gregp

May 172017
 

At least once each spring I like to visit Garret Mountain Reservation, the top spring migrant trap in New Jersey. This year I needed a Garret fix more than usual, since the 2017 spring migration here in NJ has been…how should I put it? Tepid? Slow? Disappointing? Pitiful? I’m beginning to worry that this is the new normal and the good old days of trees dripping with migrants are a thing of the past, but let’s leave that discussion for another day and instead try to focus on the positive side of today. Hopes were high; despite the lousy migration so far, yesterday the number of birds picked up a bit locally, and with winds coming from the south, we were hoping that today would be ‘The Day’. Clearly other birders had the same hopes, as we saw several familiar faces before we even left the car. Due to the long commute, we arrived at 9AM, late by birding standards, and started strolling the grounds. One thing that I do like about places like Garret is the ability to stroll; to wander towards wherever the next bird appears or is singing from.

Common Grackle

OK, it’s not an uncommon bird, but a Common Grackle can look super when taking a drink in great lighting.

Northern Flicker

What’s going on up there? An inquisitive Northern Flicker.

The birding today was good by Garret standards, great by the standards of any other location. The highlight reel starts with a Mourning Warbler. Any day with a Mourning is a good one, but this bird was cooperative, feeding in the phragmites instead of hiding in the thick underbrush. I enjoyed watching the bird so much that I forgot to take the camera out. That’s the way that it is these days; I’m not sure if it’s maturity or laziness, but photos don’t seem so important most days. But I did take the camera out occasionally. Like when a textbook-perfect male Scarlet Tanager was feeding on some insects hatching low to the ground. Or at lunchtime, when our lunch partner Joan pointed out an orange variant Scarlet Tanager. This bird was so orange that I incorrectly identified it as a Baltimore Oriole upon the first view.

Scarlet Tanager hopping

Scarlet Tanager hopping after some insects hatching on a log.

Orange variant Scarlet Tanager.

Our lunchtime orange variant Scarlet Tanager.

Lunchtime included two other highlights. As I was eating my tuna on toast with hot peppers (trademark GP), I heard a familiar song. Is that a Tennessee Warbler? Jeanine agreed, and we put down our sandwiches (what’s more important…food or birds?), picked up the bins, scrambled towards the sound, and found the bird singing loudly and persistently from high up in the canopy. So we sat back down to our sandwiches and after just one bite of my tuna on toast with hot peppers (trademark GP), I mentioned that a Canada Warbler was waist-high 10 feet behind the girls. Sandwiches back down again. That was immediately followed by the Orange Tanager. You get the idea. What a great lunch.

Among other highlights were several eye-level Blackpoll Warblers and dozens of Swainson’s Thrushes that were feeding low. The challenge was to locate a Gray-cheeked Thrush within the more common Swainson’s, and we were able to find two of them, including one popping into the background while watching our first-of-season Lincoln’s Sparrow. Late in the day we still didn’t want to go home despite the scorching 95-degree temperatures that greatly reduced bird activity, and we were rewarded with a few more Bay-breasted Warblers, another Tennessee Warbler, and spotting an unexpected Solitary Sandpiper in the wet woods. It was a fitting end to a super day.

Bay-breasted Warbler

One of four Bay-breasted Warblers that we saw today.

Blackpoll Warbler

A Blackpoll Warbler providing excellent views.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrushes were all over the grounds today.

Solitary Sandpiper

I’m used to seeing Solitary Sandpiper on mudflats, but not usually in a wet woods environment.

We ended up with 17 wood-warbler species, a tad shy of the hoped-for 20-warbler day, but with these high-quality sightings nobody was complaining. I look forward to returning again next year.  Maybe then we’ll find that Cape May Warbler that we missed today.

 Posted by at 5:45 PM
May 132017
 

Puerto Rico is a relatively small island with a limited bird list compared to other high-profile birding locations, but it is very convenient for North Americans, and therefore ideal for a self-guided bird tour. We have just constructed a new Slideshow BirdQuiz featuring many of the most desired birds of Puerto Rico. You can access that quiz by clicking here.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

 Posted by at 7:10 PM
May 042017
 

Today Jeanine and I decided to visit the Heislerville WMA, hoping to find some high quality shorebirds (with Curlew Sandpiper or Ruff topping our wish list). We came up empty on those shorebirds, but did even better, finding a Little Egret instead. Perhaps a little background is in order. Little Egret is a bird normally seen in Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, but is a rarity in North and South America. In the US, sightings are restricted to the northeast. It had not ever been seen in New Jersey until April 27 of this year, when Cameron Cox spotted one in the main impoundment in Heislerville. To give an idea of its rarity status, this is the only Little Egret reported in eBird in the mainland of North or South America this year (they recently began breeding on a few islands in the Caribbean). Although multiple people were able to view and photograph that bird on April 27, it was a classic one-day-wonder, with no other sightings over the past seven days. Had it moved on?

LIttet Egret

Little Egret. The long plumes on back of the head, the bluish lores, large black bill, and yellow feet are all Little Egret characteristics. Note however, the bluish-gray patches on the crown, ‘shoulder’, and the upper part of the long plumes that are not depicted in the field guides.

Well, today, after morning stops at Belleplain State Forest searching for passerine migrants (I’ll get back to them later), we arrived at Heislerville with shorebirds on our mind. With no sightings of Little Egret for the past seven days, it would be foolish to imagine that we would spot it today, so we were going to focus strictly on the shorebirds. At least that was the plan. As we pulled the car onto the gravel dike, a group of Snowy Egrets was in the nearby channel, and as we glanced over with our binoculars before even exiting the car, it became apparent that one of them was different. Two long plumes were being blown behind its head, its lores were bluish-gray (in contrast to the yellowish lores of the nearby Snowy Egrets), it appeared ~10-20% larger than the nearby Snowys, and it had yellow feet. All classic textbook Little Egret characteristics.

Could it be? No way. Finding a mega-rarity is not supposed to be that easy. Could it be something else? One thing that kept us from celebrating immediately was seeing patches of bluish-gray plumage on the head, ‘shoulders’, and on the trailing long plumes of this bird. That was a problem, because our field guides depict Little Egrets as pure white year-round. After snapping a few documentary photos, I texted Tom Johnson to see if he could confirm our identification, and he immediately replied that it was indeed a Little Egret, and moreover, that it was the same bird as was seen by Cameron Cox based on the pattern of those blue patches.

Fortunately, we were able to share this sighting with a few other birders who were there on the dike, but the bird was moving occasionally to different locations within the impoundment, and after ~30 minutes, we lost sight of it. Feeling the obligation of ‘handing it off’ to others, we continued to search for it as others arrived, but came up empty. Since I’m a blatant optimist, I’ll look on the bright side and say that our good fortune raises that possibility that others will continue to look for this bird and that it will be found yet again. (Follow-up note: the Little Egret continued to be viewed  for at least three more days.)

Snowy and Little Egrets

Snowy Egret (on the left) and Little Egret. Most of the time the Little Egret appeared to be larger than the nearby Snowy Egrets. Here the difference is not so noticeable, but compare the apparent sizes here with the following photo.

Snowy and Littlte Egret2

The size difference between Snowy Egret (on the left) and Little Egret is perhaps exaggerated here due to their posture, but most of the time the Little Egret appeared to be larger than the Snowys. (Doesn’t that make the name ‘Little Egret’ somewhat ironic?)

By the way, in case you are wondering why people go to Heislerville to look for shorebirds, here is a photo of what just part of the main impoundment looks like when shorebirds are migrating through. Perhaps you can imagine what it looked like when the birds all flushed due to the presence of a Bald Eagle or Peregrine Falcon.

Heislerville

Just a part of the main pool at Heislerville WMA. You might be justified calling this needle-in-a-haystack birding. It is tough trying to find a rarity in that mass of birds through a scope, but the sheer numbers are impressive for New Jersey. The majority of the birds in this photo are Dunlin.

Overall, it was an amazing day with three sightings that I had never seen before. In the morning we saw a Prothonotary Warbler flying in and out of a natural nest cavity (previously I have only seen them using man-made boxes to nest in), and later we found three Summer Tanagers in a single tree, so it speaks to the high quality of the day that neither of those were even our top highlight. What a day!

Prothonotary nest cavity

Our second-best sighting of the day: a female Prothonotary Warbler emerging from her nest cavity. What a delight to watch her go back-and-forth with nesting materials.

PRWA nest material

Here she is with some nesting material. I believe it is bark from an Atlantic White Cedar.

 Posted by at 11:04 PM
May 022017
 

We are currently in what is perhaps the best time of year in terms of species diversity here in the northeast. Some ducks and other winter species are still lingering, shorebirds are moving through, and warblers and other passerines are headed northward. Last week Jeanine and I participated in the weekly survey at Forsythe NWR, and when we entered our sightings into eBird, I was surprised to find that we had tallied 92 species with relatively little effort, with double digit numbers each of warblers, ducks, and shorebirds. That raised the possibility of trying to find 100 species in one day at one location. It’s not a novel idea; after all, we live in a birding world of Big Years, Big Days, Big Sits, Century Runs, and Break-a-Hundred Days. I had never thought of trying it myself though, but the idea of trying for 100 species in a very limited area was very appealing to me. And thankfully, Jeanine was game for trying it too.

Neither of us had the energy to start in pre-dawn hours for nocturnal or crepuscular species, so we began at 8AM. The weather reports were far from optimal, with fog predicted in the morning, and strong winds in the afternoon. Indeed, when I arrived, the woods were bathed in fog, thick enough to convince me to leave my camera in the car. (Besides, as we all know, leaving the camera behind is the best way to ensure finding good birds, right?) We did well in the woods and along the pond shores, and in addition to many of the expected common species, we also found two Hooded Warblers, a first-of-season (FOS) Blackburnian Warbler, four Spotted Sandpipers, Wood Ducks, a Veery, and late Red-breasted Nuthatches (it’s been that kind of year for Red-breasteds). After stopping by the car for some snacks and the camera (by this time the fog had dissipated), we were rewarded with a Blue Grosbeak, and Jeanine spotted the bird of the day, a male Summer Tanager. As we headed into the marsh drive, we already had 46 species, with shorebirds, ducks, and waders still unaccounted for. It was looking promising.

Summer Tanager

The bird of the day. Summer Tanager. It’s the first one that I have ever seen at Forsythe.

Northern Waterthrush

A Northern Waterthrush from an atypical vantage point. I’m more used to seeing them from above as they probe along muddy shorelines.

Brown Thrasher

A Brown Thrasher foraging in the leaf litter.

Common Yellowthroat

A singing Common Yellowthroat.

On the drive, the tide was high, so there were no mudflats in the tidal marsh channel, but fortunately some mudflats were available in the southwest impoundment. We did well with shorebirds there, spotting an impressive flock of Whimbrels, many peeps, and a nice mix of shorebirds transitioning into breeding plumage, with a pair of uncommon Stilt Sandpipers being a highlight. These birds can be difficult to identify in fall when I typically see them in their non-breeding plumage. We took a lunch break near the Peregrine Tower, and smiled after finding that our tally was already up to 92 species.

Black-headed Gull

This is a Black-headed Gull that has been hanging around Forsythe for a few weeks now, just beginning to develop its namesake hood.

Snowy Egret2

A Snowy Egret poses for his close-up. The lore colors are brilliant during breeding season.

Whimbrels

Small part of a large flock of Whimbrels that flew across the marsh.

Stilt Sandpipers

A pair of Stilt Sandpipers were mixed in with a flock of Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers. They were relatively easy to locate due to the rufous patches on their face.

Gull-billed Terns

A pair of Gull-billed Terns join the crowd on a popular mudflat.

Now that we were over 90 species, the countdown to 100 could begin in earnest. But the winds were increasing in intensity, to the point that it was hard to open the car doors, and the car interior was layered with a veneer of dust coming through the vents. A fly-by FOS Least Tern was very welcome, and a group of ducks hunkered in the reeds harbored a Northern Shoveler and two Blue-winged Teals. A flock of Starlings that were struggling with the wind on the shoreline brought us up to 96 species (I have never been as happy to see Starlings!). At the end of the marsh we finally found a few Black-bellied Plovers and heard the delightful song of the Marsh Wren. Now it was back into the woods for a short walk out of the wind, needing only two more species. A Great Crested Flycatcher cooperated. What would be species #100? A split second after I asked that question, an Ovenbird sang its loud “tee-cher tee-cher tee-cher” and we celebrated. After picking up a few more species in the fields (Field Sparrow, Prairie Warbler, and Eastern Kingbird), we were at 103 species after one full loop of the refuge.

Clapper Rail

A Clapper Rail crossing a channel as the tide was receding.

We drove the loop again, but the winds were fierce, gusting up to 36 mph. Having broken into triple digits we could relax and enjoy longer looks at the birds as we padded the list. We picked up a few more species, ending up with a Tri-colored Heron (another FOS) being blown across the marsh for species #109 after a little more than 10 hours of birding.  Not bad at all.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmers were roosting on the sandbar and fed close to the Wildlife Drive.

Forsters Terns

A trio of Forster’s Terns captured in an interesting pattern.

Box Turtle

A Box Turtle.

It was an interesting day. I generally avoid any form of birding that smacks of competition or that accentuates numbers, but this was fun. I suspect that this was the most bird species that I have seen in a single day, and it was even more rewarding to do it in such a limited area. Will we do it again? In the fall? Or next year? Or at a different location? Stay tuned.

 Posted by at 6:07 PM
Mar 262017
 

This is part 2 of a two-part series on our recent birding trip to Puerto Rico. If you haven’t seen part 1 yet, please click here.

Day 4: The fourth day of this trip was designed to visit a different type of habitat. Laguna Cartagena NWR is a freshwater wetland just 30 minutes from Parguera that harbored a couple targets. As you enter the NWR from highway 110 onto a dirt access road, grasslands are on the left and a row of brush and trees are on the right. As we drove in, birds were flushing in front of the car. The first birds that we saw were Black-faced Grassquits and their Yellow-faced relatives.  A quick look revealed a flock of introduced exotics, Orange-cheeked Waxbills, and birds that resembled Grasshopper Sparrows. Further investigation suggested that they were instead non-breeding Red Bishops, yet another exotic. A flock of Smooth-billed Anis, including a young bird, was a nice bonus. After pulling into the parking area and setting up our scopes at the first pond, I spotted what was for me the bird of the trip, a Masked Duck. We had been hoping to see this diminutive and secretive duck on birding trips to other countries, but always came up empty, so this sighting was particularly rewarding. The wetlands here are becoming filled in and overgrown, with only a few areas of large open water, so it was important to bird slowly along the trail, checking the openings for feeding waterfowl. At one point we spotted a group of ducks on shore, and when the scopes were set up, we saw the tell-tale appearance of a dozen or so West Indian Whistling-ducks with their long legs and neck and streaked sides, completing the trio of our major duck targets of the trip. Other nice birds seen here were Purple Gallinules, Tri-colored Heron, and our only two Ospreys of the trip. On the way back to our hotel, we drove through some agricultural fields in Lajas, and there picked up our third introduced species of the trip (and the day), with a flock of Bronze Mannikins.

Cartegena Wetlands from the tower

The view of Laguna Cartagena wetlands from the tower. Ponds were scattered and typically small this time of year.

West Indian Whistling-ducks

Part of a flock of West Indian Whistling-ducks, one of our major targets in the wetlands. Note the long legs and necks.

Grassquit

A Black-faced Grassquit found along the Laguna Cartagena entry road.

Ani

An extremely cooperative adult Smooth-billed Ani in fine plumage. They aren’t just drab uniform black birds after all. Look at those subtle colors on the feather tips.

Young Ani

A young Smooth-biled Ani that hasn’t yet developed the classic ‘Roman nose’ of the mature Ani (as in the previous photo above).

Waxbills

A pair from the flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbills seen at Laguna Cartegena

Mannikin

Bronze Mannikin, the third introduced species seen on this trip.

Cave Swallow

Cave Swallow seen in one of the agricultural fields near Lajas.

I neglected to mention our ‘adventure’ the previous night, when the noise and music from the adjacent plaza and bars continued past 2AM. That made two nights when it was hard to get to sleep, and I was not going to endure a third night like that.  We cancelled our third night at Parador Villa Parguera and transferred to the Copamarina Resort in Guanica for our final night in southern Puerto Rico. What a difference! I would never recommend the Parador with the excessive noise, internet connectivity problems, and their trying to give us a room with a single bed instead of the two that we reserved. The Copamarina was more expensive, but it was also perfect. In the evening we walked the Ballena Trail in Guanica State Forest hoping to find Puerto Rican Nightjars. They started calling right on schedule at 6:20 PM, but unfortunately rain started coming down at 6:25. We eventually gave in to the rain and headed back to the hotel.

Pintails

A small group of White-cheeked Pintails that visited the beach area at the Copamarina.

Day 5: We returned to Guanica at the Rte. 334 gate for another mostly nocturnal species, Puerto Rican Screech-owl. We heard at least 4 Screech-owls and a few Nightjars as the day began, but failed to see either of them. A morning walk through Guanica proved more productive than our mid-day excursion two days ago, with multiple Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoos being a highlight.

Lizard-cuckoo

A Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo from Guanica. The red eye patch distinguishes it from the similar Mangrove Cuckoo, which is also widely distributed on Puerto Rico.

Having seen or heard all of the endemics except for Puerto Rican Oriole at his point, we drove back towards the eastern end of the island for our final two days. Our home was to be the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge, located at ~1,500 ft above sea level in a forested valley just outside of the southern edge of El Yunque National Forest. This was a simple yet pleasant ecolodge, where we had a spacious room with a balcony overlooking the lush valley, although the shared common-space areas within the lodge were wonderful locations for watching birds flying between the treetops. We had by far our best views of Puerto Rican Spindalis, Loggerhead Kingbird, and many Scaly-naped Pigeons here. After an evening walk on the road and dinner in the lodge’s restaurant located 0.5 miles away, we were ready for a peaceful night’s sleep and a search for our final targets the following morning.

Zenaida Dove

Zenaida Dove was found in several locations on this trip, but this one was photographed at a quick stop at Humacao Wetlands on the way to Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Flycatcher3

A Puerto Rican Flycatcher that was searching for nesting material on the forest floor at the Humacao Reserve

Spindalis

Puerto Rican Spindalis, a species that we saw in several locations, but you couldn’t beat the views of them in the treetops from Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Spindalis female

Here’s the female Puerto Rican Spindalis. It took a long time for us to figure out what this is.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

Scaly-naped Pigeon, another species that we saw from below in the highlands of Maricao, but which were nesting a few feet from the Casa Cubuy balcony, often perching nearby at eye level.

Loggerhead Kingbird

Loggerhead Kingbird, which was seen much less frequently than Gray Kingbird, but they were nesting at eye level at Casa Cubuy. Note the all-dark and peaked cap compared to the similar Gray Kingbird seen in the photo below.

Gray Kingbird

The ubiquitous Gray Kingbird, with its gray cap and black eye patch, was seen nearly everywhere on the island, often perched on telephone wires.

Black-whiskered Vireo2

Black-whiskered Vireo. We saw and heard them all over the island, but by far the best views were from Casa Cubuy, where they nested just below the balcony.

I’d like to say a little more about Casa Cubuy, an ecolodge where we stayed for two nights just outside of the southern end of El Yunque National Forest. We were not expecting too much after already seeing nearly all of the target birds of Puerto Rico, but I really liked staying here. The clean and simple ecolodge atmosphere with good food was very welcome. Communal balconies allowed eye-level photos and views of birds that we normally would strain our neck to see. The road toward El Yunque dead-ends a 0.5 mile or so above Casa Cubuy, so there is little traffic, providing easy comfortable walks on the road through the forest and into the valley. This was my favorite place to stay in Puerto Rico.

Casa Cubuy

Casa Cubuy. It doesn’t look elegant, but it is clean, simple, and was a wonderful place to stay just outside of the southern border of El Yunque.

Casa Cubuy balconies

A view of the common area and balconies at Casa Cubuy.

Casa Cubuy valley view

Here’s the view from the Casa Cubuy balcony, with treetop views across the lush valley. A great location for photographing treetop birds at eye level.

Casa Cubuy breakfast spread

The communal breakfast spread at Casa Cubuy was all that you could ask for and more.

Day 6: Today’s main target was our final endemic, Puerto Rican Oriole. As the sun rose, the birding gods were smiling upon us, because just 20 ft away from our balcony we heard an Oriole singing its dawn song from a palm tree! Could we get any luckier?! In the afternoon we drove downhill 30 minutes to the coastal town of Fajardo. There are two Caribbean specialty hummingbirds that favor purple-flowered Jacaranda trees on this east coast at this time of year. At the Fajardo Inn we didn’t see any purple-flowering trees, nor any hummers in the flowers in the Inn gardens. We therefore drove ~10 minutes away, planning to bird an abandoned military field in Ceiba called Roosevelt Roads, but while driving there, we passed a road lined with purple-flowering trees. Indeed, in the first tree Rich spotted a hummingbird, and then another and then another. We had plenty of opportunity to scan through the multiple hummingbirds, eventually finding at least seven Green-throated Caribs and an Antillean Crested Hummingbird. These birds completed our target list, and after a hearty breakfast at Casa Cubuy the next morning we were ready to head home.

Oriole

Puerto Rican Oriole, our final endemic species. They were nesting along the side of Casa Cubuy, but were relatively shy.

Antillean

Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of two Caribbean hummingbird specialties that inhabit the east coast. The small size, small bill, and crest makes it very distinctive.

Carib

Green-throated Carib, another Caribbean specialty that favors the east coast of Puerto Rico.

A Few Final Comments

I prefer unguided or semi-guided birding trips rather than fully guided tours, with the reduced cost and the pleasure of finding and identifying birds yourself as the main motivating factors.  I realize that this approach is not for everybody, but if you want to try an unguided trip, Puerto Rico is a really good place to start due to the organizational simplicity compared to trips to other countries. We were pleasantly surprised by a few things on this trip. First, Puerto has some poor areas, but overall, the poverty level does not approach the level that we have seen in other countries that we have birded (Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica). Probably for this reason, we had no concerns whatsoever about personal safety in the locations where we traveled, which made for a more relaxed trip. Second, we had heard about the aggressive Puerto Rican drivers and the narrow roads. Yes, some of the mountain roads are narrow and require caution on the turns, but overall we actually found the drivers to be more cautious than those back home in NJ. Overall, the roads were in great shape, equivalent in quality to those in the states. Finally, with concerns about Zika virus and other tropical diseases, any travels to the tropics raises concern about mosquitoes. Yet on this trip we did not see a single mosquito, and had absolutely no pest-related problems (no chiggers, ticks, flies, spiders, or scorpions). Heck, we have much more of a problem with insects in the marshes of NJ. We never even used our bug spray.  Overall, we ended up with a total of 105 species, seeing or hearing all seventeen endemics. Total cost for this seven-day trip (including flight): $1,050 pp.  Thirty-eight new lifers: priceless.

If you are considering a self-guided trip to Puerto Rico and would like advice or more details on how we did it, feel free to contact me at greg@birdquiz.net.

The endemic bird species of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo We found these to be widespread, seeing or hearing them most days, from highlands to the dry forest of Guanica. Our best views and highest numbers were in Guanica. Learn their calls.

Puerto Rican Screech-owl We only heard them, near the PR-334 entrance gate one morning in Guanica.

Puerto Rican Nightjar A dry forest specialty. We heard them both at night and in the morning at Guanica, but never saw one.

Green Mango A highland hummingbird. We only saw one, at Maricao.

Puerto Rican Emerald We found one near the Guanica visitor center parking lot feeding on a couple stalks of yellow flowers.

Puerto Rican Tody These delightful birds were all over, in good numbers. Learning their calls makes it much easier to find them.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker We saw 1-3 of them nearly every day. Widespread.

Puerto Rican Parrot Very rare, but now able to be seen readily in Rio Abajo State Forest.

Puerto Rican Flycatcher  Not very common for us, but we saw some well in Guanica and Calambache.

Puerto Rican Vireo  Less common than the ubiquitous Black-whiskered Vireo. We saw it in Rio Abajo.

Elfin-woods Warbler A rare highland species. Similar in appearance to Black-and-white Warblers (which we saw in a few locations), but with more black on the face. They also feed very rapidly and erratically, different from the trunk-and-branch creeping behavior of B&W Warblers.

Adelaide’s Warbler Widely reported, and we heard them in a few places, but we saw most of ours in Guanica. The loud trilling song helps to find them.

Puerto Rican Spindalis We saw them in a few places in low numbers, but most readily at Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Tanager Another highland specialty. We saw a dozen or so in small groups at Maricao.

Puerto Rican Bullfinch Listen for the loud call notes followed by a trill. The ones at Casa Cubuy remained hidden, but we had good luck seeing them at Maricao, Rio Abajo, and elsewhere.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird Many people see this threatened species in La Parguera where they feed on discarded bread near a store in town. We saw them while eating in a local eatery just outside of Cabo Rojo, so we never bothered with the bread-eating version.

Puerto Rican Oriole This was the final species that we needed, and we were obliged with a pair that nested just outside our room at Casa Cubuy. Sometimes the birding gods smile upon us.

 Posted by at 8:35 PM
Mar 242017
 

Puerto Rico birding trip March 16 – March 22, 2017

OK, get ready; this is going to be a long post, so I decided to divide it into two sections. The Birdquiz.net crew (me along with brother Rich) just returned from a six-day birding trip to Puerto Rico. We were very fortunate on this trip; the March weather in New Jersey took a strong downturn just before we left and continued while we were gone. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, the temperatures hovered around a high of 85 degrees every day, with comfortable temperatures at night. It always feels like a treat escaping nasty weather, doesn’t it?

Leaving snowy NJ

Leaving snowy NJ…Sandy Hook on top, Shark River just above center.

Let’s start with an obvious question: why go birding in Puerto Rico when there are many other destinations with more species? For example, according to Wikipedia Puerto Rico has a bird list of 349 species (of which 166 are accidental) while Panama has a list of 992 bird species. Yet Puerto Rico has several advantages. It is a relatively small island, only ~100 miles from east-to west, and 35 miles from north to south, so it is easy to sample all the habitats and find most of the key species in just five or six days. Second, there are 17 endemic species and a few Caribbean specialties that together constitute a nice target list of ~50 species. That’s not bad for a small island. Third, because Puerto Rico is part of the US, it is extremely convenient for US birders. For Americans no currency exchange is necessary, phone service is covered on our US phone plans (allowing GPS navigation in the rental car), passports are not required, and many residents speak English. All of that makes it very easy to arrange a do-it-yourself birding tour. To top it off we found a 3 1/2 hr non-stop flight from Newark for only $286. Offsetting those advantages is the absence of several tropical families such as antbirds, toucans, woodcreepers, trogons, and cotingas that can be found in Central American and South American countries. Well, you can’t have everything.

The Trip (part 1)

Day 1: We land in San Juan in early afternoon, so our opportunities for the day are limited. Most of the best birding spots are located in the central or southwestern parts of the island, where it also conveniently is much drier (less chance to lose birding days due to rain). We did not want to spend time in the city, so we rented a car (from Hertz…a 1 1/2 hr wait…don’t get me started!), and drove 1 hr westward, stopping at Calambache State Forest. Just outside the park we had our first lifer, a colorful Venezuelan Troupial that was easy to spot even at 40 mph. The park itself has nice wide trails that seem to be used more by mountain bikers, where among the birds we were able to see a group of widely distributed and common endemics that we were later to find at nearly all of our stops: Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Red-legged Thrush, and Puerto Rican Tody. It was a nice start. We had time for one more stop before dark, so we headed to a roadside pond near Camuy that was filled with very nice birdage. The first bird that we saw was our main target; a gorgeous bright pink American Flamingo that conveniently was on the nearest shore. Wow. What made it even better was the 50 or so White-cheeked Pintails (another lifer) and more than 100 Black-necked Stilts that were surrounding it. The pond held other goodies, including Least Grebe, Common Gallinules, and the Caribbean white-shielded version of American Coot that used to be a separate species before being lumped with the ‘standard’ American Coot. Now that’s what I call a nice roadside stop. It was a great start for the trip.

Red-legged Thrush

Red-legged Thrush. Our first endemic of the trip, but we were going to see them nearly every day.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker

Puerto Rican Woodpecker: another endemic that we’d see in low numbers at nearly all locations.

Flamingo2

An American Flamingo that has appeared at the same location near Camuy for at least three years, surrounded here by Black-necked Stilts, Common Gallinule, and White-cheeked Pintails.

Day 2: Today started with a 30 minute drive southward to Rio Abajo State Forest. The main target here is the rarest bird on the island, the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, with perhaps only ~200 birds in the wild. The parrots are being bred at Rio Abajo and released there and elsewhere. A minute after we exited the car we flushed a Ruddy Quail-dove, a species that I did not expect to see on this trip. The ‘trail’ beyond a locked gate at Rio Abajo is a paved road that is relatively level, comfortable, and convenient, and just a mile or so away from where the breeding facility is located. Before we even reached that area, however, we heard a few parrots flying overhead. Somehow we were able to spot one that landed and get a clear view. One quick photo and then the birds flew off again. Later on we saw another one in flight and heard more flying the area. What a treat. There were plenty of other birds to keep us busy at Rio Abajo, including endemic Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Spindalis, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo. For fans of Todies, this was a super location, with at least 25 Puerto Rican Todies being seen here. It certainly helped once we became familiar with their calls. Rio Abajo SF was one of the highlight locations on this trip for us, and is highly recommended.

Parrot

Puerto Rican Parrot, one of the rarest birds in the world today, found at Rio Abajo State Forest.

Tody

Puerto Rican Tody. How can you not like this tiny bird? Before departing for this trip I was wondering if I’d be able to see any, but thankfully, they were easy to find all over the island.

Next we drove at least 2 hours southwest for a short mid-day stop at Guanica State Forest. Guanica is a ‘must’ location for a PR birding vacation, because Puerto Rican Screech-owls and Puerto Rican Nightjars can be heard and sometimes seen here. We’ll return to those species later, but because Guanica is a very dry and hot location, birding is best done here in early morning. Even on this mid-day walk, however, we were able to spot several endemic Pearly-eyed Thrashers near the visitor parking lot, accompanied by Adelaide’s Warblers (which we were to see later at a few other locations, but most frequently here) and a Puerto Rican Emerald that was feeding on a stalk of yellow flowers. We settled into our hotel in Parguera which was to be our base for the next three days (or so we thought).

Adelaide's

Adelaide’s Warbler, a species that we saw best at Guanica, but after becoming familiar with their loud trilling song, we were better equipped to find it at other locations.

Thrasher

This Pearly-eyed Thrasher stayed at this faucet for a while, like it was defending its water source in the hot and dry Guanica Forest.

Emerald

If you find the flowers, you’ll find the hummingbirds. This Puerto Rican Emerald fed on most of the flowers in this stalk for a few minutes. Note the deeply forked tail that helps distinguish it from the five other hummingbirds found in Puerto Rico.

Guanica Dry forest trail

A typical Guanica Dry Forest trail. Very hard, rocky, dry terrain, with low but dense trees.

Day 3: Our main location this morning was Maricao State Forest, which is in the mountains about 1 hour north of Parguera, reached by a winding 1 1/2-lane road. The main targets here are the highland specialties, and we did well in finding them. We saw Puerto Rican Tanagers in several small groups along the main trail at km 16.8 of Rte 120. I was able to get one quick better-look-desired at an Antillean Euphonia. Our main target was proving elusive, however. We were trying to find the Elfin-woods Warbler, a species that was first described in 1972. It looks similar to the more familiar Black-and-white Warbler, but with black cheeks. After trying a few other trails, we returned to the km 16.8 trail, and a little further on from where we turned back in the morning Rich spotted the first one just off the trail. I was unable to get a photo because these birds are much more active than the B&W Warbler, which tends to forage deliberately on trunks and branches. The Elfin-woods Warbler was calling and flitting actively from branch-to-branch. Our final endemic at Maricao was a single Green Mango hummingbird that Rich spotted perched above the trail. One genuine surprise that we had here was a Key West Quail-dove that flushed from near our feet. We were able to re-find it in the dense brush, where it froze for a minute or two. So we were fortunate with two tough-to-find Quail-doves on this trip. Although we did well seeing the highland specialties here, overall we were disappointed with Maricao due to the limited trails and because it was less birdy than some of the other locations that we visited.

Tanager

Puerto Rican Tanager. A highland species that we saw only at Maricao State Forest.

For the afternoon, we drove to the furthest southwest corner of the island, to a beautiful park called Cabo Rojo, that has a gorgeous beach, a scenic cliffside trail, and an adjacent National Wildlife Refuge containing salt ponds and mangrove flats. We were hoping for extensive shorebird flocks on the flats, but being the dry season, much of the flats were bone dry, so we didn’t spend much time sorting through the few shorebirds here. We did spot Brown Boobies perched on the cliffs and flying by, had a nice view of a White-tailed Tropicbird, and enjoyed a very cooperative Venezuelean Troupial near the parking area. We stopped at a roadside eatery just outside the park, and while eating some home-cooked empanadillas, Rich spotted another target, the endemic and threatened Yellow-shouldered Blackbird coming out of the mangroves. I was thrilled to see them here, because many birders resort to finding them in downtown Parguera where they feed on handouts behind a store. That just seems wrong, but seeing them near these mangroves while eating lunch was a bit nicer.

Troupial

A cooperative Venezuelan Troupial from Cabo Rojo.

Blackbird

A Yellow-shouldered Blackbird that popped out of the mangroves, presumably hoping for some empanadilla handouts.

Blackbird2

Here’s the same Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. The defining yellow ‘shoulder’ isn’t always visible.

Continue on to part 2 of the trip by clicking here.

 Posted by at 3:13 PM
Mar 082017
 

We birders live in an age of lists. For better or worse. Life lists, state lists, county lists, ABA lists, year lists, month lists, photo lists, big day lists, yard lists. We all keep them to varying extents.  I even met one famous birder who keeps a list of how many birds he photographs with each camera. (yes, he really does!)  Sometimes I get asked by beginning birders: what is the best way to keep track of your lists?  My answer is not simple, because it depends on how committed you are to your lists, and for most of us, that evolves over time.  It is likely that my history with listing parallels that of many other birders, so I will share my experiences here.

I suspect that many birders begin by using the checklists at the back of our field guides (especially those of us who grew up in an age less dominated by hand-held  electronic devices).  When we see a new species, immediately we check it off, either in the actual checklist or by putting a mark or some notes next to the image of that species. That’s as simple as it gets.  The problem that eventually occurs using this system, is that first of all, you don’t know exactly how many species you have seen unless you religiously keep a running tally, which is hard to do (did I remember to include the Iceland Gull that I saw last week in the running total?).  Secondly, at some point you will travel outside of the boundaries of your local field guide and will be seeing a whole new group of birds that will require a whole new field guide and a whole new checklist. For me, this first happened when I took my first trip out west, bought a Sibley guide of western US birds, and now was seeing Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstarts and Spotted Owls that were not in my Sibley Eastern Birds field guide. And when I traveled outside the US you can imagine that keeping a life list in this way became untenable. A final problem is that if you want to keep year lists or state lists, using the standard field guide checklist system just won’t work.

Sibleyguidelist

A page from my Eastern Sibley Guide index. It worked well as a checklist for a while, but after I started seeing Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska and other species not in the Eastern Guide, it became clear that this system was too limited.

A major improvement for keeping track of bird sightings came with the advent of eBird. If eBird is used to keep track of your sightings, eBird will do all of the record keeping for you.  Up-to-the-minute lists are generated for all your sightings, they are archived, and you can even look up how many species you have seen in any location within any timeframe (How many species have I seen in Sandy Hook since 2010?)  As a ‘bonus’, you can look up how your sightings list ranks compared to other eBirders (Hey, I have the sixth highest list for the state for this year!). So eBird is great for keeping track of multiple lists, with the only limitation being your willingness to enter every trip into the database.  From my perspective, I used to put all my sightings into eBird, until it felt more like work; it became a task that I really didn’t want to do yet felt compelled to do for completeness and it eventually detracted from the overall birding experience. Perhaps more importantly, I felt the inevitable competitive juices flowing and started birding just to climb higher up the county or state lists instead of going places that I simply enjoyed birding regardless of whether I was likely to see a new bird for the county or state.  A final minor complaint about eBird is that I like having my records in my own possession, and with eBird the records survive somewhere on the Cornell campus computer system. It might be possible to download them to my own computer, but that is beyond my abilities.  Nonetheless, eBird has grown immensely popular and will remain the keeper of records for the near future.

eBird ranking

NJ eBird top 100 rankings for 2016. eBird top 100 rankings can be generated easily, selecting for specific years (or for all time), and for a series of different geographical locations (world, country, state, county, and even for specific birding hotspots).

All of this begs the question of how I maintain my records.  I decided long ago to simply keep an Excel checklist file of my first records. I have separate columns for the bird’s name, the location where it was first sighted, the date, and two additional columns, where I add a ‘Y’ in one column if the bird was photographed and a ‘Y’ in the second column if it was seen in the ABA area. In this way, this single file keeps track of all of my lifers, ABA birds, and photographed birds. It is easily searchable (have I seen a Black-throated Sparrow, and if so, where and when?) and sortable (how many wren species have I seen?). By sorting on the dates, I can see what my 500th or 1,000th or 1,500th species was in the event that it becomes important.  I realize that my system is not for everybody, but it works well for me. It gives me the satisfaction of knowing how many birds I’ve seen and photographed without feeling drawn into competitive birding and excessive recordkeeping.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the near future that even this relatively simple method comes to a screeching halt too and I reach a stage where the numbers won’t matter at all.

List

A screen shot of part of my Excel file. So, for example, I know where and when my first Gyrfalcon was sighted, that it was lifer #1272, that it was seen in the ABA area, but I didn’t get a photograph.

 Posted by at 10:52 AM
Jan 082017
 

A highlight of winter birding for me is looking for alcids. Sighting any member of this family of birds from land feels special because alcids spend most of their time in the open ocean. One drawback, however, is that sightings can often be less-than-optimal, either from a distance or of birds quickly flying past offshore. Because sightings can be fleeting, it is beneficial to know which alcids can be expected to appear in your area and to be prepared on how to distinguish them. I just completed my annual personal alcid refresher session, and thought it might be useful to share some general features of the alcids, and then focus on those that can been seen in my home turf of New Jersey.

057-common-murre-crowd

A breeding colony of Common Murres. Don’t you wish that we could see this many in NJ?

The alcids are a relatively small family, with only 24 species world-wide, 21 of which occur in North America. They are strictly a northern family, not normally found south of the equator. Although most birders would probably guess that they are most closely related to penguins, they are actually more closely related to gulls. They have a completely marine lifestyle except for breeding on land. Interestingly, alcids have diverse breeding strategies, with puffins nesting in burrows, murres and Razorbills nesting on steep cliffs, Kittlitz’s Murrelets nesting on open tundra, and Marbled Murrelets nesting in trees. They are extremely proficient divers that rely on their wings for propulsion, like some ducks (Long-tailed Ducks, Eiders, and Harlequin Ducks), but unlike loons and grebes, which use their feet for propulsion. Their wings therefore are relatively short and stubby, well-designed for underwater ‘flight’, but ill-equipped for soaring. This adaption results in flights that are typically low to the water and consist of continuous wingbeats. Most alcids are counter-shaded, being mostly black on top and white below. Putting all of this together, any time I am near the shore in winter I look for smallish short-necked low-flying birds with black uppersides and white undersides that together should distinguish them from any grebes (which are not often seen in flight), loons (which are much larger), or ducks. Although these characteristics describe the family in general they don’t allow distinguishing the species. So once we spot an alcid, how do we begin to distinguish them from each other?

First of all, it is extremely useful to know that only seven alcids have been seen here in New Jersey, greatly simplifying the problem, and only five are very likely from land. A reasonable place to start is with relative abundance; which species are we most likely to find? Of the seven NJ alcids, Razorbill is by far the one most frequently observed from land, followed in frequency by Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, Common Murre, and Black Guillemot. At the other end of the spectrum, Atlantic Puffins are rarely sighted from land, and Long-billed Murrelet has only been seen once in the state.

A second useful criterion is size. The three largest species (Thick-billed Murre 18″; Common Murre 17.5 “; Razorbill 17″) are in a similar size range as Red-necked Grebe (18″) or Black Scoter (19″), while the next two (Black Guillimot 13″; and Atlantic Puffin 12.5″) are in the same size range as Bufflehead (13.5″). At 10″, Long-billed Murrelet is noticeably smaller than Bufflehead, while Dovekie, at 8.25″ is tiny, being the same size as a European Starling. Imagine trying to find a Starling floating on windy seas! Being able to estimate the size relative to the more familiar loons, grebes, or ducks in the area is a great start to the identification process.

Beyond size, what other features can we look for to distinguish these species?  Most birders would rely on plumage, but with the exceptions noted below, plumage of most alcids doesn’t help me very much because most of them are black on top and white below with a white neck. So I like to focus on structure: the size, shape, and proportions of the bird. Let’s start with the most common candidate. Razorbill has a longer tail than the other alcids, extending the same length as the legs, resulting in a symmetrical, football-like appearance in flight, unlike the similarly-sized murres, where the legs extend beyond the tail. At close range, its broad bill with both horizontal and vertical white lines is distinctive.

razorbill-in-water

Razorbill in breeding plumage. The blunt bill with its horizontal and vertical white lines is distinctive at close range.

Distinguishing between the murres is a challenge, since they have relatively similar plumage patterns. Thick-billed Murre is seen more frequently from shore than Common, has a blacker head, and tends to hold its bill level. It’s a heavier pot-bellied bird, so it has labored takeoffs from water. Common Murre is less common from shore than Thick-billed, has a browner head and back, and its bill tends to be held pointing upward. In winter, it has more white on the face than Thick-billed. That combination of whiter face and upturned bill makes it Red-throated Loon-like vs. Thick-billed with its level bill and darker face being Common Loon-like.

murre-and-loon

Thick-billed Murre with a Common Loon, showing the extreme size difference. Even though Thick-billed Murre is our largest eastern alcid, it is not even close to being loon-sized.

thick-billed-murre3

This photo of a Thick-billed Murre from Manasquan Inlet nicely shows how the longer legs protrude beyond the body. For a Razorbill, the legs extend only to the tip of the tail.

common-murre-in-water

Common Murre has a noticeably browner head and back, although perhaps not always as evident as this specimen, which is from breeding season.

Dovekie is best distinguished by its tiny size and short blunt bill. They have proportionately long wings for an alcid, and because it is not very heavy, it takes off quickly from water. Its wingbeats are too fast to count or even to see. For these reasons, Pete Dunne cleverly refers to Dovekie as ‘The Bumblebee Alcid”.

dovekie

The diminutive Dovekie. Notice the blunt bill and short perky tail.

Black Guillemot has the most distinctive plumage of the alcids, at least in winter when most of us get to see them. It is a pale bird, with a mostly white face and body, and large white wing patches all year. It can be seen most often on rocky coasts, where it prefers to forage. Its red legs are visible in flight.

black-guillemot

Black Guillemot in winter. It is the only eastern alcid that is mostly white in winter. Photo by Dave Koehnlein.

Atlantic Puffin is the most recognizable alcid, at least with its oversized bright orange bill and orange legs that should be obvious in flight. It is the only eastern alcid with a black throat/collar year-round, unlike the other alcids, which have white throats in winter. Puffins like deep water of the continental shelf, so they are unlikely to be seen from shore, except perhaps after storms.

atlantic-puffin

The Atlantic Puffin is unmistakable at close view. In flight, its orange bill and feet stand out. Notice its black neck, unique among our alcids in winter.

Keep an watchful eye out for this interesting group of birds. Because they are relatively uncommon, it can take some effort to find them. I have taken to sitting patiently on a folding stool at inlets in winter, scope at my side, especially on more tolerable warm and calm winter days, ideally after easterly winds have blown birds landward. Maybe I’ll see you there too.

 Posted by at 11:14 PM
Dec 252016
 

2016 was a great birding year for me. Correction: it was a TERRIFIC birding year for me. A super year. An outstanding year. I assume that you get the picture. How good was it? One measure was that I saw two long sought-after lifers this year in New Jersey (Wilson’s Storm-petrel and Philadelphia Vireo), but neither one of them individually made the top-ten list. Also not making the list were Varied Thrush, Red-necked Phalarope, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, or any other birds that were chased this year; somehow those chased birds seem less and less interesting each year. Well, that’s enough about what didn’t make the list. What did make it? Let’s count them down.

10. Springtime on the Bashakill. I don’t get many chances to bird with brother Rich these days, but in May we took an extended weekend, heading up to the Bashakill in Orange County NY, stopping at Garrett Mountain on the way back. There were no super-rarities, but the weather was perfect, we had no shortage of nice birds (several Mourning Warblers, my first ever perched Common Nighthawk, and a pair of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers), and it was just great birding again with Rich, being in the rolling hills of southern NY, and meeting John Haas out on the trail. What a super area to visit during spring migration.

bashakill

The Bashakill. I’d love to have had a canoe to explore in there.

Mourning

One of our Mourning Warblers in Linear Park, near the Bash.

Cape May

One of several point-blank male Cape May Warblers at Garrett. Garrett Mountain can be spectacular in spring, and it was great on this day.

9. Common Nighthawks. It was a good year for Common Nighthawks. I saw them perched at Garrett Mountain, perched again at Sandy Hook, I saw them migrating over my village while playing golf, and best of all, Jeanine and I saw and heard them doing their mating displays at Carranza Road. After learning that sound, I even heard them displaying over the local Shop-Rite parking lot. Seeing birds is nice, but watching interesting behaviors raises the experience to another level.

common-nighthawk-sandy-hook

Common Nighthawk at Sandy Hook.

8. Gannet shows. If you’re interested in behaviors, Northern Gannets have to be one of the best birds to watch. Their plunge dives for food are amazing to observe, especially when they occur in large groups. This year Jeanine and I were fortunate to see Gannets feeding very close on two occasions. One day in April we took the Cape May ferry to Lewes, with Gannets feeding in the wake of the ferry for most of the ride across Delaware Bay. In March while walking around the Hook searching unsuccessfully for Glaucous Gulls, a stunning cluster of Gannets was plunge diving repeatedly off-shore, eliciting uncontrollable laughter at the constant barrage of gannets into the water, and then after emerging, they would fly to the back of the line and do it again. Wow.

gannet

Northern Gannet following the Cape May ferry.

7. Razorbills. It was a great year for Razorbills, at least for me. I had not yet seen them in New Jersey, so one of my goals was to sit patiently at Manasquan Inlet or Shark River Inlet or Barnegat Inlet and hope that we could see one this year. Well, I lost track of how many we eventually saw in the inlets, but it was probably somewhere around 8-10 Razorbills, with more than half of them giving great views. Now it’s time to find a Jersey Dovekie!

6. Deep water pelagic. I had only been on a single pelagic before this year, while vacationing in Washington. I had no real intention of doing one here, although I knew that I could pick up several lifers by doing a pelagic trip, and in the process find out whether I like this subset of birding. In September, I found myself spontaneously signing up for an overnight trip heading 90 miles from shore. The end result: four lifers seen and photographed, including two NJ review species, and two more lifers missed due to queasiness (nothing chucked overboard though!). It’s probably one of those things that looks better in the rear-view mirror than when you are going through it. But it WAS an adventure, and you don’t get to experience an adventure every day, do you?

black-capped-petrel

Black-capped Petrel, the highlight of our pelagic trip.

great-shearing-water

A Great Shearwater shearing the water.

5. Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler. Jeanine and I were birding at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in November, hoping that some western rarity might appear on the shrubs or treetops. I was dreaming about Mountain Bluebird or Townsend’s Solitaire or Say’s Phoebe. I was wrong. Instead, Jeanine spotted an Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler with a fairly bright yellow throat that we got nice looks at while our cameras remained at our sides. With that yellow throat it was surprisingly easy to re-find it when it moved from bush to bush, feeding and mixing with other Yellow-rumps. Audubon’s is the western sub-species of Yellow-rumped Warbler that I hadn’t even thought of looking for due to the high background of Myrtle Yellow-rumps. We eventually thought of getting photos, but it disappeared behind a dune. When we returned home, we found out that Audubon’s is a NJ review species, the first one that Jeanine found herself. And a great find it was. We submitted reports to the NJ records committee, and we’ll find out next year if the sighting will be accepted without photos.

4. Lapland Longspur. Jeanine and I took ten canoeing trips into the Sedge Islands this year. On the last trip of the season in October, we weren’t sure what birds would still be around. While walking through the isolated stands of Spartina alterniflora that is predictably beginning to populate the sandflats, a bird moved in among the grasses. It eventually poked out and gave excellent views and photo ops. It was not a Saltmarsh Sparrow (which I suspected), or the better Nelson’s Sparrow (which I hoped for), but instead was an even better Lapland Longspur, a bird that was not on our radar for the day. As I’ve said before, one of my favorite things to hear when birding is “I wasn’t expecting THAT!”.

lapland-longspur

Our unexpected Lapland Longspur.

3. Sandwich Tern. In August Jeanine and I took our first-ever excursion walking 2.8 miles out to the tip of North Brig Natural Area, hoping for some of the rarer terns (think Black, Sandwich, Roseate, and maybe even Bridled). We were not disappointed. First of all, the beach was filled with birds, and I mean filled with birds for nearly the entire length. The species diversity was low, but the sheer numbers were stunning. Then when we reached the tip of the peninsula, Jeanine spotted a Sandwich Tern mixed in with a flock of Royals, just as I was ready to give up. Add to the days sightings an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, 120 Red Knots, and 12 Piping Plovers, and you have a super day. With birding like that even the numerous greenheads become tolerable.

North Brig beach

A sample of the number of birds that were dotting the North Brig shoreline.

sandwich

Jeanine’s Sandwich Tern.

2. Colombia. The vast majority of my birding this year has been in New Jersey, with the exceptions of a single weekend in NY, a day trip to Delaware on the ferry, and a 12-day trip to the Santa Marta region of Colombia. This was a semi-guided trip, where my friend Pete/Pedro and I spent some days with a guide, and some days birding on our own in the Colombian rain forest, staying in local housing, not in large resorts. We’d wake up in nice location, whether in the rain forest, a coastal woodland, or in desert scrub, walk out the door and see what we could find. That’s an Adventure with a capital ‘A’. It’s always tough to adjust back to local birds after seeing toucans, motmots, guans, puffbirds, and flamingoes.

Black-crested Antshrike

A male Black-crested Antshrike. You don’t see that in New Jersey.

171-flamingos-flight

American Flamingoes in flight. My main target in Colombia, we were not disappointed, seeing a flock of hundreds.

1. Reddish Egret. Sometimes its hard to decide what the top birding moment of the year is. Not so this year. While canoeing in the Sedge Islands with my friend Chris, we came around a bend in a channel and spotted a dullish bird wading in the calmer and shallower water. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, but told Chris that we should get photos. Fortunately, the bird was patient with us, allowing me to approach closely as I walked through the mucky Spartina marsh to get better lighting for photos. After we got home I immediately checked the field guides and found out that we had an immature Reddish Egret. More surprising to me was how rare this species is in NJ, with only two prior sightings, and happily, it stayed around for a total of 45 days, allowing many birders the opportunity to see it. Several times since then I’ve been introduced to new birders as ‘the guy who found the Reddish Egret’, my new title.  I was able to see Red at least four more times on our canoeing expeditions, to the point where it became an expected sighting. What a great bird.

reddish-egret-sept

Red in September, starting to show more color.

Many thanks to my wonderful birding partner Jeanine for sharing most of these outings (and rainbows and snake trips and kayak trips and stargazing), and for making even the least productive trip more enjoyable. It sure makes birding easier when you don’t have to find birds to have a good time.

Brig rainbow

Post-storm double rainbow at Brig.

jeanine-sunset-canoe

Unloading the canoe as the sun sets on our final Sedge Island excursion of the season.

 Posted by at 8:59 AM
Dec 222016
 
Rye NY

New York, December

A raptor in flight. But what is it?
If you need another clue, we have a bonus photo to help you here.
If you already know what it is, then click here for the answer.

 Posted by at 10:03 PM