Thursday, February 26, 2015

Island Beach SP 2/26--Cedar Waxwing OR Chasing the Elusive Bowax

When we were in Minnesota last month, we saw puh-lenty of Bohemian Waxwings. So, when one showed up at Sandy Hook this month, I was interested, but not interested enough to brave the cold weather to chase it. I had the species for the year, I even have it on my Jersey life list, since years ago Shari picked one out at Sandy Hook in more or less the same spot that this year bird is being seen.

But, when three showed up yesterday in someone's backyard in Lavellette, which is in Ocean County, then I wanted the bird for my county list. The birds flew off from her backyard and a few people suspected that Island Beach would be a likely place to look for them. I was planning on doing that this morning but when I awoke, it was snowing. By the time it stopped snowing I had lost the momentum to go out chasing.

Greg, however, was in the park I think, just as the last flake fell and around 2:45 he called me. "Bohemian Waxwing, lot A3." It was like Thick-billed Murre deja vu all over again. Shari & I bolted for the car and made the 45 minute drive to Island Beach SP, hitting every red light, school zone, and detour possible. Once in Island Beach we found ourselves behind a student driver. Shari passed her and we found Greg at the parking lot. We also found lots of robins. Of course, we found no Bowax.

For the next hour and a half we drove up and down the road looking for flocks of robins with which waxwings often mix. Down around lot A11 we found more robins and finally, for me, two Cedar Waxwings.  It is a pretty strange birding year when I get Bohemian before Cedar, but at least I added that bird for the year. As it happens, out of all the birds on my life list, Cedar Waxwing is my favorite. I just love their mask, their crest, the little red tips on their wings, the yellow edge on their tails. They look, to me, like cartoon space cadets I saw on TV as a kid or in a dream.

So, okay, the excursion wasn't a complete waste, but after stomping around in the cold for more than hour, it looked to me like the bird, which could be anywhere, was. We started to drive north out of the park when Greg stopped and pointed out another mixed flock. In this flock it seemed Cedar Waxwings predominated--there were around 20 of them. Greg said that the Bohemian he saw was with quite few Cedars so we spent about a half hour looking carefully at each waxwing as they picked some kind of blue berry off an otherwise bare deciduous tree. So the anywhere the Bohemian could have been wasn't the where we were. (This is starting to sound like Gertrude Stein.)

I think I'll try again tomorrow. It will be cold but I'll be in the car, driving back & forth, looking everywhere.

Friday, February 20, 2015

New Egypt 2/20--Brown-headed Cowbird

Brutal weather and root canal this week have limited my birding to looking out the back windows. Today, despite the coldest weather of the week, with wind chills so low that the weathermen on the radio are making comparisons to Siberia, I had errands to run, so while I was in the car anyway, I ran through the possible places I could go where I might find a new bird for the year and not have to get out of the car.
Starlings and cattle, Inman Rd, New Egypt
The cattle pastures in New Egypt came to mind so I headed out there. Starlings are abundant out there and only move off the road reluctantly as you drive by (avoiding the cattle that don't seemed very concerned about you either) so it was in that flock that I finally found a new species for the year, albeit one that most consider a "garbage bird," Brown-headed Cowbird.  I happen to like them, especially when they "sing" their little water-dripping song.  Two glossy males were mixed in with the starlings. I probably could have found more, but I only need one. Nothing else of interest was out there. Had I stuck around perhaps I'd have found an interesting raptor, but with the wind blowing at 30 mph, perhaps not. In any case, I headed to the warmth of Wawa and then home, back to looking at the feeders, where the continuing Pine Warblers and a Hermit Thrush have been the highlights so far.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Manasquan Inlet 2/12--White-winged Scoter. OR: Chasing the Thick-billed Murre

Last night two Thick-billed Murres were reported in Barnegat Inlet. I have seen exactly one Thick-billed Murre in my years of birding--it was about 50 yards off the beach by the Gil Hodges Bridges in Brooklyn, many years ago. So that was my destination this morning. I remembered that the Brooklyn murre stayed around for a few days; I was hoping these murres would do the same. The inlet isn't very wide. If they were there, I'd find them.

They weren't there.

I scanned the inlet a number of times, coming up only with the expected birds. I walked out to the beach with no luck. On my way back, I stopped to talk to Steve G who was brave enough to walk on the jetty. He had a couple of Harlequin Ducks and I was just about to climb up there when my cell rang. It was Greg. "Are you busy?"

"I'm at Barnegat Light."

"Oh, because I have an alcid here at Manasquan Inlet."

"What kind."

"Not sure. Doesn't look like a Razorbill."

Inwardly I groaned. "There's a very good chance that it's a Thick-billed Murre."

"That's what I think too," he replied.

Manasquan Inlet, as the murre flies, is 23 miles from Barnegat Light. As the car drives it is 53 miles, or about an hour. When I got back to the car (after clambering up on the jetty to see the Harlequins), I called Greg and he confirmed that he had a TB Murre, loafing in the inlet. So I was at the wrong inlet.

I started to drive up there, it's a rather roundabout route, considering you have to start going south and west before you can even start heading the proper northerly direction. On the way Greg called. I stopped the car (good citizen) and he told me it had flown to the tip of the jetty. Already, I was feeling bad about this bird. By the time I got there, around 11:45, I called Greg (who was on the Monmouth County side of the inlet) and he told me he'd lost the bird. Outwardly I groaned.

The jetty at Manasquan Inlet is paved most of the way, so walking on it was no big deal like it is at Barnegat. I got to the tip and found many, many ducks and loons, but no alcid. I was there only a few minutes when I saw Steve walking toward me. Either he knows a better way to get there than my GPS device or he drives much faster than me. Together we scanned the inlet and ocean with no luck, though we did come up with two Red-necked Grebes. On any other day, that would be a good find. Today we weren't that excited about them. I could see Greg standing on the jetty across the inlet. I phoned him and we compared notes--his were a lot better than mine. What a great bird! I went back to the end of the jetty and scanned the many scoters--mostly Surf Scoters with a handful of Black Scoters. There was one duck that didn't look "right." I scoped it tight and saw the "comma" over it's eye and had my first White-winged Scoter of the year. I called it to Steve's attention and he subsequently found four more in front of the larger scoter flock. So at least I got a year bird out of the day but the murre is a teeth-gnashing miss. They are such rare birds to see inshore. And there's seems to be an influx the last two days--not only were two more found again after I left the inlet, but they've been reported also in Brooklyn and off Staten Island today.  Some inexplicable force has pushed them in from far off in the ocean.

Tomorrow, I'm sure, more will be reported, but tomorrow is going to be wicked cold and while I want to see one I'm not that much of a masochist, especially after missing the bird twice in one day, 53 miles apart.

My two lists, which on any other day, would make me happy:
Barnegat Lighthouse SP
16 species
Common Eider  150
Harlequin Duck  2     About half-way down the jetty
Surf Scoter  8
Black Scoter  10
Long-tailed Duck  25
Red-breasted Merganser  10
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon  25
Great Cormorant  6
Purple Sandpiper  3
Ring-billed Gull  2
Herring Gull  100
Great Black-backed Gull  10
Carolina Wren  1     Heard
Yellow-rumped Warbler  2
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich)  2
Manasquan Inlet
12 species
Surf Scoter  25
White-winged Scoter  5
Black Scoter  10
Long-tailed Duck  50
Bufflehead  2     Inlet
Red-breasted Merganser  2     Just off the tip of the jetty
Common Loon  30
Red-necked Grebe  2
Dunlin  71
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  10
Great Black-backed Gull  1

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Swans at Assunpink 2/11

This morning from the boat launch parking lot, I had in one scope view 3 species of swans. I was watching one black-billed swan dipping its head in the water, wondering whether it was the Tundra Swan that was recently reported there. Its neck didn't look dingy enough to be one of the Trumpeter Swans. Then, 3 swans that were resting on the ice with their heads tucked in that were in front of the swan stood up. They were huge in comparison and were of course the continuing Trumpeters. With the Mute Swans also in the scope view (and 2 Snow Geese for good measure) it was quite a good lesson in white waterfowl identification. Unfortunately, it was way too windy and cold to attempt a digiscope photo. 

I'd say about 2/3 of the lake is frozen (really frozen--I saw 5 guys drilling holes in the ice for ice fishing!) so that concentrates all the waterfowl in one large area. Thousands of Canada Geese make up the vast majority of birds on the water, but there are also Ring-necked Ducks, a Redhead, a Common Merganser, Ruddies, and a few coots. A Bald Eagle was sitting on the ice, watching the passing parade. 

At the driveway across from the burnt house I did not see any White-throated Sparrows, which is surprising, though I did find a couple while walking around. There was, however, an Eastern Towhee in the driveway, scratching away at the dirt. 

A gigantic flock of grackles kept up a constant racket.

A small portion of the grackle flock

Snow Goose  2
Canada Goose  2000
Mute Swan  12
Trumpeter Swan  3    
Tundra Swan  1    
Mallard  1     from boat launch parking lot
Redhead  1     From north side of lake
Ring-necked Duck  15
Bufflehead  1     From boat launch parking lot
Common Merganser  1     From north side of lake
Ruddy Duck  6
Turkey Vulture  1
Bald Eagle  1     
American Coot  3
Ring-billed Gull  8
Mourning Dove  1
Red-bellied Woodpecker  2     Heard
Downy Woodpecker  4
Blue Jay  5
American Crow  1     Heard
Carolina Chickadee  3
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1     Heard
American Robin  1
Northern Mockingbird  1
Eastern Towhee  1     
Song Sparrow  10
White-throated Sparrow  30
White-crowned Sparrow  2
Dark-eyed Junco  2
Northern Cardinal  6     Near burnt house and along Clarksville-Robbinsville Rd
Red-winged Blackbird  3
Common Grackle  1000
American Goldfinch  1     Heard

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mercer Sod Farm IBA 2/8--Fish Crow

Mercer Sod Farm, which is, perplexedly, in Burlington, not Mercer, County is a hard place to bird since you are not actually allowed on the property. Instead, you can only bird the periphery. I don't understand why, since it is supposedly part of the Burlington County Parks Department, though I've been told that the active eagle's nest has something to do with the ban.

American Tree Sparrow
Photo: Shari Zirlin
We drove over there after lunch, having birded Shelter Cove briefly, looking for Horned Larks which didn't appear, Cattus Island, where the feeders were active and Shari was able to take a good photo of an American Tree Sparrow, but the water was frozen and the woods were dead, and Marshall's Pond just to reassure ourselves that the laughable sighting of 3 (THREE!) Tufted Ducks was indeed just that. It was; they turned out to be, of course, Ring-necked Ducks.

Last year we looped around the fields that make up the sod farms probably a dozen times on a number of trips, trying to find a Rough-legged Hawk before we were finally successful. Today we got it on the first try but only after a false alarm. When we first drove onto Warner Road, in the back of the fields, Shari pointed out a hawk above and it was white beneath with black wingtips and I thought it was a Roughie until it landed in the field and I saw a white rump and I realized that instead we had a very beautiful "Gray Ghost" Northern Harrier. It wasn't the bird I wanted it to be, to paraphrase Pete Bacinski.

We drove around to the Burlington County Fairgrounds on the corner of Rt 206. From the parking lot you can view the fields pretty well. It always feels like we're trespassing when we drive onto the empty grounds, but apparently it is perfectly legal. There were other cars there, one couple monitoring the Bald Eagles on their nest and a family riding their bikes. I was also looking at the eagles and the swirl of starlings in the field below them when I realized, after about 10 seconds, that I was hearing a familiar call, one I hadn't heard in quite a few months. "Heh-heh." I looked up and flying just above me was a huge flock of Fish Crows. For some reason, in the winter you're more likely to find these crows which are usually around water (where else are they going to get fish?) inland rather than on the coast. All I've seen in Ocean County are American Crows. My first Fish Crows last year were in this area too--across the street in the Pandora Diner's parking lot. (BTW, who had the idea of naming their Greek Diner after the woman who let all the woes of the world escape from her box?)

It seemed like every time I saw a hawk fly in the field it was another Harrier. Finally, looking over the tree line on the east side of 206, I saw more crows mobbing a larger bird. At first I thought it was a Turkey Vulture, but I've never seen crows bother with vultures and the bird didn't look right for vulture. It had white linings under its wings, similar to a TUVU,  but Turkey Vultures don't have white bases to their tails as this one did. Watching it and watching it I realized it didn't fly like a vulture either. I watched it some more and finally was able to convince myself that I did have a Rough-legged Hawk in the scope. Not a year bird; we saw 3 in Minnesota, but it is a new one for the state.

So, only 7 species for the spot. I sure would like to walk the fields but the guys I know who did both had run-ins with the police.

Turkey Vulture  6
Northern Harrier  4
Bald Eagle  3     Two on nest
Rough-legged Hawk  1     
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
Fish Crow  70
European Starling  500

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ocean & Atlantic Counties 2/7--American Oystercatcher, Willet, Great Horned Owl, 3 Sparrows

Mike Mandracchia and I did an impromptu Big Day, starting out just before dawn in Manahawkin, ranging over to Long Beach Island, down to Brigantine Island, then a loop around Brig (Forsythe) and finally ended up back in Manahawkin at the Bridge to Nowhere at and after sunset. Along the way I picked up 6 year birds including 3 new ones for the county.

We were hoping for owls and a Sedge Wren on Beach Avenue as we had during the Christmas Count but were just a little too late. However, we did get Great Horned Owl after sunset along Stafford Avenue after striking out on Short-eared Owls in the marshes around the burnt out bridge.

The other two highlights for me came on Brigantine Island (not to be confused with the wildlife refuge officially called E.W. Forsythe NWR (Brigantine Unit)), where, in the marshes we picked up American Oystercatchers and Willets (of the Western sub-species). We didn't find, alas, any Marbled Godwits, nor did we find the reported Red-necked Grebe.

At Barnegat Light we did one of my least favorite things, a long rock-hopping walk on the jetty for more than half a mile. We were rewarded though with 4 Harlequin Ducks, not new for me, but year birds for Mike and always a delight to see. A little bonus was an Ipswich Savannah Sparrow the color of sand which posed twice nicely on the rocks as we went out and came back.

Most of the water at Brig was frozen, so we only tallied 24 species there, a very low number, but we did better than expected on the upland portion of the trail with Hairy Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebirds, Field Sparrow, plus the "chwink" of an Eastern Towhee.

I think Mike had 62 species to my 60--I didn't bother listing Rock Pigeon and he heard cardinals that I didn't. Not a bad number for a mid-winter day when so much of the water we surveyed was "stiff."

My list:
Brant   225
Canada Goose   204
Mute Swan   4
Tundra Swan   200
American Black Duck   410
Mallard   55
Northern Pintail   20
Green-winged Teal   10
Canvasback   1
Greater Scaup   220
Common Eider   100
Harlequin Duck   4
Surf Scoter   1
Black Scoter   100
Long-tailed Duck   10
Bufflehead   250
Common Goldeneye   1
Hooded Merganser   32
Red-breasted Merganser   47
Ruddy Duck   220
Red-throated Loon   2
Common Loon   13
Horned Grebe   6
Double-crested Cormorant   4
Great Cormorant   5
Great Blue Heron   5
Turkey Vulture   6
Northern Harrier   5
Bald Eagle   1
Red-tailed Hawk   4
American Oystercatcher   10
Willet   20
Dunlin   258
Ring-billed Gull   1
Herring Gull   370
Great Black-backed Gull   3
Mourning Dove   1
Great Horned Owl   1
Hairy Woodpecker   1
Merlin   2
Blue Jay   3
American Crow   7
Carolina Chickadee   6
Tufted Titmouse   2
Carolina Wren   1
Eastern Bluebird   6
American Robin   34
Northern Mockingbird   1
European Starling   50
Yellow-rumped Warbler   3
Eastern Towhee   1
Field Sparrow   1
Savannah Sparrow   1
Song Sparrow   5
Swamp Sparrow   2
White-throated Sparrow   2
Dark-eyed Junco   6
Red-winged Blackbird   2
American Goldfinch   1
House Sparrow   1
One of the many Wawas (a birder's best friend) at which we stopped today
Photo: Mike Mandracchia

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Eno's Pond 2/4--Greater Yellowlegs

First pool seen from the second platform
I drove up Rt 9 to Eno's Pond to take a walk around the trails after I left Sands Point. I wandered around, making a kind of figure 8, looping around the woods and skirting the ponds, finding pretty much what I would expect. I was going to walk back to the car when I heard a distinctive "doo-doo-doo" call. I'd heard that the last time I was there, but only once so I didn't think too much about it--there were a lot of robins around and I thought it possibly could be one them. I thought the same thing this time, but when I heard it again, I decided to go back to the edge of the pond and check it out again. There had only been Mallards when I looked the first time, but this time I found first one, then 8 more Greater Yellowlegs not quite knee-deep in the water.
Greater Yellowlegs

Given my misidentification of the pipits, how do I know these are greater instead of lesser. Well, I'm only 90% certain, but 
  1.  I heard the call of the greater,
  2.  They have thick knees
  3.  Their bills are long and more importantly
  4.  When I was looking at them, their bill seemed to curve slightly upwards and
  5.  Lessers, despite being listed on eBird, on much less likely in winter. 

However, if anyone wants to correct me, please do. 

So for the day I added 3 year birds, all going on to the county list which is moving up into respectable territory.

16 species
American Black Duck  1
Mallard  43
Bufflehead  2     First pool
Ruddy Duck  1     First pool, with Buffleheads
Great Blue Heron  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Greater Yellowlegs  9     
Downy Woodpecker  1     Male
Blue Jay  1     Heard
American Crow  3
Carolina Chickadee  12
Tufted Titmouse  2     Heard
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  20
White-throated Sparrow  3
American Goldfinch  1     Heard