Sunday, January 25, 2015

Manasquan Reservoir 1/25--Common Merganser, Brown Creeper

I was very surprised--and disappointed--to find about 90% of Manasquan Reservoir iced over. I didn't think it had been cold enough to keep this deep body of water frozen. There were a few pockets of open water, the largest one, that we could see, was from the walkway along Georgia Tavern Road. There we found a large flock of coots, some Ruddy Ducks, a few Pied-billed Grebes, a duo of drake Buffleheads and my target bird for the day, a decent flock of Common Mergansers. I've seen literally thousands of these big ducks from that vantage point when the water was open; Shari first found a few landing in with the Ruddy Ducks, then farther out, well over 30 more. Bald Eagles were on the ice, one eating a bloody lunch of what looked like gull.

We took a walk through the woods and (very) wetlands along the Cove Trail, finding decent numbers of the usual birds, the highlight being our first Brown Creepers of the year. At the feeders we had one female Purple Finch, not a year bird but a good one for the state list.

In all we managed 29 species on this relatively warm winter day. Now we await the blizzard.
Canada Goose  100
Bufflehead  2     
Common Merganser  36
Ruddy Duck  20
Pied-billed Grebe  4
Double-crested Cormorant  2
Turkey Vulture  1
Bald Eagle  4     
Red-tailed Hawk  1
American Coot  71
Ring-billed Gull  5
Rock Pigeon   20
Mourning Dove  2
Red-bellied Woodpecker  5
Downy Woodpecker  4
Blue Jay  2
American Crow  10
Carolina Chickadee  10
Tufted Titmouse  4
White-breasted Nuthatch  5
Brown Creeper  2
Carolina Wren  2     Heard
Golden-crowned Kinglet  2
Song Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  5
Dark-eyed Junco  10
House Finch  10
Purple Finch  1     
American Goldfinch  10

Friday, January 23, 2015

Manasquan Inlet 1/23--Black-bellied Plover, Razorbill

"You can't ask for better weather," I  heard one fisherman say to another at the Manasquan Inlet. "Not strictly true," I said to myself. I could always ask for better weather in winter, but with temperatures just above freezing and, more importantly, no wind, at least the conditions didn't bother me. I drove up to Point Pleasant with the hopes of snagging a couple of new birds for the year, but when I got there it didn't look promising. From the boardwalk, all I could see on the ocean were Common Loons. More loons in the inlet itself, along with one Red-breasted Merganser.  Where Common Redpolls had been reported on Wednesday there were construction vehicles, so that squelched that idea.

Then I saw a small flock of shorebirds whip around the end of the  jetty--they could have been any of about 3 or 4 winter species--on the wing, at a distance, I'm not that good--so I walked back to the beach entrance and started off toward the jetty. About half-way there I practically walked into this little flock of Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlins  They appeared perfectly comfortable and didn't flinch when I shifted position to get the light better for photos.
Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlins
With no wind to make ocean view difficult I climbed up on to the jetty and walked to the end, a pleasure compared to Barnegat Light, as the top of this jetty is like a concrete sidewalk. I had a great of view of an empty, calm ocean. Just a few loons spotted about. I saw one bird that didn't look loon-like; or gull-like; or duck-like. It was an alcid, my first Razorbill of the year and a bird I managed to miss all of last year. Manasquan Inlet is an excellent location to spot these birds (I've seen them there in the past) but I'd forgotten about this possibility of sighting one, so I had an unexpected bird for the day--the best kind. It isn't much of a digiscoped picture (it was much clearer in my scope) but you can see the general shape of the bird and its beak. 

I spent about 40 minutes on the jetty and with nothing else showing up except 30 or so flyover Brant, I decided to walk tot he western end of the inlet where ducks often hang out. Before I left I saw another intriguing flock of shorebirds fly to the back side of the jetty on the Monmouth County side to the north--they looked like Purple Sandpipers to me, but after a decent wait they never came back and I left. 

Down at the west end of the inlet channelthere were some Bufflehead and Red-breasted Mergansers and a large flock of Brant. There was also a single drake Black Scoter mixed in with the mergansers. This struck me as unusual as scoters are always seen in the ocean, never, in my experience, this close to shore near a beach. I wonder if the bird is ill which would explain why it was so close in? 

What started out as an unpromising trip ended up with two "good" birds (I only need one "good" bird a day). Still wish those redpolls had been around, though.
16 species
Brant  350
Black Scoter  1    
Bufflehead  6    
Red-breasted Merganser  8
Common Loon  9
Black-bellied Plover  6     
Dunlin  11
Razorbill  1
Ring-billed Gull  2
Herring Gull  100
Great Black-backed Gull  10
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  1
American Crow  1
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  15
House Sparrow  2

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Double Trouble SP 1/21--Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird

Back to local birding. I drove over to Double Trouble about noon to get a walk in before the snow began. I figured with Whitesbog frozen over, the Tundra Swans had to go somewhere and the biggest body of open water nearby would be the reservoir at the park. I was right; there were 53 swans there by my "exact" count. eBird's filter flags that as a high count. I don't know when these filters were written, but Tundra Swans are not rare in this area and 50 swans is not a particularly large flock.
24 swans right here, by my count

& a few more:
The weather was holding so I took my usual walk around the bogs, reversing my usual route to stave off boredom. It seemed pretty quiet there and I wasn't expecting much of anything else to turn up. Walking back on the other side of Cedar Creek I heard a high-pitched call note. I stopped, pished, and a single Golden-crowned Kinglet popped up on a cedar branch. I walked a couple of hundred feet along the trail before I realized that was an FOY bird. 

Along the dikes of the back bogs, on Sweetwater Lane to be specific, I heard what I thought was a bluebird. It, to my ear, is a mournful little sigh, almost like wind sloughing. I should, by now, have more confidence in my ear, but I don't like to "count" calls in any event. It didn't matter, because, just before I put my bins up to look at four sparrows on the road, a beautiful male Eastern Bluebird flew from one side of the bog to the other. Later, I saw two males flying back the other way. Both birds seemed to me surprisingly bright blue with deep red breasts. The sky was very gray by then, so it wasn't sunlight playing tricks on me. Both birds were too far and too fast to even attempt a photo. 

Two more birds for the years, 3 more for the county and I got back before the snow started to fall.

10 species
Tundra Swan  53     
Ring-billed Gull  21     f/o
Carolina Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1     Heard
Golden-crowned Kinglet  1
Eastern Bluebird  2     
American Robin  1     Heard
Song Sparrow  5
Dark-eyed Junco  12
American Goldfinch  1

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Minnesota in Winter

Great Gray Owl
Photo: Shari Zirlin
Mike Mandracchia organized a group of Jersey and Philly birders to take a trip to what turned out to be only the semi-frozen north of Duluth, Minnesota, led by his friend Kim Risen of Naturescape Tours.

Since I hate traveling, hate winter, hate the cold and hate the wind, I had more than a few qualms about taking this trip, but the prospect of 11 potential life birds, a couple of which I knew I had absolutely no chance of scoring in the east, overrode my trepidation.

Whatever you're worrying about usually doesn't happen, so since I was worried about everything, it all worked out fine. The weather, while cold, wasn't any colder than it can get in NJ and the winds, for the most part were mild. The coldest day we had started out at about 5 degrees and warmed up all the way to 20. The other days started in the 20's and warmed up past the freezing mark.
If my coat is open, it can't be that cold. 
You can't rack up huge numbers of species in Northern Minnesota--St Louis County, for the year, has recorded about 65 species so far. Contrast that to Ocean County where I already have 79 species and the total number of species in the county is well over 100. But, we weren't going for quantity; we wanted birds that you just don't see in the mid-Atlantic region like Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and the owls. I was hoping for two species of woodpeckers but got shut out on those. Two species of grouse were also no-shows. But of the 11 target birds we got 7 and I think that's a pretty good percentage.

We made a couple of brief forays into Wisconsin, spent some time looking at gulls on the Duluth waterfront, ran up to Superior National Forest for half a day, but spent most of time birding the legendary Sax-Zim Bog.

Individual reports can be found here:
Duluth--Canal Park 1/15--Common Goldeneye, THAYER'S GULL, Glaucous Gull
Jean Duluth Road 1/16--NORTHERN HAWK OWL
Sax-Zim Bog 1/17--Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak
Duluth--Canal Park 1/17--Iceland Gull
W Knife River Rd 1/18--Bohemian Waxwing, HOARY RED...
Sax-Zim Bog 1/18--GREAT GRAY OWL

Our complete list for the trip: Underline=Rare; Bold Italics=FOY; ALL CAPS BOLD=Life Bird
Species                                    First Sighting
American Black Duck     Duluth--Canal Park   
Mallard     Duluth--Canal Park   
Northern Pintail     Duluth--Canal Park   
Common Eider     Duluth--Canal Park   
Common Goldeneye     Duluth--Canal Park   
Ruffed Grouse     Highway 7, St Louis County   
Bald Eagle     Hwy 53, MM14   
Rough-legged Hawk     Sax-Zim Bog   
Herring Gull     Duluth--Canal Park   
THAYER'S GULL     Duluth--Canal Park   
Iceland Gull     Duluth--Canal Park   
Glaucous Gull     Duluth--Canal Park   
Rock Pigeon     East Duluth   
Snowy Owl    Richard Bong Airport
NORTHERN HAWK OWL     Duluth--Jean Duluth Rd   
GREAT GRAY OWL     Sax-Zim Bog   
Downy Woodpecker     Sax-Zim Bog   
Hairy Woodpecker     Sax-Zim Bog   
Pileated Woodpecker     Old Vermillion Trail   
Northern Shrike     Sax-Zim Bog   
GRAY JAY     Sax-Zim Bog   
Blue Jay     Highway 7, St Louis County   
Black-billed Magpie     Sax-Zim Bog   
American Crow     Duluth--Jean Duluth Rd   
Common Raven     Duluth--Jean Duluth Rd   
Black-capped Chickadee     Old Vermillion Trail   
Red-breasted Nuthatch     Old Vermillion Trail   
White-breasted Nuthatch     Highway 7, St Louis County   
Bohemian Waxwing     1740 W Knife River Road   
Snow Bunting     Highway 7, St Louis County   
PINE GROSBEAK     Sax-Zim Bog   
Purple Finch     Sax-Zim Bog   
Common Redpoll     Old Vermillion Trail   
HOARY REDPOLL     1740 W Knife River Road   
Pine Siskin     Old Vermillion Trail   
Evening Grosbeak     Sax-Zim Bog    

Duluth--Canal Park 1/15--Common Goldeneye, THAYER'S GULL, Glaucous Gull

Our plane landed in Duluth at just about 3 PM, with no problems along the way. We called Kim and Mike and they said they'd pick us up in about 10 minutes. I expected they'd just ferry us back to the motel since it was pretty late in the day. Instead, the van was almost full with the rest of the group and after some very brief greetings to those we knew and introductions to those we didn't, we were whisked off to the Duluth waterfront, where a canal comes in from Lake Superior, called, appropriately, Canal Park.

I don't recall if the first bird I saw in Duluth was a Mallard or a Herring Gull, but there were plenty of them close in along the canal's wall. The next bird I found was a single drake Common Goldeneye, much farther out but still well-seen. The big duck news in Duluth, however, is a hen Common Eider mingling with the Mallards. The last time an eider was in Duluth was either during the Eisenhower or the Johnson Administration; there was some disagreement as to who was president when but I wasn't there to teach a history lesson. Whenever it was it had been a while. There were also 4 Northern Pintail (2 drakes, 2 hens), always nice to see, and, it turned out, yet another rarity for Duluth.

Kim was sorting through the gulls and picked out a few Glaucous Gulls for us and soon, not even in Duluth for 45 minutes, we got our first lifer of the trip, a gull with pink feet and an amber eye--THAYER'S GULL. Shari shot a video of the bird on her phone.

So,I was pretty impressed. I was also a little underdressed, since I hadn't even had the chance to change shoes from my sneakers and I was only wearing a couple of layers. Still, the temperatures were just above freezing so it seemed very much like winter in NJ.

Common Eider (hen)
After this stop, we still weren't done. There aren't a lot of hours of daylight in Duluth in winter so you after to use all them all. We all piled back into the van and drove over the border to Superior, Wisconsin and drove the perimeter of the Richard I. Bong Airport (not making up the name) to look for Snowy Owls. They weren't hard to find. It seem like every light pole, utility pole, tall pipe or tree had an owl atop it. We counted 6 in a brief run around the area, only stopping a couple of times. And unlike New Jersey, where I've been feeling pretty skeevy about looking for Snowies because they're down on the ground and easily disturbed, these were pretty much out of                                                                                                    range of being bothered.
Common Goldeneye (drake)
Finally, with the sun down we headed back to Minnesota, with 8 birds to kick off the trip, including 1 lifer, + two others as year birds.

Mallard  50
Northern Pintail  4     
Common Eider  1     
Common Goldeneye  2
Herring Gull  70

Glaucous Gull  1 
Snowy Owl   6
Glaucous Gull

Northern Pintail (drake)

Jean Duluth Road 1/16--NORTHERN HAWK OWL

We were up & out well before dawn on Friday, the official start of the tour. We drove along Jean Duluth Road north and east out of town. Kim knew that along the road NORTHERN HAWK OWL could be seen. How well they'd be able to be seen, if we found them, was the question. The answer: Very well. This is the first one we saw. There was a 2nd bird along the way too.

And so, not long after dawn we had our 2nd lifer of the trip. This was seeming just a little too easy. 


Photos: Shari Zirlin

 Situated between the two ghost towns of Sax & Zim, the Sax-Zim bog is approximately 100 square miles of forest and fields cut through by county roads. Farming here was pretty much a failure because of the acidity of the peat that makes up much of the area's soil. Though I did find the trivia that at one time the celery for Chun-King products was grown there. When was the last time you thought about Chun-King?

The bog is the big draw, the main reason to bird Northern Minnesota, the place to get the boreal birds you aren't ever going to get in NJ.

So, after picking up another van and the last two people in our party at the airport we drove up to the bog in the afternoon. We were always birding along the roads and on the way we picked up some nice species like multiple Northern Shrike and 6 or 7 Ruffed Grouse

I think our first bird once we were with in the boundaries of the bog was a beautiful light morph Rough-legged Hawk, only the 2nd one Shari & I had seen. (We were to get a couple of others on the trip.)  Kim was always on the lookout for owls, but frankly, I was more interested in what might be at the feeders. There was one on Admiral Road that we stopped at. Kim smeared some peanut butter on on the stick holding the feeders and within a few minutes the bird I really wanted to see more than any other on this trip finally showed up--two of them in fact, the very striking GRAY JAY.
I was thrilled to finally get this bird--we missed it last year in New Mexico and trips to the Adirondacks just have not meshed with our schedule.

Black-capped Chickadees were all about the feeders, but Kim said to wait for about 15 or 20 minutes for the other chickadee in Minnesota to show. The jays kept swooping in for food, so I was amiably distracted when I suddenly saw on the stick a chickadee with brown flanks and very little cheek patch showed up--BOREAL CHICKADEE, another lifer at the same feeder. Interestingly, Sibley says that these chickadees, unlike their more social cousins, rarely visit feeders. I'm glad this one made an exception.

Those two life birds sort of made up for the one I had missed earlier in the day at a feeder along Highway 7. However, I got my 2nd chance as the group drove along the road and when Kim announced on the walkie-talkie PINE GROSBEAK, I bolted from the car and with Shari's help finally found it at the very tip of a tall spruce. Not a great look in the gloaming, but one I could use. (Happily, we saw more as the trip progressed.)

So, just in Sax-Zim we had 3 more lifers. The list for just the bog itself:
Rough-legged Hawk  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Shrike  2
GRAY JAY 2     
Black-billed Magpie  2
Common Raven  2
Black-capped Chickadee  5
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
Common Redpoll  30