Sunday, January 15, 2017

Etra Lake 1/15--Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose in back of Canada Geese
in a really lousy digiscoped photo
Last week I was watching reports from all over NJ reporting rare birds, but as the weather was just too frigid, I chose to stay an armchair birder, though I wasn't happy about it. Even though I always say that I don't worry about winter rarities in the beginning of the year because I know I'll have a second chance at them late in the year, the reports of rare geese from Allentown, about 40 minutes from here, really hurt.

Today, while we were up in the Norway Spruce grove at Assunpink, someone got an alert about a Barnacle Goose at Etra Lake, about a 15 minute drive from our location. A second chance!

Etra Lake mysteriously attracts rare geese. It also attracts huge numbers of Canada Geese. I didn't relish looking through what turned out to be easily a 1000 Canadas, but when I got there, I set up the scope and methodically started at the left side of the goose flock and scanned to my right. Fortunately, the light was perfect, with sun behind us illuminating each goose (and a few ducks) but I had gone through about 500 geese with no luck. And then, there it was, a much smaller goose with silvery stripes on its back, a creamy cheek, and a stubby bill. It is always a thrill to find the bird yourself. It is also, in a way, easier than having someone try to give you directions as to where the bird is in the flock: "Go to the corner of the white building across the lake, then come down into the water where it is blue instead of black."

When I go to Etra Lake I always set up in a small parking lot right off the road where you can view the whole lake head on, but some of our group went into the park to look from shore. I don't usually like that vantage because you get blocks by tree branches and reeds, but I heard a cheer go up from my left and new that they too had found the bird. I walked over there, thinking that maybe I'd get a better picture of the bird, but true to experience, the bird kept drifting to the left and to the left were bushes and branches. I told Scott the Barnacle Goose was nice, but now find me a Cackling Goose. That is a project for which I have nil patience--looking through a 1000 geese for one that looks just like a Canada Goose but shrunk down to Mallard size. No thanks. Looking at everyone else's list tonight, there were, apparently, no Cacklers there today that could be picked out. I'll have to wait for one to show up in a small flock of geese.

Barnacle Goose brought my year list up to 109.

Assunpink WMA 1/15--Wild Turkey, White-crowned Sparrow, Dickcissel, etc

A Jake & a Tom
I did a little experiment before the start of Scott's Assunpink trip. I got there early and walked along the dirt road that hugs the lake. I found mostly White-throated Sparrows, a few cardinals, doves, and one Northern Harrier (which was my 100th species of the year).

This was the 2nd time in this week I walked in this field. Neither time did I find the rarity that was spotted in the sorghum field. Then I walked the road with the group with Scott in the lead. Boom! We weren't on the road 3 minutes before Scott pointed out the Dickcissel teed up on a branch in the back of the field. Dickcissel in spring in NJ is a much sought-after rarity. Dickcissel in NJ in winter is just weird.

We continued along the road, getting a little farther than I had walked, granted, but soon we had White-crowned Sparrows in the field, which was great because they haven't been hanging at their "historical" location this year, a farm driveway on the road into Assunpink. We also had a hen Canvasback on the lake seen from one of the turn offs along the road. Hadn't seen that either when I walked the road alone, though a scope certainly helped. Big flocks of blackbirds and grackles flew overhead. We had a couple of Sharp-shinned Hawks. A Brown Creeper made an appearance (I think I might have found this simultaneously with Scott). So walk alone, find a few birds. Walk with Scott, find many cool birds.

Royal Flush
We walked the fields by the navigation beacon, the two most interesting species there being the two Wild Turkeys at the edge of the road, watching them was a great way to pass the time while standing in line to use the Port-O-San and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker high in a spruce tree. The turkeys were a very large Tom, replete with snood, wattles, and beard, and an immature male, a "Jake." The adult kept displaying for the Jake, I guess to establish dominance, but the Jake seemed unimpressed. A walk up into the Norway Spruce grove really didn't produce much of anything, though owls are always hoped for, but they seem like a low percentage possibility when faced with hundreds of trees in which one could be roosting.

I was there from about 8:45 to 2:30 when we all took off to Etra Lake. In all, I had what I consider a surprisingly large number of species for the day. The controversial Trumpeter Swan was nowhere to be found--only two Mute Swans made a flyby appearance for me before I joined the group.

45 species
Canada Goose  98
Mute Swan  2
American Black Duck  9
Mallard  2
Canvasback  1     Lake
Common Merganser  1     Lake
Ruddy Duck  11
Wild Turkey  2     
Double-crested Cormorant  1
Great Blue Heron  1
Turkey Vulture  3
Northern Harrier  1

Sharp-shinned Hawk  2
Cooper's Hawk  1
Bald Eagle  6
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  2
Mourning Dove  22
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  2
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Blue Jay  8
American Crow  1
Carolina Chickadee  4
Tufted Titmouse  1     Heard
Red-breasted Nuthatch  5
White-breasted Nuthatch  1     Heard
Brown Creeper  1
Carolina Wren  2     Heard
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2
American Robin  1
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  6
Yellow-rumped Warbler  2
White-crowned Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  30
Song Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  7
Dickcissel  1     
Red-winged Blackbird  100
Common Grackle  250
House Finch  3
House Sparrow  2

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Colliers Mills 1/12--Snow Goose, Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker
With spring-like weather (in the 60's) but fairly breezy, I thought the best place to walk would Colliers Mills for 2017's inaugural visit. I was a little disappointed to see that the lake was still frozen--I'd of thought there would be more open water with the last couple of days of warmish temperatures, so I put the scope in the trunk and birded the roads and fields.

I was walking up Hawkin Rd which runs along the west side of Turnmill Pond, finding the usual birds for the location and date when I heard a lot of high-pitched squawking. Distant geese I figured and looked up to find a huge flock of Snow Geese flying overhead. It is very odd to have found yesterday's Ross's Goose before I had any Snow Geese for the year. Even in flight they seem like goofy birds, whirling around aimlessly, honking away. They later settled down into a stubble field on E. Colliers Mills Road where I passed them on the way out.
Snow Geese
I continued up the road where there were a lot of White-throated Sparrows and juncos. I saw a couple of Red-bellied Woodpeckers fly across the road. I turned around to where they had come from and there, surprisingly, was a Red-headed Woodpecker working on a dead tree. I say surprisingly because of all the times I've seen the RHWO at Colliers Mills, I've never seen one on this side of the WMA. I always thought it would be a good place to find one, but up until today, I was wrong. Looking at my pictures I (mediocre though they are) I can't see a full red head on this bird, so I am assuming it is a juvenile, probably born last year in the nest off Success Road.

Great Blue Heron
The only water I found that wasn't frozen was the little pond on Hawkin Rd past where it bends to the left. And the only bird I found on that open water was a Great Blue Heron. I'm including its photo to show that I sometimes can take a decent picture.

I circled Turnmill Pond, adding for the year Fish Crow (heard only) along the road, and 2 Red-tailed Hawks in their usual place around the firing range.

There was a dearth of sparrows in the fields along Success Road. A galloping dog didn't flush any as I was hoping, so that portion of the walk yielded only a 1 Song Sparrow and 2 Field Sparrows.

I walked past the power line cut to the one of the little ponds off the trail where Wood Ducks are often to be found but that body of water alas was also solid. For the 3 miles or so I walked I had 27 species. They were:
Snow Goose  200     
Great Blue Heron  1     
Turkey Vulture  2
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Ring-billed Gull  6     f/o
Mourning Dove  1
Red-headed Woodpecker  1     
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker  1     Heard
Blue Jay  14
Fish Crow  1     Heard
Carolina Chickadee  9
Tufted Titmouse  8
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2     Heard
Carolina Wren  2     Heard
Golden-crowned Kinglet  1     Heard
Eastern Bluebird  1     Woods beyond power line cut
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  1
Field Sparrow  2
Dark-eyed Junco  29
White-throated Sparrow  18
Song Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  1
Common Grackle  3
American Goldfinch  1     Heard

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Deer Head Lake 1/11--Ross's Goose

Ross's Goose
The last month or so I haven't really been in the mood to chase all over hell and gone looking for rare waterfowl. Just the idea of going to some out of the way field and sorting through hundreds of Canada Geese looking for the one rare bird fills me with ennui and my fingers cold numb with cold just thinking about it. So I was delighted to find a Ross's Goose today all by myself, in Ocean County, at a new spot for me.  And the weather was warm.

I strung together a number of places this morning in the Lacey/Forked River/Ocean Township area, starting at Bamber Lake where I found 64 Tundra Swans, apparently a high number according to eBird but I counted every one. I got most of my walking in at Eno's Pond where I found my first Belted Kingfisher of the year (2 of them actually), then knocked around Sands Point scoping the bay and one of the forks of the Forked River for waterfowl, coming up with a few new county birds.

My final stop was at Deer Head Lake in Lacey Township. I've seen it listed a few times on eBird but never saw anything outstanding that would make me want to run down there. However, I know Becky birds it as a lunchtime spot and since I'm still in the gathering phase for Ocean County I thought maybe there would be something I hadn't already seen in the county. And there was. I stopped at the little parking area at the head of the lake and scoped about 500 Canada Geese. I immediately saw a white bird tucked in with them and my first impression was a Great Black-backed Gull but that quickly gave way to white goose. "Well, good," I thought, "I haven't had Snow Goose yet for the year, anywhere." I looked again and couldn't find the goose. It was so small that it could hide behind a Canada. That was interesting. I saw that there was a beach I could walk to, about 3 blocks away, so I just picked up the scope and walked over there. I quickly re-found the goose. However, this is the look it gave me:
Not very helpful. I waited and waited and the goose seemed very comfortable. I shifted my position a little and maybe that got its attention because it picked up its head and walked into the water. Yes, a Ross's with a stubby bill, no "grin patch" and blue/gray caruncles on the base of the bill. I love the word "caruncles." There are some words you only get to use with birds, like "rufous" or "fulvous" and this is another. It means fleshy growths and ROGOs have them while SNGOs don't.

I put out an alert once I was 99% per cent certain of my i.d. Becky showed up first since she works nearby and the bird cooperated with her so that she could see the bill also. Then more familiar faces showed up and the bird got very comfortable again, head tucked in, standing on the edge of the ice. After being there for more than an hour I decided that I'd exhausted the entertainment value of this bird and left. Eventually, those who stayed or showed up later also got a look-see at the bill to confirm the identification. The last report was that it flew to the northwest with some Canadas.

Moral: It is much more satisfying to find the bird than to chase the bird.

My day list:
Spots birded: Bamber Lake; Deer Head Lake; Eno's Pond; Poplar St Boat Launch; Sands Point Park; Sands Point--Dock Ave
Ross's Goose   1
Canada Goose   500
Tundra Swan   64
American Black Duck   2
Mallard   30
Northern Shoveler   2
Ring-necked Duck   15
Bufflehead   6
Hooded Merganser   20
Red-breasted Merganser   2
Ruddy Duck   2
Double-crested Cormorant   1
Turkey Vulture   3
Cooper's Hawk   1
Ring-billed Gull   5
Belted Kingfisher   2
Red-bellied Woodpecker   2
Downy Woodpecker   1
Blue Jay   2
American Crow   4
Carolina Chickadee   9
Tufted Titmouse   8
Red-breasted Nuthatch   1
White-breasted Nuthatch   3
Carolina Wren   1
American Robin   3
Northern Mockingbird   1
European Starling   2
White-throated Sparrow   1
Northern Cardinal   1
House Sparrow   5

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Assunpink WMA 1/10--Trumpeter Swan

Mute Swan, Trumpeter Swan
There is nothing duller than standing in snow waiting for a swan to lift up its head, which is what I found myself doing later in the morning at the Assunpink Lake. The bird in question is a little controversial. Trumpeter Swans have only recently come to be accept as "wild" in NJ, partly due to the 3 that spend a couple of winters here, though they skipped last year. This winter, 2 showed up for one day and then this bird, a juvenile apparently, has been around for a few weeks. Having heard the description of a very gray swan I found the bird almost immediately on the ice with a Mute Swan but the damn bird wouldn't lift its head so that I could get a confirming look at its bill. There has been some dubiety about this bird--is it just a juvenile Mute Swan, is it a Tundra Swan, or is it the much coveted Trumpeter? A juvenile mute would have a grayish bill, a Tundra Swan would be smaller. I was pretty certain I had the bird, but what an unsatisfying look at a lump of feathers on the ice.

I decided to walk to another vantage point through the fields, where, while I was walking, I also hoped to find the Dickcissel that my crazy friends had come upon on frigid Sunday. No luck there, but once I got closer to the swans and was at a different angle, I could at least see a small portion of the swan's head. Then, miracle, it raised its head for a moment, just looking around to see what's happening. In those couple of seconds I could see that the bill was black, that it looked like a Canvasback's bill and that there was perhaps a hint of pink on the bill. Good enough for me until someone tells me different.

I walked around there for a while and drove down the road hoping to find White-crowned Sparrows in their usual driveway, but nothing, other than a beautiful look at a Cooper's Hawk flying overhead, arrested my attention. Still, I felt like I made up for some lost birding time today, though I'm having a hard time rationalizing running around the state looking for birds in unpleasant conditions.
18 species
Canada Goose  85
Mute Swan  4
Trumpeter Swan  1     
Great Blue Heron  1
Cooper's Hawk  1
Ring-billed Gull  2
Mourning Dove  20
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1     Heard
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Blue Jay  2
American Crow  5
Carolina Chickadee  2
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1     Heard
Northern Mockingbird  1
White-throated Sparrow  30
Song Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  2     in millet field with WTSP

Manasquan Reservoir 1/10--Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler
On Saturday we had about 6 inches of snow and on Sunday the temperature was in the single digits with blowing snow, yet I was seeing reports from my friends of a lot of interesting birds, mostly up in Monmouth County. My feelings ranged from admiration for their fortitude to "they're obviously completely nuts" with a low-level current of jealousy running underneath. Yesterday the temperatures were still well below my comfort range but the winds were calm so I walked in the woods and lived to tell the tale. Today, it was supposed to warm up. This morning it was 6 degrees.

Still, I had to get out. I drove up to the Manasquan Reservoir, figuring I could be indoors, looking at their feeders until it warmed up a little. Guess what? They don't open up until 10 and I was there well before 9. The reservoir was 95% frozen, no surprise, but scoping it I found lots of Common Mergansers in the a narrow stretch of open water and a couple of juvenile Bald Eagles standing on the ice. Ducks oblivious to the eagles. Crows, not so much.

I walked around to the side of the Environmental Center where it was impressively fringed with icicles and set up the scope so that I could see the feeders. I didn't have to wait long (though to someone with my patience it seemed long) for the Orange-crowned Warbler to appear on the suet. Last year, in the winter, the same spot had this species and I was wondering if this was the same bird. I took off my two pairs of gloves, turned on my camera, got a couple of shots off and then the camera froze, I think literally. It wouldn't go off, it wouldn't shoot pictures, and the lens stayed fixed in its elongated position.

By this time it was just about 10 o'clock. I walked around the building and opened the door just as the custodian was getting to the end of the hall with his mop. In I walked with my snow-covered boots and I could hear him grumbling as I walked to the middle of the center where a window looks out onto the feeders. I pulled the battery from my camera and reinserted it and, miracle, the camera worked again. This allowed me, when the warbler cooperatively came back, to take some shots through the window that made it look like the bird was in an aquarium.

After that I drove to the other side of the park where I set up the scope and scanned the Common Merganser flock which turned out to be the proverbially mixed flock, with Ruddy Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Pied-bill Grebes, and a couple of coots in descending quantities. Surprisingly, no Lesser Scaups that I could find. With 29 species I was satisfied, so then it was on to try to find the next rarity.
Canada Goose  1000
Mallard  4
Ring-necked Duck  45
Bufflehead  4
Hooded Merganser  22
Common Merganser  400
Ruddy Duck  80
Common Loon  2
Pied-billed Grebe  14
Double-crested Cormorant  1
Bald Eagle  3     Juveniles on ice, adult in tree near what I assume is still nest site.
American Coot  2
Ring-billed Gull  25
Rock Pigeon   25
Mourning Dove  3
Downy Woodpecker  2
Blue Jay  2     Heard
American Crow  6
Carolina Chickadee  5
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Carolina Wren  1     Heard
Orange-crowned Warbler  1     Olive back, yellow underparts, split eye-ring
Dark-eyed Junco  25
White-throated Sparrow  10
Song Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  1     Environmental Ctr
House Finch  6
American Goldfinch  1

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Upon Further Review...

That "Piping Plover" the other day at Barnegat Light is providing some lessons in birding psychology. When we saw it, I was not entirely convinced of our i.d.--I couldn't see the breast band too well and in reviewing the photos, the legs were the wrong color.

However, instead of looking for a more common, likely bird, I went in the opposite direction, especially after I received an email from a friend who asked if I had ruled out the much more exotic Snowy Plover. I had to admit I hadn't, even though there has never been a Snowy Plover in NJ. Looking more closely at Becky's photos didn't help any--that she got any photos at all is a miracle of modern optics--little gray bird on dark gray rocks in medium gray light at a distance of a hundred yards.

If someone who I didn't know to be a good birder had said Piping Plover I would have been much more skeptical--but looking at the bird I still probably would not have called what it now appears to be--a Sanderling. I didn't see a big enough bill and the bird itself didn't have the bulky look of a Sanderling but overall size at a distance is almost always unreliable. The bill length still bothers me, but I suppose foreshortening could be the answer there. On the other hand, the light half a band I saw on the shoulder was probably the dark patch Sanderlings have in winter.

So: Sometimes you see what you want to see. Sometimes you don't think "likely." And sometimes I misidentify Sanderlings--this isn't the first time. I remember a few years ago on Great Bay Blvd I saw three sandpipers in late winter and called them Semipalmated Sandpipers when they were actually Sanderlings. I don't expect to see Sanderlings on an inlet so I went then with the more "likely" bird based on habitat, even though it would have been much rarer.

Irony: We had been talking about a report of 5 Western Sandpipers of which we had our doubts and supposed that the reporter had misidentified Sanderlings. 10 minutes later, we apparently did the same thing!