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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Horseshoe Crabs & Shorebirds

On Memorial Day I decided to bike down to the coast in search of horseshoe crabs and shorebirds. For those not familiar with horseshoe crabs, they are not the type of crab one finds in crab cakes (or "Crabby Cakes", for that matter), but they do attract a lot of hungry shorebirds during their Spring spawn.

American Horseshoe Crabs come ashore for their annual spawning season during the Full or New Moon on the Spring high-tide. I usually just randomly encounter these prehistoric-looking creatures along the shore but decided to go looking for them this year. I contacted Don Riepe, who runs the local chapter of the American Littoral Society and worked as a ranger for the National Parks Service at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for many years. If anyone knew of the best locations, he would. One spot he recommended is on the bay side of the Rockaway Peninsula near Beach 193rd Street and is part of Gateway's Fort Tilden property. I'd never explored that area, but have passed it hundreds of times over the years. I actually didn't even know that there was access to it until I looked closely at the Google Earth image and spotted some trails through the dunes to the beach.

The weather was perfect for cycling - dry, not too hot, with a cool wind blowing in off the ocean. When crossing over the Gil Hodges Bridge I could smell the sweet, honey fragrance of Autumn Olive flowers wafting inland from the coast. Finding the trailhead opposite Beach 193rd Street wasn't too difficult, although I did initially pass it and had to turn around. I had to carry my bike for a short distance to get it through a section of dense Bayberry shrubs. There were only three fisherman on the beach, the rest of the shore was dominated by a small flock of Brant, some Laughing Gulls and a nice mix of shorebirds.

There were lots of horseshoe crabs scattered down the beach. Some were at the high-tide mark and were dead. Lots of other ones were flipped over on their backs, by who or what, I don't know. We walked up and down the beach turning the ones that were still alive back onto their feet. They seemed appreciative and most headed back towards the water, some needed a little navigational assistance.

The tide had been going out for the last hour so there weren't too many shorebirds around. A trio of Ruddy Turnstones were hanging around an old, discarded tire close to where we entered the beach. About a quarter mile to the west were a couple dozen more, lined up on some kind of ceramic discharge pipe. Black-bellied Plovers were also running up and down the beach looking for horseshoe crab eggs to feast on.

Laughing Gulls dominated the edge of the water and tussled with each other over the best foraging spots. The gulls are now in high breeding plumage and look beautiful with their burgundy bills, mouths and eyes. Several Least Terns and Common Terns circled the area, made a few dives for fish, then disappeared over the dunes and towards the ocean.

I spent about 45 minutes flipping over horseshoe crabs and scanning the flocks of birds feeding on their eggs. Of the shorebirds, I tallied a couple of dozen Ruddy Turnstones, many Black-bellied Plovers, some Semipalmated Plovers, Willets and a couple of Spotted Sandpipers. I would imagine that if I returned during the high-tide, there would probably be a greater abundance of shorebirds. Also, I only walked west along the stretch of beach from where the trail came through the dunes. There is another 1/2 mile of beach in the opposite direction that I didn't check out. In any case, it's a new spot for me to explore whenever I ride my bike out to the Rockaway Peninsula.

After checking out the horseshoe crabs & shorebirds, I decided to ride through Fort Tilden and east, to Jacob Riis Park. The water was probably still a little too cold for swimming, but it's still a great place to relax on Memorial Day.

The American Oystercatchers were all still in their enclosures, except for one family. The family that I wrote about recently had been evicted from their home. Someone in the National Park Service had removed their protective enclosure and the signs warning people not to bother them. Instead, the mother was attempting to protect her young while beach goers stepped around them or walked right up to them, completely stressing out the parents. A Herring Gull flying over one of the adults noticed the two chicks by her side and started after the helpless young. The other adult oystercatcher chased it off, but it made me wonder how often they succumb to these opportunistic gulls.

I notified one of the park rangers about the missing string fence and signs. She assured me that they would take care of it, but to be sure, I sent an email to the head ranger.

Along the edge of the surf I spotted four tiny Piping Plovers. In addition to just being really, really small, their coloration matches the sand, making them virtually invisible. I was surprised at how frequently people would walk or run right passed them and not even notice the cute little birds.

It was nearly 3pm when I began heading back across the Gil Hodges Bridge, towards Park Slope. The wind was at my back for the return trip, which was good, because watching shorebirds and lying around on the beach is hard work. I was pooped...

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