey at Rocky Point Marsh.

Salt marshes depend on external forces to flush them and provide an exchange of nutrients. The ocean’s tides are the prime means to do so, with rising tides bringing more new water in; receding tides then drain it out. Tidal dynamics on the East Coast of North America cause “spring tides” to predominate. These types of tides are caused when the sun and the mood exert gravitational force at the same time, from the same direction. August and September saw the so-called “Super-Moon” cause these high tides to be as much as 6.9-feet in Jamaica Bay, which fronts Rocky Point. Several visits to the marsh by Tony and I resulted in the photographs seen here.

First in order of appearance are these three images made by Tony. They show an inundated marsh as the result of a 6.3-foot morning high tide, which occurred at 0941, on August 12, 2014. The image files are time-coded between 0931 and 0933. These images were made looking westwards (top), then slightly north of west (middle). The bottom image depicts a detail on the marsh’s western verges.

August 13th saw clouds subsiding as recently deposited rainwater dripped from marsh vegetation. The high tide, again 6.3-feet, was due at 1035.

Various fixed reference points were photographed in order to convey the visual impression of the rising of the tides in a still photography medium. Here are the twin culverts on the inner edge of the marsh. Time: 0932.

Vegetation has been inundated, with the direction of water-flow clearly indicated as their stalks are pushed towards the right of the image, or into, the marsh. Time: 0939.

The surface of the marsh is covered in water, as the tide continues to rise. At center, background, are the twin culverts; note also the branch in the water to the left. Both items were used as measuring instruments. Time: 0942.

Just a couple of minutes have passed as more of the branch is submerged. Time: 0944.
By far the most visually dynamic event of this high tide was the foaming, bursting seawater, as it flooded into the marsh’s entry. It should be noted that this breach was made when Super-storm Sandy crashed through the area in October of 2012. As the beach naturally migrates inland, and vertical growth takes place, the original entrance to the marsh has become much less efficient at admitting water. So, in a sense, Sandy may have extended the natural life of the marsh. Time: 0948.

A mere four minutes later, the camera pivots 180-degrees, towards the area where the marsh’s original entry point lies. While the new entry is admitting copious amounts of seawater, barely a trickle has made its way through the original entrance. Some of the water is detoured by the sand-bar; the remainder by the depth and steepness of the migrating beach. Inland, the direction of migration, is to the right. Time: 0952.

This is the western-most extent of the inundated marsh, looking east. The new entrance is to the left, the old to the right. The flow of the water could be seen to come from left-to-right, further evidence that little water comes in via the old entrance. Time: 1014.

The twin culverts are now almost completely under water. The time of this photo was 1037, two minutes after high tide.

Compare this image to the one taken at 0952, above. Note how the sandbar has been covered and how some water is entering the marsh via the old entrance at the far left. Time: 1042
Turning the camera 180-degrees again, the new marsh entrance, just above the vegetation at right, is level with the sea. Time: 1043.

Our old friend, the tree branch, is fading fast, as is the vegetation above it. Note also that the sand-spit visible in the photo above at 0944, has gone underwater. Also to consider is this: the tide began receding 13 minutes prior to this photo, which was made at 1048.

The water-flow within the marsh has reversed to right-to-left as the tide recedes, as indicated by the direction in which the inundated vegetation points. Time: 1057.

Still under threatening skies, the camera takes in an overall view of the shore-line, looking east. Note how the sand-bar begins to re-emerge as the tide continues to recede. Time: 1133.

One would think that the marsh in this condition presents a perfect opportunity for wading birds to get a meal; that would be correct. Seen here is a Great Egret on the prowl. Time: 0937.

The smaller cousin of the Great Egret, this Snowy Egret also made continued life a precarious prospect for the local fish. Time: 1053.

The marsh is also home to an extraordinary variety of creatures, such as mammals, insects, fish, crustaceans and birds. An Osprey nesting box was installed in the hopes that one of these predators would take up residence. Although this has not happened, recent observations have seen an apparent up-tick in visits by these birds; I have observed five appearances in four visits. The good hunting in the area, as well as the ready availability of a custom-built home may yet see the Osprey choose to settle at Rocky Point.

The morning of August 9, 2014 saw two Osprey perched on the upper-most branches of a dead tree. One eventually flew off, while the other stayed, but only a bit longer.

The same tree on August 30, hosted an Osprey. Note that the tree is located within just a few dozen feet of the water’s edge, making it an ideal perch for an avian hunter who may wish to conserve precious energy, while still searching the waters below for prey.

On September 16, two separate Osprey sightings were recorded. This was the second one, at 1425. Like the first sighting earlier, this fellow flew from west-to-east, with a slight detour above the marsh. The most recent sighting was on the morning of September 20; a single Osprey was spotted perched in the usual tree.

Speaking of the Osprey, this particular one, part of a trio seen on September 20, is flown by the US Marine Corps as part of the presidential air transport fleet.

Except where noted, all photos and text are by Frank V. De Sisto. Special Thanks to NPS Ranger Tony Luscombe for the use of his photographs.

Published works consulted for this posting include the following:

 “Salt Marshes, A Natural and Unnatural History”, by J.S. Weiss & C.A. Butler. 2009, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 9780813545707.
The go-to book on the subject of the salt marsh, this title is a must for students of the subject. Among its many nuggets is a small schematic drawing that accompanies a brief description of what causes tides.

 “Field Guide to the Water’s Edge” National Geographic, by S. Leatherman & J. Williams. ISBN 9781426208683.
A broad, basic and well-illustrated guide to our nation’s beaches, shorelines and riverbanks, this book also details the various flora and fauna that populate such places. Aside from a concise fully-illustrated section describing the workings of tides, it also has a section on marshlands.

Tony also recommended this web-site to find local tide information. For locations, heights and times of the tides see:
An excellent, easily-accessed resource for precise locations, dates and times of tides. Click on “Tides” in the header bar. Fill in the required fields. Note the red dots in Jamaica Bay. For Rocky Point Marsh, click on the left-most one, “Barron Island-Rockaway Inlet”.

“Clouds and Weather”, Peterson First Guides, by J.A. Day & V.J. Schaefer. ISBN 9780395906637.
It’s nice to know how to “read” the sky when in the field. This compact booklet is packed with 128 pages of text, diagrams, excellent color photography and a handy index.

 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: