Marsh Madness: An Alfventure

Out The Inlet With Captain Alf

Some of you might remember Alf Breed from the 2015 Reading Making Islands Of Our Own. He is one of New Jersey’s exceptional, seasonal field technicians and he splits his duties between the State’s Endangered & Nongame Species Program and its sister organization, the non-profit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Today Alf is in “State Mode” which is my favorite. Alf is former military and always keeps everything about his missions super tight. But he turns things up to eleven when representing the State of New Jersey. He tapes his pant legs to his boots so the chiggers can’t get him, and he makes me wear a life jacket the entire time. He carefully plots his entire course through the Bay digitally with perfect timing to the tides instead of just plowing through it like most of us, and he never leaves his boat tied in the public boat ramp even when no one is around for miles. It is truly awesome. The guy just oozes smarts, skills, and integrity.

Alf counts Skimmers. Always a good sign when you find enough Black Skimmers that Alf has to concentrate to count them.

LBI used to boast some pretty substantial colonies of Black Skimmers at both Holgate & Barnegat Light but, like all of our other Beach Nesting Birds (Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, and Least Terns), they are pretty much gone. Last year the few, sad, little colonies we found dotting the Bay were total disasters. But this year was a big thrill to find a group of about 22 Black Skimmers defending a small marsh Island on the North End. Time to investigate.

Egg Hunt Begins
It’s Raining Poop. Hallelujah! When dozens of Common Tern and Black Skimmers take to the sky and go into attack mode, you know you’re getting “warm.”

The small marshy Islands that break up the Bay can look so idyllic, until you actually land on one and all hell breaks loose. As you sink knee deep in the mud, and greenhead flies the size of quarters start eating your face, and dozens of Common Terns and Herring Gulls start showering you with foul-rotting-crab-smelling poo while trying to crack your skull open, you realize these marshy gems are more enjoyable when viewed from your boat. Which is great, because these forbidding little islands are loaded with delicate treasures and are one of the last places around LBI our animals can hide from our recreations.

Tread Carefully
Common Tern Nest

In the 2014 Reading Walking On Eggshells I described the experience of walking across the open beach at Holgate, riddled with Tern eggs. The marsh Islands in the Bay have a multiplier effect as they are equally dicey on the ground, but then amped up by being covered, hidden, and obscured with thick grasses.

Watch Your Step. But don’t forget to look up.
First Find. A Common Tern perished somehow, still protecting her precious egg, even in death.
A depredated egg. Someone had a nom nom.
It has a hole in it, but it’s not depredated. It’s hatching! If you look carefully at the tiny hole in the egg, you’ll see the tiny bill of a Common Tern with a little white egg tooth. Here a baby Common Tern is caught in the rare act of busting out of the egg, using the tiny tooth to slice its way out.
Score! A healthy Skimmer Chick with one still in the oven.
Score! A fuzzy Common Tern chick hides in the grass.
Super Score, and time to walk even more carefully. A fat, healthy, baby Skimmer hides from Alf in the cool shade.
Super-Duper Score! Just Borned. A just-hatched Common Tern.
This baby Tern is so young I’m scared it might imprint on me. When it called me “Daddy”, I got out of there, real quick-like.
We see you there, buddy.

Overall, it appears we have a healthy little colony on the North End this year. While Alf found some tiny tragedies hidden there in the grass, there were plenty of signs of life and it looks like our Skimmers will produce a new generation of our local treasures who will help keep hope alive that we might have some around in the future. Maybe one day they will come join us on the beach again.

In the past The Readings have suggested that our Beach Nesting Birds like Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers were forced off the beach and into the marsh. Then a scientist pointed out that the reverse is true: we degraded the marsh so they are forced to nest on the beach. Then another scientist came along and said that I had it right the first time. So I asked Alf to help settle this:

Well, maybe it’s like this: some of us grew up along the Bay, and some along the ocean. If you grew up on the Bay, that’s likely where you’ll take your family. If you grew up on the beach, you’ll probably raise your kids there. Just like us.

I like it.

Tiny Tragedies. Alf covered in poop.