Day 4 GBBC 2017 and Total Count!

For the final day of GBBC 2017 I went with Maria, my sister Mary, and my mom to Smithville Park. Last year my mom, sister, and I went to Smithville for the count while the lake was frozen and it was snowing (you can read about our trip last year here). This year it was cool and breezy, but much warmer. Instead of just walking around the lake we took the longer trail into Smith’s Woods.

One of the first birds we spotted was this lovely female Northern Cardinal. We heard chipping coming from the trees and it took us a few minutes to find the source of the sound. She flew over and perched on a nearby tree to allow us to admire her. I think female cardinals are so beautiful.

Female Cardinal (Image by BirdNation)

Last year Common Mergansers spent part of the winter on Smithville Lake. They are back again this winter. As usual, they were just out of good camera range for me, but they were fun to watch. They were actually sleeping for a bit (Common Mergansers float on the water while sleeping). I’m happy that they returned to Smithville again. They were also a life bird for Maria, making it her second life bird this weekend.

Carolina Chickadee (Image by BirdNation)

Day 4 Official Count

  • 7 Canada Geese
  • 12 Common Mergansers
  • 4 Black Vultures
  • 7 Turkey Vultures
  • 2 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers (male and female)
  • 1 Hairy Woodpecker (drumming)
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 8 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmice
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 3 Northern Cardinals (2 male, 1 female)

It was so fun birding 4 days in a row for the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. We won’t know the official results for a few days, but it was a record-setting year for us at BirdNation. These past 4 days Dave, Maria, Mary, my mom, and myself count 45 different species and over 5,000 individual birds! What a weekend!

Day 3 GBBC 2017: Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Dave and I went to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for Day 3 of the GBBC. We also went last year when it was 16 degrees outside (you can read about that here). This year we couldn’t have asked for lovelier weather; it was sunny and 60 degrees. In September the wildlife drive at Forsythe closed for construction to repair leftover damage from Hurricane Sandy. The entire wildlife drive reopened only about a week ago, so we were excited to experience the trail again.

The first bird we counted was a female Northern Harrier. She was swooping around over the marsh. This bird was brown so we knew she was a female (males are gray). In the same field we spotted flocks of Herring Gulls and Snow Geese. We made our way down to the Gull Pond Tower before entering the drive. Last time we visited the refuge we were able to see an American Bittern at the Gull Pond. This time we spotted Turkey Vultures, Great Blue Herons, Gadwalls, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and pair of Common Mergansers, an American Coot, a Mute Swan, and 4 Tundra Swans.

Snow Geese started flying in from all directions as we entered the wildlife drive. There were easily over 2000 of them, either flying or sitting on either side of the trail. We’ve seen large flocks of Snow Geese in past winters at the refuge, but this was probably the most we’ve experienced. Besides them were more Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. There were also Canada Geese, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails swimming nearby.

Male Northern Shoveler (Image by David Horowitz)
A Gull with a snack (Image by David Horowitz)

I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced a large flock of Snow Geese before, but it’s loud.We were parked watching some Shovelers when suddenly the volume increased. All the Snow Geese decided to take flight, so the sound of flapping wings and honking became deafening.

Then The Frenzy started (remember the Frenzy last summer?). Not only were all the Snow Geese flying, but they were flying towards us. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to see 2,000+ birds flying towards you, but saying it was amazing is an understatement. I wasn’t actually sure what to do in that moment, I snapped a few pictures but mainly just stood there in awe. A part of the flock flew directly over us while the rest landed in the field next to us. It was certainly one of the most exciting birding moments for me so far.

Snow Goose Frenzy (Image by BirdNation)

(Sorry, it’s hard to get good pictures of large flying flocks. I did my best.)

After the Snow Goose Frenzy we found a large flock of Brants, an adult Bald Eagle, and gulls dropping clams on the trail from the air. A group of ducks swam in the distance. They weren’t just any duck though, they happened to be a new life list edition for us: Red-breasted Mergansers! There were about 22 of them and they were swimming in a tight group of males and females. They would all dive together then bob up to the surface. (They were slightly too far out to get a picture of, or I would have posted one for you guys). We have now seen all 3 North American mergansers, and happened to see all 3 in this one trip!

Adult Bald Eagle (Image by David Horowitz)

Day 3 Official Count

  • Snow Goose (too many to count, easily over 2000)
  • 1000 Brant
  • 200 Canada Geese
  • 2 Mute Swans
  • 4 Tundra Swans
  • 2 Gadwall
  • 150 American Black Ducks
  • 50 Mallards
  • 35 Northern Shovelers
  • 60 Northern Pintails
  • 5 Ring-necked Ducks
  • 60 Bufflehead
  • 30 Hooded Mergansers
  • 2 Common Mergansers (male/female pair)
  • 22 Red-breasted Mergansers
  • 4 Great Blue Herons
  • 5 Turkey Vulture
  • 1 Northern Harrier (female)
  • 1 Bald Eagle (adult)
  • 1 American Coot
  • 30 Ring-billed Gulls
  • Herring Gulls (too many to count)
  • 8 American Crows
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 34 Red-winged Blackbirds

I was so happy with our trip today. We always see great things at Forsythe, but the Snow Geese experience was definitely a special moment. I wanted to give a quick shout out to my mom and sister, who went on their own bird count today! It was their first bird count on their own, so I’m excited for them. They went to Smithville Park. I will be going there again with them (and Maria!) to walk the entire loop. Tomorrow is the last GBBC day for this year, so if you haven’t participate yet you still have time! See you tomorrow!

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017 Day 2!

Over the past few years it’s been a tradition to go to Haddon Lake Park for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The tradition continued today, this time with my mom, sister Mary, and best friend/original bird teacher Maria.

It was certainly a different experience than the past few years. 2 years ago Dave and I went out in the snow to watch hundreds of Canada Geese land in the lake. Last year, my mom, sister, and I went there in 18 degree to watch the “waterfowl highway” from the car. (You can read about last year’s Day 2 of GBBC at this link.) This year was sunny and around 60 degrees, so we saw 16 more species than we did last year.

The Mallards and Canada Geese were relaxing by the water at the beginning of the loop. There were also a few Ring-billed Gulls. One seemed to be a 1st winter gull due to his pink bill, pale legs, and overall darker plumage, while the others were adults.

Cute Mallard pair (Image by BirdNation)
1st Winter Ring-billed Gull (Image by BirdNation)

Farther up the path it becomes more wooded. There were a variety of small birds in this area. We spotted Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, American Robins, a Dark-eyed Junco, and a large flock of 150+ European Starlings. Maria and Mary even had the chance to add a new bird to their life lists: a Brown Creeper. I’ve seen them before, but this was my first time finding one at Haddon Lake.

There was also an American Coot swimming around with some Canada Geese. Throughout the years of going to Haddon Lake we’ve seen Coots at random times, but there is always just one. It makes me wonder if it’s the same one or a different one each time. It was cute swimming around with birds that were much bigger.

American Coot (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds we observed were a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-winged Blackbird (that Maria could pick out/hear in the middle of a group of noisy Starlings!), some Song Sparrows, American Crows, Turkey Vultures, and this (possibly) 2nd winter Ring-billed Gull.

2nd Winter Ring-billed Gull (Image by BirdNation)

We ended our walk by running into The Squad (a.k.a a bunch of white domestic geese). Not a group I’d want to mess with hahaha. :-p

The Squad (Image by BirdNation)

Day 2 Official Count

  • 100 Canada Geese
  • 104 Mallards
  • 2 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 American Coot
  • 5 Ring-billed Gulls (3 adults, 1 1st winter, 1 2nd winter)
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 1 Downy Woodpecker
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 6 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmouse
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Brown Creeper
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 160 European Starlings
  • 1 Dark-eyed Junco
  • 2 Song Sparrows
  • 1 Northern Cardinal
  • 1 Red-winged Blackbird (male)

Overall, it was a great count. It was a lovely day and we had a total of 20 species. Tomorrow Dave and I are going down to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for Day 3, another GBBC tradition. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Have you participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count yet? You still have 2 more days to participate! If you went on a bird count so far, what have you seen?

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017 Day 1!

The Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! I got out of work a little earlier today, so Dave and I went to Amico Island. It was about 40 degrees at the time, so 20 degrees warmer than Day 1 last year. We didn’t get too many pictures because of the sun was setting and washing everything out, but we did what we could.

Upon entering the park, we heard some Mourning Doves and the conk-la-ree! of male Red-winged Blackbirds. Male and female Red-winged Blackbirds migrate separately. The males arrive at the breeding grounds a few weeks before the females in order to establish a territory. They tend to start migrating mid-February and usually arrive up north by March, so the 5 males we saw got a head start. Guess the early bird gets the territory (sorry, I had to haha :-p).  

We walked the blue loop that goes through the forest along Dredge Harbor first. Along the way we spotted Carolina Wrens, a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls, a Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpeckers, a Tufted Titmouse, American Robins, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I even heard my first Gray Catbird (my favorite) of the year, but didn’t actually see it.

Remember the Great Blue Heron rookery that we would watch last year? The herons were back and getting their nests established. We weren’t able to see the back end of the island, but from our view could spot at least 32 Great Blue Herons. They seemed to be pretty relaxed for the most part, either sitting on their nests or standing around.

Then the trouble started. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and flew towards the rookery island. The herons started yelling and flying away from their nests in a large group. But that wasn’t all! Once the juvenile landed in one of the trees, 2 adult Bald Eagles showed up. The herons continued to yell and circle the island, while the adult eagles made loud high-pitched whistles. One adult eagle landed near the juvenile, while the second adult sat down in a nest right below the other one. Once the Bald Eagles settled down, the Great Blue Herons returned to their nests. What a spectacle!

(Sorry that this is not the best quality picture. The rookery is just slightly too far out for our current lens, so this was the best we could get until we buy a new lens that zooms in farther. I chose to post it though because you can see all 3 Bald Eagles together)

3 Bald Eagles at the heron rookery (Image by David Horowitz)

Then we realized something. Last year, we saw a Bald Eagle hanging out near some Great Blue Herons in that same tree (see image below). At that time, nobody seemed to phased and the 3 birds just sat there together. We began to wonder: does a pair of bald eagles nest in the heron rookery? After a little research I found that sometimes Bald Eagles will nest in the same tree as a Great Blue Heron colony, but it’s unclear why. The nest did look a little bigger, so it’s a possibly, especially since one of the eagles was sitting in it. Bald Eagles tend to return to the same nest site each year. We’ll just have to find out if these Bald Eagles nest here in the coming months.

Great Blue Herons and a Bald Eagle 2016 (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds we saw were Common Mergansers, a large flock of Common Loons, Bufflehead, and Herring Gulls.

Here’s the official Day 1 count:

  • 12 Canada Geese
  • 2 Mallards (male and female pair)
  • 6 Bufflehead (4 male, 2 female)
  • 3 Common Mergansers (2 male 1 female)
  • 15 Common Loons
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 32 Great Blue Heron
  • 3 Bald Eagles (1 juvenile, 2 adults)
  • 200 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 10 Herring Gulls
  • 10 Mourning Doves
  • 3 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Carolina Chickadee
  • 1 Tufted Titmouse
  • 6 Carolina Wrens
  • 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • 17 American Robins
  • 4 Song Sparrows
  • 1 Northern Cardinal (male)
  • 5 Red-winged Blackbirds

It was a great way to start off the Bird Count weekend, especially with 32 Great Blue Herons and 3 Bald Eagles! Tomorrow I’m off to Haddon Lake Park to continue my tradition of doing the bird count at that location (not in 18 degree weather this time). I’ll be going with my mom, sister, and my original bird teacher, Maria. See you tomorrow!

To read Day 1 of the 2016 bird count, click on this link.

It’s Almost Time!

Time for what?

The 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count!


The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a worldwide citizen-science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The goal of the count is to help scientists track changes in bird populations. Data collected from the GBBC will help scientists investigate how weather, climate, migration patterns, and diseases are impacting bird populations from all over the globe. Here’s the best part about it: anyone can participate.

When does the Great Backyard Bird Count begin?

The GBBC takes places every year for 4 days the 3rd weekend of February. This year the count is Friday, February 17 to Monday, February 20.  Why February? It gives scientist the opportunity to find out about the distribution of bird species before the spring migration begins in March.

How do I participate?

Participating is free, easy, and fun! Like I said earlier, this bird count is global so you can participate in any country.

  1. Pick a location. It doesn’t have to even be your backyard, anywhere will do.
  2. Count all the bird species you see for 15 minutes or more. I suggest making a list to track the names of your species and the totals of each.
  3. Submit your data on eBird. is the website the Cornell Lab and Audubon use to gather the data you send them. Creating an eBird account is quick, easy, and free. Once you make an account you can add your lists from the GBBC, as well as pictures. It’s also great because once the GBBC is over you can continue to submit data if you like to keep lists from you birding trips. eBird also keeps track of your life list, and you can see what other birders are finding in your area.
  4. Go birding as many times you want, for as long as you want, throughout the 4-day weekend.

That’s it! This is my 3rd year participating in the GBBC. Like last year, I will be birding all 4 days, and will report my counts for you here on the blog. Here in New Jersey, the bird count weekend always tends to fall on the coldest weekend of the year (last year we went to Forsythe to do the wildlife drive in 10 degree weather!). However, this year the New Jersey temperatures will be in the 40s and 50s. I’m curious to see how my counts will differ from 2016.

Speaking of 2016, over 163,000 people from 130 countries submitted over 162,000 checklists and counted 5,689 bird species. That’s over half of the world’s bird species and totaled to over 18 million individual birds! 

If you would like to learn more information, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

We have the opportunity as birders to top that number this year, so I hope you participate. It’s going to be a great weekend!

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Happy Waterfowl Wednesday!

We had some record-breaking warmth today here in New Jersey. The high was 61 degrees, but unfortunately the spring like weather won’t last long. The temperatures will be plummeting tonight and it’s predicted that we will get 4-8 inches of snow tomorrow. I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the warm weather idea. I was looking through my field guide I found an unusual-looking duck that lives in mainly warm weather regions: the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. So as I’m dealing with a snow storm tomorrow, I’ll just imagine I’m in Florida with the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks haha :-).

Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)


Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are fairly large, lanky ducks with long necks. Adults have a chestnut brown breast/black, a black belly, white wing patches, and gray heads. Whistling Ducks have a pale, but distinct eye-ring. They also have bright pink bills and legs. Whistling Ducks are an example of monomorphism, where it is difficult to tell apart males and females based on physical appearance. Juveniles are duller in appearance with a pale breast, mottled black belly, and dark bill.


Year Round: Florida, Southeast Texas, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, the coasts of Mexico, Southeast Arizona (seasonally), and extensively throughout Central and South America. Summer (breeding): Lousiana, Eastern Texas, Southern Arkansas. Rare in other Southeast and Midwestern states.

(Image by CCNAB,


Ponds surrounded by trees, freshwater lakes, open fields; a variety of human-made habitats such as school yards, city parks, a golf course. Being able to adapt well to habitats altered by humans have help the Whistling Duck expand their range northward in recent years.

A small flock of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks in Tobago (Image by Charlesjsharp of Sharp Photography, via wikimedia commons)


Whistling Ducks typically forage at night mainly for seeds, and a variety of grasses. They are dabblers in shallow water for small aquatic animals. They will commonly forage in agricultural fields such as corn, wheat, and millet.


One thing that distinguishes Black-bellied Whistling Ducks from other duck species is the fact they they a monogamous and may mate for life. This behavior is more typical in geese and swans than ducks. Another unique Black-bellied characteristic is the lack of complex courtship behavior that other ducks display. Whistling Ducks will lay their eggs in tree cavities on top of whatever debris is already there. Both parents will take turns incubating the 12-16 eggs for 25-30 days. It’s common for females to lay their eggs in other female’s nests, which is referred to as “egg dumping” (and is an example of brood parasitism). Some of the “dump nests” can have up to 50-60 eggs in them!

Like other duck species, Whistling Duck chicks are precocial, so they will jump out from the nest a day or two after hatching with the ability to feed themselves. The parents will tend to the chicks for about 2 months before they fledge.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck in flight (Image by Greg Lavaty via


As you would imagine from their name, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks let out a wheezy but sharp whistle. The whistle is usually 5-6 syllables: pit pit WEEE do deew! They use this whistle during flight and while swimming and standing. While taking flight they will make a yip and sometimes a chit-chit-chit


Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are highly adaptable and considered a “least concern”. Populations have increased at a rate of around 6% per year from 1966-2014.The increase is partly due to the availability of nest boxes. It’s legal to hunt them, but they are rarely targeted.

Fun Facts:

  • Black-bellied Whistling Ducks can be found in flocks of up to 1,000 birds!
  • They like to perch in trees, and used to be called the Black-bellied Tree Duck.
  • Population estimates are between 1 and 2 million ducks.

Mallard: Waterfowl Wednesday

When I choose a bird for a weekly feature, such as Waterfowl Wednesday, I like to pick birds that I feel people might not know much about. It’s exciting for me too, because I can to expand my knowledge of species life history. But with over 800 North American birds, I’ll admit that sometimes I’m not really sure who to write about for the feature. So what do I do about it?

Ask my mom :-).

She’s been one of my readers since day one, and hasn’t missed a post (hi mom!). She (and also my sister, Mary) are budding bird enthusiasts, and I’m impressed with how good their id skills have become and of the knowledge they amassed since they started birding with me. Tonight I asked her who I should write about an she suggested the Mallard.

A Mallard pair at Palmyra Cove (Image by BirdNation)

What is there to know about the Mallard? We’ve all seen them at our local parks and wetlands. Like Canada Geese, they just happen to be everywhere. Some people even dismiss them because they think since they are so common they are not even worth considering (crazy, right?)! It seems like we already know the basics: they’re dabblers, females are brown/males are gray-brown with green heads, they have lots of cute chicks, they quack a lot. That’s everything, right?

Nope! As common as they are, Mallards are fascinating. The quintessential duck, Mallards are much more interesting than most people give them credit for. Here are 8 magnificent facts about Mallards.

  • Mallards are the most common ducks in the Northern Hemisphere. They are native to North America and Eurasia, but have extended their range to include parts of Africa, Australia, South America, and New Zealand. It’s estimated that there are around 10 million Mallards that are of breeding age in North America alone.
  • Mallards are the main ancestor to most breeds of domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovy Ducks. They are part of the genus Anas. Mallards hybridize frequently with other members of the Anas family, including American Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, and Mottled Ducks.
Mallard with a domestic hybird at Haddon Lake Park (Image by BirdNation)
  • During flight, Mallards can fly up to 55 miles per hour!
  • Did you know when you hear the familar “quack”  that you are hearing a female? Male’s don’t quack, but makes a quieter rasping call.
  • Sometimes, a  Mallard’s nest will fall victim to being infested by brood parasites (when a female lays her eggs in another bird’s nest). Common parasitic species include Redheads, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, goldeneyes, and even other mallards. A female may accept the egg if it looks similar to her own, but my destroy it or abandon the nest completely if it occurs during egg laying.
  • Once a female Mallard starts incubating her eggs, the male with abandon her to care for the eggs on her own. She can lay beetween 7-10 eggs, sometimes up to 15. The female will incubate them for between 26-30 days. Like other waterfowl species, the yellow and brown fuzzy chicks are precocial, and will leave the nest within a few hours. The mother will tend to her chicks, but they can feed themselves.
Mallard chicks (Image by HomeinSalem via wikimedia commons)
  • Male Mallards are called “drakes” and female Mallards are called “hens”.
  • Mallards can fly at altitudes between 400 and 2,00 feet, but can fly higher as well.

I can go on and on about how fascinating Mallard are, but we just don’t the time (and you wouldn’t want to read a 4,000 word post haha!). But next time you see one at your local park, just remember that there are so many cool things to know about this common species. Plus, they are fun to party with, I did it once (you can read about that and watch the video hereWarning: mallard parties get pretty chaotic, so be prepared for it to get loud!)

What’s your favorite thing about Mallards? Tell me in the comments below, as well as any bird-related topics you’d like to learn about.