Saturday, May 8 will mark World Migratory Bird Day. Each year, hundreds of birds make the trek from down south to the areas surrounding Jamaica Bay. One of these birds has gotten a little too close to home. Edgar, a great egret, makes almost daily stops on the deck of one Broad Channel resident. But the homeowner welcomes the annual visitor. After all, Don Riepe knows birds better than most people.
Edgar the egret has become a welcome feathered feature of Broad Channel. For nearly 10 years, the all-white bird that can reach as tall as four feet when outstretched, has been making annual pit stops right at the back deck of Don Riepe’s bayside home. And it isn’t the first egret. Another egret, Egor, had been coming to Broad Channel and stopping at Riepe’s home for about 20 years. However, about two years ago, Egor, which Riepe learned was actually a she, stopped coming. But like clockwork, Edgar continues to return each spring.
It’s no coincidence that Edgar has become friendly with Riepe. Riepe comes with a wealth of knowledge about birds, especially those around Jamaica Bay. He served nearly 25 years with the National Park Service as Chief Ranger of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and he never really retired. Riepe went on to become a Jamaica Bay Guardian and since 1985, has also served as director of the American Littoral Society’s Northeast Chapter, focusing on programming around Jamaica Bay.
So when it comes to egrets, Riepe knows why they’re drawn to his home—he feeds them. “There’s no real mystery to it,” Riepe says. “I’m on the water in the bay where they forage and hang out and nest and I feed them.”
But it wasn’t always so simple. When Egor started arriving, it took a while before he realized she ate, well, like a bird. “She was particular. If I gave her the wrong size fish or a killifish, she would throw it down. She wanted only the Atlantic silversides of a certain size, not too big, not too small,” Riepe said. Once he got it right, Egor kept coming back for more. “She liked me because I paid special attention to her and gave her just the right size fish,” he said. But after 20 years, Egor stopped coming. However, Riepe looks at the bright side. “Egrets average about 15 years in the wild, so Egor had a good life,” he said.
At some point, Egor must’ve passed along the word about Riepe’s diner. After coming for about a decade, a friend, a bigger bird with a deeper croak and a clubbed toe, started to come along. “He’s beautiful,” Riepe said. “He has the most beautiful plumage.” Riepe decided to name the beautiful bird Edgar, and found that unlike Egor, Edgar wasn’t so picky. “Edgar eats everything. He’d eat a ham sandwich if I gave it to him,” Riepe said, but added that he just sticks to fish.
The birds quickly made themselves at home. If the door is open, they’ll invite themselves inside. “They feel comfortable with me. They walk right into the house,” Riepe said. “Edgar will come right into the kitchen and stand next to me like ‘what’s for dinner?’ No other bird will do that.” One day he came out to find Edgar made himself comfortable on top of a pullout bed. When both birds were around, things got a bit complicated. “When they both were coming, Egor would be in the house and Edgar walked in after and would chase her into the living room,” Riepe said. “They’d both be flying through the living room. I said, this is too much!”
Now Edgar mostly bothers Riepe’s cat, Princess, much to her chagrin. Riepe caught a video of Edgar walking right up to Princess, who was sitting on the table, when Edgar starts nipping at her, while Princess backed away. But Riepe says Princess has mostly gotten used to her feathered brother. “They sort of get along. They ignore each other now,” he says.
When Edgar isn’t begging for food or bothering Princess, Riepe says he’s busy exploring Jamaica Bay. “He’s either at the nest site or establishing his territory or he’s out in the bay, fishing in the marshes,” Riepe said. The egrets tend to visit around late March and stick around until late October, and sometimes even into November, before heading off to warmer areas, as snowbirds do. Riepe says one egret tagged by New Jersey Audubon, Edward, has been seen in Jamaica Bay and found all the way down in South Carolina, but Riepe says that’s the northernmost area they’ll be when they head south. “They go to Florida and some even go to Central America. They can fly great distances,” Riepe said.
Riepe says the egrets coming to Jamaica Bay to nest is a good sign. After all, there was a time when great egrets were threatened as hunters decimated populations in the late 1800s. The beautiful, long white feathers of egrets had become an in-demand fashion accessory for women’s hats. This made egrets a target for hunters. That was until 1900 when The Lacey Act was passed to prohibit wildlife trade and protect animals like egrets. Then in 1905, an Aubudon Game Warden was shot and killed by plume hunters. This led to an uproar and further action. The Migratory Bird Treaty was established in 1918, providing even more protection for the species.
It made a difference. “By the 1950s, the egrets started to show up again in the marshes and now they’re common. They made a really great comeback,” Riepe says. And the egrets aren’t the only ones. Riepe says Jamaica Bay is home to many different species that have seen an increase in numbers including the snowy egret, herrons, barn owls, ospreys and more, giving testament to the great work that people like Riepe do to protect Jamaica Bay and make it a desirable place for wildlife to call home.
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Photos by Don Riepe.
By Katie McFadden
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