Friday, September 16, 2016

Sandy Hook 9/16--Parasitic Jaeger, LARK BUNTING

It was back to Sandy Hook for the 3rd time in 8 days this morning. My destination was determined yesterday, while walking around the Linden Hawk Rise Sanctuary when Scott got a text about a rarity at Sandy Hook. You could almost see the entire group deflate--it was there and we were here. I had other things to do yesterday afternoon and it never occurred to me stop off at Sandy Hook on the way home to look for the bird. It did occur to others. Many others, including Scott. So, since there is a weekly walk there I decided to go up early this morning to try for the bird.

While I had never heard of this particular spot--the wood dump behind the old jail--someone had posted coordinates and looking at the map I saw exactly where it was. I headed over there after parking near the ferry terminal. When I came to a broken sidewalk, I saw, standing at the other end, Pete, Bob, and a couple of other birders I knew. They were silently pointing down to the concrete--there was the bird, a LARK BUNTING, feeding on the ground. I got distant looks at it with my binoculars, then decided to walk around the other side of the grove of the tree to get where they were standing, only to find out that the path Google had mapped out didn't actually exist. By the time I walked back to my original spot, the bird had flown off. I walked down the path and visited with my friends, but the bird didn't come back. "Bummer," I thought.

Lark Bunting is a big sparrow of the mid-west plains. This is only the 8th record for New Jersey. While the males in breeding plumage are a spectacular black with white wing patches, winter plumaged males and females are much drabber--sort of like female House Finches on steroids. I'm sure that if I had seen this bird on my own I would not have thought it a rarity. Yesterday I couldn't remember if Shari & I had seen this species in Texas. We hadn't, so it was a life bird. A life bird that so far I had only crummy looks at.

When I met up with Scott's group at the parking lot of Guardian Park it became apparent that many had come just for the bunting, so we all hied back up there. I thought that there was no way the bird would reappear with an army of birders standing around and making noise (humans are incapable of standing still and shutting up if a gun is not pointed at them) but I was wrong. After a few minutes the bird came out of the brush and started jumping and hopping around. It perched up on a fallen tree trunk and even with my slow-focusing camera, I was able to get some decent shots. I have to say, there is nothing like clear, satisfying looks at a life bird early in the morning to set you up for the rest of the day.

It also makes "regular" birding mundane. We birded around the area but it was essentially dead. Fall migration and we saw one warbler, an American Redstart. We saw a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches which are having an irruption year. 2 RB Nuts, big deal. I had 7 of them walking around the Whiting WMA on Wednesday. We reassembled at Spermaceti Cover a few miles south to look for shorebirds and terns, and while we had Royal Terns, Black-bellied Plovers and oystercatchers, there was nothing there to set your heart a-throb.

Parasitic Jaeger
After the walk was over, a few of us decided to take the "death march" on Fisherman's Trail out to the tip and the tidal cut. Sometimes you can find a rare gull or tern out there and there were sure to be some shorebirds running around on the beach.

Having met some others at the parking lot who had been out there without much luck but who, after hearing how sparse the songbird pickings were decided to make the trek out again, we all gathered at the tip with our scopes and began scanning a large flock of terns and gulls to the east.

All of us except one, who, facing west and the water, thought he might have a jaeger. 8 scopes swung around 180 degrees and there, flying for a moment before settling down in the water, was a large, brown, "gullish" bird with a light colored area around its beak. We waited for a few minutes before it took off out of the water and we were all able to see it's distinguishing white fringes under the wings and pointed tail. It then flew straight at us before settling in closer to shore. By now, birding apps had been tapped to life on our phones and we were all convinced that of the 3 possible jaegers, this one was the "default" species, Parasitic Jaeger.

Parasitic Jaegers make their living harassing terns for their food and this one promptly flew over the big tern flock and got them going. I guess its strategy was to get them off the sand and hunting over the water so it would have something to steal. Its flight was acrobatic as it chased a tern, swooping and flipping around as it tried to get the tern to give up some food. Eventually it succeeded, but not before it was chased by two juvenile Laughing Gulls (turnabout is fair play) who probably didn't know its reputation as a bully. The trio flew without 20 feet of us and gave me the greatest views I've had of this species. Usually, if I see them at all, they are little flapping flecks far out over the water that you can tell are jaegers by behavior and the fleeing of terns.

This bird put on quite a show to the point where I could almost consider this my real lifer as the others were "OK" birds, as in "OK, that's a (fill in species) because you have better eyes than me."

So a relatively dull day of birding was bracketed by two terrific sightings.
My day list:
44 species
Canada Goose  5
Mute Swan  2     North Pond
Wood Duck  4     North Pond
Double-crested Cormorant  20
Great Blue Heron  1     Spermaceti Cove
Great Egret  2     Spermaceti Cove
Snowy Egret  3     Spermaceti Cove
Osprey  4
American Oystercatcher  10     Spermaceti Cove
Black-bellied Plover  14
Semipalmated Plover  4     Tidal Cut
Piping Plover  13     Tidal Cut
Killdeer  7     Ferry grounds
Sanderling  4     Tidal Cut
Parasitic Jaeger  1     
Bonaparte's Gull  1     Tidal Cut
Laughing Gull  100
Herring Gull  50
Great Black-backed Gull  15
Common Tern  100
Forster's Tern  1     Tidal Cut
Royal Tern  14     Spermaceti Cove
Rock Pigeon  5
Mourning Dove  1
Downy Woodpecker  2
White-eyed Vireo  3     Heard
American Crow  1     Heard
Tree Swallow  500
Black-capped Chickadee  1     
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1     Heard
American Robin  2
Gray Catbird  2
Northern Mockingbird  1     Fisherman's trail
European Starling  10
Cedar Waxwing  1     Near Garden
American Redstart  1
Field Sparrow  1
Eastern Towhee  2     Heard
Red-winged Blackbird  3     Wood dump
Baltimore Oriole  1     Wood Dump
House Finch  2     Wood dump
American Goldfinch  1     Heard M lot

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