Sunday, July 7, 2013

Checking On the Colony

 [A brood of Laughing Gulls and one of their parents, on Ring Island, west of Stone Harbor, NJ today, July 7, 2013. Three eggs and hence three youngsters are the norm for Laughing Gulls. These birds, though out of their nest, still have a week or more, I'd guess, before they will make their first flights, though some were stretching and flapping their new wings. Click to enlarge.]

When you say "Checking On the Colony" in these parts, and you mean birds, you could mean any of several species of colonial birds: herons, terns, gulls, skimmers, or swallows, for example. The basic biology of colonial nesting is this: birds tend to nest in colonies (as opposed to as scattered individual pairs) where there is abundant food but limited nesting sites, forcing them to squeeze in together where they can. Colonies are especially prevalent in coastal habitats, where the sea and back bays provide plenty of foraging habitat but little in the way of high, dry nesting sites.

The most spatially expansive and bird-abundant colony or colonies in Cape May County belong to the Laughing Gulls. Most people never even see these colonies that form each summer in the high marshes west of or "behind" the barrier islands, because you need a boat or kayak to really see them. If you're boatless, try scanning the marshes around Nummy Island, south of Stone Harbor - you'll at least see plenty of gulls in the air.

Yeah, I know, they're just Laughing Gulls, common, ubiquitous, French-fry grabbing denizens of the summer beach and bay. But I suggest getting to know them. They certainly are successful. We're talking about thousands or tens of thousands of birds here in our own colonies. It's been this way for a long time - Witmer Stone wrote about the colonies in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937).

[What's not to like about Laughing Gulls? They're beautiful, for one thing. Stone Harbor, NJ today. Click to enlarge photos.]

I traditionally paddle my kayak out to the Cape May colonies for a visit shortly after July 4 to see how the young are coming along. Normally at this time the young have vacated their nests, or most of them have, but are still flightless and well-attended by adults.

Cape May's new Laughing Gulls, class of 2013, are coming along fine It looks like even though we're sitting on a new moon and accompanying higher-than-normal tides right now, most of this year's young Laughing Gulls appear old enough to survive some inundation of the marshy islands their parents raise them on. These are islands in the loosest sense, really giant patches of salt marsh that are prone to tidal flooding, especially if an east wind coincides with a new or full moon high tide. Some years these circumstances can combine to limit nesting success, leaving drowned eggs and dead young behind. This year the circumstances seem to favor the birds. One good sign of success will be the appearance of newly-fledged juvenile Laughing Gulls in Cape May proper, like at the meadows or the point, where they don't nest. Look for these first fledges in mid to late July.

Amongst the abundant Laughing Gulls behind Stone Harbor were a couple small colonies of Forster's Terns, whose members are quite aggressive defenders and will swoop on, poop on, and call angrily at any intruder that comes close. We skirted these. One higher island had some nesting Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, whose young were a week or two from fledging.

[A Forster's Tern makes sure I know I am not welcome near its nest site in the marshes west of Stone Harbor this morning.]

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