It was a bitter cold day here in NJ when I started my final walk of 2017, with the temperature holding steady at 15 degrees with 12 mph winds for a wind chill factor of 1 (can’t we just round that down to zero?). Would any birds be active? The answer was a decisive ‘not many’. I saw a grand total of 12 birds (not 12 species…twelve BIRDS) in an hour and a half. Then when I had another 200 yards or so to return to my car, a bird flitted into the pines. I assumed it was going to be a common bird, perhaps a Carolina Chickadee or Golden-crowned Kinglet, but there were so few birds to look at this morning, that I was glad to finally have a reason to lift up the bins. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was neither of those species, being mostly greenish-gray, with mild streaking down its breast and a bright yellow undertail. Orange-crowned Warbler! What a great way to end the year. The bird fed deliberately in a small area of the pines but stayed on the opposite side of a fence, so I couldn’t get closer for better photos. Here’s my final bird for 2017.
This was an outstanding year for me, bird-wise. OK, I know…if we went back and looked at my best-of-2016 post, I probably said something similar for last year. And the year before. I don’t know if I broke any records in 2017 or even how many species I saw, but I do know that I had more fun than ever birding this year, and that is the point of this hobby, isn’t it? So what made it such a good year? Every year it gets harder to add new life birds, but this year I managed to add four new species locally (including one of my main nemesis birds), and the rarest of those rarities (Common Greenshank) didn’t even make this top-10 list. For me it was a good year for seeing Razorbills (just spend enough time patiently looking near the inlets in late winter, and you should see them) and American Golden-plovers (spend enough time scanning the shorebird flocks in late fall and they should eventually appear too). Other birds that stand out and that just missed the top-10 list include that interesting Red-necked Phalarope that stayed for just a few minutes in Whitesbog, my first NJ Yellow-headed Blackbird, an unexpected point-blank Dickcissel posing in the open ten feet away in Cox Hall Creek (a great bird while the camera was in the car…a theme for this year), the group of nine Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in Cape May, and finding our own unadvertised Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls. Well, that’s a flavor of what the second ten would be.
OK, with that serving as prelude; here are my top ten. I’ll note that these are not necessarily the toughest species for the year, but the experiences that stand out for one reason or another.
#10. Little Gull. Little Gull is one of those species that is not necessarily easy to see, but one which I thought I would have seen by now, so Jeanine and I were definitely targeting this nemesis species last year (unsuccessfully) and were trying again this year. We took several trips to Cape May and to South Amboy, where they tend to show up most reliably, but were coming up empty. Then when one bird was reported at Spruce Run Reservoir for two days in early April, we decided to drive over. While scanning through the flock of gulls we had a couple ‘maybe’ birds (OK, let’s admit it; when we haven’t seen a species before, we tend to morph anything even remotely close to it into the desired species), but then the real thing showed up, and it was clear that finally we were looking at a Little Gull, with graceful flight, short rounded wings and dark underwings. I was thankful that we had to find it ourselves and that nobody was there to point it out to us. We ‘earned’ this bird.
#9. Poor Man’s Pelagic. In June our friend Bob asked us to join him on a ‘Poor Mans’ Pelagic’, boarding a fishing boat and scanning for pelagic species, which for us meant primarily Shearwaters and Storm-petrels. It was a wonderful day, with the three of us sitting on the upper deck in the sun, relaxing all by ourselves, searching for our targets while the fishermen were busy below. And we did get them. Unlike the commercial pelagic trips, we didn’t have spotters pointing out the birds, and the boat was not putting out chum to bring the birds in, so it wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was mighty rewarding. We found multiple Wilson’s Storm-petrels, and both Cory’s and Great Shearwaters. A winter version of this trip just a week or two ago yielded a pair of Razorbills and hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls but not any other unusual winter birds that we were hoping for. We’ll be trying more of these trips sporadically next year.
#8. Prothonotary Warblers. I like seeing Prothonotary Warblers, and this was a good Prothonotary Warbler year. The most memorable one was at Cloverdale in spectacular lighting, glowing like a bright golden incandescent bulb, reflected in, and feeding just above the water line (once again, no camera). We had another one nesting in Belleplain, a couple in Estell Manor Park, and multiple birds interacting and calling in the Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve. It’s always great to see and hear the birds at the same time, and they were making a call that we were unfamiliar with.
#7. Cape May Warbler day at Island Beach State Park. I tend to see Cape May Warbler each year, but it’s not a guarantee and I’ve never seen more than maybe two in any day, so it’s one of those species that brings a smile at each appearance. We had hoped to see some at Garrett Mountain in May, but came up empty, and I assumed that we missed our best chance for the year. Then on an otherwise uneventful September 11th at Island Beach, we came to the blooming bayside Groundsel Bushes, and Cape May Warblers were popping up everywhere. I’ve never seen double digit Cape May Warblers, but there they were, difficult to count accurately because they were mobile and nearly every warbler that we saw in that area was a Cape May Warbler. And where was my camera? In the car, of course.
#6. Garrett Mountain. It seems like every year Garrett Mountain enters my top ten list, and with good reason. Even though we only went there once this spring, it was a super day, highlighted by a cooperative Mourning Warbler, an odd orangey Scarlet Tanager, my only Lincoln’s Sparrow for the year (where were the sparrows this fall?), and the complete selection of expected eastern thrushes and most warblers. In other words, a typical Garrett day. But it became a special day when we were eating lunch and our friend Bob stopped by, saying that he was hoping to see a Canada Warbler. Well, don’t you know that we just saw one not two minutes ago from that very same lunch bench, so we just pointed it out to him. Then we asked if there was anything else he was looking for. Tennessee Warbler, he replied. Well the smiles probably stretched across our faces from end to end, because we just heard one from that bench a few minutes ago. We got up, strolled a short distance, and could hear it still singing clearly, high up in the canopy. Two requests, and two birds. We can’t always fulfill birding requests, but when we do, it feels special. Doing it back-to-back? Priceless. All while eating lunch.
#5. Spring in High Point. We were lucky enough to reserve a cabin in High Point State Park in early June. It was a little past peak migration time, but good timing for the higher altitude northern breeding birds. It was a wonderful four days, with Cerulean Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos calling from above our porch, a Ruffed Grouse spotted with young birds crossing a trail, and a Great Horned Owl perched on a snag on the final evening. One drizzly day we drove up to the Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge, where the fields were full of singing Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks, and we were able to find previously reported Dickcissel and my lifer Henslow’s Sparrow. Above all, it was a great location, with excellent homemade food and super company. An unbeatable combination.
#4. Puerto Rico. I only took one ‘real’ vacation this year, with brother Rich for siete días en Marzo en Puerto Rico. I have posted extensively on this trip (start here for the reports), so I won’t repeat it all, but we were able to see or hear all of the seventeen Puerto Rican endemics, without any guiding. This trip became more meaningful after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, causing massive damage. We were fortunate to visit the island when we did. I often wonder how different it is now at the locations that we visited.
#3. Black Terns in the Sedge Islands. It wouldn’t be a top 10 list without trips to the Sedge Islands. During the summer, that is my favorite place to go, but don’t tell anybody. All told, I think I took fourteen canoeing/birding/swimming/picnicking trips there, averaging nearly once per week. I’d go there more often if I could, but balancing the Sedges with other things in life counts for something too. We had not seen many Black Terns this year, and then on September 5, we hit hit the jackpot. Jeanine spotted the first one, which flew off to another sand spit where it was joined by another and then another and another until we spotted thirteen of them in view at one time! Later on we spotted two more at the inlet and six more while canoeing the rest of the islands, but we posted 15 birds not to be greedy and because we couldn’t be sure if those six were from the original group. This was by far the highest total of Black Terns that I had ever seen anywhere in one day. The next day 10 Black Terns were reported by others at Sandy Hook, so they were really on the move.
#2. Two Sandwich Terns + solar eclipse = a thrill. August 21 was an eventful day in the US. This was the day of the total solar eclipse, the first one to cross the entire US in 108 years. Here in NJ, the eclipse was only going to reach ~75% totality, but where better to experience it than in the Sedge Islands. As we were exploring the main flats in near isolation, we could sense the creeping darkness and with a little ingenuity viewed it safely as a crescent/shadow on the ground. That was certainly cool and different. When we reached the inlet, we were greeted by a flock of Royal Terns that was begging to be scanned for a hidden treasure. And eventually something did pop out…a Sandwich Tern! And a minute later, another one appeared nearby. Last year Jeanine and I were fortunate to find our first Sandwich Tern in NJ, and now the bar was raised another level by finding two. The cherry on the cake was that one bird was an adult and the other an immature bird, so we were able to study them together. The birds were very cooperative, mixing with the Royal Terns, and feeding and flying as if they knew they were the stars of today’s show. Well, I’m not sure what gets the top vote: two Sandwich Terns or a solar eclipse, but together they were a winning and memorable combination.
#1. Little Egret. Little Egret was a species that was long sought after in the state, but it hadn’t been detected until this year, when Cameron Cox spotted one at Heislerville. For one day. And then it disappeared. For a week. Then Jeanine and I went to Heislerville to enjoy the annual shorebird spectacle there, and the first bird to our left after we parked on the dike was none other than that same Little Egret! We didn’t even have to get out of the car, and there it was alongside the dike, just a few yards away. This time the bird stayed for three more days before disappearing again, giving many more birders the opportunity to enjoy it. This was the first Little Egret in NJ, species #479 for the state. What an unexpected thrill it was to re-find it. There it is again…my favorite birding word…’unexpected’!
The NJ Bird Records Committee met recently and today announced their decisions on rarities that were submitted for review during the first half of 2017. The most noteworthy result from this report is that Little Egret was accepted as the 479th species sighted in New Jersey. That makes me happy, because Jeanine and I had a role in that story. The short version is that a Little Egret was originally found by Cameron Cox at Heislerville WMA on April 27, but it appeared to be a classic one-day wonder despite extensive searching. Seven days later, on May 4, we were birding at Heislerville, and when we parked the car on the dike, the same Little Egret was feeding in the channel right next to us! So we had the honor of re-finding that bird, which stayed around for three more days for others to enjoy. Yay. (click here for a longer version)
I anticipated that there would be questions about this bird because of the presence of several blue patches that might be interpreted as it being a hybrid, perhaps with a Western Reef-heron. However, the pattern of the blue spots was judged not to be typical of a hybrid trait, but more likely due to environmental contamination or some other factor. One committee member noted other species that occasionally show dark spots. After the discussion, the committee voted unanimously to accept the record and include Little Egret on the state list.
Twenty days later we spotted a group of nine Black-bellied Whistling-ducks in Cape May. The details are here. This sighting also was accepted, making a super first half of the year for us. There is something very special about finding a rarity that needs to be documented. Finding two review species in one month was exceptional.
Here in central New Jersey we have two celebrity banded birds that have repeatedly returned back to our area. An American Oystercatcher called T2 traveled from its winter home in Florida to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park to breed for at least eight years. You can read about him by clicking here. Our other famous migrant is a Tundra Swan called T207 who has wintered here for at least the past seven years. Today we have an update on the T207 story. But first let’s start with a bit of background.
In November 2013 I became aware of a Tundra Swan with a neck collar that was seen at Whitesbog. Bill Elrick spotted this banded swan but was unable to identify the band number. I went back the next day and was able to read the band identification number through my scope and get documentation photos. After reporting the sighting and photo to the Bird Banding Lab (https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/bblretrv/index.cfm), I learned that this swan, T207, was banded about as far away as you can get from New Jersey and still be in North America. This female swan hatched in 2005 or earlier and was banded in July 2006 20 miles from Nuiqsut on the far north shore of Alaska, which is ~150 mi east of Barrow, and only ~8 miles from the Arctic Ocean (70.39306, -150.24361). This was the fourth time that this bird was re-sighted since she was banded, with all sightings being concentrated within a small region of New Jersey. In addition to our Nov. 2013 sighting at Whitesbog, she was spotted in Nov. 2011 near Forsythe NWR (38 miles from Whitesbog), in Nov. 2010 at Whitesbog, and the first sighting that I am aware of was by Bob Cunningham in Whitesbog in Nov. 2008. In other words, if we make the reasonable assumption that she is returning to the site in Alaska where she was hatched and banded, then she is traveling ~6,700 miles round-trip between Alaska and NJ each year!
The wonderful thing about submitting a banded bird sighting is that you are drawn into learning more about that species. I learned that Tundra Swans that breed in Alaska travel southwards in either of two patterns. A population that breeds in western Alaska heads southwards towards British Columbia and then travels further south along the Pacific coast, primarily wintering in California, while a second population that breeds on the north shore of Alaska heads eastward from British Columbia, migrating across Canada and the Great Lakes region to the east coast of the US, with most wintering in the Chesapeake Bay region and the North Carolina coast. Tundra Swans are known to live up to 24 years in the wild, but average a 15-20-year lifespan. T207 is part of this second population.
But would she survive and continue to return to our area? In both November 2014 and 2015 I found her in Reeve’s Bog ~5 miles away from Whitesbog (39.90260, -74.54057), where she was spotted in 2008, 2010, and 2013. Somehow it shouldn’t be surprising that birds have the remarkable ability to travel more than 3,000 miles and then navigate back to the same location, but I’m still amazed. After all it’s 6,700 miles back and forth between here and Alaska, with all kinds of hazards. And if her navigation skills are off by just a little bit, she could end up in a lake just a few miles away and we might never notice her. Interestingly, during the winter of 2015 T207 was found in at least two other local lakes, so even though she returns faithfully to our area, she still moves around locally during the season. On Jan. 9, 2016 she was found in Bamber Lake (Ocean County) by Linda Woodfield, and on Jan. 17 she was found by Bob Cunningham again in Whitesbog.
In Dec. 2016 she was found back at her original NJ home of Whitesbog by Scott Fisher, and then Scott re-found her again at Reeve’s Bog on Dec. 21, continuing the pattern of moving around our area during the winter as the local lakes freeze and thaw.
By now local birders are expecting her to show up each year around late November, and indeed today she was spotted at Whitesbog, making it five straight years that she returned to our area. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hello to our local bird celebrity.
Year First sighting
2006 banded in July 2006 20 miles from Nuiqsut, Alaska
2006 sighted 8 October 2006, near Barber Lake, Saskatchewan.
2008 Whitesbog by Bob Cunningham
2010 Whitesbog by Steve Mattan
2011 Forsythe NWR
2013 Whitesbog by Bill Elrick
2014 Reeve’s Bog by Greg Prelich
2015 Reeve’s Bog by Greg Prelich
2016 Whitesbog by Scott Fisher
2017 Whitesbog by Steve Mattan and Bernie Knaupp
Here’s a rather smartly patterned bird. What is it?
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Click here for the answer
What bird species do you see here?
More specifically, let’s focus on the dark bird. What is it?
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Click here for the answer.
I don’t normally chase rarities, but will occasionally make exceptions. When the bird is a Common Greenshank and it is appearing in nearby Forsythe NWR (=Brig), it’s not a tough decision, so today became an official chase day. So let’s start at the beginning. Three days ago Sam Galick spotted a Common Greenshank at Brig. When the report was posted, I’m guessing that the initial response of most local birders was probably something along the lines of “That’s great. What’s a Common Greenshank?”. Well, Common Greenshank is essentially a Eurasian version of a Greater Yellowlegs, with a similar size, shape, behavior, and habitat preference. At this time of year they are distinguishable by the Common Greenshank having a whiter head and dull olive legs compared with the bright golden legs of a Yellowlegs. It is relatively common in Europe, but is incredibly rare in North America. According to the ABA blog, there are fewer than ten North American records for Common Greenshank away from Alaska. All Common Greenshanks reported in the eastern part of the continent have occurred in the Atlantic Canadian provinces, alhough there are single records each from Barbados and Bermuda. And there it was, being spotted only 37 miles from my home. How could I not look for it?
I was busy for the past two days, but the bird was spotted briefly both days, giving hope that it might hang around long enough for me to see it. Today I finally had an opening in the schedule, so I called up brother Rich and headed south. When we were only halfway out on Wildlife Drive, a text alert arrived saying that the bird was just spotted about a mile further up the road. At this point there was no need to be subtle; the signs saying 15 mph speed limit were essentially ignored and all other birds were passed by. There was a sizeable parade of cars and birders and scopes assembled on the east dike already.
We took our place in line, pointed our scopes toward the impoundment, and it was pretty easy to quickly scan through the group of feeding Greater Yellowlegs and spot the bird that was different from the rest, with the whiter head and greener legs of the Common Greenshank clearly visible. The situation was tough for photos; the bird was scope-viewing distance away, and the morning was a chilly 50 degrees with 15 mph winds that caused scope shake (or was the scope shivering too??). I did manage a few documenting digiscoped photos that are barely worth posting.
Click on the photo for a larger image, and click here for the answer.
Click the image for a larger photo.
Click here for the answer.