With Sandy Hook NRA still closed indefinitely due to damage done from Super Storm Sandy, I decided to head west and walk the shores of Cliffwood Beach, a small bayside community that stands in front of Raritan Bay and located on the Jersey side of the bay directly across from Staten Island.
Cliffwood Beach took a pounding from Sandy with extensive flooding, damage to the shore road and seawall, and massive power outages and downed power lines. Yet, a month later the bay beach is open again to the public, though evidence of horrific storm damage lingers everywhere.
After Sandy, several washovers and the dunes are gone along Raritan Bay. There is sand everywhere and the main road to the beach seems to flood at every high tide now. The storm may have changed forever this fragile coastal landscape. Still, Cliffwood Beach has always been a favorite place for me to explore the edge of the bay, and remains so. It provides a good vantage point for watching migrating shorebirds, diving ducks offshore, and the catch of the day from people fishing the surf.
On this gray, late fall day, the first Sunday of December, the bay was a mirror, from New York City to New Jersey. The tide was falling when I arrived around noon and there was a light easterly breeze. Both air and water temperatures were in the upper 40s.
Out on the bay, in the still water, I saw a raft of Black Ducks mingled with a small congregation of Brant drifting in the current. Close to shore, one fairly small duck-looking bird was swimming alone. It kept poking in and out of the water, it would seem diving for food. What an extraordinary find.
The strangest thing about this bird were its eyes. They were bright chili-pepper red, a shade of red I couldn't take my blue eyes off. They were attractive, but probably designed to help improve distance and sharpness for the bird to look for food in mucky, turbid waters.
The gorgeous, strange bird was almost certainly a Horned Grebe in winter plumage. It gave the appearance of a bold black and white bird, a white cheek and neck with dark feathers on top of the head and on the back. It looked similar to a Red-necked Grebe, but the neck was shorter and the bill was thicker and smaller with some white on the tip.
Grebes are actually common, widespread birds to Lower New York Bay in the winter. Yet, except for birders, hardly anyone else knows they are here. They are so quiet, small and secretive, Horned Grebes easily slip under the radar. They do not form large flocks and tend to swim alone in a great big bay.
Many people also think falsely that all duck-looking birds are related to Mallards. In fact, grebes are small diving birds related more to loons than ducks. Just like loons, grebes dive for fish and spend most of their time in the water. Their plumage too is waterproof and their feet are set far back on their bodies, which makes them supreme swimmers.
Horned Grebes are perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the grebes. Come winter, Horned Grebes can be found all around the tidal waters of Lower New York Bay in coves and near the edges of exposed estuarine beaches. The dive in these shallow waters foraging for small fish and mollusks.
Horned Grebes arrive to Lower New York Bay from their summer breeding grounds in marshy freshwater ponds or lakes. They are not social birds, and almost never fly in large flocks. They migrate at night over land. One by one they arrive to the bay to feed and rest here for the winter.
The little Horned Grebe that I saw near Cliffwood Beach did not stay long. It popped up and down several times from the surface. Eventually, the solitary grebe swam off towards Staten Island. It never returned for the remainder of the day. What a quick treat! If I had shown up later, I would have totally missed seeing the Horned Grebe.
Unfortunately, the solitary nature of the little Horned Grebe is not doing it any favors for its survival. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Horned Grebe population may be declining in recent decades due to habitat loss and water pollution. Threats include oil spills, and degradation of breeding habitat due to agriculture.
Although solid data is lacking, it would seem wise though that improved habitat and cleaner water would go a long way to increase the population of Horned Grebes. These actions promise to continue to bring back this little red-eyed Horned Grebe every winter to the urban-suburban shores of Lower New York Bay and Raritan Bay. In this way future generations of people might will as well get a quick treat from observing this shy black and white bird foraging for fish on a chilly, gray day along the bay.
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://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/