Spring is here. Warmer days have produced signs of the upcoming season around Lower New York Bay, including Raritan and Sandy Hook bays.
Daffodils and crocuses are sprouting up, the forsythia bushes are getting ready to flower, and in boggy freshwater areas the skunk cabbage is pushing out of the cold ground like a pointed spike. Life is beginning to stir.
Birds, too, are starting to become more energized and animated. Many are migrating in from faraway places to breed and call our little slice of the Blue Planet home for the next several months.
For people who reside near an estuary or wetland the mating call of a Red-Winged Blackbird is an important first sign of warmer weather. It's an indicator for all those who are willing to listen.
If you listen closely you will hear them. The call of a redwing is unmistakable. It's a harsh bubbling trill that sounds like "kon-ka-reeeee" or aaawnk-ah-rrrrreeeeeee" or even "konk klur reeeeee" depending on which bird you care to ask.
The sounds of spring are here and it seems that Lower New York Bay is the place to be. Jamaica Bay between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, the marshes in Staten Island, and the tidal wetlands along Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay, as well as near Pews Creek, Comptons Creek, Chingarora Creek, and Cheesequake Creek are all alive with the sounds of male Red-winged Blackbirds.
The air is filled with males announcing to other males that they are establishing their territories. The females will not appear for another two weeks or so. Now is the time for males to exert themselves and call out loudly to acquire the best nesting areas among the dense stands of reeds in a wetland.
The males call or sing throughout the day, not at all times or even during the night when they should be resting after a busy day. Their calls are their labor. The birds are seeking to raise a family, even if that means raising more than one family.
Male red-winged blackbirds, similar to other blackbirds, are polygamous. Males often mate with more than one female to have multiple offspring. The male redwings average around three mates per season, but could be as much as six females. The record is 15 mates per season — no doubt a busy bird. Boys just being boys as some would say. No?
Once a male redwing shows up to a wetland, it will immediately get to work establishing its territory, which is usually less than an acre in size and mostly in the same place where it was last year. The male will mark its territory by calling out vociferously and showing off its bright red feathers on its wings, either on a perch or with flights over a marsh.
Competition for a prime nesting territory can be tense and can cause some birds to be aggressive. The redwings need to be forceful if they want to hold onto a territory from younger or more hotheaded birds seeking to have its own nesting territory in a wetland, prime real estate for wildlife within an urban-suburban environment.
The birds can be daring at times, attacking a larger bird such as a hawk or crow that flies too close over their territory. Actual fighting among redwings, though, is rare. Usually a male will fluff out its feathers to show off its wings. The bigger and gaudier the bright red patch on a bird's wings, the more it is generally enough to unnerve a challenger and scare it away, at least for that day. Who knew wetlands could have so much drama.
You can see some of this excitement unfold down at your favorite tidal wetland by looking at phragmities, a tall common wetland reed. Although phragmites provides limited habitat for a diversity of species, male red-winged blackbirds seem to love to rest and perch on top of these plants.
The birds will call at full volume at the same time showing off their brilliant red wings to defend their territory from potentially greedy males.
The other day I spotted about several male red-winged blackbirds on stage from their perches atop a number of long reeds. The redwings seemed to be enjoying the beautiful warm spring-like day as much as I was.
There they were calling out at full volume to lay claim to their territories in the wetlands near Pews Creek in Middletown. Nearby in the trees, several other redwings were perched, quiet and still. Most likely younger birds surveying the scene to see which territories might be free of charge or difficult to take.
Such commotion around Lower New York Bay can only mean one thing — spring.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com