The first day of March and loons were the highlight of the day. In the early morning I spotted dozens of them swimming and foraging for food, mostly rock crabs.
It was a beautiful but cold morning along the edge of Sandy Hook Bay in Atlantic Highlands, a small bayside town on the New Jersey side of Lower New York Bay with Manhattan in view. Winds were gusty out of the north creating some chop on the water. The weather and waves, though, didn't seem to bother the loons. It only seemed to make them more lively. Diving and diligent to find breakfast.
These were Common Loons. Regular winter visitors to Lower New York Bay and surrounding waters.
The birds arrived to this urban-suburban estuary sometime in late October or early November from their breeding grounds on large, clear freshwater lakes in northern New York. They travel here every year to rest and feed throughout the winter in generally ice-free waters.
Since saltwater has a lower freezing point than freshwater (roughly around 28 degrees F. depending on how much salt is in water), the tidal waters of New York Harbor is an amiable winter retreat for hundreds, sometimes thousands of loons. The birds have decided long ago that the bay is not just a nice place to visit, but to spend the winter to enjoy the lush food pickings of fish and crabs.
Common Loons in the summer are a great public attraction to Adirondack residents and visitors, often signifying remote, wild areas to many people. But downstream around New York Harbor the birds during the winter are rarely noticed by people, except for birders.
True, loons do appear to be in disguise in their winter plumage. Gone is their impressive deep black and white breeding plumage, replaced by a dull and dusky ashen hue. The loons also seem unable to find their voices, remaining mostly silent during the winter.
Yet, as we near the vernal equinox and the end of winter, the loons in New York Harbor respond by getting restless and more interesting to the causal observer. Instincts are starting to take over for the birds. Soon there will be a strong need to migrate north to breed and start the next generation of Common Loons.
The loons are fidgety now. Feeding more, gaining weight and molting to grow in their notable black and white breeding feathers. The birds are in transition. A perfect time to spot a loon with a taste of their primeval forest feathers.
Some have extensive white checking on their backs, even a characteristic black head, almost emerging as a loon ready to breed. While others, perhaps late starters, are still muted. It's a mixed bag. A few loons may even appear messy and muddled with feathers in awkward positions, out of place and in disarray. So much so that a number of adult loons are flightless until the molting period is complete.
It's a challenging time for sure. Not only for the loons, but for wildlife observers are well. People are trying to figure out what is happening. When will the birds depart New York Harbor to arrive on northern lakes in time as the ice breaks, usually between late March to early May. If the birds arrive too early, they might go hungry. If they arrive too late the birds risk losing their prime breeding location to another loon or water bird .
All at once it's an inspiring time, like watching a nature documentary in your own backyard. Except this is near New York City, the ultimate metropolis. An unlikely place for some people to even consider seeing a Common Loon, acclaimed by many as a symbol of unspoiled wilderness. Go figure, right? The birds spend just as much time here as they do in the Adirondacks.
Enjoy the sight while you can. The Common Loons will be missed in New York Harbor when they head north with spring.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com