Migration of seabirds reaches seasonal peak Research: Seawatch effort in New Jersey continues four-year effort to document southbound flights.


AVALON, N.J. -- To anyone else, it would have looked like nothing more than a speck on the horizon.

But David Ward did a double take, then jumped to the high-powered binoculars mounted on a tripod nearby. He peered through them and nodded.

Yep, just what he thought: a gannet, the biggest seabird in the North Atlantic, flying right toward him over the ocean.

Ward recognized it at once by its wingbeat. "They look stiff, like big saw blades flapping," he said.

Chalk up one more for the Avalon Seawatch, a four-year effort to document what has turned out to be a vast southbound migration of seabirds each fall.

Seven days a week, dawn to dusk, through Dec. 15, bird-watchers are at a small blacktop parking lot at Seventh Street overlooking the beach, the inlet, and miles and miles of ocean.

They count anything that's migrating. That includes not only seabirds, but also butterflies (lots this year - one day recently, the count equaled the tally for all of last year), dragonflies, hawks, bats and dolphins. (They take wry note of - but stop short of counting - all the southbound sailboats, the personal watercraft, and days the waves look good for surfing.)

Last year, at the height of the migration in the weeks of early November, as many as 100,000 birds representing more than 60 species flew by daily.

The watchers saw flocks of 100 loons at a time. They saw a significant part of the entire North American population of scoters, which are Arctic sea ducks.

'Staggering thing to see'

The migration is "a staggering thing to see," said Joan Walsh, research coordinator at the Cape May Bird Observatory, which oversees the watch. "It's a wonder. It's amazing. It's beautiful."

Roughly 20 years ago, no one knew much at all about the annual fall migration of seabirds because, as their name suggests, they mostly migrate farther off the coast than shorebirds - some as near as the surf, others as far as the horizon.

But in 1979, Ward - an avid bird-watcher, self-described "freelance biologist" and resident of Avalon - having noticed more and more seabirds on his fall bird outings, did the next logical thing, at least for him: He started counting them.

Others became interested in his work, and three years ago the Cape May Bird Observatory started an annual full-time count of the birds, recognizing that getting a better idea of what's flying along the coast and when the height of the migration is would fill a gap in scientific knowledge.

"It's amazing how little information we have for nongame species," said Walsh. Hunters and hunting organizations have generated a lot of data about sea ducks, "but if I want to learn about gannets, I have to hunt for information, and then there's no guarantee I'm going to get it. When you try to gather information on many of these species, you either run into walls or black holes."

Brian Harrington, a biologist with the Manomet Bird Observatory, a research institute in Massachusetts, said most people don't expect a migration of this size. But that, he said, is because no one has expended the immense amount of time and attention needed to study it.

If there were population declines due to, say, ocean dumping or an oil spill or an avian disease, biologists would never know it, let alone be able to document it.

Most of the birds nest in the vast and remote Arctic tundra. Then they wing south along the Atlantic Coast, heading for wintering grounds anywhere from New England to the Carolinas or even the Gulf Coast, depending on the species.

That's where Avalon's tourist slogan, "Cooler by a Mile," comes into play. The beach there juts out into the Atlantic by roughly a mile. So birds traveling south often skirt close to land there.

Ward can see them winging in from offshore, or from Atlantic City, where on a clear day you can make out the Taj Mahal casino sign. Then the birds reach the buoy for Townsends Inlet and, almost as if they were rounding third base, they swing around it and sweep out past the far jetty, heading back to sea.

'It's a big deal'

The migration offers "a chance to see something rare," Ward said. These birds "wander all over the world," he said, and only in Avalon or similar places - such Montauk Point on Long Island or Cape Hatteras, N.C. - can landbound humans get a view.

As migrations go, this doesn't quite compare with the spring rush of birds to the shores of Delaware Bay, just in time to gorge on horseshoe crabs' eggs laid by the billions in the sand.

But, said Walsh, "this is a huge and significant migration. It's a big deal."

"It's right in character with New Jersey," said Pete Dunne, director of natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, which owns the observatory. "We are the commuter state, and these are birds that are commuting through."

This and the spring migration are proof that "in this age and this world, you can still see something of the natural heritage of North America that should have been ours," Dunne said. "We have phenomena that people all over the world envy."

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