Egret Edgar Returns to BC

 Egret Edgar Returns to BC

By Dan Guarino

“People see it as a sure sign of Spring,” says Broad Channel resident Don Riepe. He is speaking about one of the Channel’s most unique visitors, a majestic Great Egret named Edgar, who has made the small island a stop on his yearly migratory journey South. “This is his 11th year of coming” here, Riepe confirms.

Each year the great white bird glides in over Jamaica Bay, landing directly at Riepe’s waterfront home.  “He’s pretty aggressive. When he first comes to the dock, he lets out a croak to let everybody know “I’m here! This is my territory!”

Striding right into Riepe’s house, Edgar makes himself right at home while walking around inside. Despite his bold personality, Riepe says, “He’s still very tame. He’s a wild bird. But he is very tame.”

Edgar could not have picked a better host than Riepe, a naturalist and wildlife expert. Deeply involved with the environment, he worked for the Natural Park Service for 25 years, where he was the manager of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Broad Channel. “I left to become the Jamaica Bay Guardian. The DEC (NY Department of Environmental Conservation) offered $300,000 to the American Littoral Society to start this program. It’s like a Bay keeper program.”

Part of funding from a $1.1 million fine DEC issued in Mill Basin, was used “to start up this whole program, give me some staff and a boat. So, I took early retirement from NPS. But they offered me a boat. How could I turn it down?” he says wryly. In this position, he attends meetings with all agencies involved with the bay and is part of “all programs, the marsh restorations, beach clean-ups” and more.

Up until recently, Riepe also served as the Northeast Chapter head of the American Littoral Society, which, their website states, “promotes the study and conservation of marine life and habitat, protects the coast from harm, and empowers others to do the same.”

Egrets, Riepe notes, “stand over 3 ½ feet tall. Egrets have an unusually long necks they can either bend in or stick way up. So they can stand about four feet.” They “weigh only a couple of pounds. They’re not very heavy. Two to three pounds at most. They’re mostly feathers and their bones are hollow. You don’t want to weigh a lot when you’re flying.” Egert’s wings span anywhere from four to almost five feet.

Riepe says each year the majestic birds start off all the way up in Maine and northward. Edgar “comes here in April and he stays all summer, usually through October or November, before he goes south. I’m not sure how far he goes. But some birds tagged here have gone to South Carolina or Florida. I think some as far as South America.” Hugging coastline, he says you will find them anywhere there is a body of water.

Which is why, he says, Edgar comes to stay in Broad Channel.  “They breed in Jamaica Bay. Somewhere out on the islands,” scattered among its marshes and waves. “When he first comes here, he’s not in breeding plumage. After a few days he gets that green coloring, he really looks good, to attract a mate.”

Why does Edgar unerringly seek out Riepe’s home? As he previously told Rockaway Times’ Katie McFadden, “There’s no real mystery to it.  I’m on the water in the bay where they forage and hang out and nest and I feed them.”

Edgar freely walks through Riepe’s door and into the kitchen. “I knew what he wanted. Killie fish and egrets are a great combo. Last year I made a mistake. I ran out of killies. So I gave him salmon. He eats that ever since.”

“He comes at least once a day. But when he has a family, he comes more often to bring food back to them. It’s expensive to feed an egret.”

“People love him. I raise money online and people help feed Edgar. They can send money to the American Littoral Society and note donations as ‘Money for Edgar.’”

Riepe, a widely-seen photographer, notes, “I feed Edgar and he lets me take his picture. That’s the deal we have.”

But Edgar has not been the only egret celebrity in Broad Channel’s history. “Prior to Edgar, we had Egor. And she had been coming for many years.” Twenty in fact. The two would chase each other around inside Riepe’s house. Then one day Egor stopped coming. As Riepe told McFadden, “Egrets average about 15 years in the wild. So Egor had a good life.”

Egor was immortalized in 2016’s documentary “Saving Jamaica Bay,” narrated by Susan Sarandon. Using interviews with a variety of Broad Channel residents, it tells the story of BC’s connection to nature, and perseverance through Hurricane Sandy and other efforts to clear the community from the island. Its poster lovingly features Egor and Riepe in silhouette against the backdrop of Jamaica Bay.

“The National Audubon Society started in 1918 to prospect these birds. They were almost gone. But they made a comeback in the 1950’s, just a few. Now they’re back.”

“It’s a very rich environment (here with) whales, dolphins, birds, seals. And we have quite a few birds recorded here. Over 340 species have been recorded here in Jamaica Bay. We’re on the migratory path.”

To protect nature and birds like Edgar, Riepe is part of the Jamaica Bay Task Force with Dan Mundy, Ecowatchers and the Wildlife Hazard Task Force at JFK airport, which involves all the agencies dealing with airport and environmental issues, and making airports less attractive to birds. “Birds and airplanes don’t mix.”

Each year he organizes environmental events like the Horseshoe Crab Shorebird and Pollinator Festivals and Raptor-rama. “On May 11, I am giving a talk and a walk on bird migration for the Audubon Society at 10 a.m. at the Jamaica Bay Refuge.”

And, of course, as he does each year, he is hosting Broad Channel’s special guest, Edgar.

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Photos courtesy of Don Riepe

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