Friday, August 19, 2011

Tough Shorebirding Season At Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge...

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is considered a premier location for birdwatching on the East Coast and one of the best places for viewing shorebirds in the US. Many birders, naturalists and photographers look forward to the annual summer pilgrimage to the refuge, during the shorebird season. Shorebirding takes place primarily in two places at JBWR, the East and West Ponds.  The East Pond is a favorite site because it gives visitors close up views of the birds--although it is not for everyone the sulfuric smell of the East Pond mud coupled with bird poop, bugs, the occasional dead animal and stifling heat makes for a mix that only the hardcore Shorebirders could tolerate in great doses. Requirements: love of shorebirds, lots of water, adequate sun block, knee high boots, heat tolerance, open to a spill here and there and perhaps full waders if you are a photographer. The West Pond is much easier. Many of those who love shorebirds, but would rather not bother mucking around on the East Pond could enjoy not so close up views from the comforts of the gravel trail.

The East Pond, is usually where the action is at and it requires careful management in monitoring the water level. Every summer, the water needs to be drawn down to provide mudflats for thousands of migrating shorebirds who use the pond as a critical stopover to rest and feed as they try and gain enough fat to continue the long journey to their wintering grounds.  The water drainage mechanism consist of a huge pipe that is around 50+ years old that goes from the North End of the pond, runs under the dyke and out into the south side of the bay. On the pond side there is a flap that has to be opened, usually at the beginning of June, to start the draw down of the pond. Once the flap is opened water flows through the pipe out into the bay and is controlled on the bay side from high tide backflow by a contraption known as a pinch valve. The last few years, there have been some difficulty with the water level, but this year has been an absolute DISASTER!!! According to a few veteran birders, this year was the worst they had ever encountered and we are talking about folks with well over 30+ years birding Jamaica Bay.

So what was the issue? Well, the water drainage was rather slow and it seemed a while before the stewards of the pond, Gateway National Park Service conceded there was a real problem with the flow. This was very frustrating for me as I had been e-mailing and making phone calls warning them that the water level was not draining as it should. Finally, after sending them photos of the water level mark showing the lack of drainage, I got some attention -- all this time their seasonal Bio-techs were insisting everything was okay but the data does not lie and I am meticulous about documentation.  On July 26th, I visited the North End of the East Pond to assess the water level and observed NPS officials visiting the outflow area.  In an interview with them, NPS officials shared with me that initially, they thought that they had a collapsed pipe, but their investigation proved otherwise and instead found debris and sediment build up to be the main culprit. Another issue was the “pinch valve” which is an apparatus on the end of the outflow pipe, which goes into the bay, - it seemed the pinch valve needed to be replaced. NPS, after clearing out debris from the pipe, removed the pinch valve thus allowing the water to flow unimpeded. To combat back flow into the pond from high tides, NPS fashioned a cover from plywood which needed to be bolted back onto the pipe before high tide and removed during low tide to allow water drainage. This process was implemented, but then bad luck struck last Sunday when over 7 inches of rain fell - virtually turning the East Pond into a lake. It was pretty disheartening for many who held out hope that the recent actions by NPS could have salvaged the 2011 shorebirding seasonIn my opinion, it is over for shorebirding on the East Pond unless we use a rowboat to navigate the pond.

Shorebird aficionados will not be enjoying views like this one from the East Pond this year!

With the annual shorebird festival at Jamaica Bay, scheduled for the 27th of August, NPS is hard pressed to at least make the the West Pond more shorebird friendly.  The problem there is that the water level on that pond is also very high, which I observed for myself on Tuesday August 16th.  In a telephone conversation with NPS management, I was informed that they are working to lower the water level on the West Pond and cut back the vegetation to enable better viewing. While those hard core East Pond shorebird aficionados will scoff at shore birding from the West Pond. It is better than nothing as long as there is shoreline and birds. After all, it is more about adequate feeding and resting areas for the birds that we should be concerned about.

While this shorebird season was a bust or as long time birder Bobby Kurtz put it, "catastrophic", I remain hopeful for the future.  With the lessons learned from this year and the problems identified and hopefully resolved.  I am optimistic, that next year, NPS will ensure that the East Pond will be primed and ready for a better shorebird season for 2012.  Some of my friends laugh at me saying you are too optimistic, but I have faith in NPS. Next year guys, make it happen - do it for the birds!

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Unknown said...

I am so sorry to hear about this Andrew..every little place for birds is so important..! I do hope next year improves!

MaineBirder said...

Yes, let's hope next year shows improvement. Great post and photos Andrew!