By Andrew Spears
AT THANKSGIVING WE celebrate the wonderful plenty that we enjoy in our nation. In spite of natural calamities and our own environmental missteps, we benefit from a spectacular abundance of food relative to other nations thanks to our Creator’s grace, Nature’s design, and farmers’ toil. When we witness abundance in nature, we find reassurance and hope that nature’s survival impulse is ultimately victorious. The bird world provides magnificent glimpses of bounty that are cause for celebration…gatherings of such great numbers that they beg us to pause and revel with them in their species’ success. New Jersey is fortunate to host a number of annual bird concentrations of such awesome numbers that they truly qualify as natural spectacles.Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge’s Brigantine unit near Atlantic City hosts brilliant hordes of Snow Geese in November, great white masses that peel from the marshes and form dense white clouds that roll and tumble against the slatey autumn sky only to softly settle again among the reeds and tidal creeks. The beautiful explosion of sound when an Eagle or other predator spooks these geese is a symphony that both deafens and delights the lucky observer. The annual spring stopover of shorebirds along the Delaware Bay as they gorge on Horseshoe Crab eggs before the last leg of their northward journey is another such spectacle. Red Knots, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, and other sandpipers blanket the narrow shorelines of Cape May and Cumberland County at places such as Reed’s Beech, Moore’s Beach, East Point, and Thompson’s Beach. When you hit it at its peek in late May, you will be rewarded with a jaw dropping display of such density that the sand beneath the birds is barely visible. The migrants, most in their bright breeding plumage, form a carpet of red, black and white that slides back and forth with the lapping waves, frantically collecting the exposed crab eggs each time the water retreats.This spectacle repeats itself closer to home along Sandy Hook Bay, usually around Memorial Day. A similar concentration of migrating shorebirds, albeit in much smaller numbers, can be encountered at Union Beach’s Conaskonk Point and the pebbly coves of Atlantic Highlands. The shorebirds’ fattening contributes to their breeding success rates. New Jersey’s moratorium on Horseshoe Crab harvest is believed to have helped stabilize the Red Knot numbers in recent years. Other striking bird displays occur locally in late fall as sparrows, Robins, and blackbirds move through our fields and forests in impressive waves. Also, the stage is set for numbers of waterfowl to funnel into our bays and rivers and form into large rafts to feed through early winter until ice sets in.These and other notable bird events are curious if not miraculous. One cannot help but wonder how these birds assemble and organize into such marvelous masses. Their breeding and wintering grounds are dispersed across hundreds of miles yet somehow as part of their annual survival cycle they benefit from flocking together. Certainly food supply plays a pivotal role…birds gather where the eating is good. But other factors must certainly play a part. Safety in numbers is often true in the bird world. A bird has better odds at surviving a predator’s strike if it is melded in a sea of brethren. Navigation challenges might also contribute to flocking behavior. It is easier to find your way in the company of others going the same way. Or, perhaps, it is phenomenon simply steeped in tradition, much like Thanksgiving, when birds gather in a way their species has done for generations.