Hitting the Waterfowl Jackpot

Last Sunday was about 35 degrees, making it perfect weather to look for waterfowl. To find them, Dave and I decided that we should go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park  on Long Beach Island, NJ.

It seems that going to Barnegat Lighthouse SP in December has turned into somewhat of a tradition. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve made a December trip, but the difference this time: it was 35 degrees, not 75 degrees. Somehow it’s always really warm when we were able to go, so I was really excited about the cold, seasonal weather we were in for. The night before on one of my Facebook bird groups I saw that NJ Audubon took a trip to LBI on Saturday. They saw all sorts of waterfowl, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, and more that day, so I was hoping that we would be lucky on our trip. Turns out we were.

We started our trek on the cement walkway right outside the lighthouse. This area is usually swarming with tourists, but thanks to the cold weather it was just us. This is where we got our first glimpse of Long-tailed Ducks. Long-tailed Ducks spend their summers breeding in the Arctic and spend the winter all along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts of North America. We get to see them in their winter plumage. Males are striking with a mix of white, black, and gray and a pink spot on the tip of the bill. Females are duller, but stockier with a thick bill. And of course, they have distinctive long tails that stand out even from a far distance. Unfortunately they were too far away for us to get any pictures, but they were cool to see. Life list addition #1 for the day.

From the cement walkway you can walk onto the jetty. The jetty stretches all the way down to the south end of the beach and out into the ocean. During the summer it’s covered with fishermen, but today it was covering in Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. While standing on the rocks were were able to watch gulls flying out over the ocean as well as Double-crested Cormorants, Brants and Common Loons bobbing in the water.

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Herring Gull with a crab (Image by BirdNation)

Usually in December we see Ruddy Turnstones hanging out on the jetty but instead we had a surprise guest: a Merlin. Merlins are small falcons, not much larger than American Kestrels. They usually spend time in open woodland, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see on at the beach (although according to e-bird you can find them in this location). We watched him for a bit before he flew off. We decided to get off the jetty and walk down to the southern tip of the beach.

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Merlin on the jetty (Image by David Horowitz)

The south end of the beach is usually where we see different kinds of gulls wading around. We did see many Herring and Ring-billed Gulls on the way, but there was also a small flock of Ruddy Ducks floating around. The tide seemed lower in this area, and there was a smaller jetty leading out into the ocean that we normally don’t see.

That’s when we hit the jackpot. Everything we were looking for that NJ Audubon mentioned was in this location. There were Harlequin Ducks (Life List #2), Common Eiders (Life List #3), Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers (Life List #4), Dunlins, and a Black Scoter (Life List #5). They were all scattered around the area; swimming, diving, walking around the rocks. There were different kinds of gulls and Ruddy Ducks mixed in too. Every December I go to this location looking for these species but usually don’t see them since it’s always unseasonably warm when we’re able to go. But this day was special, and am so happy I was able to experience some of these winter species for the first time.

The excitement wasn’t over however. The Merlin reappeared on the jetty and we were able to sneak our way a little closer to see him before he flew off. We also observed a flock of Snow Buntings. I only ever saw one Snow Bunting before. We were at Amico Island at the end of October last year, and there was a single bunting in a field. I didn’t know what it was at the time and didn’t have a camera, so it remained a mystery until I saw a picture of one a month later. When I went to add it to my checklist, E-bird didn’t believe me! But this time I was positive, and was getting to see a flock of about 80. They flew around erratically, landing for a second before taking flight again. They were extremely hard to follow, so my pictures turned out pretty badly, but they were awesome to see. (Below is the best picture I was able to get, still pretty bad, but at least you can see their colors).

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Snow Bunting Flock (Image by BirdNation)

The annual December Long Beach Island birding trip was a success, with 5 new birds added to our Life List. I’m excited to see more winter visitors over the next few months. What’s the most exciting winter bird you’ve seen so far? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily birdwatch throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

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