“Get to da choppa!” Helibirding for science and style

In early June 2014, I had the unusual opportunity to join Christina Davis and Tom Reed on an aerial survey of New Jersey’s colonial waterbirds for the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife. I was thrilled for a few reasons: First, this was a cool opportunity to spend some time with good friends. Christina is a biologist with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program at NJDF&W, and Tom is a skilled birder who [among other projects] has counted hawks at Cape May Point for NJ Audubon and is a regional editor for North American Birds. Secondly, in addition to working with Christina and Tom, I was excited for the bizarre challenge of identifying and counting birds from a helicopter.

This was our trusty steed for the surveys, parked at the Cape May County Airport.

This helicopter was our trusty steed for the surveys. Here it is parked at the Cape May County Airport.

Christina Davis of the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife led the aerial survey, navigating the helicopter back and forth over the beautiful expanse of saltmarsh and water.

Christina Davis of the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife led the aerial survey, navigating the helicopter back and forth over this remarkably beautiful expanse of saltmarsh and water.

Tidal creeks, mudflats, and saltmarsh vegetation form mesmerizing, intricate patterns as seen from the air.

Tidal creeks, mudflats, and saltmarsh vegetation form mesmerizing, intricate patterns as seen from the air.

So, to the survey itself. During the three days I participated, we flew over all of the gull and tern colonies in the Atlantic marshes between Cape May and Point Pleasant, systematically counting the number of birds present on each colony island from a few hundred feet up in the air. While such a one-time “snapshot” annual survey will never be a perfect census of all nesting birds present in the state, an aerial survey does provide an excellent way to sample these nesting birds in a low impact way in a short period of time, and it provides an excellent benchmark for year-to-year comparisons. If such a survey were run by boat, it would take many weeks and would have negative visitation impacts on the habitat and nesting birds. Primary species of interest included Laughing Gull, Common Tern, and Forster’s Tern; however, we were beyond thrilled to find spectacular numbers of Gull-billed Terns nesting, particularly on marsh islands north of Atlantic City – by the end of the three-day survey, we’d tallied 167 Gull-billed Terns in 11 colonies, a very interesting surge by this southern breeding species and an all-time high for New Jersey. A prior survey flight had focused on wading birds, finding and counting many colonies of herons and egrets in brushy upland areas of marsh islands (including stands of phragmites, which might surprise many who think of the invasive reeds as providing nothing but a habitat “dead zone”).

The wing patterns and wing-back contrast on Sterna terns helped us to separate Common and Forster's Terns. The bright silver-white primaries, long tails, and bright orange bill bases and legs of these birds helped us nail them as Forster's Terns.

The wing patterns and wing-back contrast on Sterna terns helped us to separate Common and Forster’s Terns. The bright silver-white primaries, long tails, and bright orange bill bases and legs of these birds helped us nail them as Forster’s Terns.

This tern's gray upperwing with a dark gray interruption along the trailing edge (due to differences in the feather ages) shows us that it is a Common Tern. Though this identification can be tricky, even from above, it's amazing to me that such a good a binocular view can be had from a moving helicopter.

This tern’s gray upperwing with a dark gray interruption along the trailing edge (due to differences in the ages of the feathers) shows us that it is a Common Tern. Though Sterna tern identification can be tricky, even from above, great binocular views can be had from a moving helicopter.

These two Gull-billed Terns stand guard next to two eggs in the wrackline of a New Jersey saltmarsh island. The 2014 aerial survey turned up a spectacular count of 167 individuals.

These two Gull-billed Terns stand guard next to two eggs tucked into the wrack of a New Jersey saltmarsh island. The 2014 aerial survey turned up a spectacular count of 167 individuals.

Prior to the survey, I felt like I had a fairly good appreciation of Jersey’s Atlantic saltmarsh – after all, coastal New Jersey is practically my second home. However, even in the age of Google Earth, I was unprepared for the beauty and intricacy of this ecosystem that was conveyed by the helicopter perspective. As a birder and photographer, I was also thrilled with the views of the marsh landscape and the birds themselves. One of the more sobering aspects of the survey was seeing the expanse of the Jersey saltmarsh hemmed in on all sides by coastal development, including the garish casino skyline of Atlantic City.

Pristine saltmarsh islands are only a stone's throw from the Borgata, the Tropicana, and the Taj Mahal of Atlantic City.

Pristine saltmarsh islands are only a stone’s throw from the Borgata, the Tropicana, and the Taj Mahal of Atlantic City.

Saltmarsh islands are crisscrossed with meandering tidal creeks - at high tide, a surprisingly high proportion of the marsh is covered by water.

Saltmarsh islands are crisscrossed with meandering tidal creeks – at high tide, a surprisingly high proportion of the marsh can be covered by water.

An earlier survey flight focused on nesting waders; however, we were still able to tally birds in a few new colonies and to check on the growth process of some new heron recruits - here, an adult Great Egret watches over two nestings.

A survey flight in May focused on nesting waders; however, on this set of surveys in June, we were still able to tally birds in a few new colonies and to check on the growth process of some new heron recruits – here, an adult Great Egret watches over two nestlings.

We were pleased to find that impacts from Hurricane Sandy did not extend to changing the makeup of gull and tern colonies – colonies persisted on marsh islands that were similarly occupied before the superstorm of late October 2012.

Smaller, grayer Common Terns are peppered here within a group of larger, whiter Gull-billed Terns on a New Jersey marsh island.

Smaller, grayer Common Terns are peppered here among larger, whiter Gull-billed Terns on a New Jersey marsh island. Laughing Gulls and terns often concentrate in areas of wrack, or dead marsh vegetation that has been pushed up to high areas of the island by wind and high water levels. This can prove to be problematic for these birds when historic high tides flood the marshes.

Some of the world's largest Laughing Gull colonies are located in the Atlantic Coast saltmarshes of New Jersey.

Some of the world’s largest Laughing Gull colonies are located in the Atlantic Coast saltmarshes of New Jersey.

Aside from the target waterbirds of our survey, there was plenty out there in the marsh to be seen. The highlights for me involved getting excellent views of flying Saltmarsh Sparrows and Seaside Sparrows, and learning that it’s easier to photograph these birds in flight from a helicopter than from the ground.

Ammodramus sparrows were remarkably easy to see from the helicopter. Often, it was fairly straightforward to separate small, pale Saltmarsh Sparrows...

Ammodramus sparrows were remarkably easy to see in flight from the helicopter. Often, it was fairly straightforward to separate pale, stripe-headed, orange-accented Saltmarsh Sparrows…

... from stockier, darker gray and rust Seaside Sparrows. Good views of flying marsh sparrows was perhaps the biggest surprise of the helicopter flights for me.

… from stockier, darker olive, gray and brown Seaside Sparrows. Good views of flying marsh sparrows was perhaps the biggest surprise of the helicopter flights for me.

Clapper Rails are also common residents of New Jersey saltmarshes. Usually, though, a typical experience just involves hearing a chorus of rails hidden way out in the marsh. The helicopter provided a more revealing perspective on these secretive mud hens.

We frequently saw Clapper Rails patrolling the edges of tidal creeks on marsh islands, and some were even calling!

We frequently saw Clapper Rails patrolling the edges of tidal creeks on marsh islands, and some were even calling!

The other typical Clapper Rail helicopter sighting involved a bird flying across a channel underneath us.

The other typical Clapper Rail helicopter sighting involved a bird flying across a channel underneath us.

Thanks for reading, and always remember to look for unusual perspectives on the world of birds!

Two Toms: The author (left), and Tom Reed (right) search for birds from the backseat of a helicopter.

Two Toms: The author (left), and Tom Reed (right) search for birds from the backseat of the survey helicopter.