Category Archives: Old Oak Trail

Old Oak Trailby Joseph Reynolds

CSI: New York Harbor – The Mystery of Dead Crabs

joe reynoldsBe warned. Now and then when walking along a sandy beach around New York Harbor or along a nearby Atlantic Ocean beach, you may come across a crime scene. So shocking, it’s like nothing you have ever seen. It’s a death of biblical proportions, the sight of many carcasses strewn along a beach.

The tide goes out with an omen – piles of dead bodies, perhaps in the thousands, stretched out across the edge of a beach. Worst of all, there will be no warning when it will happen. It just does, though it often takes place in the warmer months of the year.

As gory and grisly as it sounds, this is no ordinary crime scene. The victims are not human, but crustacean. The crabs are not even lifeless, just evidence of a crusty critter shedding its old shell.

blue crab molting

These are not dead bodies, but empty shells or molts. As many crabs grow, they molt. Blue crabs do it, horseshoe crabs as well, and even the creepy looking spider crab. They all molt, which is the process of shedding an external skeleton for the purpose of growth and maturity. Just as kids outgrow their clothing, crabs outgrow their shells.

Every crab seems to molt at certain times of the year. In general, blue crabs tend to molt during full moon periods from May through October. Horseshoe crabs typically molt several times during their first year. After its third or fourth year, horseshoe crabs will shed its exoskeleton annually, frequently during August or September, until it reaches maturity.

spider crab

Spider crabs seem to molt only once a year, usually in the summer or fall, and they appear to do it all at once.  Spider crabs are not harvested in local waters, so when these crabs have their coordinated molting period, a select beach will appear to have an overflowing amount of spider crabs.  So much so that it will be alarming at first sight.

Often text messages and emails from friends and family will alert me to run down to a beach littered with dead crabs. They fear the water must be polluted with toxic sludge or other deadly chemicals, why else would there be so many dead crabs on the beach? Surely this must be a canary in a coalmine.

My response is usually the same. I ask someone to pick up a crab. Does it feel light and airy like an empty exoskeleton? Next I ask if there are any foul odors or flies? If this were truly a pile of dead crabs on a beach then the scene would smell badly with lots of hungry flies, gulls and other scavengers hanging around.  Trust me, if gulls aren’t interested, there is nothing to eat.

Why do crabs molt all at the same time? In general this is an evolutionary tool to help a species survive. It takes a lot of energy to molt. A crab’s soft shell makes them vulnerable to predation by large fish and even other crabs. Soft shell crabs can also be very slow and unresponsive after a molt, increasing a crab’s helplessness. So a simultaneous molt of thousands or millions may overwhelm a predator, too many crabs to eat all at once, and increase the chance of survival for the overall species.   

It seems the best opportunity we get to see what animals live in our nearby aquatic wilderness are from the remains that are found jumbled and muddled on the beach surface. Although some of the time marine remains are of concern for citizens, an animal stranded by an ebbing tide for instance, molted relics of spider crabs and other crusty crustaceans are nothing to be worried about. In fact, quite the opposite, the empty shell of a crab is a sign of growth and hope as it matures in the busy and bustling waters of New York Harbor.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at


Old Man Winter has Arrived to New York Harbor

joe reynoldsThe wait is over. Old Man Winter has arrived to New York Harbor. Long nights, cloudy skies, chilly temperatures and gusty north winds are bearing a message to wildlife, the advent of winter.

All forgotten was the mild, dry autumn. Notice is now given to below freezing temperatures, wind chill readings, snow and ice. Winter has not even officially arrived and already serious winter weather is near.

On top of the hills and mountains far north surrounding the watershed, white snow and slick paths have become familiar to animals, along with waters freezing over. Down along the lower reaches of the watershed, deciduous trees are bare and exposed, not a leaf to be found. Air temperatures in the twenties the last few nights have frozen up puddles and the edges of freshwater ponds.

In cedar swamps, such as those found at Cheesequake State Park near Raritan Bay, blustery north winds were blowing through the evergreens for several days. Wind moving through cedars and pines made an almost ghostly and fragile whistle. A strong signature sound of winter often overlooked during dark, cold days.

winter bird 1

Animals were certainly getting ready for another winter season, as shown by the increased activity at my bird feeder. There were the usual cast of characters, including red bellies, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, chickadees, and titmice. Plus there were some new visitors from up north. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have shown up to spend winter near New York Harbor.

These two “snowbirds” of the eastern United States almost always appear just as winter sets in. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows fly in to New York Harbor from nesting sites across Canada and northern New England. They often arrive tired and exhausted from a busy breeding season. They seek solace and a good meal to recharge batteries. They find a haven in parks, backyards, and woodsy suburbs.  Put out some birdseed this winter and you are almost guaranteed to see these two little compact birds hopping on the ground near your feeder at least once during the winter.

Not every animal is active though. Bull and green frogs are hibernating in the mud and muck or in pond water itself, insulated against freezing temperatures, in part, by a layer of ice on top of the pond. Overwintering painted turtles, snapping turtles, and various aquatic insects, plus a durable muskrat or two, often join the frogs. Along the pond edge, look for cattail colonies that are bleached and pale, with weathered clumps of fluff and seeds. Spring peepers are hibernating as well, but in the woods beneath several inches of soil

Down along the coast, water birds and ducks are arriving daily from breeding grounds up north, such as mergansers, long–tailed ducks, buffleheads, brant, Bonaparte’s gulls, Great Cormorants, and loons. They will remain for the winter foraging on aquatic plants, fish or shellfish. Winter flounder too have entered estuarine waters. They are getting ready to spawn in the bay using the shallow waters of the coves and harbors as a nursery.

Strong northerly winds have sweep down the bay, replacing summer southerly breezes. As a result, estuarine waters have started to cool significantly from an average of 75 degrees in the summer to an average of 35 degrees in the winter.

December is New York Harbor’s darkest month of the year. The Northern Hemisphere is tilting farther away from the sun in the solar system to reduce the duration of daylight to a minimum of about nine and a half hours on Wednesday, December 21, the winter solstice. Compare this low number to about 15 hours of daylight in June, during the summer solstice.

winter bird 2

With nights at their longest, microscopic plant activity that once fueled much of the life in and around the bay – primary production – during the summer has slowed appreciably as the days grow shorter and less sunlight is available for photosynthesis. Those who were able have migrated south for the winter. Food resources around New York Harbor are insufficient during the winter to feed large numbers of mouths.  Only the hardiest now endure.

Old Man Winter has brought cold and ice for another season around New York Harbor. It’s a time for many animals to brave and have endurance, wait it out until the days get longer and the landscape changes once again.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at


It’s not easy being a Seal in New York Harbor

harbor seals ny harborHarbor seals bask in the sun at Sandy Hook

joe reynoldsIt was a sunny, but chilly and windy Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Winds were gusting over 25 knots out of the northwest and there was an incoming tide.

Out in the distance on a sandy, skinny and remote island along the southern shore of New York Harbor were several shadowy dots. At first I thought the shapes were just driftwood or maybe small groups of gulls. I didn’t give much thought to it.

But as I was walking away to get warm and not marooned by a flood tide, a feeling deep inside was telling me to take a closer look. That gut feeling turned out to be on the button.

With a spotting scope and binoculars in hand, those shadowy spots turned out to be a dozen Harbor seals, about a thousand feet away. The fin-footed wild animals were mostly sleeping and tired, not paying any attention to my company, just the way I wanted it to be.

I was thrilled. It was my first sighting of seals in New York Harbor for the winter season 2016-17. But how many more years will I be able to enjoy this sight?

The first of hundreds of seals have begun their long annual migration to the shores of New Jersey and New York to rest and relax. Come March or April, many of these seals will head back north to northern New England and eastern Canada to breed and raise their young. But for now these roly-poly marine mammals are seeking quite and remote beaches, piers, rocky islands, and other near-shore nautical configurations to make themselves at home until spring arrives.

When not sleeping, they will be busy foraging for food. Harbor seals are fish eaters and will use their long whiskers as a sensor to help track fish in the water, including flounders, sculpins, and sand eels. They can also eat invertebrates such as clams, crabs, and even offshore squids. Generally feeding on the abundance of potential local prey.  

It’s an amazing natural event. Sightings, once few, are more common nowadays in the busy and bustling waters of New York Harbor. The reasons are varied, but mostly due to cleaner waters thanks to the Clean Water Act and better protection of wildlife thanks to both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the latter prohibits the killing or harassment of any species of seal. Congress passed these laws during the 1970s, when it seemed life was less political and people cared more about the environment compared to today.

But being a seal in New York Harbor is not stress-free. There are many troubles to avoid, some even deadly.

One of the worst is a collision with a ship’s propeller. Large tankers have sizeable sharp propellers that move fast and can slice a seal to death. With so many tankers moving offshore and within New York Harbor back and forth there are more victims every year and many whose bodies are never found.

Unfortunately, spotted with the day before Thanksgiving pod of seals In New York Harbor was one seal with a large bloody deep gash near its neck, most likely a victim of being hit by a duct propeller. Some wildlife scientists suspect seals get trapped or sucked between propellers and their covers, especially female harbor seals because ducted blades produce the same acoustics as mating calls of male seals. Ducted propellers are widely used by large ships in America.

The injured seal was lucky, at least for now. It appeared alert and was moving around fine with other seals in the pod. But an infection could occur and the seal was too far out in the water to get possible medical attention.

Which brings up another risky issue: the loss of safe places for seals to rest and relax.  Long-established “haul-out” sites are important places for seals. Without safe places for seals to haul-out of the water to rest, reheat, and digest their food (particularly important since Harbor Seals usually swallow their food whole after being torn into chunks), they could get sick, exhausted, or stressed out. In addition, quite a few seals observed each winter are pregnant females that will be due to give birth next spring. They too are seeking safe places to rest and feed before returning up north to have pups.

While haul-out sites provide people with excellent locations to view wildlife, too many people will show up and try to get too close. This will make Harbor Seals nervous, worried, and dive away.  Seals in general get very stressed if they feel surrounded by potential predators.

Harbor Seals are normally shy and jittery animals. They will become alarmed, stressed, and swim away if many people and boats are nearby or if just one person tries to get too close, usually around 300 feet. Even a brief disruption can cause anxiety to a group of seals, since they will need to spend more time being alert and less time resting.

Harbor seals will become stressed when people talk too loud, or dress in bright colors; or when people walk their dogs too close, or by the sound of a barking dog, and by the close proximity of boats, windsurfers or other human activities. Kayakers too will sometimes frighten seals away even if a kayaker is at some distance. To a harbor seal’s brain the shape of a kayak resemblance a large shark, a major marine predator.

Too many disturbances and seals may abandon a favorite haul-out site permanently. This occurred a few decades ago in San Francisco Bay, due to high and chronic incidences of human disturbances, seals abandoned certain haul-out sites permanently. I can’t imagine winter in New York Harbor without the sight of seals, but it could happen. There are a lot of people who wish to catch an up-close glimpse of a seal or take a selfie with a seal with their cell phone.

The best way to observe a seal or any wild animal is from far away. Maintain a minimum distance of 500 feet from any marine mammal in the water or on shore to prevent a disturbance. It’s a good idea to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and give the seals plenty of space.

Please take care NOT to make your presence known, either visually or audibly, when you come across an individual or a group of Harbor Seals on land or on the water. Limit your viewing time and keep dogs away from the seals.

Always be respectful and keep plenty of space between you and a wild animal. If your presence causes increased vocalizations, shaking or body tremors; or if a resting animal begins to lift its head with eyes on you, then you are too close.

While seals might appear cute and friendly, they are really wild animals that can give a nasty bite and carry diseases. You should never feed or touch a wild animal. Do not trespass and stay out of all closed areas.

harbor seals marine mammal

Moreover, if you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person or people, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829.  These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at


New York Harbor Fall Foliage

autumn leavesPHOTO: Fall foliage

joe reynoldsThink of New York Harbor and fabulous sights of fall foliage doesn’t necessarily come to mind. Locals, however, know differently. Surrounding the great tidal waters of this busy and bustling estuary are a handful of wonderful parks and preserves to view changing leaves.

Some of my favorite sites to view fall color include Fresh Kills Park, Blue Heron Park, and Conference House Park, all located on Staten Island. In New Jersey, there is Cheesequake State Park in Old Bridge Township and Hartshorne Woods and Huber Woods, both part of the Monmouth County Park System.

Sure, New York Harbor doesn’t have the great richness and variety of color often found in New England or upstate New York, such as in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Green Mountains of Vermont, or the Adirondacks of Northern New York. Northeastern coastlines often lack a good mixture of maple species to produce flaming hues of oranges, yellows and reds. Instead, fall foliage along the shore usually has a different type of appeal and subtle charm.

Around New York Harbor peak fall foliage usually arrives around late October or early November. Reds, purples, yellows, and browns provide a colorful show from an assortment of tree species. Many trees with whimsical names that sound like experimental bubblegum flavors: Staghorn sumac, Winged Sumac, Tree of Heaven, Redbud, Red Mulberry, Persimmon, Tulip tree, Sassafras, Sycamore, Sweetgum, and Wild Cherry.

Fall color typically starts weeks earlier along the coast as nights start to grow chillier and daylight slowly diminishes. Tupelo or Blackgum trees are one of the first trees to turn color starting in September, though sometimes as early as August. The tree provides an early blast of fall color and makes me think of things to come.

Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy are next to turn color in September with bright red hues often seen along roadsides and climbing the sides of buildings. The leaves of poison ivy are so bright and beautiful you might be tempted to pick some to preserve or make a pretty floral display, but be beware the plant is known as poison ivy for a reason.

Also along the coast Tall Marsh Cordgrass and slender Salt Meadow Grass have been growing all summer, but come September these salt marsh grasses start to turn color, from a lush green to a golden hue. They provide a nice contrast to colorful seaside goldenrod, which is flowering profusely at this time.

autumn leaves 2All this leads up to the best fall color by the end of October or early November. The landscape has color. Peak fall foliage is no longer found in the mountains but instead along the coastlines. Beech, maples and oak leaves turn red, golden, or russet. It never seems to fail that many oak leaves will always try to cling to the trees for as long as they can, but by mid-winter gusty northeast winds have blown the leaves away to create bare silhouettes of tall trees.  

Fall foliage around New York Harbor is not long. The best and most brilliant color has usually faded by Veteran’s Day. Yet those newly fallen leaves are not valueless. They will gradually decompose over time to provide rich nutrients and food into the soil for new plants and trees to grow in years to follow around hardworking harbor waters.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at

Restless Chipmunks Preparing for Winter

chipmunk 1

joe reynoldsWith daylight decreasing, north winds blowing in chillier air, and ever increasing red, yellow, and gold foliage on trees, there is a strong sense the seasons are changing around New York Harbor.

Yet, it’s not just me who get this feeling. Look all around and you will start to spot wildlife getting ready for colder weather. Ubiquitous gray squirrels are starting to build messy leaf, twig, and grass nests, called dreys, near the top of tall trees for winter mating. Box turtles are seeking the perfect place to hibernate. A place with lots of groundcover and leaves, perhaps near a newly fallen tree with leaves still attached to branches. It’s here a turtle might dig out a shallow soil depression from two to ten inches or more below the surface before pushing itself backwards into its own private winter retreat.

Up in the sky, hawks are in the middle of a fall journey, migrating southward from nesting sites up in New England or Canada. Monarch butterflies are also in motion, flying fast on small wings to far away mountains in Central Mexico to rest and pass away the winter. In tidal waters, striped bass and bluefish are feeding heavily on small fish as they swim south to warmer waters for the winter.

With all this commotion, it’s easy to overlook some small and slight seasonal delights.

One of my favorites has to be chipmunks on the move. They don’t go far or even fast, but as winter approaches, these energetic and endearing animals start to get really busy.

chipmunk 2Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are common small woodland creatures. You can spot them in or around forests, freshwater wetlands, and wooded suburban homes not far from New York Harbor. Unlike its larger Gray squirrel cousin, the Eastern chipmunk only grows to about 12 inches in length. The name “chipmunk” comes from the Algonquian language or the Ojibwe word “ajidamoo,” which means “one who descends trees headlong.”

While I don’t spot too many chipmunks climbing trees, I do frequently see them running on the ground foraging for food. Yet it’s not always food they are seeking to eat, but to hoard as much as possible for winter storage. They scramble everywhere in a never-ending search for tasty nuts, berries, and seeds.

The best part of watching all this is when a busy little chipmunk finds a large collection of food, such as acorns, and starts to stuff food into its mouth, more and more food. Lots of food means fuller and puffier cheeks.

All of a sudden you have a small furry critter with very chubby cheeks. A seasonal treat for sure!

Although no one is quite sure exactly how many acorns a chipmunk can hold inside its chubby little mouth, many studies suggest it’s well over 30. National Geographic reports that a single chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. Studies even suggest that by the end of autumn a single chipmunk may have accumulated between 5,000 to 6,000 nuts. That’s totally nuts!

Where does all this food go? Chipmunks will use these horded foods to survive the winter. Chipmunks don’t get fat like bears nor do they hibernate like groundhogs, but keep active during the winter, albeit slowly and sleepily, inside their underground den and extensive tunnels, which can be anywhere from 10 to 30 feet deep and have numerous chambers for food, resting, and depositing waste. The stored food provides crucial nourishment when the weather is cold and icy and seeds and nuts are hard to find.

So right now, chipmunks are active from sunrise to sunset looking to store food for the winter. Food is stuffed into their large cheek pouches and carried back to store in their dens.

This fall season seems to be an especially good one to see active chipmunks. A mild winter last year and an abundance of acorns, especially white oak acorns which are less bitter in taste, and seeds have led to a surge in the chipmunk population throughout the New York Harbor watershed region. More food equals a greater winter survival rate and more chipmunks to reproduce and have young. Chipmunks have a life span of 2 to 7 years in the wild.

Soon, with the arrival of really cold weather, the chipmunks will be heading down into their burrows, which are often well hidden and located near objects such as stumps, woodpiles, and garages. They will not be seen again until soils unfreeze and temperatures rise. Sometime in March is when most chipmunks emerge from their winter rest to once again start a boundless search for more food.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at


Killifish & Mummichogs: Hardiest Fish in the World

joe reynold 120One of the most abundant and, in my opinion, unappreciated groups of fish swimming around the great tidal waters of New York Harbor has to be small and slender Killifish or killies for short.

There is nothing impressive about their looks, appearing like shy, little minnow-like fish with a single dorsal fin and a tail that is squared or rounded in shape. Their teeth are not as sharp as snappers nor do they move as fast as stripers. They are also not as slimy as eels or as prehistoric as sturgeon.


Yet, look within a Peterson Field Guide about Atlantic Coast Fishes and you will find a wide assortment of killie species under the Cyprinodontidae family, from Diamond killifish to Rainwater killifish. New York Harbor and surrounding local waters support a wide assortment of killies too, including Banded killifish and Spotfin killifish, but the two most commonly found species in my opinion are Striped killifish and Mummichogs. I constantly find these fish in my seine net.

Early Dutch settlers in northeast America provided the name Killifish. The name “killi” comes from the Dutch word “Kil” meaning “creek.” Killies are essentially “fish from the creek.” In New York State, places like Arthur Kill, Fishkill, or Kill Van Kull have actually nothing to do with murder, but everything to do with fish and a well-established Dutch word.

The name mummichog is derived from Native American people in New England, possibly a Narragansett term meaning “going in crowds.” This illustrates their ability to be a large schooling fish.

Anglers frequently use these fish as bait, since just about anything bigger or stronger will eat a killie, including striped bass, sea bass, bluefish, eels, and a variety of wading birds from Great Blue herons to Great egrets.  

There are more to this fish than just bait though.  KIllies are one of the hardiest fish on Earth.

Killifish have the remarkable ability to endure various extremes of temperature, salinity, and even oxygen levels down to nearly zero. Believe it or not, I have seen fishermen hold live killies out of water for hours in their pants or shirt pocket to be saved later, flipping and flopping around, for live bait.  As long their gills are kept moist, killifish can survive, albeit I’m sure uncomfortably, for several hours out of water.

killifish 2

This amazing ability to tolerate extreme conditions and difficult environmental circumstances has made them popular “test rats” in scientific studies of toxicology, not just on this planet, but also in outer space. Killifish were the first-ever fish sent into space in 1973 aboard Skylab, the United States’ first space station, which orbited Earth from 1973 to 1979. Killies were used in a scientific experiment to see how zero gravity in outer space would affect fish. Due to the lack of gravity, the fish had a hard time finding which way was up or down while swimming. Fish don’t make good astronauts.

Yet, due to their durability and knack to live in very foul or polluted water, killies are the poster-child or poster-fish for urban-suburban waters. In the very polluted days from the 1950s through the 1980s when New York Harbor and its tributaries were largely oxygen-deprived due to excessive amounts of raw sewage and other pollutants entering waterways, killifish could be found not only existing but thriving. Large schools of killies provided much needed nourishment to bigger fish and wading birds when not much food could otherwise be found.

Killifish helped sustain life and return biodiversity to New York Harbor. Strong schools of killies provided the nutrients necessary for larger fish and wading birds to feed. In doing so, the fish provided food and energy indirectly to top predators, such as ospreys, terns, and other fish-eating birds.

Killies are a crucial piece in a coastal food web. During the spring, summer and fall, you can find many fish and wildlife foraging for killies, while killies, which are opportunistic feeders, will help control a variety of species, including algae, insects and insect larvae, worms, small crustaceans and mollusks, other fish and even carrion. According to the Chesapeake Bay program, killies are able to consume up to 2,000 mosquito larvae in a single day and have been introduced to ponds and ditches as a natural method of mosquito control.

Slim, shallow waterways hold a special place for these fish. Soon they will be swimming upstream to spend the winter in a more or less sluggish state on the bottoms of creeks or streams. If winter conditions are harsh, the fish will bury themselves several inches into the mud to escape being covered by sharp ice. Resilient fish indeed.

Unlike other fish that will migrate out of the estuary for the winter, there is no evidence to suggest killies ever depart the great tidal waters of New York Harbor. It’s the year-round home for one of the hardiest fish in the world.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at


Results of Seine the Bay Day September 2016

seining day

PHOTO: Group photo of Seine the Bay Day participants.

joe reynoldsLife was on the move in the murky waters of Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay, located along the southern shore of New York Harbor. Small fish found along the edge of the bay were swimming fast and foraging for food before the rush to move out of the estuary before winter starts to arrive.

Seine the Bay Day is a free one-day public event conducted twice a year by volunteers with the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council during the start and end of the summer season. Volunteers at multiple sites along Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay use a 50-foot seine net to catch fish and show people the diversity of slimy, slippery, and interesting sea creatures usually swimming along the water’s edge.

Over 50 people showed up today to see who was home in the bay today. Despite sunny skies, a persistent northwest winds gusting up to 15 miles per hour made the 50-foot net at times unwieldy as a sail in a storm. Air temperatures were in the lower to mid 80s and the estuary was warm for early September with water temperature readings in the mid to upper 70s. Salinity was around 24 parts per thousand, which is about normal, but turbidity was awful. At many places the water was so cloudy you couldn’t see your feet just standing along the water’s edge.

As in past years, surveys were conducted at four locations along Rartian Bay and Sandy Hook Bay: Cliffwood Beach in Aberdeen Township, the fishing beach along Front Street in Union Beach, the beach in Port Monmouth near the mouth of Pews Creek, and the beach near the mouth of Many Mind Creek in Atlantic Highlands.

Seine nets have been used for ages to catch fish and other creatures Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay and their tributary rivers.

The catch this time was anything swimming or walking along the shallow edge of the bay including several baitfish, such as Atlantic Silversides or Spearing. Many were young-of-the-year fish (species born or emerged from eggs this past spring or summer). Our seine net was also dominated by lots of young menhaden, bay anchovies, and little blue-claw crabs. Interesting finds were a young Burr fish, a relative of the puffer fish, in Cliffwood Beach, a needle-nose fish near Pews Creek in Port Monmouth and a large beautiful American eel near the mouth of Many Mind Creek in Atlantic Highlands.

juvenile fish

There is no doubt the more watershed members conduct these public seining events, the better picture people get of the bay. Seining is a method of taking the pulse of a local ecosystem. It’s a way to gain an insight into the health of the near shore environment where many people swim and enjoy water.

All fishes, crabs, and other aquatic creatures were identified, cataloged, and returned to the water. In addition to seining, water temperature, salinity, and turbidity information were documented by volunteers at each site.

Below is a complete list of aquatic species found at each site. Thanks to everyone for your wonderful help and time.

Seine the Bay Day

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Weather: Partly Cloudy. Air temperatures into the mid 80s. Northwest winds 5-15 mph.

Moon Cycle: The first quarter was on Saturday, September 10th. Neap tide conditions.

10am – Aberdeen Township/Cliffwood Beach

Low tide.

Water temperature 75 degrees F.

Visibility was zero.

Salinity = 25 ppt

Over 1,000 Spearing or Atlantic Silversides, many were YOY (young of the year fish that were spawned this summer).

3 Northern pipefish

2 juvenile Atlantic menhaden

2 Spider crabs

1 juvenile Striped Burrfish

1 juvenile soft-shell black-tipped mud crab

1 juvenile blackfish

11:30am – Union Beach/Conaskonck PointI

Incoming tide.

Water temperature 78 degrees F.

Visibility was zero.

Salinity = 23 ppt

1,000+ Salps

100+ Atlantic menhaden

10+ Shore shrimp

10+ hermit crabs

10+ juvenile Blue-claw crabs

3 juvenile Atlantic silversides

1 juvenile Bluefish

1 Lady Crab

1:00pm: Middletown Township/Port Monmouth – Pews Creek

Incoming tide.

Water temperature 79 degrees F.

Visibility was partially turbid at 1.5 feet.

Salinity = 25 ppt

1000+ Atlantic Silversides

100+ Salps

30+ Bay Anchovies

5+ juvenile Atlantic Menhaden

5+ Hermit Crabs

5 juvenile Weakfish

1 adult male Lady Crab with no claws

1 Bluefish (snapper)

1 Atlantic Needlefish

2:30pm: Atlantic Highlands/Mouth of Many Mind Creek

Incoming tide.

Water temperature 78 degrees F.

Visibility was zero.

Salinity = 24 ppt

50+ Atlantic Silversides or Spearing

20+ Shore Shrimp

10+ juvenile Atlantic Menhaden

10+ Killifish

10+ hermit crabs

10+ juvenile Blue-claw crabs

10+ juvenile Weakfish

10 Killifish

5 juvenile Atlantic pipefish

1 adult Atlantic Menhaden

1 juvenile Kingfish

1 adult American Eel

1 juvenile Blackfish

Thanks to Budget Dumpster for supporting Seine the Bay Day 2016 along Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey. Please check out their website at

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at

New York Harbor Piranhas are Biting Now

blues snappers 2


PHOTO: Snapper Blues are biting

joe reynoldsHave you seen it? Maybe while kayaking or stand up paddling, or just standing along a shoreline. The drama has been playing out for a few weeks in local tidal waters. It’s only going to increase as fall migration kicks in.

It’s frenzied feeding time in New York Harbor by gluttonous and greedy bluefish. Just like piranhas, they have sharp teeth, a varied diet and are aggressive eaters that often will create feeding frenzies when there is an abundance of food offered

A scary time if you are a puny peewee baitfish, such as spearing, killifish, bay anchovies or juvenile bunker. Right now small fish are scared for their life and a little on edge. The little fish literally burst or leap out of the water to escape being a meal for a big hungry bluefish.

It’s not just adult bluefish that are hungry either. Juvenile bluefish locally known as snappers are feeding frantically on small fish too. Around June, snappers are about two inches in length, but as they feed and feed, the fish grow fast, up to 10 inches by the time they leave New York Harbor in late September or early October.

Just like birds, both adult and juvenile bluefish need food this time of year to fuel their energy needs for their annual migration southward. The fish will spend the winter in offshore waters between Cape Hatteras and Florida. Bluefish will return in the spring to spawn and feed in waters in and around New York Harbor.

During their first year of life, little snapper blues feed intensely and grow rapidly. They are not selective on what they eat. Snappers get their name because they will snap, slash, or bite on just about anything that swims in their path, including other fish, squid, crabs, and shrimp. They are pure eating machines.

Some local fishermen even call bluefish “marine piranha” because of their assertive and aggressive feeding habits. Bluefish have been known to attack anything. So ravenous, I have even found a few adult flounder washed up dead on a beach with bite marks on their belly from a recent bluefish feeding frenzy.

Bluefish will bite practically anything that moves. Sometimes this might include a person’s ankles if that person is unlucky enough to wade in the water when a hungry school of snappers are swimming in shallow waters. Over the years I have seen quite a few people fishing in the water with bare feet and leaving the water with bloody ankles.

Bluefish and snappers often feed on large schools of baitfish, creating a disturbance known as “blitzes” in the water. In an attempt to escape the mouth of a hungry bluefish, small fish will spring out of the water and into the air while the bluefish churn up the water with tails and snapping jaws. During these feeding frenzies or surf spectacles, the water actually looks like it is exploding with baitfish.

These frenzied feeding activities can happen anytime when large schools of fish are present. Over 70 species of finfish, including river herring (alewives), butterfish, Atlantic silversides, and even juvenile bluefish, have been identified in bluefish stomach contents.

blues snappers 1

It’s a sensational late summer and early fall sight that happens every year in New York Harbor, including in Jamaica Bay, Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and the tidal portions of local rivers such as the Passaic, Hackensack, Hudson, Navesink, and Shrewsbury. Our waters are prime feeding habitat for these saltwater feeding machines.

Of course, since snappers will snap at just about anything, this makes them easy and fun to catch. Snapper fishing is fun and a great way to introduce young children to saltwater fishing. Once a child catches his or her first snapper, they are often hooked on fishing.

Bluefish are closely related to jacks and pompanos.​ They get their name from their color. The fish are a greenish blue with silvery sides and a white belly. They have a pointed snout and large mouth with razor sharp triangular teeth.

Set in a busy, bustling, urban-suburban landscape, New York Harbor teems with wide diversity of different species of fish. The abundance of bluefish over such a imposing area is exciting, and helps to form the basis of the region’s estuarine ecology, angling economy, and coastal culture.

With so much blitzing and fishing going on there is no doubt that New York Harbor and nearby waters are important feeding and nurseries areas for snappers. Just like piranhas, bluefish are tough fish that seem to do well in bodies of water that are even murky, muddy, dark and dirty.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at

Seahorses Really Do Swim in NY Harbor

seahorsePHOTO: Seahorse from New York Harbor

joe reynoldsIt’s true. Seahorses not only survive, but thrive in New York Harbor and surrounding waters including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. Throughout the last several years, I’ve caught many adult seahorses in my seine net while fishing along the harbor’s southern shore. There is also a decent population of seahorses that exist in other parts of the estuary including near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Seahorses living close by the Brooklyn Bridge might strike you as an urban oxymoron, but actually it makes sense. These unique fish are poor and slow moving swimmers. A single seahorse will rely on its long tail to grip onto sea grasses, pilings, or other firm objects to stay in one place. Plenty of pilings and sea grasses exist underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Good seahorse habitat.

Occasionally a storm or a strong current might displace a few little seahorses downstream to other parts of the estuary. Once these little critters find something hard to attach, they will continue feeding on plankton. With a small, toothless mouth, a seahorse will quickly suck in water and hopefully prey into its long, tubular snout. It feeds on a variety of small shrimp and various zooplankton.

seahorse 2Right here in New York Harbor swims the Northern Lined Seahorse or Northern Seahorse, the only native seahorse in local waters. It’s a celebrated creature with a tiny head that looks like a horse and only about 5 to 6 inches long. Male and female pairs practice monogamy, one of the few aquatic species in the bay to do so. Males will care for developing offspring in his pouch for two to three weeks.

While decent population data does not exist on just how many Northern Lined Seahorses exist in New York Harbor, it’s a good bet the population is viable, at least for now.

While the average lifespan of a Northern Lined Seahorse is only about four years, it’s not an easy life in New York Harbor. Habitat loss and pollution, including trash and chemical spills, do great damage to their home and to finding an abundance of food. Seahorses are also a targeted fish around the world, including New York Harbor, for ornamental display, aquarium fishes, and traditional Asian medicine. Over 20 million dried seahorses and 1 million live ones are traded yearly in Asian markets.

Moreover, seahorses are commonly taken as bycatch in commercial fishing nets. These actions are why the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List as “Vulnerable” the lined seahorse primarily due to indirect evidence that numbers are continuing to decline which has raised concern. As humans continue to ravage seahorses, the population declines.

Yet, the pint-size seahorse is not passive and has some things in its favor. One is their unpalatable ridged plates and spines. These make a body too boney and largely indigestible for hungry striped bass, bluefish, or larger fish. That is if a fast moving fish can even find a seahorse.

Seahorses have the ability to camouflage their body to hide from predators. Just like chameleons, geckos, and other extraordinary wild creatures, the lined seahorse can change color to mimic its surroundings. Individuals can be olive-brown, ash gray, black, and even bright orange, red, or yellow.

Many seahorses discovered in the bay, however, are usually dark in color, camouflaging best with the dim and dusky waters of the harbor. Seahorses blend in so well in fact that it’s often difficult for scientists to even find them.

It’s never easy finding one. This is probably a good thing. It’s what makes finding one so special. You really have to be at the right place at the right time. Almost like finding a small needle in a great big bay. Seahorses don’t make it easy. They’re a seasonal creature in New York Harbor, often migrating to the ocean in the winter.

Due to their boney body and ability to camouflage, seahorses are generally believed to have few natural predators. Yet, if the Northern Lined Seahorse are to continue surviving in New York Harbor, it will take the work of many people to continue cleaning up local waterways and improving and restoring habitat, especially healthy sea grass bed habitat. Please help by making sure waters are clean and trash is properly discarded or recycled. Do not collect seashores as pets or for medicine. If you find a live seahorse, take a picture and please return it quickly to the water. Keep wild animals wild.


New Life in New York Harbor is Never Easy

osprey on nestPHOTO:  Osprey on its nest

joe reynoldsThe first signs of new life are starting to show up around New York Harbor. For the next several weeks of summer, an annual natural ritual will come off, largely unnoticed and overlooked by most modern-day humans in our busy and bustling routine. Many wild animals will be raising a family in a crowded urban jungle. Parents will be vigilant, always watching their young for provoking and pesky people and predators.

It’s an exciting time. New York Harbor is jumping with new life, young of the year that have just recently been born. Courtship displays and mating rituals have finally paid off for many wild animals. It’s time to start raising a family, the next generation of life to call New York Harbor home.

Young peregrine falcons at 55 Water Street in lower Manhattan are starting to fledge, as are many smaller songbirds at Prospect Park in Brooklyn and at many parks and preserves around the harbor. Black skimmers at Sandy Hook are nesting, as well as herons and egrets on small, remote islands around the harbor.

In the murky harbor waters, both soft shell and hard clams have spawned millions of eggs. The lucky free-swimming larvae that have survived so far are developing into small clams with their own shell or exoskeleton. Eventually the little clams will settle down onto a suitable sandy surface to mature and gradually burrow into the bottom of the bay where it will spend the rest of their life.   

Perhaps two wild animals that best exemplify what it takes to raise young around New York Harbor are ospreys and piping plovers. Every year, this corner of the Atlantic Ocean draws numerous fish hawks and piping plovers to breed, give birth and make sure their offspring has the best chance of survival. The odds are never in their favor, but adults seem to come back every year for another opportunity.

Ospreys are fish-eating raptors found along the shoreline and open marshes around New York Harbor and nearby environment. Unlike other raptors that primarily nest in trees, ospreys have remarkably adapted well to an ever changing urban-suburban landscape and now nest in any type of elevated, man-made structure near water.

fledglings sandPHOTO:  Fledglings

Yet, an osprey’s ability to finding a home is what causes so much anxiety. Osprey-human conflicts are increasing around New York Harbor as ospreys try to make nests in some unlikely places, including cell towers, transmission lines, construction cranes, boats, piers, and other manmade structures close to humans. In many cases, osprey nests impede the use or function of a structure, which can affect human business or safety. Generally, conflicts are greatest when nests are constructed on telecommunication towers, electric utility poles, which creates a serious danger of fire or electrocution, transmission towers, bridges or even airport runway structures at JFK International Airport, which is located right next to a Jamaica Bay, perfect habitat for fish eating birds.

Another major threat to ospreys is mercury. As a fish eater, ospreys have exposure to mercury, which is a liquid metal.  Mercury is often released into the air from human activities, through fossil fuel combustion, mining, smelting and solid waste combustion. Some forms of human activity also release mercury directly into soil or water, for instance the application of agricultural fertilizers and industrial wastewater disposal. Mercury is found in many waterways around the world and can cause reproductive issues, including damage to brain functions, and disruption to the nervous system.  Mercury builds up and remains in the food chain. Ospreys are exposed to mercury by eating fish that have fed on organisms containing mercury.

Another threat to ospreys is pollution and trash. In some cases ospreys and their young have been seen entangled in mono-filament fishing line or ribbons from balloons released after a wedding, birthday party, memorial, or other special events.

Life is not any easier for piping plovers around the harbor. Although this small, stocky, sandy-colored bird resembling a sandpiper can only be found nesting at a few selected natural beaches, the threats to its long-term survival are many.

Prime breeding and feeding habitat has been replaced with shoreline development and recreational areas for people on beaches. Development near beaches, including boardwalks and restaurants, increases trash and food waste that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, gulls, skunks, and foxes. Domestic and feral cats are also very efficient predators of plover eggs and chicks.

When sandy areas do exist for plovers to nest, human disturbance often curtails breeding success. Pets, especially dogs, may harass the birds. Foot traffic may crush nests or young. Excessive disturbance may cause the parents to abandon the nest, exposing eggs or chicks to the summer sun and predators.

Despite all the challenges, the need to survive is strong. There are always some lucky ospreys and plovers that will be able to bring their eggs to maturity, the hatching and then fledging of young are a time of triumph. Positive signs that both birds are slowly making a recovery from the Shrewsbury River to the Hudson River, and in one of the largest urban jungles in the world.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at