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Migration of seabirds reaches seasonal peak Research: Seawatch effort in New Jersey continues four-year effort to document southbound flights.

AVALON, N.J. — AVALON, N.J. -- To anyone else, it would have looked like nothing more than a speck on the horizon.

But David Ward did a double take, then jumped to the high-powered binoculars mounted on a tripod nearby. He peered through them and nodded.

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Yep, just what he thought: a gannet, the biggest seabird in the North Atlantic, flying right toward him over the ocean.

Ward recognized it at once by its wingbeat. "They look stiff, like big saw blades flapping," he said.

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Chalk up one more for the Avalon Seawatch, a four-year effort to document what has turned out to be a vast southbound migration of seabirds each fall.

Seven days a week, dawn to dusk, through Dec. 15, bird-watchers are at a small blacktop parking lot at Seventh Street overlooking the beach, the inlet, and miles and miles of ocean.

They count anything that's migrating. That includes not only seabirds, but also butterflies (lots this year - one day recently, the count equaled the tally for all of last year), dragonflies, hawks, bats and dolphins. (They take wry note of - but stop short of counting - all the southbound sailboats, the personal watercraft, and days the waves look good for surfing.)

Last year, at the height of the migration in the weeks of early November, as many as 100,000 birds representing more than 60 species flew by daily.

The watchers saw flocks of 100 loons at a time. They saw a significant part of the entire North American population of scoters, which are Arctic sea ducks.

'Staggering thing to see'

The migration is "a staggering thing to see," said Joan Walsh, research coordinator at the Cape May Bird Observatory, which oversees the watch. "It's a wonder. It's amazing. It's beautiful."

Roughly 20 years ago, no one knew much at all about the annual fall migration of seabirds because, as their name suggests, they mostly migrate farther off the coast than shorebirds - some as near as the surf, others as far as the horizon.

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But in 1979, Ward - an avid bird-watcher, self-described "freelance biologist" and resident of Avalon - having noticed more and more seabirds on his fall bird outings, did the next logical thing, at least for him: He started counting them.

Others became interested in his work, and three years ago the Cape May Bird Observatory started an annual full-time count of the birds, recognizing that getting a better idea of what's flying along the coast and when the height of the migration is would fill a gap in scientific knowledge.

"It's amazing how little information we have for nongame species," said Walsh. Hunters and hunting organizations have generated a lot of data about sea ducks, "but if I want to learn about gannets, I have to hunt for information, and then there's no guarantee I'm going to get it. When you try to gather information on many of these species, you either run into walls or black holes."

Brian Harrington, a biologist with the Manomet Bird Observatory, a research institute in Massachusetts, said most people don't expect a migration of this size. But that, he said, is because no one has expended the immense amount of time and attention needed to study it.

If there were population declines due to, say, ocean dumping or an oil spill or an avian disease, biologists would never know it, let alone be able to document it.

Most of the birds nest in the vast and remote Arctic tundra. Then they wing south along the Atlantic Coast, heading for wintering grounds anywhere from New England to the Carolinas or even the Gulf Coast, depending on the species.

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That's where Avalon's tourist slogan, "Cooler by a Mile," comes into play. The beach there juts out into the Atlantic by roughly a mile. So birds traveling south often skirt close to land there.

Ward can see them winging in from offshore, or from Atlantic City, where on a clear day you can make out the Taj Mahal casino sign. Then the birds reach the buoy for Townsends Inlet and, almost as if they were rounding third base, they swing around it and sweep out past the far jetty, heading back to sea.

'It's a big deal'

The migration offers "a chance to see something rare," Ward said. These birds "wander all over the world," he said, and only in Avalon or similar places - such Montauk Point on Long Island or Cape Hatteras, N.C. - can landbound humans get a view.

As migrations go, this doesn't quite compare with the spring rush of birds to the shores of Delaware Bay, just in time to gorge on horseshoe crabs' eggs laid by the billions in the sand.

But, said Walsh, "this is a huge and significant migration. It's a big deal."

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"It's right in character with New Jersey," said Pete Dunne, director of natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, which owns the observatory. "We are the commuter state, and these are birds that are commuting through."

This and the spring migration are proof that "in this age and this world, you can still see something of the natural heritage of North America that should have been ours," Dunne said. "We have phenomena that people all over the world envy."

This year's official counter is Bill Seng, a marine biologist who graduated a few years ago from Stockton College and lives in Ocean City, N.J.

He's equipped with regular binoculars and the 20-power version FTC mounted on a tripod festooned with clickers, each dedicated to counting a particular species.

Seng is on duty from just before sunrise to sunset four days a week. Others take over the count when he's off.

Stationed at the tiny beachfront parking lot, they have the equivalent of 50-yard-line grandstand seats for the action. And if there were tickets, they'd say they were getting their money's worth.

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One day recently, in the first hour alone, Seng spotted three gannets, two common loons, 100 cormorants, three teal, a flock of 10 American wigeon, 10 black scoters, one surf scoter, 14 darkwing scoters, 115 laughing gulls and a couple of peregrine falcons.

But this was "not too exciting for a first hour," Seng said. When the migration reaches its height, birds will fly through by the thousands.

There will be days like Oct. 23 last year, when watchers counted 17,029 double-crested cormorants, goose-size birds that perch upright and dry their wings by spreading them. Or Dec. 11, when 5,933 pure white snow geese glinted in the sun as they flew by.

Last year's official counter, Michael O'Brien, was agape at the tide of birds that moved past Avalon. "As we neared the end of October, we were sure there couldn't be any more scoters coming, but on the 31st, to our amazement, the flood gates opened and the sea turned black with flock after flock. At the end of the day, clickers still smoking, the tally read 85,827 scoters."

Exceptional sightings

Among the usual are the exceptional: the 203 tundra swans counted last year; the 77 common eiders, rarely seen this far south; the 148 parasitic jaegers, which normally soar much farther out to sea.

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Eared grebes. Harlequin ducks. Dovekies. An Atlantic puffin. The list of names that would make an avid bird-watcher envious goes on and on. The watchers identify the birds from miles away, often just by the beat of the wings (most ducks have a fast flap), or the line of the neck (cormorants have a crick) or some other peculiarity. Birdwatchers call it GIS, for general image and shape.

On a good weekend, Seng has lots of company, maybe 10 or more other birders, all with binoculars and scopes trained on the horizon.

They call sightings out to each other, narrowing in on the locations by saying whether the bird is above or below the horizon, to the left or right of, say, a white fishing boat.

The seabird migration has changed Ward's life. He has put in thousands of hours over the past 17 years, and still, he says, "I find myself spending more and more of my time up here." He comes to the watcher station twice a day, virtually every day.

It has gotten to the point that ward worries he'll miss something - like one of only seven razorbills to fly by all last year. In fact, last year he was the one who saw the one millionth bird fly by - a brant. It was on Jan. 1, which was after the official count, but still within the window of the migration.

Although a mere three or four years' worth of data isn't exactly a body of scientific evidence from which to draw many conclusions, it's a start, and a much-needed one, ornithologists say.

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Pub Date: 11/03/96



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