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 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!


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 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?

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.

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.

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. This bird was accepted by the NJ Birds Records Committee in November 2017, making it the 479th bird species on the New Jersey list.)

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.


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.


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
Jan 082017

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

 Posted by at 11:14 PM
Dec 252016

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

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


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


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

Cape May

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

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


Common Nighthawk at Sandy Hook.

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


Northern Gannet following the Cape May ferry.

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

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


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


A Great Shearwater shearing the water.

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

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


Our unexpected Lapland Longspur.

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

North Brig beach

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


Jeanine’s Sandwich Tern.

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

Black-crested Antshrike

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


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

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


Red in September, starting to show more color.

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

Brig rainbow

Post-storm double rainbow at Brig.


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

 Posted by at 8:59 AM
Dec 122016

Here in central New Jersey we have two celebrity banded birds that have been repeatedly returning 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 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 (, 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 swan was a female that was 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 ~6 miles from 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!

T207 traveled at least 3,323 miles from her banding location in Alaska to her winter locations in New Jersey.

It’s 3,323 miles from T207’s banding location in Alaska to her winter locations in New Jersey.

Locations in New Jersey where Tundra Swan T207 has been sighted

Locations in New Jersey where Tundra Swan T207 has been sighted.

The wonderful thing about submitting information such as a banded bird, 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.

In November 2014 I searched through Whitesbog occasionally, scanning through the flock of up to ~90 Tundra Swans, hoping to see her again, but to no avail. Did she decide to go elsewhere? Was it too early in the season for her to return? Did she meet an early demise? (although by the aging criterion described above, she is still a youngster). Finally, in Reeve’s Bog ~5 miles away from Whitesbog (39.90260, -74.54057), I saw a distant bird in my binocs with a neck collar, and indeed it was T207 who remarkably returned to within ~5 miles of 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.

In November 2015 I was fortunate to spot her again in Reeve’s Bog, mixed in with a group of 93 Tundra Swans, only ~200 yards away from where I found her in November 2014. Now that’s what I call navigation skills! Interestingly, that winter 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.

T207 2015

A digiscoped photo of Tundra Swan T207, Nov. 25, 2015. Her ‘necklace’ is a bit worn and dirty, but it’s still good to see her.

I haven’t had a chance to look for her much this season, but thankfully others have been keeping their eyes peeled. On Dec. 12 she was found yet again, 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. So once again, she is moving around our area. Scott contacted the banders, who added yet another older sighting of T207, this time in a different location. She was also observed on 8 October 2006, near Barber Lake Saskatchewan.


T207 back in Whitesbog Dec. 2016. Found and photographed by Scott Fisher.

So by my tally that is the seventh year that she has been spotted in our area. As we found out the past two winters, she can move around during the season as the local lakes freeze and thaw, but Whitesbog is a pretty reliable place to find her. 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   Pemberton Lakes (?)
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

 Posted by at 9:29 PM
Oct 132016

It was going to be a nice fall day weather-wise; calm winds, mostly sunny, with temperatures in the low 70’s. After looking at the wind patterns (from the south) and the radar (I’m still not sure how much to trust the radar images, but I look anyway) it was not likely that many birds would have come in overnight. But how can we not go birding on such a beautiful fall day? On Monday Jeanine and I enjoyed a great day of land birding at Palmyra Cove with a nice variety of lingering warblers including five Nashvilles, and first-of-season Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Purple Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, and many kinglets (in both flavors) heralding a change in the season. To balance our birding for the week, we decided to try yet one more visit canoeing in the Island Beach Sedge Islands, with a bit of walking the trails beforehand. We were not disappointed.

The trails were quiet. We spotted a kinglet here and a kinglet there. A few Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, and a scattering of White-throated Sparrows were moving in the brush, but it was pretty quiet overall. The highlights were a Pied-billed Grebe and a FOS distant Common Loon on the dead-calm waters. Overall the birding was slow (to put it kindly). The tide was lowering so we headed out to the water hoping that the birding would be better out there.


This is the way to explore the Sedge Islands.

If nothing else, it was going to be a learning experience. Despite the many trips that I’ve taken to the Sedge Islands over the past three years, I’ve never been there in October. Two years ago Larry and I tried our luck on what must have been a warm November day, but otherwise the birding-by-canoe strategy has ended in late September. Even if the birds didn’t cooperate, it would be great paddling here on a gorgeous day.

After landing on the main sand flats, we were finding the expected birds, although in lower-than-summer numbers.  As expected.  We were seeing the usual gulls, plenty of cormorants, and a smattering of shorebirds that were mostly Black-bellied Plovers, American Oystercatchers, Sanderlings, and Semi-palmated Plovers. Attempts to tease a golden-plover out of the flock were fruitless. A single Brown Pelican rested in the shallows, always nice to see. The medium-sized terns were all gone, but a handful of Royal and Caspian Terns remained. Then we decided to see if we could find an interesting sparrow by walking through the sparse grasses, with me calling ‘here, birdy birdy’. Sure, I know it was a sign of desperation, but sometimes you have to try to talk to them. Almost immediately a single bird flushed and flew a short ways. Our first partial looks were intriguing and left us wanting more, but it was playing hide-and-seek and not giving us enough for a definitive ID; I saw a bit of yellow on the face and was thinking Saltmarsh Sparrow, or if we were lucky, maybe a Nelson’s. Jeanine saw some black lines on the face and was thinking Lark Sparrow. It finally moved into the open on my side of a grassy cluster and to me it looked like a Longspur. I’m not as familiar with the longspurs as I’d like, so I ran back to the canoe for my Sibleys and my camera as Jeanine tried to get photos with her camera. (aside: why is it that every time I leave my camera behind a good bird shows up, and when I carry it around, things are quiet? Does that happen to you too? Are the birding gods playing with us?) After returning and getting better views, it was clear that we were looking at a non-breeding plumaged adult male Lapland Longspur!


Lapland Longspur in the shade of a grassy cluster. From our initial quick looks, that black cheek border was our first clue that it wasn’t one of the expected sparrows.


Eventually it came out fully into the open, and we could see its chestnut wing bar and its strikingly patterned plumage.

Needless to say, this bird was not on our radar. It is such a kick to find a bird that makes you say “I wasn’t expecting to see THAT!”.  For what must have been a half hour or so we patiently waited while the bird moved in and out of the grasses, alternating between my side and Jeanine’s side to keep us both happy. Nobody else was in sight except for a distant pair of clammers.

As we circled the island, the icing on the cake was another visit from a Marbled Godwit, mixed in with a pair of Oystercatchers. So for the third time this year, we spot a Marbled Godwit here and it is not even the top bird of the trip.


Here’s a size comparison (of birds and bills) of Marbled Godwit next to an American Oystercatcher.

For the rest of the day we made a brief attempt to find our old friend the Reddish Egret. We saw it here on our last four trips over the past two months, so it was beginning to feel like a regular sighting, rather than a rarity. But Red has apparently and appropriately moved on. It didn’t matter. We were still basking in the afterglow of the Longspur with big smiles on our faces.

I have come to love fall birding, when almost anything can appear.

 Posted by at 5:55 PM
Sep 192016

OK, let’s start off this way: pelagic trips and pelagic birding are not for everybody. But are they for me? Are they for you? I just returned back from a 20-hour pelagic birding trip yesterday, so I’ll share some thoughts and experiences from that trip here.


Birders unboarding after a successful pelagic.

First of all, why would anybody want to go on a pelagic trip? From a birding perspective, that’s not too hard to understand: there are plenty of species that are difficult or impossible to see from land, and thus to find those birds we need to go where they live…out to sea. Secondly, it’s a great change of pace to be in a completely different environment out on the ocean, away from those nasty biting insects, as you relax on a boat with cool ocean breezes wafting through your hair as you spot new birds, whales, dolphins, sharks, and other sea life.

After painting that idealized picture, why aren’t we all going on pelagics? Well, I like to think of myself as having a positive attitude, so I won’t dwell on the potential negatives, but they include unreliable sea or weather conditions for boating, the potential for seasickness, the cost, and distant birds. I’ll return back to these items after describing how this trip fared.


Pelagic birding: part of our group scanning the open seas from the bow of the boat.

This excursion out of Wildwood NJ was organized by See Life Paulagics, a company run by Paul Guris. It was scheduled as an 18 hour overnighter, leaving dock at 10:30 PM, sailing out 90 miles to the 6,000 ft deep waters of the offshore ocean canyon. Paul explained that the water here was ~76 degrees, around 6 degrees warmer than the near-shore ocean temperatures. That temperature differential and the currents that bring the warm water here is the magnet that attracts interesting birds. Considering that you lose sight of land at around 18 miles from shore, much of our sailing was well beyond sight of land. Target birds included four species of storm-petrels, four shearwaters, three jaegers, and a petrel or two if we are lucky, most of which would be lifers for me or birds that I have only seen once or twice.

Immediately after boarding our 110 ft vessel, the Atlantic Star, we selected sleeping arrangements on benches or on the decks and within an hour or so tried to catch some sleep. It was not easy for me. Despite being quite tired and having seas that weren’t really that rough, the constant up-and-down motion of the boat made it tough to get much rest. Somewhere around 4:30AM we arrived at our destination, and I was glad to hear the engines finally slowing down. Then we started rocking side-to-side, and that didn’t help me at all. Since I had only been on one previous pelagic (in Westport, WA), where I had no problems whatsoever, I didn’t take much precaution other than packing the suggested non-greasy foods. In retrospect, that wasn’t a great move, and taking some Bonine or Dramamine would have been a wise decision. It was still dark, but the mates started laying out a chum line, and within another half hour or so it was light enough to start seeing some birds. I was feeling a bit queasy and didn’t want to be hanging over the railing, but I was not the only one having problems, as another passenger was adding his previous meal to the chumline and others (but not all) clearly were affected. That didn’t help. For the first few hours the uneasiness continued, but by getting out in the open air, concentrating on viewing the birds and watching the horizon, and eating small amounts of dry food (breakfast bars, pretzels), eventually I was able to eliminate the queasiness and feel comfortable again.


Inside the main cabin, with part of the group either recovering or resting during a long day.

The problem was that when the birding was probably the best in the early morning, I was at my worst and not in much of a mood for sorting through tough-to-ID birds through unsteady bins. Still, good birds were there. Wilson’s Storm-petrel was a nemesis bird for me, one that I have attempted to see from land, but with no success. Out here they were the most numerous species, with frequent groups of these dainty birds touching upon the water with their long legs. Unfortunately they were often too distant for great photos, but they were fun to see. Two other storm-petrels that are much tougher to find in NJ waters (Leach’s and Band-rumped) occasionally were found in the mix during the first hour or two, but at that point it was tough for me to focus on the birds. Later in the trip a fourth storm-petrel, White-faced Storm-petrel, was seen momentarily by a few passengers before it disappeared into a wave trough.


A flock of Wilson’s Storm-petrels. This species has been a nemesis bird for me. It can be seen from land, but I hadn’t seen them before today.


Cropped shot of a Wilson’s Storm-petrel.

The second most abundant bird today was Cory’s Shearwater. This is the largest shearwater in the world, with a wingspan of 44 inches. By its size, on this trip it could only be confused with the slightly smaller Great Shearwater, which was also present in decent numbers today. Cory’s has a gray hood, all-white undersides, and yellow bill, while Great Shearwater has black cap, black bill, and black streaks near the axillaries. Eventually I was able to ID them fairly easily. It was fun to see why they are called shearwaters, with amazing ability to fly low to the water, tilting occasionally to gain a bit of lift. The third shearwater that we saw today was the smaller Audubon’s Shearwater, a species that I saw last year in Tobago.


Cory’s Shearwater. It’s the largest shearwater in the world, best identified by its gray cap-and-neck combo and its yellow bill.


A Cory’s Shearwater on the water. From this angle you can see why they are in the tubenose family.


Here’s a Great Shearwater showing how they earned their name, with its wingtip actually in the water. It is distinguished from the similar-sized Cory’s Shearwater by its black cap, thin black bill, and narrow white rump band.


Undersides of a Great Shearwater. The marked underwing contrasts with the clean white underwing of Cory’s. Look at the length of those wings relative to the body!

The birding highlight of the day was seeing two Black-capped Petrels. In both cases the petrel was originally found on the water, mixed in with shearwaters. When Paul excitedly screamed out “Black-capped Petrel…second bird from the left”, anybody would recognize that it was a ‘good bird’ just by the volume of his voice. This was a well-behaved bird, flying left, then right, then back again, ensuring that everyone aboard had plenty of satisfactory views. Like a classic diva bird that knows it’s the star of the show.


Black-capped Petrel. This bird of the day put on a great show. It’s a tough bird to see in NJ, as it’s a southern species that likes warm water. We saw two on this trip.


Soaring Black-capped Petrel. Note the large white rump patch that easily distinguishes it from the larger Great Shearwater.

As the trip progressed, the leaders occasionally would shout out ‘sky bird’. This was a sign that something different was being sighted, as the shearwaters, petrels, and storm-petrels tend to fly close to the water. Any bird flying high enough to be seen against the sky had a chance to be something else, with terns, gulls, and jaegers being on that list. In fact, the group did see eight distant Bridled Terns on this trip, a Parasitic Jaeger, and two Long-tailed Jaegers. One Long-tailed Jaeger must have taken cooperativity lessons from the Black-capped Petrel, as it sailed towards us and then continued directly over mid-ship. Nice.


An immature Long-tailed Jaeger.

In addition to the birds, we were fortunate to see other types of sea life, including a Hammerhead Shark, a few Portuguese Man-o-Wars (or is it ‘Men-o-War’?), a flock of acrobatic Spotted Dolphins, a few Pilot Whales, a pair of likely Gervais’ Whales breaching, a Mola, and a few turtles. All great to see.

As we were returning back to port, the inevitable question returned: would I do it over again? And if so, what would I change? Or would I recommend this kind of trip to others? I think that any serious birder needs to try a pelagic to see if it is their cup of tea. To put this trip into perspective, four NJ review species (Black-capped Petrel, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Band-rumped Storm-petrel, and White-faced Storm-petrel) were seen on this outing. On the other hand, I would probably not recommend starting with an overnighter. The spring and fall warm-water trips in NJ need to get out to the canyons to reach the warm currents that the target species love, but for winter pelagics it is not necessary to go as far out to reach the target alcids and winter gulls. I’d definitely recommend starting with a shorter trip. And by all means take simple precautions and Bonine or Dramamine to avoid seasickness. The See Life Paulagics web site has suggestions for preventing seasickness; I should have heeded all of their advice instead of just some.  Paul’s outfit is essentially the only option for pelagic trips in the NY/NJ/PA area, and they run a great ship, complete with multiple highly experienced leaders who are spotting and calling out tough birds, communicating with each other using a wireless microphone system. They lay out a chum line to try to draw birds in towards the boat, but will chase good birds (and mammals) when necessary to get better views. So will I become a regular member of the pelagic group? I doubt it. Will I go again? Yes. Maybe I’ll see you there at the dock.

 Posted by at 4:37 PM
Aug 222016

Today Jeanine and I felt like doing something different. Instead of spending a day birding from a canoe, or walking in the woods, the idea was to hit the beach and see if we can find one of the rarer terns that visit New Jersey. We weren’t going to be too picky; Roseate, Sandwich, or Bridled all would do. Of course, with all the bathers out there enjoying the surf, the options for a relatively peaceful birding beach location are somewhat limited. The tip of Sandy Hook is a great choice. Parts of Island Beach State Park can be good, but seeing all the cars on the beach there is simply depressing. The beach at Holgate is very nice, but Holgate is closed until Sept. 1. We decided instead to try the North Brig Natural Area, just north of Atlantic City.

This is not a walk for everyone; it is a ~2.75 mile walk one way from the parking area to the tip of the peninsula, and that’s walking on sand with the potential for greenhead flies joining us along the way. And indeed they were present; I took to wearing a beach towel like a Tongan war garment to keep them off of my bare legs. It looks goofy, but hey, sometimes you just have to try adapt for the sake of adventure. Thankfully the ~12 mph wind kept the numbers out of ‘lets get of here’ range, into the ‘annoying’ level of being bitten. The way that I figure it, sometimes a little blood needs to be sacrificed to the birding gods for the opportunity of seeing something really good.


I saw too many of these buggers today.

Beach attire

This is not my typical birding attire, but it worked for keeping the greenheads off of my legs.

The walk started out great, with lots of shorebirds in the surf nearly the entire distance. There were thousands of Sanderling running in and out of the surf line, joined by hundreds of Semipalmated Plovers, a few Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers to sort through, and a smattering of gulls. The diversity wasn’t staggering, but the sheer numbers of birds was impressive, and it was simply fun to be around so many birds and to sort through that huge background to find those that were a little more interesting. In other words, my kind of birding.

North Brig beach

In this photo you get a sense of the number of birds that were here today, dotting the entire coastline as the tide receded.

And they did eventually start appearing. First a couple couple Ruddy Turnstones stuck out among the smaller common birds, then a singleton Short-billed Dowitcher, an American Oystercatcher here and there, and a single Whimbrel. Red Knots ranged from having a bright salmon-colored breast to those that were nearly all-gray. It was a great example of using the size and structure of the bird, not the plumage, to help to identify them. Eventually we found an area with a tight cluster of ~120 Red Knots. That’s the kind of stuff we were looking for.

Brig Oystercatcher

One of the American Oystercatchers that we saw today.


Look at all those Oystercatchers. Isn’t that a great sight?

Mostly Knots

Part of a group of ~ 120 Red Knots in various plumage states.

Higher up on the sand and away from the surf, we were able to spot a Piping Plover that blended in so well with its background. Later on we found a cluster of these delightful and threatened birds. Any day where you can see a dozen Piping Plovers is a good one in my book. A short distance from the plover a few Ghost Crabs were popping in and out of their burrows in the sand. Cool!

Piping Plovers

It’s nice to see a single Piping Plover, but even better to see a group of them.

Ghost crab

Here’s what a Ghost Crab looks like.

We eventually made it to the tip of the peninsula, where we were alone with a flock ~150 gulls and terns to sort through. I scanned through the flock twice, counting 29 Royal Terns and two Caspian Terns and was about to give up on seeing a rarity when Jeanine suggested that I take a look at one in the scope that had a yellow tip to its bill. YES! it was our main target for the day, a gorgeous Sandwich Tern, that was larger than the accompanying Common Terns, with a shaggy Friar Tuck haircut, long black bill, and overall brighter plumage. This was the first Sandwich Tern for both of us in New Jersey. The bird separated from the flock and I was able to get a fairly distant documentation shot before it flew off towards the ocean.

Sandwich Tern

Jeanine’s Sandwich Tern, or as Pete Dunne calls it, the tern ‘with mustard on its bill”.


The Sandwich Tern in comparison to nearby Common Terns.

A few minutes later, I noticed a dark-winged gull that was a little smaller than a nearby Herring Gull. One look at its bright yellow legs confirmed it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, another one of our targets. This species is a common breeder in Europe, but as far as I know is not known to breed in North America, yet we can see good numbers of them occasionally here in the US.  Last year we saw twelve of them on a September walk at Holgate, and we saw yet another one of them later in the walk today. The interesting thing is that the Holgate birds from last year were all immatures, while both of our birds today were adults in clean breeding plumage.

LBB and Herring

Lesser Black-backed Gull on the left, slightly smaller than the nearby Herring Gull. Look at those bright yellow legs.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight.

It was yet another super day of birding, finding most of our target birds; I highly recommend a day of barefoot birding for a change, seeing all of these great species, and enjoying nearly constant bird activity with the sounds and atmosphere of a different side of the Jersey shore. I love barefoot birding.


Take nothing but photos; leave nothing but bare footprints. My kind of birding.

 Posted by at 8:52 PM