A Whirlwind of Warblers

Ah, fall migration! One of the most exciting times of the birding year. As I stated in the recent Barnegat Lighthouse trip post, winter migrants have started to arrive and summer visitors are getting ready to go down South. This means that we get another chance to see warblers passing through the area, now in their fall plumage.

Saturday we took a trip to Palmyra Cove Nature Park. It started out normal enough: Wild Turkeys, a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, Mallards. Recently we’ve been taking the trail to the Dredge Retention Basin then the Red-wing Blackbird Trail to the Cove. This time Dave said he wanted to take the Saw-whet Trail. The Saw-whet Trail is only 1/4 of a mile, but it ended up being the busiest 1/4 mile of the day. Busy with what?

Warblers. A whirlwind of Warblers.

We were surrounded by warblers in all directions. They were flitting around the trees looking for food and chasing each other. There were other birds too, such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Cedar Waxwings, Great Crested Flycatchers and American Robins. But they were mostly warblers.

There are 56 species of warblers found in North America. Warblers are a diverse groups of small birds that can be found in all different colors. Sometimes male and females of a particular species will look the same and sometimes they are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different from one another). There are also some warbler species that have a “Bright” and “Drab” plumage variations. But that’s just the start. There’s spring vs. fall plumage, 1st year male/female vs. adult male/female and so on.

So the world of warblers is wonderful but it’s also…confusing. And while I was happily surrounded by warblers of many kinds, the big question became: who are they?

We did recognize a few of them; namely Black-and-white and a male American Redstart. But everyone else was a mystery. One was yellow with a black eye patch. A few had distinctive yellow and black tails. Others were gray with wingbars and yellow bellies. I had no clue who they were, but I was excited to spend time watching them.

Figuring out who they were wasn’t easy. Thankful, Dave bought me The Warbler Guide last year. If you want to learn about warblers, this book is essential for your library (you can read my review at the link above). Dave and I (as well as my friend Maria) figured out that our new warblers included: many female/1st year male American Redstarts, a Blue-winged Warbler, “Drab” Chestnut-sided Warblers, “Drab” Magnolia Warblers, and Mourning Warblers. The “drab” warblers would have been more difficult to figure out if it wasn’t for The Warbler Guide because not all fields guides are as detailed with plumage variations.

Dave was able to take a decent amount of picture so that we can try to identify the new warblers when we got home. The problem with warblers is that they are small, usually far away, and moving non-stop. Basically, they are challenging to photograph. So the pictures below aren’t the best we’ve ever taken, but I think he did a nice job considering (we don’t consider ourselves photographers, just birders who happen to take pictures of who we see).

So by the end of the day we added 4 new birds to our life list: Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and a Veery (we’ve seen the male versions of our other “new” warblers, so they weren’t new to our life list). I didn’t realize we saw a Veery until a few days later. I was entering my list onto ebird thinking we saw a Hermit Thrush, but that bird wasn’t on the list under thrushes. Veery was there so I decided to see what it looked like and aha! There it was! It looked just like the picture we had.

I’m so happy fall migration is here. Have you seen fall warblers migrating through your area? Who are you seeing? Tell me about your fall warblers in the comments.

 

 

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Summer’s End

Last Thursday, Dave and I went to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park for an “end-of-summer” birding trip. Some people consider Labor Day weekend the “end” of summer, but not me. The first day of Autumn is September 22, so I have about 3 more weeks of summer birding left. However, with both college and teaching starting again we thought that it would be perfect to visit Long Beach Island for the final time this season.

Fall migration is certainly underway. During this trip we were able to see the beginning of winter migrants making their way back to the area, as well as some of the lingering summer visitors. Some of the winter migrants included Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and a female Black Scoter.

There were still many summer visitors hanging around. We found our American Oystercatcher friend T2 for the third time this summer. I believe s/he was with one of their chicks. When we visited Barnegat Light in July we saw that T2’s two chicks were banded. This time we were able to see the banded juvenile, who is known as A65. They were running together on this beach foraging. I noticed that A65 has more gray on its bill than the adult T2. Young Oystercatchers have a mix of gray and orange bills until they are about 12 months old. Around 12 months, their bills will be mainly orange with a dusky tip. You can see the difference in bill color in the pictures below (juvenile A65 is on the left). I’m not sure where the T2’s mate and other chick were. There was one unbanded Oystercatcher around, and I know that T2’s mate is unbanded, so that’s a possibility. They could have already migrated. I’m glad I was able to see T2 one more time before s/he migrated back Florida. (We found out more of T2’s life history from the American Oystercatcher Working Group. Click here to read about that).

 

We did add a new bird to our life list. There were a lot of gulls and terns flying over of the ocean with the occasional cormorant. Every once in awhile we would stop and look out into Barnegat Inlet to see who was passing by. I saw something that seemed pretty big. It was a Brown Pelican!

Every summer on the bird groups I hear people talk about Brown Pelicans around Long Beach Island, but we’ve never actually seen them. We were finally there at the right time. We saw a few pass by throughout the day. They were really cool. What magnificent birds they were. I have finally seen both North American Pelicans: the Brown and the American White (you can read about our cool rare winter experience with the White Pelican here.)

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican over Barnegat Light (Image by David Horowitz)

Some other highlight from our trip were Semipalmated Plovers, Semipaltmated Sandpipers,  Least Sandpipers, Tree Swallows, and Rock Pigeons (feral pigeons). It was kind of odd to see Pigeons on the beach as opposed to a city street, but it was interesting. Barnegat Light is a great place to visit year around, but it’s truly special in the summer months. Now that fall migration is underway, I’m looking forward to seeing the migrants arrive and to share more adventures with you. 🙂

 

 

Eclipse Plumage

Today, August 21, 2017, was a big astronomical event: the first total solar eclipse seen over the United States since 1918. The path of totality went through 14 states from the Pacific to Atlantic Coast, while the rest of the states could view a partial eclipse. Here in New Jersey, we could only see a partial eclipse. I didn’t buy special eclipse glasses so I couldn’t watch it directly. I did however, watch a live stream of the eclipse from South Carolina State Museum, which happened to be in the totality path. It was extremely cool to watch.

Although the eclipse happened at a specific time today, many people don’t realize that an “eclipse” of sorts has been occurring the last few weeks. Have you gone to your local lake or pond and notice that it seems like the male Mallards are “missing”? Many ducks molt their feathers twice a year, one of these times being mid/late-summer. At this time they go into dull-colored basic plumage, or what is referred to as eclipse plumage. For reference, a male duck is called a drake and a female duck is called a hen. In eclipse plumage, drakes take on a hen-like appearance.

male eclipse plumage
Drake (male) Mallard in Eclipse Plumage (Image by BirdNation)

All birds molt their feathers at some point during the year. For many birds, this takes place after breeding season and before migration. Molting is when old worn out feathers are replaced by new feathers. Many species undergo was is called a sequential molt. During a sequential molt, birds lose one flight feather at a time from the innermost primary feather to the wing tip. This allows the bird the ability to still be able to fly. Waterfowl, however, undergo what is referred to as simultaneous wing molt. As a result, waterfowl loses all their flight feathers at the same time and therefore lose their flying ability. This period of being flightless can last between 20 and 40 days depending on duck species.

Wood_duck_eclipse
Wood Duck male in Eclipse Plumage (Image via wikimedia commons by Meidosensei)

Eclipse plumage acts as a camouflage for these flightless drakes. The drakes molt their bright colored plumage first, which is replaced by dull brown feathers. This gives them the hen-like appearance. When it comes to Mallards, it could be hard to tell whether you are seeing a hen or drake in eclipse plumage. The trick is to look at the bill. Drakes have yellow bills while hens have orange bills with black markings. Eclipse plumage only happens for a few weeks. After eclipse plumage Mallards will  go into “alternate”  plumage for the fall/winter.

So even though the total solar eclipse is over, you can still see some eclipse plumage with the ducks at your local pond.

Have you been seeing any eclipse plumage drakes lately? And did you watch the solar eclipse? Tell me about these things in the comments!

Rhode Island Adventures

Last week Dave and I took a 3-day vacation to Rhode Island. We’ve visited Rhode Island in the past, but just as a day trip stop on the way to or from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This time the trip’s main purpose was birding (of course! hehe), but we did some other fun things along the way. As far as the birding went, we did see a decent amount over the 3-day period. It was a little hard to get close to anything though with the way the trails were laid out, so we don’t have too many bird pictures, but we did get to explore a variety of habitats.

Ningret National Wildlife Refuge

There are 5 National Wildlife Refuges in Rhode Island, and Ninigret was our first stop. Ninigret NWR is 858 acres that is divided by Highway 1. The Northern section has the headquarters, Kettle Pond Visitor Center, and the other section is the Salt Pond Unit. We stopped at Kettle Pond, but mainly explored the Salt Pond Unit. There are a variety of habitats to explore, such as wooded swamps, grasslands, and freshwater ponds. Part of the refuge used to be the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Landing Fields. Nature has mainly taken over the area, but there is still evidence of some landing strips and the trail in this area is paved. We also spent some time at Grassy Point, where you can see Ninigret Pond, Rhode Island’s largest coastal salt pond.

Bird Highlights: Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Green Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls, Cedar Waxwings

Norman Bird Sanctuary

On Thursday we spent the morning at Norman Bird Sanctuary in Newport County. Norman Bird Sanctuary is 325 acres and has an impressive 7 miles of hiking trails. Ecosystems found at Norman include salt marsh, ponds, streams, ridges, shrub growth, forests, and open fields. The Sanctuary also has a number of gardens on the property as well as Paradise Farm, where groups can stay as part of their ecotourism programs. The ridges ascend 70 feet and overlook Gardiner Pond and Nelson Pond.

Bird Highlights: Solitary Sandpiper (lifer for us), Green Herons, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Eastern Towhees, Black-capped Chickadees

Newport

Thursday night we spent some time in the city of Newport. Our purpose wasn’t birding, but if you stay in Rhode Island I highly recommend checking out Newport. This charming maritime city sits right on Narragansett Bay and is known as the sailing capital of the United States. There’s so much to do and see in Newport: relax at the numerous beaches, tour the famous Gilded Age mansions, museums like the International Tennis Hall of Fame, dining at fantastic restaurants, or the Cliff Walk. We stopped at Easton Beach and saw the beach dotted with over 100 Semipalmated Plovers. We also did a small portion of the Cliff Walk. On the Cliff Walk we happened to see a decent amount of birds such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Song Sparrows, and American Goldfinches.

Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Our final destination was Trustom Pond NWR. This 787-acre refuge has freshwater/saltwater ponds, woodlands, fields, and sandy beach habitats. There are two points (Otter Point and Osprey Point) that look out over Trustom Pond, Rhode Island’s only undeveloped coastal salt point. We only had time to go to Osprey Point, but from their we were able to see a barrier beach that is one of the few Rhode Island nesting spots of Piping Plovers and Least Terns. There’s also a small Farm Pond where we spotted many frogs and turtles.

Bird Highlights: Numerous Ospreys, Mute Swans, large groups of Double-crested Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls, Yellow Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Hairy Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees

 

We had a wonderful time birding in Rhode Island. We love being near the ocean, so  there’s no better place to go than The Ocean State. Although Rhode Island is the smallest state, there are tons parks and beaches to explore. I would love to go back once in the fall to experience the migration, which I heard was really nice, especially at Block Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Shorebird Central

On Sunday we took a trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. Despite the flies, Forsythe is a wonderful summer birding location. I heard that there were White Ibis around, so we decided to see if we could find this rarity.

We left pretty early in the morning and it was quiet when we arrived. We spent a little time walk around the visitor center and towards Lily Pond. At the pond we found at least 5 Wood Ducks as well as some Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. At the visitor center we found a Chipping Sparrow being followed by a large (compared to the sparrow) juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. Unfortunately that Chipping Sparrow was cursed with a brood parasite. Brown-headed Cowbirds always lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, although the parasitic egg isn’t always successful (check out my post on brood parasites here).

 

Next we went to the first observation platform. It was swarming with a large flock of Barn Swallows. In the distance we were able to see a few Osprey on their nest, while also spotting Laughing Gulls, Seaside Sparrows, and Marsh Wrens. There even was a little snail crossing the platform, so he was fun to see.  At Gull Pond Tower, we saw even more Wood Ducks, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Great Blue Heron, Eastern Kingbirds, and many more Barn Swallows. The surprise bird over at the Gull Pond for me was a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron. It was our first juvenile BC-NH since our 8/23/16 Forsythe trip.

It was Shorebird and Wading Bird Central once we hit the wildlife drive. Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlins, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere you looked. There were a few surprises scattered around too. There was a lone American Avocet among the smaller plovers and sandpipers. It was the first time we’ve seen one at Forsythe (our firsts were at Bombay Hook NWR). We also ended up finding the White Ibis! There were 2: both juveniles. They had brown backs, white rumps, and orange bill/legs. They were foraging in a group of Snowy and Great Egrets. (Sorry the White Ibis picture isn’t that great, they were really far so it was basically so we can prove the rarity on ebird)

There were plenty of Seabirds around too. These included Forster’s/Common Terns (many of them juveniles), Laughing/Herring/Great Black-backed Gulls, Black Skimmers, and Gull-billed Terns.

juvenile tern.jpg
Juvenile Tern (Image by BirdNation)

 

As far as Raptors, there were at least 20 Ospreys throughout the drive. At one point we watched at least 3 of them chase one that was holding a fish. The poor guy being chased eventually lost his fish back to the water. There were also some Ospreys chasing after an adult Bald Eagle.

feeding ospreys.jpg

We actually found a second rarity: a lone Snow Goose. This poor little guy looked like his wing was messed up, which would explain why he was still here. He waddled along the trail and disappeared into the grass.

The second half to the wildlife drive brought some more interesting surprises. There were even more wading/shorebirds/seabirds already mentioned, but on this half added Short-billed Dowitchers, Double-crested Cormorants, a single Whimbrel, Glossy Ibis, and one Ruddy Turnstone. When we were watching the Whimbrel, a small bird swam across the water in the distance. It was hard to make out, but we could see it’s downturned bill and rump sticking out. It quickly disappeared into the reeds, but we were able to figure out that it was a Clapper rail, another life bird for us.

August at Forsythe NWR is beautiful. There marshes and pools were dotted with flowers, while butterflies and bees flew to the different plants. The variety of birds at this time of the year is fantastic. We ended our day with a total of 55 species (2 rarities: White Ibis/Snow Goose and 2 life bird: Clapper Rail/White Ibis).

Stay tuned: Dave and I have been birding yesterday and today in some surprise birding locations we didn’t expect to go to. I’ll have some posts about that in the upcoming days. 🙂