Birds of the Salt Marsh in Brooklyn

Marine Salt Marsh is the largest park in Brooklyn. The Marsh has a unique combination of wetlands and grasslands, an ideal habitat for many species of birds.

As you walk the path near the water, the vast grassland stretches for several acres. The entire area is about 800 acres. Multiple small birds find their home in the tall grasses. Various warblers and blackbirds fly back and forth above the tips of the green grasses, then suddenly they dive into the green blanket of grass to disappear from view as quickly as they appeared.

Red-winged blackbird scanning his territory from underneath the tall grasses.

The Marsh is a home to the Great Egret (Ardea alba). Some of the Great Egret’s prominent characteristics are their delicate long white feathers, a feature leading to egret’s near extinction due to poaching, black thin legs, and green skin near its beak.

The Great Egret.

In the late 19th century, egret’s feathers were a popular decoration for women’s hat fashion. This human fancy led to the species’ decimation and near extinction, and the practice significantly affected many other waterbird populations.

Many environmentalists of the time recognized the need to protect the waterbirds, and created the National Audubon Society, with the Great Egret as its symbol. Significantly, it was many brave women who led the change. They saw that it was inhumane to wipe many bird species only to satisfy the society’s sense of fashion.

Today, the Great Egret’s population in the New York City ranges approximately 300 to 400 breeding pairs, according to the Audubon Society. They can be found on the various islands scattered in the New York City, as they provide access to more shallow waters.

The Great Egret holding his catch.

Egrets have a very majestic demeanor, even when the perform simple tasks. Their slender body emanates awe. They are often found staring straight into the water, ready for their next catch. Their diet is primarily composed of fish, but they also won’t pass on crustaceans, frogs, salamanders, insects, and even occasional snakes.

As I walked further by the river, a few Yellow-crown Night-Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) appeared. There is something very ancient about this bird. Everything from the way it looks, to the way it walks, to the way it sounds, immediately took me back in time. A very mysterious creature. In North America there are only two species of the Night Herons, the Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned.

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron in search of food.

Adult herons develop a yellow crown on their head, mixed with black and white stripes on the side of their heads.

Their night and early morning hunting habits became ingrained in their name, as Nycticorax means “night raven.” The Yellow-crowned Night Herons feed primarily on crustaceans, crabs and crayfish, most of which are nocturnal animals. You can spot them looking at the waters with a razor sharp focus. They are known to ambush their prey.

This species of a heron are known to be more solitary by nature, but mainly when hunting.

Similar to other waterbirds, they are vulnerable to habitat loss all over the Eastern coasts of North and South America. Due to their night lifestyle, it is difficult to obtain a good estimate of the present population. Currently, this species is not considered to be under immediate threat.

This heron seemed surprised that a seagull dared to photobomb his appearance.

Little to the side I spotted a Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) sitting on a rock protruding from the deeper water. Its name comes from two white stripes on its head which appear during the mating season. They have a very characteristic hooked beak, roughly the size of its head.

Cormorant drying in the Sun.

Cormorants are excellent swimmers, with the ability to dive in 7.5 meters under the water. Interestingly, their feathers are not good at repelling water, mainly because they have less preen oil, an adaptation likely to allow for easier swimming. For that reason, you can often spot them with their wings outstretched, drying in the Sun.

In Japan and China, cormorants are used by fisherman to catch fish, a practice called Ukai. The fishermen would tie a string around the cormorant’s neck, preventing the bird from swallowing large fish, later to be retrieved by the fishermen. The cormorants can still eat small fish, but I am uncertain if they actually do. Nowadays, it has become a tourist attraction to showcase this ancient fishing technique. The technique itself raises many ethical questions, with many activists opposing its practice.

At the Marsh, many birds take advantage of the nearby water during the intense heat. This small fellow was drying himself, taking advantage of the tree branch and the shade. Even birds can have a bad feather day, feather frizz. It might have been a starling, or blackbird, but the frizz made it hard to identify.

Drying feather situation.

In the distance, there were two osprey nests with fledglings. I have written a little about ospreys before. You can see the post here. I would like you to notice some details, which in my opinion are quite striking, and remind me of the importance of bringing attention to our human habits, as they endanger many birds of prey.

First, take a look at this image. At first it seems we are looking at a happy family. The osprey on the right is eating a fish, a second osprey is attending to the chick.

Ospreys at the Salt Marsh.

Now, take another look at the nest. What do you see?

Osprey parents feasting on the fish.

The answer is garbage. Red wires, blue ropes, some plastic bags hanging from the side of the nest.

This Osprey nest is full of human garbage.

Most birds have excellent vision, but they do not understand that their nests are filled with synthetic materials. It saddens me to see this.

Osprey parents feeding their chick. Osprey on the right is holding a fish.

I can clearly see the devoted attention the osprey parents give to their chick. They were constantly going back and forth looking for new fish for their next meal. And the little one demanded a lot of attention.

Osprey parents fixing their nest.

The osprey parents were working hard to keep the nest in good shape. They are bringing turf, and fixing branches at all times. They are very attentive.

Osprey parents attend to their chick.

Every place in the New York area I visited this year, all of the nests were taken. The practice of building towers for the osprey’s nests clearly works to encourage ospreys to come back. Now we have to do better with their surroundings. I do not want to see human garbage in their nests. Ospreys will fly long distances looking for food, thus making sure you do not leave your garbage on the beaches, near any water they may be using, is critical. This is true for most birds.

Baby osprey playing hide and seek.

The second nest was a little better, but I could still spot ropes. The chick was quite young, and they must have been born later than the ospreys in the Oyster Bay.

Osprey looking at its nest.
Osprey making sure I see him catching the wind in its feathers. Somehow this look makes me laugh each time.

The Salt Marsh is a little bird oasis. It is nowhere near perfect, but seeing a myriad of waterbirds continues to emphasize the importance of the waterfront. Whether it is the beach, the lakes, the rivers, or the oceans, they all serve countless species of animals. Do your part and protect them with simple things like picking up your garbage.

Osprey guarding its nest.

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