Monday, October 9, 2017


There won't be any posts here until the end of the month. I'm leaving tomorrow for a birding trip to South Africa. Shari has already been there for more than a week and I'll meet up with her and the rest of the troupe in Durban.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here's a photo of a bird I won't see, but Shari saw plenty of in Capetown. Because of those two extra weeks in Africa, not to mention her winter trip to Iceland, her life list far exceeds mine and probably always will. But it's not a competition unless I'm winning.
African Penguin (Jackass Penguin)
Photo: Shari Zirlin

Friday, October 6, 2017

Sandy Hook 10/6--Tennessee Warbler

Naturally, now that with the arrival of Yellow-rumps, warbler season is over and I've "moved on" to sparrows, I would have one of my better warbler days at Sandy Hook, including a new addition to the year list. I drove up for one of Scott's half-day Fridays. We took the usual walk from Guardian Park down to Horseshoe Cove and back, with a good number of warblers in the still mostly fully-leafed trees, which made identification tricky and led me to miss a couple. We also came across some nice FOS birds (for me), like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Brown Creeper (a personal fave), and White-crowned Sparrow.  However, the sparrow I would have really liked to have seen--Lincoln's Sparrow--proved elusive. Twice. I missed it once in the scrubby field across from the Guardian Park lot and once up at "the pit" near the ferry station.

We had gone up to the pit because Scott had received a report of interesting birds there--this is the site of the Lark Bunting which made an appearance there last year for 2 days. We couldn't find any of the neat birds that had been there earlier, but warblers were flitting about. To get a look at them required a certain amount of bushwhacking through hip high vegetation and I wasn't getting very good looks at anything. Finally, a very drab warbler, with no distinguishing field marks, a bird you might say looked like an undecorated model of a warbler before its paint was applied, finally stood out on a branch long enough for me to see that it didn't look like much of anything which is how I was able to satisfy myself that I had seen a Tennessee Warbler for the first time this year. Not a bird to make your heart go all fluttery, just one for the list. Compared to a Tennessee Warbler, a Connecticut Warbler is practically flamboyant.

No photos of course.

For my 5 hours at the hook I listed 49 species, including 9 warbler species. I'm getting the feeling I may miss the more sought after sparrows this year.
Canada Goose 150 Guardian Park
Double-crested Cormorant 24
Great Blue Heron 3
Snowy Egret 1 Horseshoe Cove
Turkey Vulture 1 Plum Island
Osprey 1 Spermaceti
Cooper's Hawk 1
Black-bellied Plover 25 Horseshoe Cove
Ring-billed Gull 1 Horseshoe Cove
Herring Gull 50
Great Black-backed Gull 40
Royal Tern 2
Rock Pigeon 10
Mourning Dove 5
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 Heard
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 Guardian Park
Downy Woodpecker 2 Heard
Northern Flicker 2
Merlin 3 Two not getting along on Road to Nowhere, one at "the pit"
Eastern Phoebe 2
Red-eyed Vireo 2
American Crow 1
Black-capped Chickadee 1 Heard
Brown Creeper 1 Guardian Park
Carolina Wren 3 Heard
Golden-crowned Kinglet 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1 Heard
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 2
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 23
Cedar Waxwing 1
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Tennessee Warbler 1
American Redstart 1
Northern Parula 4
Bay-breasted Warbler 2
Black-throated Blue Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 4
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 5
Song Sparrow 2
Swamp Sparrow 2
Eastern Towhee 4 Heard
Northern Cardinal 1
Red-winged Blackbird 9

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Great Bay Blvd 10/4--Nelson's Sparrow

Nelson's Sparrow (note the buffy chest and blurry stripes)
When I woke, rather late for me, this morning, I had no idea where to take my walk, so I decided to check the database and see where I'd been on this date last year. I'd been to Great Bay Blvd and had done decently. I don't know what the tides were like then, but today the tide would be outgoing for most of my time there.

Fall along the boulevard (it is hilarious to me that this 4 mile stretch of broken asphalt bisecting a salt marsh is a "boulevard") can be good for odd sparrows but the only two I was able to espy along the road were Savannah and Song. However, at the inlet, where the water had not fully receded, little sparrows were running around in the mudflats and openings in the spartina grass. I had a hard time getting a look at any of them. "Patience," I told myself, "Patience will pay off." I never actually believe this but I tell myself it anyway. A couple of sparrows hopped up into the grass and in the raking autumn light, I was pretty certain they were Saltmarsh Sparrows. Good, but not the bird Iwanted. A little more to the east and a few more sparrows were skittering around. If I stood still and looked with my binoculars, a few would hop up onto the stalks of grass. I was looking at the striping of the sparrows, and finally one (or maybe it was two) of them looked blurrier than the rest and had buffy chests. It took me a while to convince myself, but I had at least one Nelson's Sparrow. I may had had two or the one I saw was very active. While Nelson's Sparrow (which use to be con-specific with Saltmarsh) isn't listed as rare this time of year, its secretiveness and similarity to its cousin, not to mention its skittishness, make it a very desired bird, especially to me since distinguishing real blurriness from what I usually see ("That's not the electric light my friend, that is your vision growing dim"--Leonard Cohen) is always a challenge.

I had a couple of amusing encounters along the road. While stopped at the endless light at the first wooden bridge I saw a raptor fly over. I looked out the window and couldn't see it in the sky and quickly realized that it had land atop the utility pole in front of me. Fortunately the car has a big sunroof and I was able to take a shot of this Peregrine Falcon playing peekaboo with me.

Then, just north of the second wooden bridge, where I always stop to search for sparrows and to check the marsh on both sides, I came across a Northern Mockingbird sitting on the side view mirror of a van.

Every few seconds the mockingbird would hop off its perch and attack the mirror, "thinking" somehow that there was another mockingbird there and damned if he wasn't going to chase it away.

The phrase "bird brain" didn't come out of nowhere.

Last year I counted 29 species, this year only 24. There were many Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs that I just had to let go due to distance, but I still had 4 species of shorebirds, which seems fine for this late in the season.
Double-crested Cormorant 25
Great Blue Heron 6
Great Egret 70
Snowy Egret 25
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 marsh west of 2nd wooden bridge
Turkey Vulture 2
Black-bellied Plover 30
Least Sandpiper 5
Greater Yellowlegs 28
Lesser Yellowlegs 25
Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs
Laughing Gull 25
Herring Gull 75
Peregrine Falcon 1 north of 1st wooden bridge
Tree Swallow 20
Carolina Wren 1 Heard
Gray Catbird 2 Heard
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 40
Nelson's Sparrow 1 east side of inlet.
Saltmarsh Sparrow 5
Savannah Sparrow 4
Song Sparrow 8
Red-winged Blackbird 3
Boat-tailed Grackle 75

Saturday, September 30, 2017

September Wrap-up

Tricolor Heron, Spizzle Creek, Island Beach SP
Snowy Egret, Spizzle Creek, Island Beach SP
I got dem Why am I always in the wrong place? migration blues. Once again, migration was a frustrating season to me, so much so that I am formulating Zirlin Third Law of Birding which states that "Wherever you are, you should be someplace else."

So if I was at Higbee's Beach today, where I didn't see much, I should have been somewhere in Burlington County. If I was on Reed's Road on Tuesday, I should have been there on Wednesday. Or Monday, since I seem to be a day late. If I was at Assunpink this week, according to my informant, I should have been there last week. Or the week before that. Or the week before that, but certainly not the day I was there.

This is not to say I had a disappointing month. I found a lot of species (170) including 10 year birds, but it was work. Never did I have one of those magical days where the warblers are falling out and you don't know where to look first. I built the list in dribs and drabs and lots of walking.

Rarities weren't much of a problem this month--I finally got the Roseate Spoonbill I would have like to have had for Ocean County; on the other hand, I finally got Wood Stork for Ocean County. Plus a county Red-necked Phalarope.

Today, down in Cape May with Mike, we knew migration was winding down when we encountered our first Yellow-rumped Warblers in the state park. When they show up, you know you probably only have a few more days to scramble up any warblers you're missing for the year.  The shorebirds have all pretty much departed, judging from a run around Brig this afternoon. Soon it will be waterfowl, gulls, and raptors--and the winter finch report is not promising since there is a lot of food up in the boreal forest this year.

This month's list:
Counties birded: Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Monmouth, Ocean.
Species                First Sighting
Snow Goose   Brig
Canada Goose   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Mute Swan   Forsythe-Barnegat
Wood Duck   Colliers Mills WMA
Blue-winged Teal   Island Beach SP
Northern Shoveler   Brig
Gadwall   Brig
American Wigeon   Cape May Point SP
Mallard   Colliers Mills WMA
American Black Duck   Brig
Northern Pintail   Brig
Green-winged Teal   Brig
Hooded Merganser   Brig
Ruddy Duck   Cape May Point SP
Wild Turkey   County Hwy-539
Common Loon   Island Beach SP
Pied-billed Grebe   Brig
Wood Stork   Forsythe-Barnegat
Double-crested Cormorant   Forsythe-Barnegat
American White Pelican   Richard W. DeKorte Park
Brown Pelican   Island Beach SP
Great Blue Heron   Whitesbog
Great Egret   Whitesbog
Snowy Egret   Forsythe-Barnegat
Little Blue Heron   Island Beach SP
Tricolored Heron   Island Beach SP
Green Heron   Whitesbog
Black-crowned Night-Heron   Great Bay Blvd
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron   Island Beach SP
Glossy Ibis   Brig
Roseate Spoonbill   Heislerville WMA
Black Vulture   New Egypt
Turkey Vulture   W Colliers Mill Rd
Osprey   Island Beach SP
Northern Harrier   Sandy Hook
Sharp-shinned Hawk   Higbee Beach WMA
Cooper's Hawk   New Egypt
Bald Eagle   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Broad-winged Hawk   Cape May Point SP
Red-tailed Hawk   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Clapper Rail   Brig
Sora   Brig
American Avocet   Brig
American Oystercatcher   Sandy Hook
Black-bellied Plover   Sandy Hook
American Golden-Plover   Whitesbog
Semipalmated Plover   Forsythe-Barnegat
Piping Plover   Sandy Hook
Killdeer   Colliers Mills WMA
Upland Sandpiper   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Whimbrel   Sandy Hook
Ruddy Turnstone   Island Beach SP
Red Knot   Island Beach SP
Stilt Sandpiper   Brig
Sanderling   Sandy Hook
Dunlin   Brig
Least Sandpiper   New Egypt
White-rumped Sandpiper   Brig
Buff-breasted Sandpiper   Sandy Hook
Pectoral Sandpiper   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Semipalmated Sandpiper   Forsythe-Barnegat
Western Sandpiper   Brig
Short-billed Dowitcher   Brig
Wilson's Snipe   Whitesbog
Red-necked Phalarope   New Egypt
Spotted Sandpiper   Island Beach SP
Solitary Sandpiper   New Egypt
Greater Yellowlegs   Whitesbog
Willet   Sandy Hook
Lesser Yellowlegs   New Egypt
Laughing Gull   Forsythe-Barnegat
Ring-billed Gull   Brig
Herring Gull   Forsythe-Barnegat
Great Black-backed Gull   Island Beach SP
Caspian Tern   Brig
Black Tern   Sandy Hook
Common Tern   Sandy Hook
Forster's Tern   Forsythe-Barnegat
Royal Tern   Island Beach SP
Black Skimmer   Forsythe-Barnegat
Rock Pigeon   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Mourning Dove   New Egypt
Yellow-billed Cuckoo   Sandy Hook
Common Nighthawk   Sandy Hook
Eastern Whip-poor-will   35 Sunset Rd
Chimney Swift   Whitesbog
Ruby-throated Hummingbird   35 Sunset Rd
Belted Kingfisher   Colliers Mills WMA
Red-bellied Woodpecker   Colliers Mills WMA
Downy Woodpecker   Union Transportation Trail
Hairy Woodpecker   Sandy Hook
Northern Flicker   Island Beach SP
American Kestrel   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Merlin   Whitesbog
Peregrine Falcon   Brig
Olive-sided Flycatcher   Richard W. DeKorte Park
Eastern Wood-Pewee   Colliers Mills WMA
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher   Sandy Hook
Eastern Phoebe   Union Transportation Trail
Great Crested Flycatcher   Whitesbog
Eastern Kingbird   Sandy Hook
White-eyed Vireo   Colliers Mills WMA
Philadelphia Vireo   Sandy Hook
Warbling Vireo   Bunker Hill Bogs
Red-eyed Vireo   Bunker Hill Bogs
Blue Jay   35 Sunset Rd
American Crow   New Egypt
Fish Crow   Colliers Mills WMA
Purple Martin   Whitesbog
Tree Swallow   Whitesbog
Barn Swallow   Colliers Mills WMA
Carolina Chickadee   Colliers Mills WMA
Black-capped Chickadee   Sandy Hook
Tufted Titmouse   35 Sunset Rd
White-breasted Nuthatch   Colliers Mills WMA
House Wren   Sandy Hook
Marsh Wren   Jake's Landing
Carolina Wren   Colliers Mills WMA
Ruby-crowned Kinglet   Sandy Hook
Eastern Bluebird   Colliers Mills WMA
American Robin   Union Transportation Trail
Gray Catbird   Colliers Mills WMA
Brown Thrasher   Island Beach SP
Northern Mockingbird   New Egypt
European Starling   Mercer Sod Farm IBA
Cedar Waxwing   Sandy Hook
Ovenbird   Sandy Hook
Northern Waterthrush   Sandy Hook
Blue-winged Warbler   Island Beach SP
Black-and-white Warbler   Island Beach SP
Nashville Warbler   IBSP--A11 path
Connecticut Warbler   Sandy Hook
Common Yellowthroat   Union Transportation Trail
American Redstart   Union Transportation Trail
Cape May Warbler   Sandy Hook
Northern Parula   Sandy Hook
Magnolia Warbler   Sandy Hook
Bay-breasted Warbler   Sandy Hook
Yellow Warbler   Brig
Chestnut-sided Warbler   Sandy Hook
Blackpoll Warbler   Sandy Hook
Black-throated Blue Warbler   Sandy Hook
Palm Warbler   Brig
Pine Warbler   Whitesbog
Yellow-rumped Warbler   Cape May Point SP
Prairie Warbler   Island Beach SP
Black-throated Green Warbler   Sandy Hook
Canada Warbler   Sandy Hook
Wilson's Warbler   Brig
Saltmarsh Sparrow   Brig
Seaside Sparrow   Brig
Chipping Sparrow   Colliers Mills WMA
Field Sparrow   Sandy Hook
White-throated Sparrow   Sandy Hook
Savannah Sparrow   Brig
Song Sparrow   Union Transportation Trail
Swamp Sparrow   Sandy Hook
Eastern Towhee   Colliers Mills WMA
Scarlet Tanager   Sandy Hook
Northern Cardinal   35 Sunset Rd
Blue Grosbeak   Manasquan River WMA
Indigo Bunting   Sandy Hook
Yellow-headed Blackbird   Brig
Bobolink   Whitesbog
Red-winged Blackbird   Union Transportation Trail
Brown-headed Cowbird   Union Transportation Trail
Boat-tailed Grackle   Brig
House Finch   35 Sunset Rd
American Goldfinch   35 Sunset Rd
House Sparrow   New Egypt

30 Days Hath September

April, May, and how do you explain this sign at Cape May Point SP?

I guess on March 31, it's a free for all, dogs running loose on the beach, no leashes.

Another sign I saw today at the park:
I for one can say that I came out with the same personality as I did when I went in and if I were going to metamorphose into someone else, I think I'd pick a more amenable spot than a restroom in Cape May.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Update on Mystery Bird

It is, not unexpectedly, a White-rumped Sandpiper.  Nothing exotic and certainly not a year bird. All who have seen the photos agree. The tell-tale field mark, one I wouldn't have thought much about, is the streaking on the flanks. That, with all the other clues, like the slightly down-turned bill, the primaries extending past the tail, is pretty much conclusive. It didn't help that the bird was in molt.

The best thing about this little adventure in identification is that this was, without a doubt, the best and longest look I've ever had at a White-rumped Sandpiper, which are, typically for me, mixed in with peeps at a shimmering distance or else in low light, as the ones I've seen at Whitebog seem to be. Ironically, had we seen this bird from a distance and had we not been able to examine every feather and subtlety of leg color, we would probably have checked it off as a White-rump and gone on our way.

So it looks like I'm going to go this year without seeing a Baird's Sandpiper, invoking Zirlin's Second Law of Birding.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Brig 9/24--Sora and the Saga of the Mystery Bird

Zirlin's Second Law of Birding (the first one has to do with pick-up trucks and eagles) states that you will never see the bird until you truly give up on seeing the bird. You cannot fake giving up; it must be a sincere abandonment of your quest, an abject acknowledgment that the bird will forever elude you. Today, Mike and I excessively forfeited  hope. We were making our 2nd pass around the Wildlife Drive at Brig when Mike said, "I guess I'm not going to see a Sora this year." "Me either," I replied, "and it won't be the first year I've missed it." "And it won't be the last," Mike said. "Oy," I thought, "I could go to my grave without ever seeing a Sora again, I'm old, how many years do I have left to see this bird? Aieee, this won't be the last year I miss Sora!" We drove on in silence, the car slowly inching forward through a miasma of despair.

Five minutes later, between Goose Markers 4 & 5, Mike said, "Oo Sora!"

We had just been looking at a domestic duck that had insinuated itself onto a little island in the marsh when Mike saw the bird. I looked but it was gone. Ten seconds later, after he told me where the bird was in relation to some goldenrod, the bird came out, gave good looks, then disappeared into a tunnel of reeds. No pictures, of course, but Zirlin's Second Law had once again been demonstrated. Perhaps we didn't have to take it to the existential extreme that we did and we'd have still seen the bird but who can really say?

Our first loop around took a lot longer than normal because we spent about 40 minutes at Turtle Cove, studying one bird in a flock of about 500 sandpipers, mostly semis, but with quite a few Western Sandpipers in the mix. The Westerns were what stopped us, but it was the much larger bird among them that intrigued us:
As you can see, the bird is a monster compared to the other sandpipers. It has long thick legs, a bull-like neck, and long primaries that come to a point past the tail. Color is problematic. The photo above shows a grayish bird with brownish legs.

This photo, a digiscope, has much warmer color. The legs, in all my photos, do not match my memory of them looking at the bird through scope and binoculars--they seemed darker, more of reddish brown than these photos show, almost the color of dried blood.

At first we considered the bird might be a gigantic Western, then perhaps Red Knot (too small), or perhaps a wayward, early, Purple Sandpiper (too big), or some exotic sandpiper (unlikely). Because it has no supercilium (eyebrow) we discounted White-rumped Sandpiper. Because it is on rocks, not grass, we doubted Baird's.

Here's the true frustration. Most of the time with shorebirds I'm looking at them from a good distance, in bad light for a short time before they fly, so I can't see a lot of the field marks described in the books. With this bird, we had enough time to actually eat lunch while we studied it and we could see every detail of every feather, we could photograph its toes, we could watch its nicitating membrane in its eye (see top photo)--and I still can't tell you what kind of bird it is!

One field mark I did notice was color at the base of the bill and Sibley seems to indicate that this is a diagnostic field mark for White-rumped Sandpiper. Mike doesn't think so. I listed it as Baird's on eBird because that would flag it as a rare bird, whereas White-rump is expected. That way, I can expect a reviewer to contact me and tell me why I'm wrong and with luck, what the bird actually is.

It was fun, though, to go through virtually every possible shorebird in Sibley's comparing and contrasting field marks with the bird before us. It was not fun to come up more or less empty. What I learned this afternoon was that I know a lot but not nearly enough.

For the 9 hours we spent driving and walking around Brig, I came up with 73 species, not including Mystery Bird; Mike had a few more that I either missed or didn't feel comfortable counting. I hope to add an update soon as to Mystery Bird's true identity.

Snow Goose 1 the continuing injured bird
Canada Goose 50
Mute Swan 15
Wood Duck 6
Blue-winged Teal 2
Northern Shoveler 1
Mallard 15
American Black Duck 15
Northern Pintail 20
Green-winged Teal 10
Pied-billed Grebe 6 Actual count
Double-crested Cormorant 100
Great Blue Heron 7
Great Egret 90
Snowy Egret 30
Little Blue Heron 2 immatures at Gull Pond
Black-crowned Night-Heron 3
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 3
Glossy Ibis 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Osprey 2
Northern Harrier 3
Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk 1
Sora 1 South dike between goose markers 4 & 5
Semipalmated Plover 2
Stilt Sandpiper 6
Least Sandpiper 1
White-rumped Sandpiper 1
Pectoral Sandpiper 2
Semipalmated Sandpiper 540
Western Sandpiper 20
Short-billed Dowitcher 2
Greater Yellowlegs 25
Lesser Yellowlegs
Laughing Gull 125
Ring-billed Gull 1
Herring Gull 50
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Caspian Tern 3
Forster's Tern 50
Black Skimmer 2
Mourning Dove 2
Belted Kingfisher 1 Dogleg
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 3
Merlin 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Phoebe 4
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Blue Jay 9
American Crow 5
Fish Crow 7
Tree Swallow 25
Carolina Chickadee 10
Tufted Titmouse 2 Heard
White-breasted Nuthatch 1 Heard
House Wren 2
Carolina Wren 2 Heard
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 3
Gray Catbird 3
Brown Thrasher 1 Leeds Eco-trail
European Starling 25
Black-and-white Warbler 1 Leeds Eco-trail
Common Yellowthroat 2
Saltmarsh Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 15
Song Sparrow 10
Swamp Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Red-winged Blackbird 125
Boat-tailed Grackle 3
American Goldfinch 5