Monday, July 14, 2008

News and a photo essay from Champagne Island

[Above: the nesting colony at Champagne Island as it looked last Friday, July 11 2008. The island is accessible only by boat, and most of it is rightly closed to people to protect nesting birds. The best viewing of the colony for the landbound is had by walking to the southern tip of Stone Harbor point when the tide is down, and looking across the channel to Champagne. All photos by Don Freiday; some will enlarge if clicked.]

The Hereford Inlet/Stone Harbor Point/Champagne Island complex is one of the true jewels of our region, something reinforced in my mind after spending last weekend variously boating, kayaking, birding, fishing and photographing there. The crown jewel right now is perhaps Champagne Island, the ephemeral sand island south of Stone Harbor Point that in many years hosts a beach nesting bird colony. Fittingly, Champagne hosted NJ's first successful large scale nesting of Royal Terns last year, with at least 15 young fledging, but perhaps its greater importance is for NJ-endangered Black Skimmers. 700 skimmers fledged from the island last year. The Spring/Summer 2008 New Jersey Audubon magazine chronicled some of the issues facing beach-nesting birds in general and the Champagne situation in particular, as did CMBO's 2008 Peregrine Observer.

The update is that, importantly, the Tidelands Council granted the Division of Fish and Wildlife full management authority over Champagne Island prior to this year's nesting season - up until that action, which was recommended by the excellent staff at NJDEP and actively supported by NJAS/CMBO, legal management rights to the island were tenuous.

Things should have been easier this year for the skimmers and terns, but, don't you know, nature threw a curve ball in the form of a howling May northeaster that leveled much nesting habitat there and elsewhere along the coast. Nonetheless, the colony persists. Below are some photos depicting the current state of things (all photos by Don Freiday, some will enlarge if clicked). I owe special thanks to Mike Fritz for a trip via his boat to Champagne, and especially to biologist Todd Pover and the seasonal beach nesting staff from NJDEP, who I accompanied to the island on Friday and helped with a colony survey.

[Above, a picture's worth a thousand words - Black Skimmers inside the protected area of Champagne Island on Tuesday July 8. ]

[Below, skimmers scrape (kicking sand up to make a depression for nesting), court (male delivering a fish to the female) and copulate, 7/8/08.]

[Below, NJDEP seasonal beach-nesting staff. From back to front: Brooke Maslo, who is also working on her PhD on Piping Plovers; Alfred Breed, who is a nearly continuous educational and enforcement presence on the island (if you've seen the blue sun shelter on the north side of Champagne Island and wondered whose it is, it's Alf's); and Kate Guerena, who works on beachnesters through Conserve Wildlife.]

[Above, one of the signs posted by DEP. Alf tells me there have been few problems with people entering the closed area, and that the local boaters have been largely supportive. Below, one reason why it's so important to keep people and especially dogs away from beach nesting birds - this Laughing Gull managed to get into the colony while the birds were up and swiped a skimmer egg.]

[Below, one consequence of the May northeaster was a great reduction in nesting habitat that is above the high tide line. This sub-colony of skimmers on Champagne Island, which contains over 300 birds, is almost certain to be destroyed by the next full moon high tide, which will be this Saturday. Tide height is greater during the time of full and new moons, even without a storm.]

[Above, a count is made of all the birds within the colony from the outside. 2,002 Black Skimmers were recorded. Below, the birds begin to take flight as we enter the colony to collect data on the number of scrapes, eggs and chicks, working rapidly to minimize the time they are away from their eggs or young. Notice how the larger Royal Terns have taken the high portion of the colony, while the skimmer nests are spread out around them on lower, more flood-prone ground.]

[Above, a Black Skimmer scrape with three eggs. Skimmers normally lay 3-5 eggs. We recorded 985 skimmer scrapes and 368 eggs. Below, some of the Royal Tern scrapes with eggs. Royals virtually always lay one huge egg. We found a startling 108 unhatched Royal Tern eggs and 53 Royal Tern chicks.]

[Below, three different Royal Tern Chicks. Just as the markings on tern eggs are variable, so are the markings on the chicks.]

[Above, largely missing from the Champagne Island colony are Common Terns - 300 Commons fledged from here last year, but with the reduced nesting area and the greatly increased Royal Tern colony there is no room for the Commons. At least some of the Common Terns have moved across Grassy Sound Channel to higher parts of the salt marsh, a habitat that Forster's Terns use for nesting. On Saturday, while kayaking with a friend, I found a colony containing at least 200 Common Terns. It was impossible to count accurately from the kayak, but sure was easy to find - with the terns dive-bombing us and strafing us with droppings! Below, as many as 50 American Oystercatchers have been visible from the base of the free bridge at Nummy Island.]

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