Gulls Galore

This past Sunday was warm: a whopping 76 degrees here in New Jersey. I’m not the biggest fan of that kind of heat in the fall, but I thought it would be nice to go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Long Beach Island, NJ. I figured that it’s usually cooler at the shore, so we should have a nice cool breeze while birding. I wanted to see some shore birds and new migrants who I’ve been hearing about on some of my birding Facebook groups.

Things didn’t quite turn out as I expected though. There was no cool breeze (although it was nice and sunny). You know what else was missing?

Shorebirds. There were no shorebirds in sight. Zero. Once again, birding got me by giving me exactly what I did not expect. But instead I got something else that’s pretty great.

Gulls. Lots and lot of gulls. Gulls galore.

Like Turkey Vultures, I feel like gulls also get a bad rep. They are noisy, they steal, they invade our parking lots. Many people think of them as a nuisance.

If you feel that way about gulls, I challenge you to look closer. Gulls are actually pretty fascinating. They have complex communication systems and are excellent parents. Gulls are also extremely adaptable. People may get annoyed seeing gulls hanging out by all the garbage, but let’s remember who created all that garbage in the first place…(hint: it’s not the gulls :-P)

“Mr. Sandy-bill” takes a stroll on the beach (Image by BirdNation)

So although I did not get to see shorebirds, I was happy to spend some time with the gulls. I felt honored to be able to get so close and observe. We watched them preen, rest, hang out together, swim in a tide pool, float on ocean waves, and soar over the water. It was a nice day to be with these underappreciated sea birds.

As I explained in my Seashore Saturday about Laughing Gulls, the term “seagull” is not real. There are only “gulls”, and there are many different kinds that live here at the Jersey Shore in the fall and winter. We saw a healthy mix of Ring-billed, Herring, Laughing, and Great Black-backed Gulls (I heard later through Facebook that there were Bonaparte’s Gulls somewhere that day but I did not personally observe them).

I’ll admit, I’m not the best at gull identification. Gull plumage varies greatly. It depends on the season, breeding vs. nonbreeding, and how old a bird is. Juveniles of all the species listed above tend to be more brown, but some gulls have different winter plumage depending on if they are 1st winter, 2nd winter, or 3rd winter. I would be remiss if I acted like I knew what all these specific gulls were in the pictures of this post. I have a long way to go in my gull id skills. But it is a work in progress that I am determined to improve over time. So I will caption these pictures with simply just “mixed flocks of gulls”.

However, I feel somewhat confident of this picture:

Herring Gull? (Image by David Horowitz)

After much deliberation I believe this fellow is a 3rd winter Herring Gull. But don’t quote me on that! (lol 🙂 and please correct me if I’m wrong!).

I may have only gotten decent pictures of gulls, be we did see some other species on our trip. These included male and female Northern Cardinals, two Brown Creepers, two Great Cormorants, a Double-crested Cormorant, a Red-bellied and a Downy Woodpecker, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and a juvenile Eastern Phoebe. We determined the Phoebe was juvenile because of its pale yellow belly.

We even picked up two new feathers for our collection: a Northern Flicker and some sort of gull (again, I have no clue who’s feather this may be, I just thought it was cool).

Northern Flicker and gull feathers (Image by BirdNation)

I’m glad we had a day full of gulls. These interesting birds deserve more respect and positive attention. The shorebirds can wait until the next Long Beach Island trip.

Gulls getting their feet wet (Image by BirdNation)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Wednesday

This week’s featured woodpecker is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It is one of North America’s four sapsucker species. This sapsucker is the most migratory woodpecker in the world.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)


Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are small (7.5-9 inches) with straight bills and a pied facial pattern. Both sexes have a red forehead and white napes. Males have bright red throats, solid black malar (cheek) stripe, a black bib, and pale yellow was on the breast. Females have pale white throats, black malar stripes, and a black bib. Adults of both sexes have black and mottled white bodies with a solid white stripe down their folded wings. Juveniles are a dusky brown with a yellowish belly and gray heads. They also feature a white wing stripe.

Adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Image by Dick Daniels/wikimedia commons, found via Boreal Songbird Initiative’s website)


Summer (breeding): as far North as eastern Alaska and across the boreal forests of Canada, parts of New England, and Adirondack Mountains. Migration: Midwest United States. Winter: Eastern and Southeastern United States, and goes as far south as Central America (down to Panama) and the Caribbean


deciduous forests, mixed coniferous woodlands, aspen groves, orchards


tree sap, insects,  berries, and other fruits. True to their names, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill neatly organized sapwells in horizontal rows. The trees they choose to drill have a higher concentration of sugar in the sap, and are usually sick or wounded. Aspens, Paper birch, sugar maple, and hickory trees are a few of the tree species they drill. They drill throughout the year to keep the sap fresh on both their wintering and breeding grounds. Sometimes they will catch insects in mid-air after perching from a branch, similar to flycatchers.

Sapwells (Image by Mike Lathroum via


Males arrive at the breeding territory a week before females to scout out a drumming post. The female and male will scurry around the tree trunk together while tapping a potential excavation site. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are monogamous. Like other woodpeckers, these Sapsuckers are cavity nests. They usually use the same tree for up to 7 years, but will use a different cavity in that tree each year.

Females lay between 5-6 (sometimes 3-7) eggs per year and started incubating around the third or fourth. Males and females will share incubation duties for around 12-13 days. The young fledge 25-29 days after hatching. The parents will teach the young sapsucking skills for around 10 days after leaving the nest.


Quieter during the winter but pretty vocal during breeding. A repeated nasal mewing meehhr!, a quee-ah, queeah! scratchy call. Drumming is typically done by males.


In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers received a bad reputation for damaging and drilling in timber in the Eastern United States. Due to forest clear-cutting numbers declined, but recently have increased and are more widespread.  It’s estimated that there is a global population  10 million breeding pairs by the organization Partners in Flight. It’s possible that the population is higher than pre-settlement times. Although more common, they are still consider climate-threatened.

Female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Image by Greg Lavaty via Seattle Audubon)

Fun Facts:

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of the three sapsuckers in the varius superspecies. The other two sapsuckers in varius are the Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers. These species have been known to hybridize in certain areas of the west. The fourth North American sapsucker, the Williamson’s, is more genetically different than the other sapsucker superspeices. Studies show they are the most ancestral of the four sapsuckers in the Sphyrapicus genus.
  • These sapsuckers make two different holes to access sap. Small round holes are made deep in the trunk, which are used to reach the sap. Rectangular holes that are shallower must be maintained to keep the sap flowing.
  • Hummingbirds are attracted to the sapwells that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have become so depend on these sapwells that they will time their spring migration to when the sapsuckers arrive.
  • The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the logo for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary is names for this species. It was in Sapsucker Woods that Arthur Allen (the Lab’s founder) and artist Lous Agassiz Fuertes discovered the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest in the Finger Lakes area of New York in 1909. Fuertes later named this spot Sapsucker Woods. (story found in the Lab’s publication Living Bird, winter 2015 edition)


Sunday Duck-day

On Sunday morning Dave and I went to Haddon Lake Park. We’ve been there hundreds of time over the years. Sometimes I just need my duck-fix, so it’s the perfect place to spot waterfowl. As we strolled along things seemed pretty normal until Dave spotted something tiny floating in the water.

Upon closer examination, we learned that it was a female Ruddy Duck. Ruddy Ducks are common in the west year-round and are winter visitors here on the east coast. She may have recently arrived from migration. She was alone and was pretty busy trying to preen. She was splashing all over the place and diving occasionally. Ruddys are small and compact, with a length of 15 inches. Once Mallards started to swim by it was easier to see how much smaller she was compared to them (Mallards are around 23 inches in length). We determined she was a female because she was brown overall and had a dark stripe across her cheek.

Female Ruddy Duck at Haddon Lake (Image by BirdNation)

Of the hundreds of times at Haddon Lake, this was our first Ruddy Duck sighting in this location. We’ve seen them at other lakes before (one of our most recent times was Manasquan Reservoir). It’s always exciting to see a new location species in an area you visit frequently. You never know what you’ll discover; that’s one reason I love birding so much.

This year it seems like there are a lot more hybrids than usual at Haddon Lake. Ducks are notorious for hybridizing, so it’s likely there are a few hybrids at your local lake too. We watched the Mallards and other hybrids swim around for awhile.

On the other side of the lake was a group of Mallards that were doing courtship displays. The males seemed to be gathering in a small group while the females swam around. Males (drakes) displayed by nod-swimming (swimming low and flat in short bursts), head-pumping, raising up out of the water, and flicking their heads. Although they don’t start to actually mate until the winter, pair bonds start to form in the fall. Mallards have a different mate each season. I was able to capture a short video of these behaviors.

If you want to learn more about Mallard courtship behavior, check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called How to Recognize Duck Courtship Displays)

Other birds we saw on this walk were a Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrows, Canada Geese, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and Double-crested Cormorants. I was a little surprised to see Cormorants this late into the fall. I’m thinking that maybe since the weather has been so warm they didn’t leave yet. Either way, I’m always happy to see them. These Cormorants were sunning themselves after swimming.

Cormorants sunning themselves (Image by David Horowitz)

Last week we had 5 days here in New Jersey that reached around 80 degrees. Today it finally cooled down, so hopefully we were start getting the fall weather we should be having. I’m looking forward to seeing more fall migrants over the next few weeks.

World of Woodpeckers

Happy Woodpecker Wednesday! I thought I’d do something a little different for our feature this week. Instead of a species profile, today’s post is going to be facts about woodpeckers in general. I think as a bird blog, it’s important to do species profiles to educate others on specific birds (big groups like Audubon and Cornell Lab do “bird of the week” features too).

But every once in awhile, you just want to mix things up. And I’m in that kind of mood today. So here are 10 wonderful facts about woodpeckers.

  • There are between 180-200 woodpecker species found throughout the world. Some species are possibly extinct, but since these extinctions haven’t been confirmed, it’s hard for scientists to get a more exact count.
  • Woodpeckers can be found on almost every continent, except Australia and the extreme polar regions. They are also not present in Madagascar, New Zealand, and New Guinea. Most species live in woodland areas, but a few live in deserts and rocky hillsides.
  • Woodpeckers are part of the family Picidae, which is one of the eight families in the order Piciformes. There are four subspeices of the family Picaidae which include sapsuckers, wrynecks, and piculets.
  • The smallest woodpecker in the world is the Bar-breasted Piculet. Adults are around 3 inches (7.5 cm) and weight about 0.28 to 0.35 ounces (8 to 10 grams). They are found in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia.
Bar-breasted Piculet (Image by Joao Quental via
  • The largest woodpeckers in the world are the Ivory-billed (around 20 inches) and Imperial (between 23-25 inches). However, both may be extinct. The largest confirmed woodpecker is the Great Slaty Woodpecker, which is around 20 inches and live in Southeast Asia.
Imperial Woodpecker specimens (Image by Fritz Geller-Grimm via wikimedia commons)
  • Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet. This means that they have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing the rear. Many birds, such as waders and passerines, have 3 forward and one facing backwards. Being zygodactl helps woodpeckers climb trees vertically and gives them exception grip since their talons are so long.
Woodpecker Feet illustration (via Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta,GA)
  • How can woodpeckers drum on trees without hurting their heads? Their skulls are thick and have sponge-like bone in the front and rear of the cranium. This helps them protect the brain by spreading the impact force. The nictitating membrances (a.k.a “thrid eyelid”)close a millisecond before impact to protect their eyes. They also have special bristled feathers that cover their nostrils from flying debris.
  • A woodpecker can peck at an average of around 20 pecks per second. That’s around 8000-12,000 pecks per day!
  • Woodpeckers have long tongues, which vary in shape depending on a species diet. Woodpeckers have a  hyoid apparatus (a set of two narrow bones, muscle, and cartilage). The hyoid allows the tongue to extend to great lengths. It wraps around the base and over the top of the skull.
Diagram of a woodpecker tongue (Illustration by Denise Takahashi via
  • The most common flight pattern for woodpeckers is 3 flaps and a glide.

What is your favorite species of woodpecker? Tell me in the comments below.

Doin’ the Turkey Trot

We’ve had some beautiful warm weather here in New Jersey the past couple of days.Dave and I decided to take advantage of the warmth by going to Palmyra Cove Nature Park on Sunday evening.

Palmyra Cove Nature Park is 250-acres and there are a ton of trails to explore. We can easily spend hours there, but since we were competing with the sunset we decided to check out the meadow and the beaver pond.

There were a lot of Tree Swallows gliding over the meadow. Tree Swallows can migrate south as early as July and August. The East Coast population migrates to Florida, Central America, and Cuba. I was surprised to still see so many Tree Swallows around at this point, but I guess since it’s still so warm they are continuing to feed before they leave. Towards the end of the meadow is a small pond. We saw a Lesser Yellowlegs, Great Blue Heron, some sandpipers, and Eastern Phoebes.

The next destination was the Beaver Pond. You have to pass through the forest to get to the beaver pond from the meadow. Along the way we saw Carolina Chickadees, different woodpeckers, American Robins, Carolina Wrens, some deer, and 2 Wild Turkeys. I’m always delighted to see the Turkeys at Palmyra. I know that there are a decent amount that live there, and we usually see a few at a time.

Wild Turkey (Image by BirdNation)

There are a lot of little trails interspersed throughout the forest. It’s easy to “trail hop” from one to another without realizing it. We know the paths pretty well, but weren’t paying attention and took a “wrong” turn (there’s not technically a “wrong way”, we just missed the trail we wanted). We should have already been at the pond, but decided to continue and explore this new path.

And I’m glad we did. Because suddenly a group of Turkeys jumped out onto the trail in front of us. It started with about 5 or 6, but as we watched more and more ran from the bushes. By the time the whole flock ran past there were about 24 of them! They were apparently headed in the same direction as us, so we trailed behind at a distance.

What an experience! Just Dave and I and 24 Turkeys strolling along on a warm Sunday evening. I’ve never been that close to that many Wild Turkeys before. In the past we’ve watched a large group of Turkeys in a field doing mating displays (you can watch a video of it at that link), but it’s quite different being so close. They eventually caught on that we were following them, so a few started to trot and the other followed. The group ended up going back into the bushes to forage. It made me happy knowing that pretty soon all 24 of them were going to climb up into the trees to roost. You wouldn’t expect to see a bird that big sitting in a tree, but they do roost in trees at night. I unexpectedly discoveed that last year; it was quite amusing to me (you can read the story here).

At the Beaver Pond we saw Double-crested Coromrants, a female Belted Kingfisher, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. From across the pond we could heard Red-winged Blackbirds and our first White-throated Sparrows of the season.

Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler (Image by BirdNation)

We always have a wonderful experience at Palmyra Cove, and Sunday was no exception. How can you beat spending some time trotting around with Wild Turkeys? 🙂

Have you ever experienced a large flock of Turkeys?  Tell us your Turkey stories in the comments.

Living on the Edge

“Does losing one more bird matter?”

This question was asked by author Deborah Cramer in her book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

(Image via

In The Narrow Edge, Cramer explores this question through documenting the journey of the Red Knot, a tiny shorebird. She focuses on Calidris Canutus rufa, one of the six subspecies of Red Knots worldwide. The rufa species uses most of the Atlantic Flyway for their migration route from South America to the Arctic. It’s an extremely long journey – around 19,000 miles round trip- and a dangerous one. Cramer sets out to learn about the obstacles the Red Knots face by traveling the migration route with them.

The journey begins on the beach of  Bahía Lomas in Tierra del Fuego, located at the southern end of South America. She refers to this place as the first “rung on the ladder” for the Knot’s epic migration. From the start, the population of rufas is lower than in the past. They continue up the coast, briefly stopping in Brazil to refuel before landing in Delaware Bay.

A Red Knot at Delaware Bay (Image by Bill Dalton via

Although our trip started with Red Knots, there is another creature involved. Enter the horseshoe crab. Considered “living fossils” by some, they have changed very little in the last 445 million years. Red Knots rely eating the horseshoe crab’s eggs to help them complete their migration to the Arctic. However, horseshoe crab populations on the East Coast of the United States have been decimated over the years, due to being used as bait, fertilizer, and for biomedical research.

Horseshoe crab’s blood is copper-based (and therefore blue), as opposed to our iron-based blood. Scientist learned that horseshoe crab’s blood is highly sensitive to endotoxins. Amebocytes from their blood is used for the endotoxin  detector LAL (limulus amebocyte lysate). Humans rely on the crab’s blood to make sure medicines and devices such as IVs are free from harmful bacteria.


© Hans Hillewaert via

Delaware Bay use to overflow with horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, but the last few decades have been much quieter. Cramer discovers this is having an impact on how many shorebirds make it to the Arctic, a region already threatened tremendously by climate change. Cramer spends 3 1/2 weeks with a team of scientists tracking shorebird nests in the Arctic, then heads back south to James Bay, Ontario. This is where she ends her migration trip, but journey continues for the Red Knots.

Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs in Georgia (Image by Brad Winn, Manomet via

The Narrow Edge is a fascinating book. Cramer presents the struggle of the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs by combining history, scientific evidence, and personal stories (from herself and other). She doesn’t just focus on Red Knots and horseshoe crabs, however. When she asks if losing another bird matters, she reminds the reader that every species is interconnected, a notion that many humans tend of forget.

She goes on to say, “The loss of a bird can reverberate through a food web, touching its many strands in ways we have only begun to measure.”

The loss of any species, whether or not they are birds, can have a negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem in which it lives. So many animals and plants in the natural world are living on the edge, just like the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs that Cramer writes about. She brings up many ecological and conservation issues, such as the value of the natural world to humans, ocean acidification, global warming, and habitat loss. The solutions to these problems are complex, and although Cramer alone cannot offer solutions, she presents what we already know and what is currently being done.

Cramer wants us to remember that humans are interconnected with nature as well.  Our actions do have an impact on all forms of life, from the Red Knots to the tiniest insects to the largest mammals. Although the stakes are high, horseshoe crabs and Red Knots continue to persist the best they can. Through Cramer’s cautious warning, there is a glimmer of hope. If conservation of all life becomes more of a focus, maybe someday we can persist like the Red Knots and create a healthier Earth.

(If you want more information about the Red Knots and climate change in addition to the book, you can check out an article written by Deborah Cramer for the May/June 2016 issue of Audubon Magazine. It’s called Red Knots are Battling Climate Change- On Both Ends of the Earth.)

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Wednesday

Last week we learned about the Nuttall’s Woodpecker, who is endemic (restricted to) to California. This week, we are heading to the opposite coast to learn about the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker has been on the Endangered Species List since 1970. Because of this, they are one of the best-studied woodpeckers in North America and are intensely managed.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis)


Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are medium-sized with short, straight bills. They are “zebra-backed” (like the Nuttall’s) and have bright white cheeks with black malar stripes. Males have a small red patch of feathers on the rear of their crown and above their cheeks. This is the “cockade” that this species is named for.(A cockade is a small ornament or ribbon worn on a hat). However, the cockade is almost invisible in the field, making it extremely difficult to distinguish the sexes. Juveniles are duller than adults.

A male with his red “cockade” (Image via


All the southeastern United States from Texas to North Carolina. Small populations in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southeast Virginia. In John James Audubon’s time (mid-1800s) he considered the Red-cockaded abundant from New Jersey southward to Texas, but it’s range has been drastically diminished, about an 86% decrease between 1966 and 2014            (according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey).


Old-growth pine forests, particularly longleaf pine. In order to thrive Red-cockadeds need pine forests that are extensive, living, and maintained by fire to clear undergrowth every 1 to 5 years. Mature trees that have developed red-heart fungus are also important so it’s easier for the woodpeckers to excavate.


Mainly arthropods and insects (50% being ants) and some fruits and seeds. They forage by finding insects on tree barks. Females tend to forage on the lower trunk and males on the upper trunk and limbs. Family groups usually forage together.

A female Red-cockaded Woodpecer (Todd Engstrom/CLO via


Mating pairs can form throughout the year, but mainly in early spring. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are monogamous, but sometimes switch their partner between breeding seasons. Courtship displays include “corkscrew” flights will rapid calls and flutter-flights. Like the Acorn Woodpecker, Red-cockaded are cooperative breeders, meaning offspring will stay and help raise the new young after they fledge.

They are the only North American woodpecker to nest almost exclusively in live trees. Females lay between 2-5 eggs and are incubated by the parents and helpers for about 10-11 days. The young fledge between 26-29 days. Even though they can feed themselves, the young are usually fed by the male or helpers for up to 5 months.


Very vocal. A beewr or peew that starts hoarse and gets clearer the more excited the bird gets. A sharp peet!


Before European settlement of North America, it’s estimated that there were between 920,000 and 1.5 million breeding pairs. Populations have declined dramatically due to clear-cutting pine forests and fire suppression. It’s now estimated that there are around 14,068 (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are intensely managed. Management strategies include prescribed fires and metal plates in nest cavities to restrict large species from taking over breeding spots, and habitat conservation by both federal and private land owners.

Fun Facts:

  • Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to be aggressive towards Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays.
  • Families have multiple nest cavity sites on their territory. The male roosts in the best one that has the most sap flow. This is where the female lays the eggs, and the male incubates them at night.