Herons drop in and on

Threatened species' mess spurs rare state action.

State biologist Christina Kisiel takes a close-up look at a nesting night heron in Absecon, N.J.The large birds are impeccable housekeepers in their own homes, but look out below.

ABSECON, N.J. - Kim Bannister walks out her front door and sighs.

Her concrete driveway is covered with large pools of stinking bird excrement and rotting crab shells.

As she contemplates the daily chore of hosing down the mess, more of it plops down from a large nest occupied by a night heron and her chicks, perched in a tall oak.

"You learn real quick where not to stand," said Bannister, who moved to the Absecon neighborhood in the fall. "I can't even park my car in the driveway anymore. If I do, it looks like someone threw paint at it."

Down the block, a neighbor's black garage roof was turning white under layers of the stuff raining down from a nest over his house.

Another neighbor said she didn't even bother to open her swimming pool this season because of the mess from a nest directly over it. Nearby, a nest above a home's front door made coming and going a tricky proposition.

About 20 pairs of night herons - big, regal-looking birds with a threatened population and a fondness for shellfish - bombarded this suburban enclave of well-tended older homes this spring.

But in recent weeks - before fed-up humans could resort to foul play - New Jersey environmental officials stepped in to broker what they hope is a truce, allowing the removal of some offending nests.

"I know that some people are going to take issue with the fact that we are charged with protecting endangered and threatened species and this, on the surface, seems to be in conflict with that mission," said Christina Kisiel, a biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife's endangered and non-game species program, which is part of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"But I would argue the opposite. In this case, we have a species of conservation concern whose nesting habits are causing property damage to a homeowner," Kisiel said. "Instead of just saying to the homeowner, 'Too bad, deal with it,' we've tried to come up with a solution that doesn't harm the bird and helps the homeowner cope with the situation."

Kisiel said the size and odor of the excrement, fueled by the night herons' shellfish diet, made the birds difficult neighbors. Their copious droppings can peel paint off a car.

Night herons are considered a threatened species because their population has been dwindling. The slate-gray birds are more than two feet tall when fully grown, and yellowish plume of feathers crowns their black, large-billed heads.

To see one in flight, with its 44-inch wingspan, is breathtaking.

To watch both parents meticulously build a nest of sticks and leaves, care for four or five blue-green eggs, and guard their fuzzy yellow-white chicks from predators is fascinating.

And to know that they are expert housekeepers, keeping a nest spotless by defecating over the sides, seems . . . well, commendable.

Unless you live in the neighborhood bordered by Alameda and Seminole Avenues and Mill Road, near the Absecon police station.

"The smell is unbelievable," Bannister said.

Lest residents turn to violence, the state for the first time approved plans to remove four nests from the Absecon neighborhood as long as they didn't contain eggs.

Two of the nests did contain eggs, but an arborist hired last month by neighbors lopped off branches supporting the other two.

The homeless birds, said wildlife experts, likely constructed new nests nearby.

David Mizrahi, vice president of research for the New Jersey Audubon Society, one of the state's staunchest bird-advocacy groups, sympathizes with people in the neighborhood. But he said he worried about the effects of the nest removals.

"It's clear that the DEP in this instance really has tried to work with the local community to come up with a solution," Mizrahi said. "But it remains to be seen whether there will be any net loss of a colony of a threatened bird species.

"If there is no loss and the community is satisfied, then the accommodations made were a success."

The besieged Absecon neighborhood sits smack in the middle of what experts consider North America's greatest migratory-bird flyway.

This is near ground-zero of the annual World Series of Birding, when ornithology fans from across the globe flock to the Jersey Shore between Long Beach Island and Cape May.

Most neighbors are unimpressed.

And they wonder why, with a smorgasbord of food and habitat at the nearby 43,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, the night herons seem to prefer suburbia.

Each of the last five years, the night heron colony has returned to the neighborhood to nest in the spring.

By August, after the chicks mature, they will migrate south for the winter.

"I really don't wish the birds any harm," said Pat Lafferty, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years. "I've always enjoyed seeing them until this year, when it got the point where we didn't have time to enjoy them because we were so busy cleaning up after them."

The nest on her property was one that was removed.

"We were relieved because it was really creating a real problem for us and our family," Lafferty said. "We had real health concerns for us and for our dogs."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com