A tropical-looking bird species is now calling NJ home
A rather exotic bird, which normally makes its home in Florida or on the Gulf Coast near Texas, has set up camp in New Jersey.
What is it and what does it look like?
It is called the white ibis, and when you see it, you immediately think of the tropics, said Devin Griffiths, marketing and communications specialist at The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.
The white ibis is almost entirely white. They have either pink or bright red bills that are long and curve downwards, bright blue eyes, the adults have black fringing on the edge of their wings, and they have red legs.
While they hail from the South, Griffiths said the white ibis has been breeding successfully in the Garden State since 2020.
Why are they here?
Griffiths said there are a couple of different thoughts as to why the bird is here.
Whenever a bird tries to explore new territory, sometimes it’s simple range expansion – they are trying to see if they can expand their range farther north. Sometimes they are successful, while other times they aren't. Typically, there may be a loss of habitat or resources in their native breeding range or the conditions where they are moving to are suddenly more favorable.
Second, as climate change warms the planet, the white ibis birds are finding that there are habitats farther north that are more suitable to their dietary needs and their breeding needs. So, they are finding this area in New Jersey more to their liking.
It seems like climate change is more at work here, he said.
“One of the reasons we think is the rapidness of the expansion of these white ibis,” Griffiths said.
According to Griffiths, if we look historically, birds like cardinals, mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, and red-bellied woodpeckers, which were more common in the South in the early 19th century, pressed northwards but they did it over maybe 10 or 20 years before they established themselves.
But Griffiths said the white ibis went from zero breeding in New Jersey to breeding in 2020 with a small number of nests to a larger number of nests in 2021 to an even larger number of nests in 2022.
“They went in about three years from not breeding at all to breeding successfully and to expanding the number of breeding birds that are here,” said Griffiths.
He added that if you see a rapid expansion of a bird that’s more adapted to warmer habitats, that’s a clue there is something else happening in the environment.
“I think it’s important we pay attention to this because ultimately what affects any species is going to affect us sooner or later. When you start seeing these things, it’s good to be aware of them and start questioning why this may be happening and what implications that has for other species and us as well,” Griffiths said.
How long are the white ibis in New Jersey and where can they be seen?
The white ibises typically arrive in New Jersey in late April and hangs around until the fall when they migrate back down to Florida and the Gulf Coast. Griffiths said they are not long-distance migrant birds.
In 2020, there were about four confirmed white ibis nests in the Ocean City Rookery. The Rookery is located near the Welcome Center in Ocean City on the bridge which connects the mainland and the barrier islands, Griffiths said.
“The white ibis first nested there successfully in 2020. They had four nests, three of which were successful,” Griffiths said.
In 2021, they produced at least 43 chicks. That’s probably about 15 to 20 nests. In 2022, they produced about 75 young, he added. The nests nearly doubled between 2021 and this year.
While nests have been confirmed in the Ocean City Rookery, Griffiths said the white ibises have been seen foraging (flying and looking for food) in Avalon and Stone Harbor.
There is an area in Avalon between 44th and 48th streets that have high dune habitats with fresh water pools behind them. Several hundred white ibises were seen there, Griffiths said.
In the marshes around Avalon, there were 350 white ibises seen foraging there, according to Griffiths, who added they’ve been seen at The Wetlands Institute and flying over Stone Harbor as well. While there may be white ibis nests elsewhere, Griffiths said the only ones confirmed have been at the Rookery.
Is the white ibis endangered?
White ibis is not considered endangered. In fact, they are doing quite well.
“If warming trends continue, they actually will gain range. They are one of the birds that might benefit from this,” he said.
If you see a white ibis, Griffiths said, by all means, observe them respectfully from a reasonable distance so they don't become nervous. Birds, in general, are sensitive to noise and are wary when humans approach them.
The good news is that the white ibis is more tolerant of human presence than other birds, so viewing them and getting some good pictures should work in your favor, he said.
Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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