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Pond in Jamaica Bay yields great day for bird watching

A snowy egret in breeding plumage sits on a branch. Photo by Michael Givant
TimesLedger Newspapers

It is a sunny, mild day at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, but there are few of the migrating birds I would expect to be here in mid-May.

In the West Pond there is almost nothing. Some ruddy ducks not yet in their summer plumage reward my morning efforts by allowing me to see the difference between the males and females. She has a brown streak on her otherwise white cheek patch while he does not.

It is a nice distinction but is not worth the hour drive to get here.

I eat a sandwich, then walk across Cross Bay Boulevard to the east side of the refuge. Birding is often about timing and maybe my luck will be better there. In the blind at Big John’s Pond there are two photographers with long lenses working in total silence.

On a stick protruding from the pond in front of the blind is a posing snowy egret. Nicknamed “golden slippers” for its bright yellow feet, which stand out in contrast to its black legs, the heron is offering a profile. I get several shots before the elegant egret flies.

While I am photographing the bird, I am not really looking at its characteristics. I make a note to see if the feathers at the base of its bill are red, indicating that it is a breeding bird when I look at the images. While I am taking notes, two ducks come by right in front of the blind, but I cannot get my camera up and ready in time before they leave.

At East Pond, there are feeding mute swans. I watch the A train, with a full load of cars, rumble along the tracks across from the pond. This juxtaposition of nature and modernity always gives me pause. Back at the blind there is a mature, yellow-crowned night heron standing on a limb of a fallen tree that is a foot above the water.

The yellow-crowned is a chunky heron that has a bluish gray body, a black head with pale yellow cheek patches and a yellowish crown. The bird’s long breeding plumes add to its striking appearance. As I am photographing the bird, I am glad to see that its dark, rust-colored eyes stand out.

A black-crowned night-heron flies to a branch in the pond’s rear corner. I soon notice that there are three others there partially concealed in the trees. Then without warning a splay-winged great egret descends from the blue sky to the branch where the yellow-crown is perching.

This is no contest. Even if the 24-inch yellow-crowned wanted to stay, the intruder is significantly larger at 39 inches. The displaced night heron, wings beating, hovers just above the stick where the snowy egret had been before. In the excitement of the moment, I do not remember if the yellow-crown landed on the stick, but I think not. Meanwhile, the great egret flies to the rear of the pond and stands in the water.

Big John’s Pond is often productive, but I never remember it being as busy as it has been this afternoon. Having been at the refuge more than three hours and not possessing the Job-like patience of the two photographers, I leave.

This was the right place at the right time and makes up for a disappointing morning. Timing may not be everything, but it surely helped today.

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