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.
Earlier this week I stopped by Whitesbog on the way to mom’s for lunch. I was a bit early, so I had an extra half hour or so before I was expected to arrive. What do you do with an extra half hour? Go birding, of course! The nearest local hotspot is Whitesbog, so off I went for what I thought would be a quick drive-through. As I pulled into the drained bog area, I found the water at nearly-perfect levels, with ample shallow water yet with exposed flats and grassy areas. The first bird that I looked at caught my attention, even while still driving. It was too white for most shorebirds, and was out in the deeper water despite being small. I stopped the car, pulled out the bins, and found myself looking at a phalarope!
That was great, but now the question became which species of phalarope was it? Here in NJ, phalaropes fall into that category of birds that occur frequently enough to recognize that they are different, but I do not see them frequently enough to feel comfortable identifying them to species without checking the field guides. In terms of abundance, Wilson’s Phalarope is the most common species here in NJ, followed by Red-necked, and with Red Phalarope being a review species that should be reported to the NJ Birds Records Committee. This bird clearly was not a Wilson’s Phalarope due to the dark eye patch, so the new default was Red-necked. But the bird was moving away, preventing high-quality photos or analysis. I tried to read this bird’s mind and anticipate where it was heading, drove to the cross-dike, and found that the bird reversed direction. Arghhh. While scoping it out, however, I spotted another nice bird, American Golden-plover. Oy! Is there such a thing as rare bird overload? The problem though, was I could hear the clock ticking and could sense mom wondering where I was and why I was late, while I was unable to get any great photos or know what this bird was. I had no choice but to get into the car and drive back to the original end of the bog and hope for better photos. I couldn’t re-find the Golden-plover, so full attention fell to the phalarope. The bird quickly flew off, landing further away from where I was, but right next to the roadway. Here was my chance. I got out of the car, grabbed a few close shots, when it once again flew past me and toward the water’s edge, finally allowing ample opportunity for documenting photos. I had to leave and hope that others would re-find it.
When I arrived at mom’s I finally had an opportunity to look at the photos. Then I became confused. This bird had far too much red on it’s belly to be a textbook Red-necked Phalarope. Could it be a Red? Look at these photos and compare it to your field guide before reading further. What do you think?
I texted a few friends in excitement, and after lunch went back to try to re-find the bird without any time constraints. Unfortunately it was nowhere to be found (by me or by others), so all we had were the photos. So what bird are we looking at here and what are the features that we should look for when we see a phalarope at this time of year?
The key features to note on this bird are the black eye patch, the rusty belly, and the relatively sharp bill. As we said earlier, the black eye patch eliminates Wilson’s Phalarope. The red belly points toward Red Phalarope, but the relatively pointed bill favors Red-necked. So where does that leave us? After studying this bird and the field guides there were two options. Either my judgment of bill shape was off and this is a Red Phalarope, or the bill shape assessment was correct, and this is a stained Red-necked Phalarope. If there is one theme that I have learned in bird identification, it is that structure trumps plumage. Bird structure (size, shape, leg size, wing length, bill shape) is amazingly consistent, while plumage changes; mutations cause pigmentation issues, food choice can affect feather color, molting or feather loss results in feathers at different plumage stages, and feathers can be affected by mud or oil or staining. As one example, think back to all those Snow Geese that you see with discolored plumage on their necks or undersides.
I showed the photos to people whose opinion I trust, and everybody agreed that the bill is not blunt enough for a Red Phalarope, and they uniformly agreed that it was a stained Red-necked Phalarope.
Does staining of birds happen frequently? I already cited the example of Snow Geese, but have heard of other tough identification cases involving stained shorebirds. A quick non-exhaustive on-line search revealed a passage from a book by Scott Weidensaul where he described birds that are stained by iron oxide in the arctic mud. That would be consistent with the breeding grounds of Red-necked Phalaropes in low Arctic bogs and marshes. Another book more specifically mentions Red-necked Phalaropes in the following passage, lending support to the origin of the red color in today’s interesting bird.
Yesterday the star of the show was an American Golden-plover, but the Sedge Islands is a great location for observing and studying the terns at close quarters. We were more than entertained by them, especially the two larger tern species. First of all, the numbers were terrific, with at least 80 Royal Terns and 13 Caspian Terns. Second, one of the Royal Terns caught a fish that was probably too big for a single bird to eat or swallow, so at least two other nearby terns were displaying with their wings held in an interesting position. I would have expected that kind of begging behavior from immature birds, but the ‘begging’ birds seemed to be mature, based on their bill color. Here’s a couple photos where you can see the size of the fish and some of the displaying birds.
The most interesting aspect of the Caspian Terns was seeing some immature birds. We get plenty of immature Royal Terns, but I don’t remember ever seeing immature Caspians here, so I don’t know if they don’t show up here normally or if I have just been non-observant. Here’s two of the immature birds.
It was the kind of day where I just had to go out birding. The skies were clear, the temperature was ideal (in the mid-80’s), and the winds were light and coming from the west. There HAD to be something good out there, right? And even if there wasn’t, it was a perfect day to search for them, so Jeanine and I ventured out to the Sedge Islands again.
The Sedges have been good to us this year. Every trip there yields good numbers and quality of birds at close range, and there’s always the possibility of a rarity. For me, an average day at the Sedges beats a good day almost anywhere else nearby. Today my sights were set on either American Golden-plovers, which are popping up at the sod farms in nearby counties, or on one of the really unusual terns.
We arrived later than usual, with the tide already rising. Our first pass through the main flats didn’t yield anything remarkable, with the highlight being a large gathering of 70 Royal Terns. We couldn’t turn any of them into a Sandwich Tern, like we did last week. At the inlet it was relatively quiet, although its always nice to see a flock of around 30 Brown Pelicans (‘normal’ for the Sedges), and a scraggly Red Fox patrolling the beach, trying to figure out how to convert one of the Common Terns into a meal. Returning back to the main flats, most of the birds now were concentrated into a relatively small area as it approached high tide. The goal of finding an American Golden-plover became more realistic upon seeing a sizeable flock of Black-bellied Plovers gathered on the edge of the water.
Jeanine and I spotted the bird at about the same time. I don’t always know what makes a tough bird stand out, but something stood out about this bird. The Cape May school of birding would just say that it was the GISS (or ‘jizz’) of the bird. Most of the time we prefer not to see an interesting bird walking away from us when we’re working on an ID, but in this case it was very helpful, since a definitive field mark is the black undertail of the American Golden-plover compared to the white undertail of the Black-bellied Plover. That sealed the case.
We tried to approach closer, but the bird had a comfort zone, and as soon as we approached 10 ft closer, it ambled 10 ft further away. It was a fun game that we repeated a few times (we sneak closer, it shimmies further; we try a different direction, it goes in a different direction, etc. etc.) , but ultimately we were happy with our views and switched to being distracted by the terns (more about them tomorrow).
Before we leave for today, it is worthwhile to compare American Golden-plover (AMGP) and Black-bellied Plover (BBPL) in more detail; what can we look for when trying to find an AMGP in a group of BBPLs? The field guides mention several field marks. American Golden-plover is a tad smaller and has a slightly smaller bill than Black-bellied Plover, but the size difference is very tough to distinguish unless you are fortunate to have a direct side-by-side comparison, and apparent size changes depending upon posture. I would consider size a secondary trait, and not one that I would use to scan through a flock. The bill size can be particularly important when the birds have completed their molt into non-breeding plumage, but again, it would be tough to use as the primary search criterion. As we mentioned earlier, the undertail color is important, but relies upon at least some remnant of breeding plumage. If the birds are in breeding plumage, this would be a good mark to search for, but it requires that they are facing sideways or away from the birder. For example, in the photo at the top of this post, all the birds are facing into the wind towards the camera, so the undertail is not visible. In flight, the underwing pattern is definitive, but that often relies up on a fleeting glimpse. All of these field marks help. Searching for golden tones to the feathers doesn’t work for me, since that seems very lighting-dependent and plumage dependent. For example, a flock of Black-bellied Plovers at this time of year can have some individuals that look nearly gray and other that have a tinge of brown. I think that we can all agree that in the photo below, even the Black-bellied Plover looks somewhat golden.
So what is the best field mark to start with? For me, the quickest way to scan through a mixed flock is to search for the bird with the prominent white supercilium that highlights a darker cap. Let’s re-examine the original photo that was at the top of this blog entry. Click on the photo below for a larger version, and then scan quickly looking for that bold supercilium and see if you can find the AMGP now.
OK, in the next photo the group has shifted slightly, and the bird is now more obvious, with the spotted undertail visible and the shorter bill. See, it’s not that hard after all, is it?
This was the first American Golden-plover reported in the county this year, and there were only two reports in 2016. So it definitely qualifies as a nice find.
Today was the day for the solar eclipse. Unfortunately, we are not located anywhere near the path of totality, and here in NJ only 74% of the sun was going to be eclipsed by the moon. To ‘celebrate’, Jeanine and I headed out canoeing into the Sedge Islands, which were nearly devoid of people. Right on schedule, the skies darkened somewhat and then started brightening again. (A sidetrack: are you as amazed as I am that we can predict these astronomical events with such stunning accuracy? Thank you, scientists!) Shortly after finishing our post-ecliptical lunch, we found ourselves at the inlet where a sizeable congregation of birds were scattered on the exposed flats. We were scanning the flock, hoping for one of the rarer terns. After all, tomorrow would be one year since we found our first Sandwich Tern here in NJ. Sometimes it feels somewhat pointless to sort through Common Tern after Common Tern, hoping for something different. Yet there it was: after scanning a hundred-and-one Common Terns, we found a tern slightly larger than the numerous Commons, yet smaller than the nearby Royal Terns, with a black crest on back of its head. And to clinch it all, it had a long black bill with a yellow tip. Sandwich Tern!
That was great, but right next to it was another tern of the same size, with a black crest on back of its head and a long black bill. TWO Sandwich Terns!! Yowza!. An adult and an immature side-by-side. As if to confirm that they were unusual, both of them had silver bands on their right legs, although the bands were too small to get any identifying code, and my scope was at home.
It was interesting to speculate if we would have recognized the immature bird if the adult wasn’t nearby. Occasionally they would fly off and it wasn’t so easy to re-locate the immature tern even though we knew it was somewhere in the flock.
That sighting by itself made it a great tern day, but as is usual for this location, we had great views of the more ‘regular’ species, so in the interest of equal time, I thought I’d share photos of some of the others.
In the past I have described the pleasure derived from reporting the banded Tundra Swan T207 and from reporting banded Snow Geese. Yesterday Jeanine and I took a long yet delightful walk in the North Brigantine Natural Area located just north of Atlantic City. The beach was full of birds. Here’s a view of a small part of the shoreline to give an idea of how packed it was, and this was fairly typical of what we saw along much of the shoreline. Only the southernmost part of the beach was open to vehicles, so once we got past the vehicle barrier, the beach was all ours. Well, ours and the birds. It was a wonderful feeling.
We didn’t find any rare or unusual species today, but the sheer number of birds overcame the lack of rarities. Highlights were 170 Royal Terns, 450 Red Knots, 9 Piping Plovers, and a conservative estimate of 3,000 Semipalmated Plovers. Near the end of the day, as we were scanning the flock, we started noticing a few banded birds. Then more. And then more. Eventually we tallied eight banded Red Knots and four banded Piping Plovers. The birds have different bands, depending on where they were banded. Five Red Knots had green flags with white codes, and three had orange flags with black letters. The Piping Plovers had either an alphanumeric flag or a series of color-coded bands. Examples of these banding strategies are shown below.
As soon as I returned home I assembled the information and reported it to the US banded bird website, which allowed me to access the banding location and where the birds subsequently were re-sighted. So what did we learn from reporting this information?
Let’s start with the Red Knots. The flags indicate the country where the birds were banded. Green flags with white lettering indicate that they were banded in the US. Birds with orange flags with black lettering were banded at sites in Argentina!! Unfortunately, the researcher who banded the Argentinian birds doesn’t share her information, so we don’t know precisely where and when in Argentina those birds were banded, but the likely banding site is at least 5,600 miles away from where we spotted it. Wow! But it does serve as a great reminder of the distances that these birds migrate. Four of the US-banded birds were banded in the Delaware Bay region, perhaps not surprising based on the importance of that stopover site for their migration strategy, while the final Knot was banded in Massachusetts.
The Piping Plovers all have a rich New Jersey history too. Two plovers bred in the Holgate division of the Forsythe NWR (which is across the channel from where we spotted them), and two others were just fledged from that region. One of our breeding birds was initially banded in Andros Island in The Bahamas, which is an important wintering region for these plovers.
We’ll be heading back to North Brig very soon to enjoy the fall shorebird migration up close and personal, and you can bet that we’ll be looking for more banded birds there too. Keep an eye out for any banded birds when you are out on the beaches or mudflats this fall and get good documentation of their banding pattern. Photos are best, but note the alphanumeric codes (if present), which leg the bands are on, what color the lettering is, and whether the bands are on the upper or lower legs.
Three weeks ago I stopped by Wells Mills Bog to view some of the unique Pine Barrens plants, including orchids and carnivorous plants that can be found quite easily in this location due to the accessible boardwalk. Today I returned to see if I could find a few more of the unique pinelands plant species. The orchids and Bog Asphodel that were here on my last trip have finished blooming, but as I had hoped, a few new plants were now visible, even to my untrained eye.
A little bit further up the road one of the late summer wild orchids was starting to bloom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.