Sunday, December 22, 2019

300 Miles Done - Christmas Bird Count In The Fog, Part 1

Closing in on 300 miles - in the fog!
I am delighted to report that last Saturday, December 14th, I wrapped up my personal challenge of making it to 300 miles of paddling here in 2019. Now it's not like that's a really big number (for perspective, in the time since I first started kayaking, my 2 longest single-day paddles were both around 50 miles, taking advantage of the Hudson River's strong tidal currents and long summer days, and my Waterford to Brooklyn paddle was 150+ miles in one week, with a lot of 15 to 20 mile paddles in the weeks leading up to make sure I was ready). So for a full year of mileage, 300 isn't really anything to write home about. However, I realized I could also think of it as The Challenge of the 5's - 55.5 miles in the last 5 weeks of the year. With short days and cold weather, that actually was a good goal, not a gimme, but very achievable with commitment and a little cooperation from the weather. I finished it off with time to spare only because I treated myself to that paddling mini-vacation the week before last - just saw a sweet weather window and decided to take advantage of it!

I was down to 4.5 miles left after that peaceful paddle to Broad Channel, and I finished that off with a really interesting experience. I'm not a great birder, but I do love all the wildlife that calls Jamaica Bay home for part or all of the year, and I've learned the names many the birds I see on a regular basis (let's see, there's Fran, and Tom, and Bob...nah just kidding!). I'm so grateful that the bay survived the Robert Moses era without being turned into a marine transfer station and is now part of the National Park Service's
 Gateway Recreation Area. It's astounding to be able to get on a bus in my Brooklyn neighborhood and an hour later be paddling out into a wildlife refuge that is a major stop on the North Atlantic flyway for migrating birds.

We have some really excellent birders at Sebago, and I've learned a lot about our local birds from them. Now, if you hang out with birders very much, you will have heard about the Christmas Bird Count. This event was started in 1900 by a respected ornithologist who proposed it as an alternative to a Christmas tradition called the "side hunt", where hunters went out in teams and shot everything that moved, with whoever had the most kills being the "winner". I have no problem with responsible hunting, but wow. Thank goodness that of the two traditions, the Christmas Bird Count is the one that's still going strong today.

It's a solid piece of citizen science - it's very well organized, with "circles" being laid out and then surveyed in non-overlapping sectors by local birders, with the total counts being methodically compiled afterwards. Brooklyn is one "circle", and last Saturday was the appointed day. I've heard of this and thought it sounded interesting, but never joined in until this year, when Louis DeMarco, one of Sebago's birders, decided to resurrect the "Jamaica Bay Boat" sector. This area used to be surveyed by our Jamaica Bay Baykeeper, Don Riepe, but he'd stopped doing that a long time ago, and Louis decided that he wanted to get that going again with paddlers. Kayaks are perfect for the job, we can really get into the marshes and get counts of birds that the land-based birders aren't going to see. Louis worked with the Brooklyn Bird Club to set everything up; they discussed which areas would not be visible to even the strongest spotting scope from the parks on shore, Louis worked out a route, and we were set to go!

We got really, really lucky with the weather. I'd been watching the forecast with some concern. The plan was to cancel if there was a small craft advisory, maybe jumping in with one of the land groups if we could sort things out. There was definitely some wind possible. I use NOAA and also, which has a JFK airport station that's really helpful for Jamaica Bay. I'd been seeing some pretty high winds for Saturday, but they kept shifting around over the course of the week they'd settled down to THIS. Which was phenomenal. I never saw the weather gods cooperate so nicely for an event - that low-wind period happened to be quite precisely the time Louis had planned for us to be out (click on the photo for detail)!

The NOAA forecast contribution to our picture of the day was that it was going to pour on us. But winter kayaking involves a lot of waterproof safety gear, so rain is not really that much of an issue.

So it was a go for the return of the Jamaica Bay Boat Sector! Louis picked me up at 7 am and we were getting on the water around 8:30.

It wasn't raining at all - but there was fog heavier than I've ever seen in Jamaica Bay before! There are a couple of stories I've heard of paddlers getting confused by fog; there was one where people ended up paddling into Dead Horse Bay coming back from a paddle out in the Lower Harbor, and then Joe Glickman, a great racer, professional writer, and amazingly nice guy who we lost to cancer a few years back, used to tell a story of spending a cold night jogging up and down the shore on Canarsie Pol after the fog closed in while he was out for a training paddle on his surfski.

Louis has a GPS program on his phone, which he was also using for our day's bird list, but we had charts and compasses and this turned out to be an excellent chance to actually practice a little navigation. Louis had already planned our course so we just needed to follow that. We started out by picking a heading that would get us to the west end of Canarsie Pol. We paddled out into the gray, and we paddled along following our selected heading, and just when I was starting to wonder if maybe we'd made a mistake, a dark line loomed up in the fog and then resolved itself into the expected shoreline. Fun! Next heading was to the western end of Ruffle Bar - that also went according to plan. Really unique paddling out there with no landmarks visible, just gray, and pretty rewarding to actually find the places we were looking for without cheating and using the GPS. Louis did check it one time towards the end to confirm we'd done our course, but we did all of our crossings the old-fashioned way.

That's enough for one day - here are some photos from the leg from Sebago to Ruffle Bar. Into the fog we go! Click any photo for a slideshow view. And click here for lots more information about the Christmas Bird Count.


songbird's crazy world said...

Nice photos. I see Gateway and etc. from the highway when I drive through Brooklyn, but I’ve never taken the time to explore it. Very beautiful.

Tillerman said...

Well done!

Haralee said...

Congratulations! Looks rather eery and serene at the same time!!

Beth Havey said...

You are amazing. Thank you.

Diane Stringam Tolley said...

I can't believe that glassy-smooth water! Gorgeous!
Congratulations on meeting your 300-mile challenge. And what an amazing wrap-up!

bonnie said...

The calmness of the day was amazing. I love days like that and the fog made it just magical.

The wind did start picking up as we headed back in - the iWindsurf forecast had been right on.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I have to say you're brave out there in the cold. My California bones chill thinking about it but kayaking is so cool and great exercise.