Return of the Egret

Flora and Fauna Fridays

The life of our estuary and watershed.


Egret on English Kills. Photo by Bernie Ente. 

by Erik Baard (courtesy of Nature Calendar)

A skeptic might say that a naturalist hoping for the Great Egret to visit the Newtown Creek is a bit like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the skeptic would be wrong. This week the Newtown Creek Alliance reported its first egret sighting of 2017, and included an admonition for the Environmental Protection Agency to keep after polluters to clean up the waterway.

The first person to obsessively photograph the Newtown Creek for public education and activation was Bernie Ente, whose loss we still feel six years after his death on April 8, 2011. One of our canoes flies a Bernie Ente flag, created by Caroline Walker based on one of his breathtaking green heron photos. Even the marvelous moment above Bernie captured with a cheap point-and-shoot camera.

The beautiful Great Egret is internationally known as the Audubon Society’s symbol. The society was formed over a century ago when a fashion for feathered hats wiped out 95% of the Great Egret population. Citizens were sparked into action, and they formed one of our nation’s earliest conservation movements and made history when national wildlife protection laws were passed. Today the threat to this species is less visible and dramatic, but equally real: our wetlands are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and at times thoughtless development. Without healthy marsh grasses, this species of bird will just as surely die off as if hunters set their sites on them.

I’ve most often seen egrets on Mill Rock Island just south of Hell Gate, and they’ve been reported at North Brother and South Brother islands, and the islands of the Arthur Kill. You can recognize them easily by their yellow bills, black legs, and white feathers. In flight they flex their necks into an S shape, and their wingspan is impressive at well over four feet (more than a meter).

Though a mate to the bird in the photo was on a nearby muddy bank, often a great egret will be spotted as the sole representative of its species among many other birds, all congregating. This is normal, and perhaps understandable for a creature that starts life with a battle to the death with siblings in the nest! As adults, Great Egrets hunt alone, stalking small amphibians and fish, snakes, and crustaceans in the shallows of coves and inlets like Anable Basin, Bushwick Inlet, Fresh Kills, and the Newtown Creek. Mill Rock is in the center of the East River, but has a delightful little cove notched into its northern side.

Waves: The Recognized and the Rogues

Water Wonk Wednesdays

Weekly water news, tips, and innovations.

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”

— Virginia Woolf, The Waves

by Erik Baard

March has been a big month for waves. Last week the UN World Meteorological Organization added a new entry to its Cloud Atlas, and it’s a doozy: the beautiful undulatus asperitas, meaning “agitated waves.” Rippling like belly dancing Empress Theodora, perhaps no phenomenon more powerfully reminds us that air is just another fluid riding atop denser water. At the same time, University of Miami report that “massive rogue waves aren’t as rare as previously thought.”


Undulatus asperitas occurs when upwelling meets cross current through cloud cover, usually in the quiet hours after thunderstorms. The new recognition last week on World Meteorological Day  comes thanks to grassroots activism by the Cloud Appreciation Society. Of course other forms of atmospheric waves have long been studied, on Earth and elsewhere. On Venus one massive, pole-to-pole bow-shaped wave has scientists fascinated.

Even the largest, steepest solitary wave recorded on our world are puny in comparison, but are the stuff of mariners’ nightmares. For example, the so-called Andrea Wave of 2007 was 100 meters wide, 21 meters tall, and raced across the North Sea between Scotland and Norway at 64 kilometers per hour. Imagine the Marriott Marquis billboard barreling from its Time’s Square home to Pouqukeepsie in an hour. Now University of Miami and Norwegian Meteorological Institute researches say they’re more common than realized.



1977 Rogue Wave that submerged the 75′ high deck of the Norwegian chemical tanker Stolt Surf . Photo by Chief Engineer Karsten Petersen. 

The good news is that scientists are bettering our understanding of how rogue waves form, and so how we might avoid them. Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, University College Dublin, and the Institut FEMTO-ST CNRS-Université de Franche-Comté found that even these messy, briny behemoths share much in common with tiny optical wave packets.






FREE Swimming Lessons!

LIC safety around water week schedule-page-001


During our Red Cross certification training, LIC YMCA Aquatics Director Mohinder Rana asked us to spread the word that the YMCA is offering free swimming lessons on April 10-14, dubbed YMCA Safety round Water Week. Registration starts today, March 27.

This annual YMCA tradition is more than a promotion. It’s a life saver and, with regard to education and the environment, an instrument of racial justice.

Even in swimming pool black kids drown at five times the rate of white, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About seventy percent of African-American and sixty percent of Latino children can’t swim, according to a study by the University of Memphis. The World Health Organization identifies drowning as a leading cause of death by unintentional injury and cites being a member of an ethnic minority as a risk factor globally, with some regions worse than others. American racism in the management of public pools and beaches compounded that of expensive all-white private clubs. Those barred by bigotry didn’t get a chance to learn to swim, and when parents don’t swim, children almost never do either. A few generations in and you’ve got a cultural void. African Americans’ generations of activism have produced many victories, but today’s grim statistics point to more than physical peril. That where education and the environment come in.

Education: In New York City, our estuary is the greatest presence of nature, and nature is the greatest inspiration for study of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). If more African and Latino youth could swim, more would boat with HarborLAB, and therefore more would have their minds excited by what they observe and discover for themselves. Contact with nature has also been measured to reduce attention deficity hyperactive disorder, stress, and depression, all huge educational hindrances in the lower-income urban experience.

Environment: No one can doubt that African Americans and increasingly US citizens and residents with Latino heritage effectively organize for civil rights and other causes. But without access to nature, forming a bond with nature, how can one advocate in a sustained, moving way for clean water and healthy ecosystems? We will all benefit from more African Americans taking up both paddles and soon after, marine environmental causes. African American experience and honed skills in community organizing for justice could prove to be a transformative element in the fight for a better, equitably enjoyed environment. Let it start on NYC’s waters.

We should see the relative dearth of African American and Latino people in aquatics, maritime occupations, and marine biology as a visible scar left by racism. On the surface this looks like self-exclusion, but with an understanding of history we see it’s clearly not. And it’s not inevitable.

We HarborLAB volunteers hope you spread the word about YMCA Safety Around Water Week because with more swimmers we have more people to welcome into our community and onto environmental education paddling adventures!

If you miss out on the YMCA’s program, check out the free swimming lessons our friends at Swim Strong Foundation are offering in May! Swim Strong Foundation also offers swimming instruction with scholarships throughout the year. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s learn-to-swim program is a great leader in this effort to save lives and open a water world of exploration to all. Time Out New York Kids has a great wrap up of free swimming lessons.



2017 Red Cross Certification Day


LIC YMCA Aquatics Director Mohinder Rana teaches Basic Water Rescue to HarborLAB volunteers at the LaGuardia Community College pool. Photo by Jeffrey Lim.


A group of 15 HarborLAB volunteer leaders were certified by the Red Cross for adult and pediatric AED, CPR, First Aid, and Basic Water Rescue on Saturday. This training is required by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection for program leaders at the Neversink Reservoir and helps meet our insurance requirements for programs on the estuary as well. HarborLAB maintains two kayak and canoe fleets, on the harbor and watershed, for environmental education that encapsulates the entire NYC water system.

HarborLAB also funds American Canoe Association training and certification for our volunteers to teach fundamental paddling skills to underrepresented communities and the public at large through our Instruction for Inclusion program.

We had a great time learning from instructors Bob Erisman of Save a Life, Inc. and Mohinder Rana, Aquatics Director at the LIC YMCA. Sarah Durand, PhD, of the Natural Sciences Department at LaGuardia Community College kindly arranged for our room and pool use.

This program is made possible by LaGuardia Community College, the LIC YMCA, a personal donation by HarborLAB volunteer Katherine Bradford, and ExxonMobil’s community outreach for the NY Department of Environmental Conservation administrated Greenpoint Petroleum Remediation Project, which addresses some of the Standard Oil legacy pollution impacting our Newtown Creek home base. Also sponsoring is ExxonMobil Environmental Services environmental consultant, Roux Associates.

This class added or renewed certifications for:

Attia, Sally
Aquino, Patricia
Baard, Erik
Bradford, Katherine
De Jesus, Erycka
Erickson, Partricia
Lim, Jeff
Maucher, Dee Dee
O’Neil, Evan
Szatkowski, Diana
Tan, Ray
Tse, Mambo
Widawski, Chana
Wolpow, Scott
Zayas, Carolin