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Avalon Sea Watch

What is the Avalon Sea Watch?
The Avalon Sea Watch, a count of migrating seabirds, is conducted from an observation point overlooking the ocean at the north end of Avalon at 7th Street. This location was selected because the northern tip of Avalon extends a mile farther out into the ocean than the coastline to the north. Southbound seabirds that are following the coastline pass very close to this beachfront.

The migration of seabirds along the coast of New Jersey is spectacular, and an average of almost 800,000 seabirds are counted at the Avalon Sea Watch annually. In some years the count approaches one million birds. As remarkable as those numbers are, the bulk of this flight is extremely contracted. In most years about 70 percent of all the migrant seabirds pass in five weeks (from about October 7 to November 14).   Rarieties can and do show up at any time, and some very unexpected species have chosen to fly by the Avalon Sea Watch during the past 19 years.

Click here to download the totals of species counted at Avalon Sea Watch annually from 1993 thru 2011, in pdf format.

Click here for data on the high and low counts for each species.

Background of water bird migration counts  
 Although less widespread than raptor migration counts, several water bird migration projects , like Avalon, NJ, Whitefish Point,  MI, and Braddock Bay, NY, have systematically counted sea ducks and water birds for more than ten years.   The water bird migration count operated by New Jersey Audubon at Avalon has been counting water birds since 1995. The site is unique in that it provides an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean at a point where the coast juts out approximately one mile further than the coastline to the north, causing the water birds to turn and pass close to the count site.

Assessing population status and trends in many Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding waterfowl and water birds poses a tremendous challenge.  The logistical difficulties in counting water birds across their range during the nesting season are obvious.  This is also true of assessing wintering populations spread across the offshore waters of large lakes and extensive coastlines.  However,  systematic water bird counts from a fixed point along a migration route could be very useful, providing information which can be used to augment  other census methods.

How the count operates

     Tom Reed on duty in 2011; photo by Sam Galick

The Avalon Sea Watch is located at the seawall at the east end of 7th Street in Avalon on the Atlantic Ocean, just south of Townsend’s Inlet.  The count is conducted from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, in all weather conditions. from 22 September  to  22 December, using binoculars and spotting scopes. The primary counter counts five days a week, and a secondary “relief” counter  covers the other two days. The data are recorded in hourly segments, and recorded on current standard forms.  The totals are accumulated using either hand held or, for species migrating in large groups,  multiple-unit tally counters.  

The overall flight is mainly affected by seasonal and daily temporal patterns, and to a lesser extent by wind direction, and wind speed. Visibility is always a factor, as reduced visibility hinders the counters’ ability to assess the flight.  It takes a hardy soul, and an experienced bider to conduct the Sea Watch!

Characteristics of the flight
In general, the flight tends to be heaviest early and late in the day, although during big flights it is fairly consistent throughout the day.  Southerly and easterly winds seem to be more conducive to sea bird flights than northerly or westerly winds.  For most species, the flight line is essentially north to south along the coast. However, there are a few species that will fly inland from over the ocean, most notably cormorants, geese, and herons/egrets.  Most of the time, the flight is fairly low, but dabbling ducks,  cormorants,  geese,  and a few other species can get quite high.

Determining what to count, and when, is usually fairly clear, as most seabirds approach from the north, and disappear to the south.  However, experience has shown that  gannets, terns, and gulls find the mouth of Townsend’s Inlet and the nearby offshore waters  an inviting feeding locale. At these times, the counter must be careful to determine  whether or not these birds are feeding and then moving on, or choose to remain for the day.