Dec 272017
 

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.

Phalarope flight

An interesting rust-stained Red-necked Phalarope from Whitesbog.

Snowy Owl4

This has turned out to be a good Snowy Owl winter. Here’s one that we stumbled upon in November.

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.

Two Cory's

Two Cory’s Shearwaters from our Poor Man’s Pelagic.

#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.

Prothonotary nest cavity

A Prothonotary Warbler peeking out from its nest cavity.

#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.

Scarlet Tanager hopping

A cooperative Scarlet Tanager from Garrett Mountain.

#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.

Bobolink

One of many Bobolinks at the Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge from our High Point trip.

Happy campers

Enjoying a roaring fire in our cabin.

#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.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker

The distinctive Puerto Rican Woodpecker.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

Scaly-naped Pigeon. Who knew that pigeons could look so great?

#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.

Four Black Terns

Part of the Black Tern group.

#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.

Sandwich Terns

Two banded Sandwich Terns on the day of the solar eclipse.

#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’!

Snowy and Little Egrets

Snowy Egret (left) with NJ’s first Little Egret.

 Posted by at 8:28 AM
Dec 132017
 

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.

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.

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.

BB Whistling-Ducks

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

 Posted by at 12:31 PM
Oct 262017
 

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.

Crowd

This is just a small part of the crowd that lined both sides of the road along Wildlife Drive.

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.

Common Greenshank

Common Greenshank is in the middle, with two Greater Yellowlegs on the right. The whiter head was the most obvious feature when searching for the bird, with the duller legs serving as a nice secondary characteristic.

 Posted by at 6:00 PM
Sep 212017
 

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!

Phalarope and Yellowlegs

Phalaropes are very small shorebirds. Here it is in comparison to a nearby Greater Yellowlegs.

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.

Phalarope bill2

The mostly white bird stood out among the mostly brown shorebirds present today.

Phalarope brown wings

Like most phalaropes, it was very active, feeding at twice the speed of any other bird in the area.

Phalarope eye patch

The bill looks quite sharp and thin from this view. But notice that little bit of rusty red color on its belly. That color shouldn’t be there in a Red-necked Phalarope according to the field guides.

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?

Phalarope flight

The Phalarope in flight. This was the first photo where I noticed how much of a red belly this bird had.

Phalarope wings

Here’s a nice view of the upperwings in flight.

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?

Phalarope partially emerging

When the bird came into the shallow water edge, more of that rusty color could be seen.

Phalarope strolling

Here we can see even more of the red belly, and get a look at its legs.

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.

Screen Shot

 Posted by at 5:19 PM
Sep 042017
 

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.

Royal with fish2

This Royal Tern started all the fuss by catching this fish. Notice the immature Royal Tern in the background, with the yellow bill.

Royal with fish

Two Royal Terns then started displaying like this, with their wings pulled back and downward and partially open, and its crest raised. By their bill color, this looks like an adult. The immature birds in the area weren’t displaying.

Royals displaying

Here’s another view of the display behavior. Look at that erect crest!

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.

Caspian group photo

Here’s part of the group of Caspian Terns, with one Royal Tern mixed in. The sharply marked tern in the center is a clean immature Caspian Tern.

Immature Caspian

Here’s a close-up of that sharply marked immature Caspian Tern. What a gorgeous bird.

Immature Caspian 2

Here’s another immature Caspian Tern that is transitioning into a more mature uniform silvery plumage.

 Posted by at 9:48 PM
Aug 312017
 

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.

Plover pack

Here is a portion of the gaggle of Plovers that we found today. Can you spot the American Golden-plover in the crowd? It’s in there somewhere. We’ll come back to this photo later. Notice all the plumage stages on these plovers. Click on the photo for a larger version.

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.

Butt shot

I’m not always hoping to see the underside of a bird, but in this case it was helpful to see those remaining black splotches on the undertail.

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).

American Golden-plover2

The field guide view of American Golden-plover. The combination of gold, brown, and white highlights on the feathers was delightful to view in person.

American Golden-plover feeding

American Golden-plover feeding. Here you can see the undertail molting from black to white. Black-bellied Plovers have an all-white undertail.

American Golden-plover flight

American Golden-plover in flight.

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.

Plover comparison

Here’s a pretty nice side-by-side comparison of an American Golden-plover on the leftt, with the more common Black-bellied Plover. Note the slightly smaller size, smaller bill, and speckled undertail of the American Golden-plover.

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.

Plover pack

Can you spot the American Golden-plover in this crowd? Click on the photo to get a larger version, and look for the prominent white supercilium.

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?

Plover pack3

OK, now that it turned sideways and I added an arrow, the American Golden-plover is more obvious. Click on the photo for a larger version.

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.

 Posted by at 10:16 PM
Aug 212017
 

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!

Sandwich adult

An adult Sandwich Tern. The black bill with a yellow tip makes it very distinctive.

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.

Sandwich Terns

Adult and immature Sandwich Terns side-by-side. Seeing one of these in New Jersey is a treat; seeing two of them together is more than I could have hoped for.

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.

Tern flock

The two Sandwich Terns in the midst of the flock of Forster’s and Common Terns. Could you pick them out? Note that they are slightly larger and lighter and longer-legged than the more numerous mid-sized terns

Parade

A size comparison of Sandwich Tern, which is intermediate between the larger Royal Terns, but larger than the Common Tern resting far in the background.

Sandwich flight

The adult Sandwich Tern in flight.

Sandwich immature

The immature Sandwich Tern. The black crest is distinctive, and it is a little bit larger than the more numerous Common Terns. But would we have been able to find it without the adult nearby? Would you?

Immature Sandwich Tern

The immature Sandwich Tern in your classic field guide pose.

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.

Royal

Here’s an adult Royal Tern, with its shaggy crest. That huge orange-yellow bill easily distinguishes it from the Sandwich Terns. Sandwich Terns like to congregate with Royals, so anytime I see a flock of Royal Terns, my antenna goes up.

Caspian

Caspian Tern. Like the Royal Tern, it has a huge bill and towers over the mid-sized terns. But its bill is on the red end of the orange-red spectrum, and has a smudgy tip to its bill. this time of year, it has a full black cap, unlike the Royals.

Forster's

This is a Forster’s Tern. Immature and non-breeding Forster’s Terns have a black eye patch that easily distinguishes from the otherwise similar Common Terns.

Skimmer

Black Skimmer feeding. OK, maybe this is cheating, but Black Skimmer is in the same family of birds as the Terns and Gulls (Laridae), although it is in a different genus (Rynchops) from any terns.

Immature Common

Common Tern. The black carpal bar is distinctive for this immature bird.

 Posted by at 8:20 PM
Aug 152017
 

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.

8 14 n brig 4

Here’s a view that was not unusual today: a shoreline full of birds. Most of them are Semipalmated Plovers, with good numbers of Sanderlings and Red Knots, and a smattering of Semipalmated Sandpipers.

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.

Plover 85

Here’s a nice Piping Plover with an alphanumeric band (85).

Color banded plover

Here’s a Piping Plover that has only color bands, without any alphanumeric flags. The bands are not always easy to see. This bird has a yellow band above a silver band on its upper right leg and a blue band can be seen on its upper left leg.

NKN

We saw five Red Knots with green flags and white alphanumeric codes. Here’s Red Knot NKN.

E6 tag

Three Red Knots had orange flags with black lettering. This bird (E6) has supplementary color-coded bands on its lower left leg and a federal metal band on its upper right leg.

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.

E6 copy

Here’s an example of the report showing the history of sightings of Red Knot E6. This bird was banded in Argentina, and over the past 10 years has been sighted in NJ, Georgia, and Brazil. It’s quite the traveler.

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.

Greg N Brig

An intrepid birder / photographer trying to capture photos of the banded birds. I love barefoot birding!

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.

Plover key

 Posted by at 6:31 PM
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
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