Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sandy Hook 12/3--Pacific Loon, Cave Swallow

Snow Buntings  over the dunes (click photo to enlarge)
This is the looniest trip I've ever been on
                                                                                                         --Bob Auster
Shari & I joined Scott's Sandy Hook trip this morning for some ocean and beach birding. While the temperature was in the mid 40's, which is okay, and the sun was out so the lighting was good, the wind--well, the wind was ferocious. This is probably the first Sandy Hook trip I've been on where we stayed strictly on the ocean side, never venturing north of the Fisherman's Beach which is mid-peninsula. We were looking for rarities, specifically the Pacific Loon that has been hanging around The Hook for the last week or so. Bob had seen the bird on Monday, as had Scott, but the rest of the group, along with quite a few other birders, really wanted this NJ rarity. As its name implies, this is a west coast loon and only a few stragglers make it to the east coast each year. It is also a hard bird to identify, especially a distance in an ocean that is like "a washing machine" as one very eloquent birder put it. 

We started out at B lot where the bird had been reported earlier in the morning and found only Red-throated Loons and a Black Scoter. The bird had also been reported within minutes of the B lot sighting up at E lot, about a mile away, by the birder who originally found the bird last week so there was much discussion about how fast a loon can fly or were there two? 

The group headed up to C lot with little luck, then D lot, and, wait for it, E lot, with still nothing to show except a few more ducks and some boring gulls. I suppose we could have worked our way all the way up to L lot, but instead we drove down the road to the Fisherman's Beach where we set up our scopes and started scanning yet again. As we were looking at the relatively empty ocean Scott got a call (ain't cell phones great) that a Cave Swallow had been spotted at C lot headed north. Now I thought that scanning the skies for a little bird that could have zigged zagged just about any place on the way up was a low percentage move, but even low percentage moves can pay off and this one did as one birder saw the swallow flying just about the tree line. The bird, with its square tail and buffy throat flew overhead with two other Caves and continued north. Apparently really windy weather is the ideal condition to find these southern swallows (these, I think, are probably from the Caribbean race) but as to why they're migrating north Scott's only explanation was one that I find is becoming all-purpose: "They're stupid." 

Then we received another alert from our Cave Swallow informant that he had the Pacific Loon--down at B lot. Off went 10 cars back to the windy beach (the Fisherman's Beach was somehow protected from the worst of the wind and was relatively comfortable) where we all set up our scopes and started to look for a medium-sized brown/gray loon with a distinct white throat. It finally did show up, but it was hard to find as it continually dove. Shari got it in our scope but I missed it two or three frustrating times until it popped into view for a couple of seconds. Finding a bird in an ocean is hard as the "seamarks" are few and often moving--like two fishing boats and a sailboat. First it was to the left of the first fishing boat in the "green water" then it was between the sailboat and the first fishing boat, then it dove, then it was to the right of the second fishing boat, but always in the "green water." Finally, it stayed up long enough for me to get a decent look but photograph was as out of the question as it was for the zipping swallows. Pacific Loon is a triple listing: year bird, county bird, state bird.
Enlargement of pink rectangle above
All this time, a flock of Snow Buntings had been swirling around D & E lots and in that flock a Lapland Longspur had been sighted. Snow Buntings do not sit down long enough to scan them and when they do sit down for a moment it is usually in beach grass and out of sight, so in between looking for the loon we would chase the flock and look for the longspur, which is a darker and smaller. I didn't really care about the longspur since I already have one for the year and in Ocean County to boot, but others would really like the bird so even after the trip was officially over we drove back to D lot then walked up to E lot where Scott spotted the bird in flight, a trick I can't do very well. Finally, as the remnants of the group walked down to D lot one more time Shari & especially I had had enough. I'm amazed I hung in for the whole trip since wind in my face makes birding a job and not a fun activity suitable for the entire family. More than once, watching Shari trudge through the sand, I was ready to give up, but she just shrugged her shoulders and we continued. Two year birds, fleeting (literally) as they were made it worth it. 

Not a big trip list with only 18 species for the day but decent, given the weather.
Brant  25
Greater Scaup  20     seen at B lot, flying north
White-winged Scoter  10
Black Scoter  15
Long-tailed Duck  1
Red-throated Loon  10
Pacific Loon  1     Continuing. Brown/gray loon, size between COLO & RTLO
Common Loon  1
Northern Gannet  15
Turkey Vulture  1
Sanderling  200
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  25
Great Black-backed Gull  15
Horned Lark  10
Cave Swallow  3     Buffy throat, no "headlight" as on Cliff.
Snow Bunting  100
House Finch  5

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