Terns make a home on barge

Threatened species returns to New York's cleaned-up harbor

August 07, 2002|By Lydia Polgreen | Lydia Polgreen,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - When Alan Dorfman tried to step aboard a 300-foot garbage barge in the New York Harbor about a month ago to inspect it for some planned repairs, he got a nasty surprise. Angry white birds with flaming red beaks, more than a hundred of them, swarmed around his head in a sudden, unprovoked attack.

"They dive-bombed me, a huge flock of them," he said. "It was pretty incredible."

He did not know it at the time, but Dorfman, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers' Caven Point marine terminal in Jersey City, had just encountered an unusual flock of terns that has taken up residence on a barge that sits in the middle of the harbor, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

Because the New York State Department of Environmental Protection lists terns as a threatened species, the corps cannot use the scow or dry-dock it for needed repairs until the birds migrate south in the fall.

"We'll just have to wait until they leave," Dorfman said.

Fisheries restored

The common tern - an elegant white bird with red legs, a jet-black patch on its head and a bright red beak - was for many years seldom found here because New York's harbor was too polluted. But as the harbor has rebounded in the past decade, the small fish that many birds eat have returned.

"The fisheries have come back, and the birds that feed on them have come back," said Joseph J. Seebode, who oversees the harbor for the Army Corps of Engineers. "It is a sign the cycle has reversed."

Amid the flotsam and jetsam picked off the harbor and stored on huge barges, the birds have laid cream-and-brown speckled eggs in makeshift nests made of debris.

Adult birds skim the water, diving below the surface to pluck herring, silverfish and sand eels to feed the fluffy gray chicks that cannot yet fly.

In addition to terns, ospreys, herons and great egrets have returned to New York's harbor in significant numbers in the past few years, Seebode said.

On a recent Friday, the terns were resting on the barge when the Hocking, a 65-foot Corps of Engineers crew boat, bumped up against it.

A swarm of screeching birds erupted, forming a cloud of white, black and red against the hazy backdrop of the Lower Manhattan skyline. Those who stepped aboard the barge to take a closer look were urged to wear hard hats as protection from the swooping birds and their droppings.

On the barge, gray chicks hobbled frantically on wobbly legs. Adult terns carried small, glinting fish in their red beaks. Of all the chicks, each parent can identify its own, Seebode said.

In need of repairs

In a way, it is because of the Corps of Engineers that the terns are there at all. Usually the barge is piled high with trash skimmed from the harbor, making it an inhospitable place for any living thing, much less an environmentally imperiled bird. But bureaucratic red tape has kept it empty since March.

The barge, an old Navy oil scow, is in need of extensive repairs and the work should have started months ago. But problems with the bidding process stalled the work, creating an opportunity for the birds to make themselves comfortable.

The birds cannot stay forever. The barge is one of two used by the Corps of Engineers to collect debris in the harbor that might damage boats. The second is covered with rotted pilings, concrete posts, old tires and other large pieces of refuse found floating in the water.

Seebode said the birds will not stay much longer.

"By August, most of the chicks will be ready to fly and they will start to migrate," he said.

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