gregp

Jul 052017
 

Today I joined my friends Bob and Jeanine for a ‘Poor man’s pelagic’. Instead of signing up for a previously scheduled pelagic tour, complete with guides and spotters and chum and a boat dedicated to chasing birds at sea, and hoping that the weather and seas are favorable, we simply picked a day with great weather and a calm ocean and hopped aboard a local fishing boat that was scheduled to go as far as 20 miles away from land. We were hoping to see Wilson’s Storm-petrels and a variety of shearwaters, some of which were being spotted even from shore by landlubbers with scopes and skilled eyes. I am not that good at identifying sea birds at a distance, so we were taking the easy route by going out to get closer to them.

Leaving

Leaving Manasquan Inlet.

It was a great trip. The fishermen remained on the bottom level while we were up alone in the penthouse suite. On the trip out we were looking at every bird, hoping that it would turn into something ‘good’, but ultimately they were the familiar Laughing and Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Eventually we learned to look for something that was not gull-like, and Jeanine spotted our first tiny Wilson’s Storm-petrel, looking like a swallow dancing above the water’s surface. During the course of the trip we were able to spot at least 15 of them, almost always as singletons. When we were only six miles or so from shore the captain dropped anchor and gave the fishermen the signal to drop their lines. It was a nice diversion for me to watch them haul in fish (mostly Sea Bass and an occasional fluke) at a fairly high rate when I wasn’t scanning the horizon for birds. Eventually the captain decided to move on to another site where they were expecting to catch some tasty Ling, and as we approached the 10 mile area, Bob spotted a pair of large brown birds on the water being flushed by our boat. Our first Shearwaters of the day! With their yellow bills the identification was clear that these were Cory’s Shearwaters. This was a bit unexpected for me because both Sooty and Great Shearwaters were being spotted by others from land, so I thought that they would be our most likely sightings. I guess nobody told the Cory’s. We eventually went up to 16 miles from shore, and spotted a total of at least a dozen shearwaters, although we could only identify half of them with any confidence. One turned out to be a Great Shearwater, but unfortunately my camera shifted to a 1/30 sec shutter speed at that point, so the documentation shot was less-than perfect. (in other words…trash) We never did find a clear Sooty, so perhaps a return trip is in our future.

Shearwater

A gliding Cory’s Shearwater.

Two Cory's

A pair of Cory’s Shearwaters. We saw pairs of shearwaters a few times during the trip, but Wilson’s Storm-petrels were nearly always solo birds.

degas

Here’s what a shearwater and a gull look like at 1/30 sec exposure from a bouncing boat. I should teach a course: How to photograph like Monet.

If you are in the mood for seeing some pelagic species and there are not any scheduled trips, consider using the poor man’s option. Contact the captain of a local fishing boat, ask how far they plan to go out and if they accept non-fishing passengers. He might even be able to tell you if they have been seeing any interesting birds. Since we weren’t taking up fishing space on the railing, we got a reduced rate as non-fishing passengers. The advantages of this approach are that you can pick a day with great conditions and that the cost is minimal. On the negative side, there is no expertise on board to help with identifying the birds, and they don’t chum to bring the birds in or chase them across the water. I’ll take that trade-off once in a while.

Flounder

A happy fisherman lands a fluke.

 Posted by at 8:22 PM
Jul 032017
 

After a morning stop at Brig that was highlighted by a pair of Common Gallinules, a singing Yellow-breasted Chat, and the largest concentration of Glossy Ibises that I can remember ever seeing in New Jersey, I decided to spend some time looking for interesting wildflowers. It was a brutally hot day, so it turned into a one-stop search at the Webbs Mills bog and boardwalk within the Greenwood WMA. The highlights were three species of carnivorous plants and two of New Jersey’s wild orchids. Let’s let the photos do the talking today.

Ibis flock

Part of the large group of Glossy Ibises at Brig today. The flock was so dense in some areas that it was not possible to count them accurately. I estimate that at least 300 Ibises were there today.

Spatulate-leaved Sundew

Spatulate-leaved Sundew, which captures prey on those sticky leaves.

Pitcher Plant

The flower of the Pitcher Plant, one of three carnivorous plants seen today.

Pitchers

This is the base of the Pitcher Plant.

Horned Bladderwort

Horned Bladderwort is a carnivorous plant that was flowering all over the bog.

Golden Crest

Golden Crest. Its flowers are small but gorgeous. It was very common in the bog.

Rose Pogonia

This is Rose Pogonia, which was the most common orchid that I saw today.

Grass Pink

Grass Pink, one of our wild orchids here in New Jersey. I only saw a few of these today.

Bog Asphodel

This is Bog Asphodel or ‘Bog Candle’, which is in the lily family. This plant, which is endemic to the Pine Barrens, was found in a very dense grouping, relatively distant from the boardwalk.

And since we’re on an orchid theme, here’s one that we found in another part of New Jersey this past May: Showy Orchis.

Showy Orchis

This was a ‘lifer’ orchid that we stumbled upon this past spring: Showy Orchis.

 Posted by at 7:12 PM
Jun 092017
 

This week Jeanine, Pete, and I headed upstate to search for birds that breed in the northwest highlands of New Jersey but not here in the southern part of the state. Our home for the past four days was a splendiferous cabin in High Point State Park. Let’s start with the cabin, a three-bedroom, five-bed home with a wood-burning stove, kitchen, picnic tables, firepit, and fully covered porch just 200 ft. from Steeny Kill Lake, located a short distance downslope from the High Point monument.

Cabin exterior

The front of High Point State Park Cabin #2. Our home for four days.

Cabin interior

The interior of the cabin contained three bedrooms, an expansive living area with two tables and a wood-burning stove, a kitchen, and a spacious bathroom with a shower. Heavenly.

Kitchen

The kitchen was more than adequate, with an electric stove and refrigerator/freezer.

Dinner

Pete and Jeanine on Mexican night at our cabin, featuring chips and salsa, beef and bean burritos, guacamole, rice, corn, and lemonade. Topped with a generous dollop of sour cream.  And don’t forget the strawberry shortcake dessert.  Yum yum. We ate very well on this trip.

Happy campers

A trio of happy campers re-living the day’s adventures in front of the wood-burning stove. It was chilly this week, with nighttime temperatures dipping into the low 40s, so the warmth from the fire felt great.

We were greeted immediately by a pair of Eastern Phoebes nesting on the porch, singing Acadian and Least Flycatchers, and Yellow-throated Vireos, later joined by Cerulean Warblers. It was an excellent start. For the following three days we made stops along the major roads of both High Point State Park and Stokes State Forest and explored their side trails. The birding was good, as we were able to find breeding Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Brown Creeper, Blue-headed Vireo, and Louisiana Waterthrush, and multiple Cerulean Warblers that inhabit the neck-straining upper canopy. A highlight from Stokes was a great day strolling along the Big Flat Brook near the NJ School of Conservation, eating lunch on a hillside above the brook while being serenaded by Blackburnian and Black-throated Green Warblers. Also in Stokes, we happened upon a Ruffed Grouse crossing the road, followed by four chicks. The hen paused in the thick underbrush, waiting for the chicks, enabling a documentation shot.

Ovenbird

This Ovenbird was not pleased with us. Apparently we were close to its nest, and it wanted to bring food to its young.

Grouse

A Ruffed Grouse gathering up her chicks in the thick undergrowth.

Kuser trail

At the entrance to the Kuser Bog trail

Photographer

Jeanine photographing wildflowers along a typical High Point trail.

Wild Coffee

Wild Coffee, a plant that I had not seen previously, with its distinctive flower.

Some rain was predicted on the second day, so we drove nearly an hour away and across the NY border, to the 600 acre Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge.  The grasslands provided a pleasant contrast with the forest birding that we had been doing at High Point, plus a few great species were being reported there, and I wanted to see how the refuge had changed since it was modified a few years ago. The refuge was great. This site used to be a military airport (Galeville Airport), but the long-abandoned cement airstrips were removed, replaced with a nice trail that wound through and near the outskirts of the property, and a viewing platform, gazebo, and a few well-spaced blinds were installed. Overall, it was a great improvement.  We were unsure of where our target birds were being sighted, which made it a daunting needle-in-a-grassland-haystack visit, but the birding gods were smiling upon us. We were about to give up at the first blind and move onto the more distant next one, when Pete stepped outside and said “I got it”. There just a few yards in front of us was a singing Dickcissel, bringing a smile to our faces.

Blind

One of the new blinds at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge

Dickcissel

The lemony breast and supercilium made this Dickcissel easily recognizable.

The smiles were partly from seeing a Dickcissel, which I don’t see often enough, and partly because now we knew that our next target should be nearby. Indeed, a mere 25 yards or so away we heard a short wheezy hiccup ‘song’, and a sparrow popped up onto a stalk and continued its song.  This was a Henslow’s Sparrow, a new life bird for me.  Although Henslow’s are typically skulkers, this generous individual remained perched in sight and singing for at least five minutes, only a few yards away from the trail, giving ample opportunity for photos.  This is cooperativity with a capital ‘C’.

Henslow's

My lifer Henslow’s Sparrow.

The remainder of the refuge was a pleasure to walk through, with dozens of Bobolinks calling and flying back and forth, Eastern Meadowlarks popping up occasionally, infrequent Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows singing and flitting about, and two pairs of American Kestrels hunting near their nest boxes.

Bobolink

The Bobolinks were abundant and delightful in the refuge.

After returning back to the cabin and finishing dinner on our final evening, we took the two-minute walk to the lakeshore and sat on ‘our’ bench. On the opposite shore a Great Horned Owl perched on a tall snag, providing a fitting finale to the evening and to the adventure.

Evening

Our lakeside bench. A great place to enjoy sunset.

Owl sillhouette

A Great Horned Owl silhouetted to end the trip.

 Posted by at 4:37 PM
May 242017
 

Jeanine and I planned a full day of birding in Cape May today, as it will probably be the only day this week without rain. On our wish list were Sooty Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-petrels, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Mississippi Kites (clearly, we have big wishes). We didn’t do so great with finding our targets, but sometimes the birding gods throw a wrench into your plans, and sometimes it’s actually a good wrench. As we were driving down to the Meadows, anxious to get started, we passed by a small private pond on Shunpike that held quite a bit of waterfowl. The thing that caught my eye, though, were a couple of Helmeted Guineafowl that were on the grounds. We stopped to take a look, and after picking up our bins, we noticed something different in the background. Mixed in with the usual common birds, we spotted a stunning group of nine Black-bellied Whistling-ducks on the edge of the pond.

BB Whistling-Ducks

The nine Black-bellied Whistling-ducks that we found today in Cape May.

With a species like this I wonder about whether they are wild birds, but will leave that determination to the NJ Bird Records Committee, who presumably will contact the resident and others in the area.  Initial reports, however, are that the birds are unbanded. Black-bellied Whistling-ducks are very uncommon in New Jersey. They are more typically found in South America and the southern-most US states (especially Texas, Florida, and Arizona), and there are only twelve accepted records to date in NJ. Although they were first recorded in NJ in 2000 they now have appeared here in six out of the last eight years, so they are becoming a nearly annual but still uncommon occurrence. Interestingly, it appears that this is a peak time for finding them, as four of the previous records are from May 23, 25, 26, and 27.

It was a super beginning to a great day that also included sightings of Blackburnian Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, a few Canada Warblers, Philadelphia Vireo, my FOS Bank Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Brown Pelicans, a calling Virginia Rail, and to top it all, three Wilson’s Storm-petrels from the Cape May – Lewes ferry. In other words, just another day in Cape May.

Vireo3

Philadelphia Vireo, a rare bird to find in NJ in spring. It can be tough to distinguish them from Warbling Vireo, but Philly has more yellow in the throat than in the belly, as seen here.

 Posted by at 9:06 PM
May 182017
 

I have not made any secret about how much I love exploring the Barnegat Bay Sedge Islands via canoe throughout the summer and fall. I have not been there much in spring, however, with my earliest previous visit being on June 2. Jeanine and I were determined to explore the islands during prime spring migration this year, sacrificing a day of warblers and thrushes and vireos for terns and shorebirds and wading birds.

The conditions today were ideal; shorebirds were still in the area, the winds were calm, and the day was going to be clear and hot. We first explored some of the trails for songbird migrants, finding a few Blackpoll and Magnolia Warblers, a surprise immature Great Horned Owl, and a healthy dose of mosquitoes (not all first-of-seasons are welcomed). It was hard to concentrate on songbirds while anticipating the shorebirds though, so we headed to the launch site.

Great Horned Owlet

A juvenile Great Horned Owl spotted on one of the trails before hitting the sandflats.

Box Turtle

It’s not always about birds. Here is a colorful Box Turtle that Jeanine spotted on one of the trails.

Our timing was good, as the flats were expansive with shorebirds scattered throughout. Shorebirds can be tough to identify, especially when they are in unfamiliar plumage, so it took us a while to get re-oriented to what species we were seeing. Some of these birds are quite striking in their breeding plumage, and that’s exactly why we came this early in the season. Three species in particular were notably colorful compared to their winter appearance. Dunlin can be found in the area in winter, when they are nearly all gray, huddling in the cold. But here in May they are easily identified by their bright reddish plumage on their upperside and a large black patch on the belly.

Dunlin

Dunlin in breeding plumage. This is why they used to be called Red-backed Sandpiper.

Red Knots migrate through our area in both spring and fall to re-fuel during their 9,000 mile (one-way) migration. They now are developing their striking namesake red plumage.

Red Knot flight

A Red Knot in flight.

Red Knot in grass

Red Knots are gorgeous in full breeding plumage.

The most striking birds to me, however, were the Sanderlings, which are bright white during winter but transition into a brilliant rusty breeding plumage. Today we witnessed Sanderlings in all phases of transition from winter to spring plumage.

Sanderling feeding

Sanderling early in its plumage transition.

Sanderling intermediate

This Sanderling has an intermediate plumage.

Sanderling feeding2

Here’s a Sanderling in full breeding plumage. Wow!

Sanderlings

Here you can see the Sanderling’s variability side-by-side.

Short-billed Dowitchers also were quite variable in their plumage, although we tend to see that variability in fall too.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Here is a Short-billed Dowitcher that is on the colorful end of the spectrum.

As we paddled over towards the marsh, we were delighted by close views of a Snowy Egret with its breeding finery blowing in the wind, and a Red-throated Loon that was preening at the surface. The loon should be leaving us soon, although a few Common and Red-throated Loons still linger in the area.

Snowy Egret

A Snowy Egret that was hunting in the shallows as the wind kicked up.

Red-throated Loon

A late Red-throated Loon is still lingering in the bay.

The terns do not undergo as dramatic plumage changes as the shorebirds, but we were happy to see Forster’s Terns in close quarters, along with a pair of Royal Terns and a trio of diminutive Least Terns today.

Forsters terns

Forster’s Terns are paired up and active.

Least Tern flight

This immature Least Tern was still being accompanied by a pair of adults.

When the afternoon winds began we headed into the marsh channels, where we were happy to see occasional fly-by Glossy Ibises, a few Little Blue Herons, and scattered shorebirds. Altogether, we spotted 13 shorebird species today, but seeing them sporting these different plumages was absolutely delightful.

White-rumped flight

We were fortunate to find a White-rumped Sandpiper in the marsh.

 Posted by at 10:30 PM
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. Questions remain as to whether this bird will be accepted by the NJ Birds Records Committee due to the patches of blue that are described above. Pure Little Egrets should not have any blue, suggesting that this bird is a hybrid, perhaps with a Western Reef-heron. Stay tuned for updates when the records committee renders its decision.)

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