Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Great Sedge Island 7/23--Brown Pelican, American Bittern

At the winter anchorage on Barnegat Bay
Greg & I took a canoe trip out to Great Sedge Island in Barnegat Bay off the southern end of Island Beach SP this morning. I've always wanted to explore that area, but until today, never had any way of accessing it. Greg's been curious too and asked me if I wanted to go along. I hadn't been in a canoe in years, can't steer, and am not much of an oarsman, but he took me along anyway and we had a fabulous time, recording some interesting birds that we would never have seen from shore, even with a scope.

We started out at high tide, which was not very high. I doubt the water ever got waist deep. Most of Barnegat Bay, in fact, is less than 5 ft deep. In theory, one could walk out to the island, but it would be quite a slog.

Royal Tern
Photo: Greg Prelich
We were interested in finding terns, particularly any rare ones. Almost immediately we had a Royal Tern screaming overhead and on a sand bar we found a small flock of them, including a juvenile begging for food.
Mystery Tern
Photo: Greg Prelich

Both Roseate and Sandwich Tern have been reported in the vicinity but we didn't find either. At least we're pretty certain we didn't find either. We did spend an inordinate amount of time looking at one tern with a black bill and orange feet that at first glance I thought might be Sandwich and at second glance thought might be Roseate, but in the end we both think it is probably a Common Tern molting, either a juvenile molting to adult plumage or an adult molting to winter plumage. (Update 7/24: We were wrong. It is a Forster's Tern molting into winter plumage--thanks to Pete Bacinski for setting us right)

Hen Red-breasted Merganser
Photo: Greg Prelich
This summer has been one of out-of-season waterfowl for me and it continued when Greg spotted a bird sitting at the edge of the water in some grass. At first, seeing mostly a long red bill, we thought it was a juvenile oystercatcher but as we paddled in closer we were surprised to have found a hen Red-breasted Merganser, a duck that should have been out of here long ago (or has arrived extremely early). On our return trip the duck was still in the same spot, but moved into the water, tried flying for a bit, then just swam off.

We made it out around one of the grassy isles and were just outside Barnegat Inlet when we stopped for a snack in a little cove. Within a few minutes we had sightings of Green Heron, Clapper Rail, Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, Whimbrels and best of all, our first-of-year Brown Pelicans, first a single bird, then another, and as we were leaving, two more, an adult and juvenile flying together.

With the pelicans the day was made; we didn't figure to find anything else as impressive. We figured wrong, because a few minutes later we both watch a large brown heron fly into the reeds. We both knew it wasn't another Green Heron--too big, coloration all wrong--and when we spotted it again it was standing with its bill pointing straight up, and we clearly saw the stripes on the neck of the American Bittern, "hiding" in the tall grass. I don't know why, but bittern is considered a rarity this time of year in this area. I consider it a rarity all year long!

Greg mapped our trip on his phone; according to the program we went 3.6 miles (a lot of it was walking while dragging the canoe. Our route looks like one walked by the proverbial drunken sailor. It's a little hard to tell, but we started at the right, went south, turned west, made it to the far side of the island, turned around, explored a dead end channel then came back around on the northern part of the loop.

We had absolutely perfect conditions for our jaunt--virtually no wind until the very end of the tour, moderate temperatures, and, amazingly, given the location, no bugs.

Day list:
Red-breasted Merganser  1     
Double-crested Cormorant  10
Brown Pelican  4     Barnegat Inlet
American Bittern  1     
Great Blue Heron  3
Great Egret  25
Snowy Egret  5
Little Blue Heron  2
Tricolored Heron  1
Green Heron  1
Black-crowned Night-Heron  2
Glossy Ibis  10
Osprey  25     most on nests
Clapper Rail  3
American Oystercatcher  10
Semipalmated Plover  2
Greater Yellowlegs  1
Willet  2
Lesser Yellowlegs  4
Whimbrel  3
Photo: Greg Prelich

Sanderling  1
Semipalmated Sandpiper  50
Short-billed Dowitcher  4
Laughing Gull  20
Herring Gull  50
Great Black-backed Gull  10
Common Tern  50
Forster's Tern  5
Royal Tern  9
Peregrine Falcon  1
Bank Swallow  1
Barn Swallow  1
Seaside Sparrow  10
Song Sparrow  1     Heard
Red-winged Blackbird  2
Boat-tailed Grackle  5

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Brigantine 7/19--Western Sandpiper, Black Tern

Scott Barnes and Linda Mack led a trip around Brigantine's dikes today and besides the many "quality" birds we found, there were some interesting identification lessons. My two new FOY birds were both species that, unless I am standing right on tip of them in good light, I'm reluctant to call. The first, Black Tern, has been hanging around for at least the last week, so it wasn't a surprise find. At first it was over the marsh pretty far out, and while I was eventually able to get it in our scope, it was essentially a gray bird (this was a juvenile) without any solid field marks. But, happily, the bird decided to fly toward us and fish over the mud on the cove side and there we were able to distinguish it as something more than a little tern that didn't look like the rest of the terns flying around.

The 2nd FOY was Western Sandpiper, always hard to pick out from among the thousand other peeps scurrying around on the mud flats. How Scott picks them out to begin with is a marvel to me. We had two today in the same area and, once you look at it, they stood out well from the surrounding gray birds since they still had a lot of rufous breeding plumage on them. Who knows how many Western Sandpipers I overlook in the course of a summer.

I know that today I overlooked quite a few Bank Swallows among the dozens of Barn Swallows roosting in the reeds. I'd already seen one or two BANS so I didn't spend anytime picking through all the BARS that I saw when I had the chance.

Common Tern
Photo: Shari Zirlin
This tern actually made me feel good about my i.d. skills. The usual tern at Brig is Forster's Tern, a tern of the marsh and wetlands. There were lots there today. Common Tern is anything but at Brig, though the place to look for them is at the turn onto the north dike, by the sluice gates.

When I first saw this tern it's bill immediately called itself to my attention because of the reddish cast, but I dismissed the idea of it being anything other than a Forster's. Then it flew and I thought again, because it appeared darker, that it might be a Common, but I wasn't sure and started looking through the shorebirds in my scope. I became aware that Scott was leading a discussion about the bird, trying to decide if it was COTE or FOTE. "Man," I thought, "if Scott has a hard time with this bird, what are my chances?" Still, I looked again and pointed out the tail feather to Scott, how much darker they appeared than the other terns and that "turns out" to be a good field mark, since Common Terns have dark outer tail feathers, while Forster's have dark inner tail feathers. So, instead of subjective field marks like bill color and structure, we had an objective field mark and agreed that we had one Common.

It was a good day for terns--if we had had Royal, we'd have made a clean sweep of the expected terns at Brig for this time of year. As it was we had Least, Gull-billed, Common, Forster's, Black, Caspian and Black Skimmer.

My tally for the day was 63--we kind of sped through the upland portion the 2nd time around as a drizzle started, so that kept the passerine count down a bit.
Canada Goose  50
Mute Swan  12
Wood Duck  10
Mallard  15
Double-crested Cormorant  5
Great Blue Heron  2
Great Egret  25
Snowy Egret  5
Little Blue Heron  1
Tricolored Heron  1
Black-crowned Night-Heron  4
Glossy Ibis  25
Turkey Vulture  1
Osprey  15     most on nests
Clapper Rail  3     Heard
American Oystercatcher  1
Black-bellied Plover  4
Semipalmated Plover  1
Spotted Sandpiper  1
Greater Yellowlegs  3
Willet  10
Lesser Yellowlegs  2
Whimbrel  5
Least Sandpiper  2
Semipalmated Sandpiper  1000
Western Sandpiper  2
Short-billed Dowitcher  100
Laughing Gull  200
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  10
Great Black-backed Gull  25
Least Tern  2
Gull-billed Tern  5
Caspian Tern  1
Black Tern  1
Common Tern  1     
Forster's Tern  70
Black Skimmer  30
Peregrine Falcon  1
Eastern Kingbird  1
Blue Jay  1     Heard
American Crow  2
Fish Crow  1
Purple Martin  20
Tree Swallow  2
Bank Swallow  5
Barn Swallow  100
Marsh Wren  3     Heard
Carolina Wren  1     Heard
American Robin  3
Gray Catbird  4
European Starling  75
Common Yellowthroat  4
Eastern Towhee  1     Heard, upland portion
Chipping Sparrow  1     Heard, picnic tables.
Seaside Sparrow  5
Song Sparrow  4     Heard
Northern Cardinal  1     Exit ponds
Blue Grosbeak  1     South dike
Red-winged Blackbird  50
Boat-tailed Grackle  1
House Finch  4     Visitor Ctr Feeders
American Goldfinch  1

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Couple of Howlers

It's been a while since I posted any inanities that I come across in my daily reading, but today's blunders, being on consecutive pages of the Defenders of Wildlife Magazine that I receive, just could not go unremarked:

Here is an example of a phrase that the writer has only heard and never seen in print. It is like "for all intensive purposes." Of course, a moment of thought would show the writer that the phrase makes no sense, but a moment of thought is usually asking a lot. That's why there used to be proofreaders and copy editors.

That Vladimir Nabokov was an amazing guy. Not only did he discover a new species of butterfly 37 years before he was born, he was able to do it 14 years before even his mother was born.

I think I'm only donating my money to organizations that can pass a literacy test from now on.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Negri-Nepote Grasslands 7/13--Dickcissel

It looked for a while that today's target bird wasn't going to make its annual appearance at Negri-Nepote Grasslands this year, but finally, about a week ago, a female Dickcissel was found to be feeding a couple of juveniles. Where the male is or was and the sudden appearance of the nest remain a mystery. A female DICK isn't as satisfying as a singing male, but it is a rarity, so it seemed worth trying for.

I drove up there this morning with no great hopes of finding the bird, but, if you don't look, you definitely won't find it. I was happy to run into my friends Joe & Elizabeth who had an odd bird in their scope. We were trying to turn it into a juvenile Dickcissel when a local birder came by and told us we had a juvenile cowbird. I was a little dubious about that, not seeing any striping on the bird, but we knew we didn't have the Dickcissel. A few minutes later, the same birder called out "There it is," and a few feet before us, perched on the top of very small tree, was the female DICK, with all the appropriate field marks. Great. "Now," I said, "I can do some birding."

Except I couldn't because, as we were walking to the little pond on the property to see if any shorebirds were around, the overcast sky became more threatening and then rain began, so, after a cursory look at the pond, and finding nothing but some Tree Swallows swooping over the surface, we headed back to the parking lot. So I got my target bird and pretty much nothing else.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Brigantine 7/12--Long-billed Dowitcher

It is interesting to watch the shorebird numbers build up at Brig. Last week, Shari & I had lots of Willets, a few oystercatchers, some Lesser Yellowlegs and some SB Dowitchers. Today, on the trip with Pete & Mike, the diversity was much higher. Nothing extraordinary (we'll have to wait until August for the really exciting shorebirds to be a possibility) but very good looks at Long-billed Dowitchers (though I'm only listing the one I was able to view carefully, there was a small flock of them) was a highlight. The Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher complex is always one of great controversy, especially this time of year when the LBs are listed as "rare," but today's birds had all the field marks, not just the rather subjective hump.

Other birds I was happy to see were Blue Grosbeaks (M&F), Indigo Bunting, and a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a bird that seems to be exceedingly hard to find this year in NJ.

A bird I am not so happy to have seen, in retrospect, was a Great Horned Owl.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Experimental Pool and heard Pete calling out a bird, but didn't know what it was. Mike positioned his vehicle in an odd way and then they both urged the rest of the group either not to get out of their cars, or else to stand behind theirs, using it as a blind. They had found the owl on the path that leads to the observation deck of the pool. I was only able to get photos of its back.

Seeing an owl midday is strange. Seeing an owl midday on the ground, stranger still. I didn't have a good feeling about this bird. Some speculated that it had pounced on some prey and was waiting for us to go away before flying off with it, but that didn't seem right to me--they're nocturnal hunters after all.

We revisited the site on our second loop around the impoundments and the owl was gone. Later, in the visitor's parking lot as we were all saying our goodbyes, one of the volunteers came up to us and asked if we'd taken pictures of the bird. Of course we had. "Well, those are the last pictures of that bird, because about 2 hours ago someone reported it dead. I went out there and picked it up." He said the bird will be tested for West Nile Disease. Of course, the bird could just have been old and died. Knowing what we know now, it appears a bit unseemly for us to all have been gawking at the bird in its last moments.

For the day I managed 71 species, only 16 less than the group's total. My list herewith:
Canada Goose  50
Mute Swan  16
Wood Duck  2
American Black Duck  6
Mallard  7
Double-crested Cormorant  10
Great Blue Heron  2
Great Egret  50
Snowy Egret  10
Black-crowned Night-Heron  1
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  1     SE Pool
Glossy Ibis  25
Turkey Vulture  5
Osprey  15     Most on nests
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Clapper Rail  2     Heard
American Oystercatcher  10
Black-bellied Plover  9
Killdeer  1     Heard
Spotted Sandpiper  1
Greater Yellowlegs  10
Willet  15
Lesser Yellowlegs  1
Whimbrel  6
Least Sandpiper  2
Semipalmated Sandpiper  50
Short-billed Dowitcher  10
Long-billed Dowitcher  1     
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher  5
Laughing Gull  50
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  50
Great Black-backed Gull  25
Least Tern  5
Gull-billed Tern  4
Forster's Tern  100
Black Skimmer  25
Mourning Dove  1     Heard
Great Horned Owl  1     
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  2     Picnic tables & exit
Downy Woodpecker  1     Heard upland area
Northern Flicker  1     Experimental Pool
Peregrine Falcon  2
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Eastern Kingbird  4
White-eyed Vireo  1     Heard upland area
Blue Jay  1
Fish Crow  1     Heard, picnic tables
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  1
Purple Martin  25
Tree Swallow  20
Barn Swallow  3
Carolina Chickadee  1     Heard, upland area
Tufted Titmouse  1     Heard, upland area
Marsh Wren  5
Carolina Wren  2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
American Robin  2
Gray Catbird  5
European Starling  50
Common Yellowthroat  5     Heard
Eastern Towhee  1     Heard, near Jen's Trail
Chipping Sparrow  1     Heard, upland area
Field Sparrow  1     Heard, upland area
Seaside Sparrow  5
Song Sparrow  4
Blue Grosbeak  2     Female at beginning of drive, male at dogleg
Indigo Bunting  2
Red-winged Blackbird  50
Boat-tailed Grackle  1
Brown-headed Cowbird  1     Heard, parking lot
American Goldfinch  2

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sandy Hook 7/10--Bank Swallow & a Couple of Out of Season Species

I spent about 4 hours birding Sandy Hook today, starting at the northern tip and working my way down to Plum Island on the bay side, just before the exit. It was there that I found my FOY Bank Swallows (finally) mixed in with Barn Swallows, but they were not nearly as interesting to me as a number of other birds I found today. Just at Plum Island I came across a Whimbrel, which was a surprise, along with a Clapper Rail and its chick. I was able to view the rail for an extended period, which almost never happens, and a Clapper Rail chick is a lifer for me--a little black fuzz ball on the beach. A nesting Willet there was not happy with my presence and made
several attempts to take my hat (head) off.

Up at the northern tip of the hook (the "False Hook") I found plenty of Common Terns, quite a few American Oystercatchers, 3 Piping Plovers (most of the beach is cordoned off to protect these endangered birds), a Short-billed Dowitcher and two Dunlins in breeding plumage, rare for this time of year.

Walking the 1/2 mile or so through deep sand back & forth to the tip wasn't enough exercise for me, so I drove down to the Fort Hancock parking lot and walked the bike path, Road to Nowhere, and Randolph Road down to Horseshoe Cove. Along the way I found 8 American Redstarts, none of them red, being either juveniles or females.

Horseshoe Cove didn't look promising, especially by mid-morning with beach goers, dogwalkers, fishermen, and a class of kids either seining for sea life or skipping stones, but I saw one weird looking duck way out by the ruins of the fortifications (Hazardous Conditions), so I walked out as far as I could go and saw what struck me as an eider. Eiders are winter ducks. So I dismissed that idea and figured that it might be some sort of scoter. Black Scoters do hang around, sometimes, in the summer. I took some digiscoped pictures that barely approached mediocre. I couldn't find any field marks for scoter, but eider? Nah.

It's an eider, a Common Eider hen. I posted links to the pictures on Jerseybirds and the responses came in immediately all agreeing that my first reaction was correct. There are no Common Eider July records in eBird for Monmouth County--until now. I'm doing pretty well finding out of season waterfowl this year.

My full list:
Brant  1
Common Eider  1     
Double-crested Cormorant  16
Great Egret  1
Snowy Egret  2
Osprey  7     Most on nests
Clapper Rail  2     Plum Island
American Oystercatcher  25
Piping Plover  3     False Hook
Killdeer  1
Willet  1     Plum Island
Whimbrel  1
Dunlin  2     
Semipalmated Sandpiper  3
Short-billed Dowitcher  2
Laughing Gull  100
Herring Gull (American)  50
Great Black-backed Gull  70
Least Tern  10
Common Tern  50
Mourning Dove  3
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  1     Heard, Randolph Rd
Chimney Swift  1
White-eyed Vireo  3     Heard
American Crow  1     Heard
Fish Crow  1     Heard
Bank Swallow  2
Barn Swallow  20
Carolina Wren  1     Heard
American Robin  10
Gray Catbird  15
Northern Mockingbird  3     One attacking Osprey nest at Horseshoe Cove
European Starling  5
Cedar Waxwing  2
Common Yellowthroat  4
American Redstart  8     
Eastern Towhee  2     Heard
Field Sparrow  1     Heard, Fisherman's Trail
Song Sparrow  4     Heard
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  20
Common Grackle  2
House Finch  4
American Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  2

The last bird I saw seemed to be an escapee from a wedding:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Barnegat Light SP 7/9--Royal Tern

Piping Plover fledgling
For the first couple of hours at Barnegat Light this morning it looked like a continuation of the summer doldrums. It has been a dull month so far. A low fog hanging over the ocean wasn't helping matters. I walked up and down the beach a couple of times, looking for an unusual tern, hoping that perhaps a pelican would emerge from the mists but all I got were gulls, gulls, gulls and a few terns that where hard to i.d. in the murk.

The most interesting bird I'd seen on the way out to the beach was the fledgling Piping Plover standing in the middle of the stringed off area. I was just casually scanning the broken shell landscape when I saw it standing there with its back to me. It moved off and eventually hunkered down in a little depression. A monitor from NJ Fish & Wildlife who was looking for the plovers told me that today was "fledgling day." Supposedly, they're on their own today after hatching on Father's Day.
Black-crowned Night-Heron

Anyway, I'd given up on the day after waiting for the fog to lift as long as my patience would hold out. I was heading back up the beach to the parking lot, looking at the tidal pools that form along the jetty when I saw a Black-crowned Night-Heron skulking among the rocks. That was at least interesting. Night-Herons are much more likely to be found in marshes, not picking at rocks, so I was doubly surprised to find a second heron close by.

While pondering whether these were the first Night-Herons I'd ever seen on a beach, I was distracted by two large terns with white foreheads and bad haircuts--finally, a new species for the year--Royal Terns.

American Oystercatchers
Then I heard "peep-low, peep-low," the cry of the Piping Plover and saw an adult scampering from one side of the protected area to the other where the tidal pools are. The plover was ushering 3 juveniles and acting very protective still, so I don't know if fledgling day was slightly postponed. The birding definitely picked up after I gave up. Another Night-Heron flew low along the jetty, making 3 where I'd never seen any and then a couple of American Oystercatchers started to make a racket near one of the grazing Night-Herons.  In all, I saw 9 oystercatchers either in flight or feeding in 3 different parts of the park.

For the day I had 23 species. I'm still looking for the elusive Brown Pelican.

Double-crested Cormorant  3
Black-crowned Night-Heron  3     
American Oystercatcher  9
Piping Plover  4     
Least Sandpiper  1
Laughing Gull  100
Herring Gull  150
Great Black-backed Gull  100
Common Tern  10
Forster's Tern  3
Royal Tern  2
Mourning Dove  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
American Crow  1     Heard
Barn Swallow  10
Gray Catbird  1
Northern Mockingbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  3     Heard
Song Sparrow  4     Heard
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  5
Boat-tailed Grackle  1
House Sparrow  5