Swallows Cycloning About;
Different Manners of Mullet
SIZEABLE SWALLOWS SHOWING: The skies over Holgate are a-swarm with returning swallows. Over the weekend, I saw a couple huge swirling balls of these type-A personality birds, as they cycloned around. This frenetic behavior serves just one purpose: it allows them to act loopy. I sometimes hear folks saying all that soaring and swirling is for collecting insects. Nah. How many insects can each bird get when there are thousands and thousands of birds abuzz in a small piece of air space? Besides, the swallows have just one edible on their frisky little minds: bayberries. They eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They do eat an insect or two for dessert.
Despite this year’s swallow migratory session having just begun, this is already a beyond-banner year. I can say this with scientific certainly since I’ve been taking a complex and time-consuming count of these migratory masters for decades.
To compare this year’s count, I began the tedious process of mulling over my computerized “Annual Migratory Tree Swallow Census.”
Only having time to check back five years, I saw that in 2005 the swallow count was “Out the kazoo and back.” Then in 2006, I carefully tabulated that we had “frickin’ swallows every whichaway.” In 2007, I duly noted “A ****load and a half.” And, last year (and I recall this demanding count particularly well), the swallow count was “thick as sky bricks.” I’ll duly wait until I can adequately evaluate this year’s numbers before inserting my findings into the system.
During one impressive cloudburst of bouncing swallows, I focused my Nikon “Monarch” binoculars on a section of swallows going particularly ballistic above what remains of the vegetation in the Forsythe Refuge area. I was trying to focus on a single bird -- to monitor its flight path. It was hopeless. Trying to visually follow those birds reminded me of those cold winter nights when I put thousands of marbles in my dryer to watch them bouncing around – though the swallows aren’t nearly as noisy.
By closely monitoring the sky gymnastics of the swallows, I was hoping to see if two birds ever crash into each other -- and what they say to each other when they do. Imagine trying to give one of those “I clearly had the right of way!” defenses? I didn’t see any collisions, though I’m pretty sure I saw a couple swallows that had landed and were exchanging insurance company names.
I did make one adequately essential bird observation while eyeing the frenzied flight of swallows. On five occasions, raptors (hawks) soared on-scene and, unlike virtually every other species of bird known to the Jersey skyway (which has as many varieties as just about anywhere on the planet), the swallows didn’t give a rat’s patoot about them. At the same time, the raptors didn’t seem to entertain the vaguest notion of nabbing one of these Dervish-esque little birds. Still, bird-eating birds are the number one threat to swallows, though that hazard is primarily during nesting times. And it’s not like life insurance polices are cheap among swallows. They only live, on average, 2.7 years. Along with becoming snacks for voracious predators, the little birds commonly fall to manmade menaces, including traffic and, somewhat oddly, aircraft.
This time of year, airports, like JFK, are plagued by swallows, to the tune of dozens of reported bird strikes by aircraft. Though the birds are tiny, someone has to scrape them off the windshield. Then, by law, an aircraft must be manually inspected after every swallow squashification.
Mechanic: “Whadda ya know? That three-ounce bird didn’t damage the hull integrity of this 900,000-pound aircraft. Go figure.”
I recently read this fairly bizarre (and, to me, laughable) technical account of the JFKIA Bird Patrol collecting tree swallows “by shotgun.” Gospel truth. I knew what that “shotgun” meant but my mind still pictured hundreds of swallows in tiny handcuffs – technically wing cuffs -- being methodically marched along the tarmac at gunpoint -- with one of the swallows whispering to the one up ahead, “Oh, this is just great. You and your, ‘Come on. Let’s stop by the airport runway and eat some bayberries. They love birds down there.’ Yeah, this double-ought shotgun in my back has ‘love ya’ written all over it. Moron.”
Talk about a city-fied cure to the problem of swallows striking aircraft: They clear cut acre after acre of bayberry bushes. Hell, that might be why we have so many down here now. Cool.
ONE SHELL OF A TURTLE: A truly massive DOA loggerhead turtle washed up on a south end beach last week.
There’s something somehow doubly dead about a dead turtle. I’m not sure what that means exactly but a deceased turtle kinda droops in a particularly dismal way; its head hanging pathetically askew -- with little “X’s” in its eyes. It’s sad since turtles are pretty much mind-their-own-business type creatures. Quite likeable in that sense. And this one had minded a lot of business over many decades.
I’ve seen some big-ass sea turtles before – alive and not-so-much alive -- but this one took the total-weight cake. Its four-foot shell was in mint condition, with absolutely no propeller strikes or other gashes, commonly found on deceased sea turtle that were either hit by a boat and killed or (more commonly) was hit as it dead-floated in the sea for days or weeks on end.
I have to admit that, outside my abiding pity for the downed old-timer, I coveted that creature’s carapace, knowing full well it’s against state, federal, international and intergalactic law to possess such a prize – even when taken from a decidedly dead specimen. I’m generally not mercenary in such matters but a turtle shell like that is worth a small fortune – which is exactly why I couldn’t have that one. Let me keep one and you’d soon have all kinds of people scavenging the shells from dead turtles -- then semi-dead turtles, then depressed turtles and finally sea turtles that die “under suspicious circumstances.”
Over the weekend, the Holgate mega-turtle was examined by a representative from the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Some DNA stuff was collected. I was tempted to ask if I could at least keep some DNA from the turtle but realized I collect quite enough stuff already. A dead turtle DNA collection is tough to display. “Hey, George, come in here and check out my new collection. Ignore the smell.”
MULLET MATTERS: The mullet migration has begun and the only down size is the fact the mullet decided not to participate, something about a boycott.
Here’s some idle info on mullet migrations: There are two flows of mullet. You have the outside runners and the inside runner.
I hear you rigid little thought patterns burning holes in my terminology. How can fish be runners if they have no feet, right? Well, it’s just an expression – so run with it.
Outside runners migrate primarily in the vicinity of the sandbars and slightly beyond. They are way beyond cast net distance -- unless you have one of those really cool cannons that fire a net something like 50 yards through the air. Using one of those you can collect mullet and migrating birds in one felled shot. Oh, I can hear the bird people squawking already.
The outside running mullet pretty much hold to that migratory line in deeper water. I’ve personally seen this biomass of mullet via decades of surfing. As I’d sit on my board, out past the sandbars, there would often be a nearly nonstop showing of V-shaped surface flutters, perfectly outlining the formation of mullet on the move. There was many a time I’d break from the surfing to get a net on the mullet migration, paddle in, grab my gear to find virtually no inside mullet.
That’s my segue to the other portion of the annual mullet movement: the inside runners, those hugging the shoreline, often flush to the beach. Those are the ones we target when netting. They stay in close and tight.
Do the two groups ever switch places? No, they really don’t.
One might wonder what would possess the outsider mullet to swim over deeper water, where bluefish and bass abound. Well, the outsider mullet I’ve talked with say the choice is simple. Even though very bad fish roam near the bars -- biker bar types -- there is something sensible about frequenting conditions where you get a good read on what’s out there – and word of bad fish approaching. Mullet way back in the school, when they see a striper stalking them, yell up, “Hey, we got company.” It levels the biting field to know where the enemy is -- and what he’s up to. In Africa, wildebeest actually move toward lion prides with that same better-to-see-‘em approach to survival.
As for inside runners, one might think they are taking the safe way home. Well, not quite. Firstly, folks like me are out there ruining their day by raining down cold lead, i.e. the lead weights on my castnet. However, cast netters are more like this cosmic, almost celestial, swoop from above -- something mullet as a whole never quite figure out, as they watch huge batches of their buddies suddenly dragged off to the great beyond. “Where did Johnny and Susie just go?” “Uh, heaven, I think.” “Oh.”
But what really sinks the inside-is-safer premise is death from below. Unlike outsider bluefish and bass that are hideous but easily monitored, fluke come exploding out of the sand, straight up, with teeth slashing – and yelling their heads off.
I’m serious about that “yelling stuff. Recent underwater sound studies by the PEW Foundation, Greenpeace and the Brussels Philharmonic indicate attacking fluke let out what would be the equivalent of a human scream, just to rattle the mullet. Those findings are very consistent with something I’ve theorized for years, namely, bottom-erupting fluke never actually grab a hot-bolting mullet but simply feast on the mullet that pass clean out from fright.
Anyway, there has been many a mullet migration when the outside flow is off the charts and the insiders are barely making a splash. That’s bad news for netters – except the previously mentioned ones with those net cannons.
HOLGATE HAPPENINGS: The entrance to Holgate is a bitch and a half. The problem is a very narrow entrance – due to ugly chunks of concrete and potential rebar at the water’s edge. All buggies must use a single set of tracks up flush to the fence. That wouldn’t be so bad but on a near daily basis one numbnuts or another has tried to drive on the beach in either a non-4WD vehicles or with tire pressure too high. By the time the miscreant is manually moved, the drive around all that concrete is ugly – bouncy to the point of causing even higher-up vehicles to bottom out. This is bad news for the skid plates under buggies. Once compromised, those plates can no longer protect the vulnerable underbelly of vehicles, including fuel tanks.
I would like to place a sign at the slope heading onto the Holgate Wilderness Area beach from the overlook. It would read: “ALERT!
All Vehicles Must Have:
“LBT Beach Buggy Permit.
“Reduced tire pressure.
Shovel and Tire Gauge.”
Anyone better than me at sign making? In other words, anyone.
IN A FLASH: Email: “ Jay, I was raised in Beach Haven but moved away for many years. I’m now happily back to the area (Manahawkin). What I’d like to ask is what ever happened to turning off the traffic lights after Labor Day? I fish Beach Haven and the stop and go drive down there is ruining the trip.”
(A hearty welcome back. By the by, I know a number of your family members -- going way back.
And funny you should bring up that traffic signal thing since I’ve gotten two calls and two email (plus yours) from folks less than enamored with cycling traffic signals so long after crowds have gone. Ironically, I’ve never gotten a peep on the subject up until this year.
That post-season traffic signal thing is actually a sticky and tricky issue. I think it began sometime in the 1990s. I even called some LBI police departments and they weren’t sure of the exact year.
I will be discrete and say it was purely a safety move adopted by Island municipalities when more and more folks seemed to linger on LBI after Labor Day. I will note here that there is strong evidence that the post-season hangers on are fewer now than even back in the day. It’s some sort of economic thing, I’m guessing.
That said, we also have to focus on the Chowderfest as a traffic-signaling factor. Far be it from me to cast even a slightly derisive eye toward this epic Island event, a happening that keeps LBI up and running many weeks after the summer fire is all but smoldering. Still, the Chowderfest is, in fact, kinda the main rationale for keeping the lights up and cycling.
Note that “cycling” aspect. Many folks use the expression “When are they going to turn the lights off?” What really happens is they’re placed on “Flash.” That flash dance begins the day after the Chowderfest.
Long and short of it, there is the technological potential to place the Island traffic signals on flash after Labor Day then activate them for just the Chowderfest weekend. Untenable, says the highway folks -- with full agreement from local municipalities. Just imagine everyone on LBI getting used to zipping along at a “flash” rate then suddenly getting hit with red lights for a weekend? Spooky.
Still, a reread of the local demographic might warrant a revisit of whether we have to impatiently wait until October to stop the cycling.
BOATING ALERT: On Monday night, yet another boat went down in Beach Haven Inlet. The sole occupant was rescued by the Coast Guard – and in the nick of time – as he clung to a floating object.
I have to warn even seasoned LE Inlet area mariners that the shoaling off the Rip area, technically Beach Haven Inlet, now offer less than 18 inches of water at low tide – and even less during suck-out conditions, when 8-knot outgoing currents surge, causing a depth reduction to a mere few inches of water. I watched Sea Tow pulling a hard-aground charter vessel off those shallows over the weekend. I’ve also seen half a dozen boats go soft aground, needing to power off after trimming motors up as much as possible. The spooky part of grounding there is the power of the outgoing current, as it rocks a stuck vessel seriously sideways.
HOLGATE HAPPENINGS: I can now offer this seasonal update to the many folks who want to know how the beach is hangin’ down there. Well, it’s hangin by the skin of its teeth.
The “Osprey Nest” in now officially on the beach -- that would be the large telephone pole that the nest once sat atop. As recently at the early 1990s, it was so far back in the refuge’s vegetated uplands that it was barely seeable when beach driving. By this fall’s end, it will be a hazard for vehicles driving the beach at night.
Holgate is disappearing faster than ever. Anyone wanting to buggy there this fall is faced with what might be called absolute deadlines. The zone at about the ¾ mark to the end is erosion ravaged to the point that it takes a significant drop from high tide for buggies to scoot by and reach the Rip. Looking at it another way, it takes very little rise from low tide to pinch that stretch off from retreating. The Holgate tale here is pretty plain: To gauge your coming and going at Holgate, watch the skies, tide charts, erosion and other buggies.
It really helps to stay talkative and cell-connected with other Holgate mobile anglers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been around back (the mudflats) and gotten calls that the rising front beach tides were already up to the dunes. By the same token, I’ve been the one making those warning calls as I head out and see aggressive water moving in way ahead of time.
There is a very interesting piece of boat wreck right smack dab in the middle of the beach past the Osprey Nest. It has solid wooden dowels holding it together but it also has a large iron stack of some sort. I can’t tell if it’s in situ (where it sunk) or washed there. Remember, the erosion in Holgate is exposing area covered with sand for many decades. However, the part where this wreck is located would have been bayside back in the day (prior to 1900). Maybe it was a backwater steamer.
RUNDOWN: 63rd annual ‘WORLD SERIES OF SURF FISHING TOURNAMENT’ is scheduled for this Saturday. Rush over to http://www.asaconline.org/Clubs/Teams/LBI/lbi.htm for details, or, Google Long Beach island Fishing Club.
There are significant stripers all along the front beach, though the North End seems to have the edge, especially near the inlet. However, there is no consistent action. It’s feast or famine in many areas since many a famined angler I chatted with couldn’t buy a bite. I saw a fat schoolie come up on the South End – right after the angler cast out. They’re there.
Bluefish are being uncharacteristically coy. There was a nonstop blues bite at Holgate on Monday. Radio chatter on boats had small blues at a here-and-there clip. The blues are cocktails and snappers.
Sidebar: Despite using the term “snapper’ for years, I’m still not overly sure what that term means. I say that because the first thing that jumps to mind are kiddy-grade snappers. Those are the tiny 6 to 8-inch blues that frequent the backbay. However, I threw net yesterday and came up with hundreds of read-though ultra-thin 2- to 3-inch, uh, snappers. Then, there are the blues that Stu and Stan sometimes catch in Holgate. Those might be a foot long but aren’t quite cocktails. Those, too, are snappers.
I think the main determinant of a “snapper” has to do with its width. A bluefish actually undergoes a significant shape change as it grows. As a young-of-year specimen, it is wafer thin, nothing like the round fish it will become. It holds that flatness right through the snapper phase. It’s right when it starts to take on what anglers call “shoulders” that I assume it goes into the “cocktail” phase. I know that’s very vague but I can envision it so I’ll stick with that yardstick distinction, knowing full well it’s not until a blue hits 5 pounds and above that it gains that full round fish status.
Kingfishing is a viable option for surfcasters and even some inlet-area boat fishermen.
Email: “Hi Jay, Saturday turned out to be one of the best days of kingfishing in several years on our beach. There were at least 10 fisherman who were standing shoulder to shoulder all catching kingfish. The best time was on the ebbing tide during the afternoon. Today, all were back expecting to have a continuation of Saturday's funfest. It was not to be. Not one kingfish was taken on Sunday. We can't understand where they disappeared to as there was no weather change to cause a change of conditions. We were all very disappointed on Sunday. On Saturday, I ended up with 14 of the tasty morsels. Most everyone who stayed all afternoon had similar catches. Hopefully the kingfish will again show up next weekend. Bob T.”
(Bob, Your report highlights the fact that fall kingfish are migrating and only stay in one place for a quick bite then they're off again. That doesn't mean that a new school won't move in for your next outing, however, it will be a totally different group of fish. The ones you hooked into will be off Delaware by now. J-mann.)
Croakers are showing, mainly south end beaches. Not like a few years back, though a couple holes were loaded with them. One per cast.
IN PASSING: On Sunday, this column lost one of its most dedicated readers with the passing of my buddy Ken Carlsen, Surf City. It’s gonna be tough without his weekly critique – and constant encouragement.