New Jersey bird man keeps lonely vigil

State Audubon Society's only bird counter spends his days scanning skies

March 30, 2003|By Ronald Smothers | Ronald Smothers,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SANDY HOOK, N.J. -- To the untrained eye, it was just a speck coming out of the western sky riding the thermals over Raritan Bay.

To Dan Hegarty, the dihedral angle of the wings and the flying attitude -- smoothly soaring as opposed to kiting, as it sought to save energy -- told him that it was a red-shouldered hawk migrating north. It was in the first wave of birds passing by the narrow finger of the Sandy Hook peninsula on its way up the Atlantic Flyway.

Hegarty, 34, is the New Jersey Audubon Society's only paid bird counter stationed here. He spends his days atop a large platform scanning the skies with his practiced eyes and a powerful telescope and binoculars to count the migrating birds, particularly the raptors.

He is perched above the windy spring desolation of the ocean shoreline. The scrubby barrier dunes dotted with freshwater ponds and low-growing shrubs merge into uplands with locust and hackberry. It can be lonely work.

But for Hegarty, who is working on his doctorate in ornithology, it all has a beneficial, Zen-like quality.

`A spiritual thing'

"I like to bird-watch alone when it's just between me and the bird," he said, eyes still scanning the sky. "It's a spiritual thing. A way of being in the moment."

For most of the last 23 years, the Audubon Society has held a spring migration count here from March 15 to May 15, aimed mainly at tallying birds of prey. Its fall migration count is held at Cape May as birds head south. Both of these locations, by virtue of geography and ecology, are ideal for the activity, said Scott Barnes, a naturalist at the society's Sandy Hook Bird Observatory.

In recent years, Barnes said, the society has formally expanded the count to include loons, cormorants, gannets, herons and egrets. Informally, it is also asking counters to keep track of other species.

"We are doing it because we are curious, and it is a good tool for outreach while showing the importance of Sandy Hook for all types of birds," Barnes said. "It is also raw material for researchers, and it could tell us things that affect the global-warming debates, the impact of weather from year to year on migration of various species, and help alert us to rare birds."

Last year, 3,301 raptors were counted, 3,585 gannets, 141 blue herons, 339 glossy ibis and 765 blue jays.

It can be hard to observe furtive raptors, such as hawks, kestrels, peregrines and other falcons, while they are roosting, hunting or mating, Barnes said. So the migration counts provide an important census. For hawks, migration is hurried. They are so eager to get to their spring roost and mating grounds that they show little concern about avoiding detection.

The 6 1/2 -mile-long peninsula at Sandy Hook is right in the path of the prevailing winds that push birds northeast as winter gives way to spring. For those birds that do not like to be out over open water for the 7-mile flight across lower New York Bay, Sandy Hook is a place to stop, feed and roost for a while, Barnes said.

And Sandy Hook is also a place where topography, habitats and food sources make a hospitable home for shore birds, like mergansers and the great cormorants, as well as tidal flats nesters, like piping plovers, or the woodland birds, like cedar waxwings, and the many species of colorful warblers.

"It is a place where they can stay, feed for a while and fatten up for the next leg of their journey," Barnes said.

Hegarty sees his devotion to bird-watching and the outdoors as a kind of reaction to his childhood asthma, which kept him away from the woods, baseball fields and freshly mowed lawns. Eventually, he outgrew his respiratory problems and started making up for lost time by picking a career that kept him outdoors.

A month in Mexico

Before arriving here the weekend of March 15 to start his job as the Audubon Society's migration counter, he spent a month in the jungles outside Oaxaca, Mexico, on a bird-banding project.

On this Thursday morning, his face, already sunburned, was becoming more red from windburn as a north wind swept the peninsula, driving all but the strongest fliers to roost.

Although this is his first year counting at Sandy Hook, Hegarty easily gauged the wind's direction from a flag at the nearby Coast Guard station and its speed just from its sound. He squinted into the distant haze as a Greek-registered tanker glided silently out to sea and pronounced the day a "bad birding day."

Hegarty's solitude was interrupted by the arrival of about 15 members of the Trailside Bird Group, who threaded their way along the dunes past gnarled Virginia creeper and the spiky black leafless branches of beach plum. It was the group's third outing of the season, with members working their way north up the coast from one choice viewing location to another.

For this group, in contrast to Hegarty, birding is a social undertaking, where part of the joy, said Liz Mershon of Warren, is sharing what they see with one another.

Nancy Lily of Piscataway said, "We saw an osprey and we all agreed that he was probably a week early." By morning's end, the group had seen 41 species.

While the Trailside Bird Group milled about the viewing platform, Hegarty's attention turned from the skies to the dunes just beneath his perch.

He was watching a merganser, bobbing on a narrow freshwater pond lined with reeds as tall and as willowy as basketball players. The merganser's punk rock crest glinted iridescent even in the hazy light. A muskrat ruffled the water as it glided in front of the duck, which rose up suddenly and flapped like a whirligig off toward a stand of protective birch.

It was one of those moments, and Hegarty was silent and all concentration.

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