Book Review: The Shorebird Guide

As birders, we’ve all been there: you’re at a beach or marsh and there’s a large group of shorebirds in the distance. You scan the flock with your spotting scope. There is definitely variation between the birds, however they seem similar. Are you seeing one species or a mixed flock? What’s a birder to do?

Consult The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. This guide is a fantastic resource for learning ways to identify shorebirds.

As the book begins, the authors explain that out of 217 shorebird species, about 50 are found regularly breeding in North America. Most birders will encounter about 35-40 of these species per year, so you’d think that it would be easier to learn to identify these species. However, many birders find shorebirds notoriously hard to identify. Plumage variation within a single species throughout the year depends on age and breeding status, which can be quite challenging. In addition, many times shorebirds are found at far distances, making it difficult to see their details.

O’Brien’s, Crossley’s and Karlson’s approach is not about the details, but the overall impression of the bird. Yes, plumage details are important, but in order to become better at shorebird id, one should first start with general size, shape, voice, and behavior. These characteristics are fundamental and less variable than plumage, so the more you practice birding by impression, the more accurate your identifications will become.

This field guide is split into four main sections. The introduction gives basic information about shorebirds in general, such as families, population threats, topography, molting, aging, and more detail about their identification approach.

I find the second section to be the most valuable: Species Photos. The top of each account shows a range map, the scientific name, size, structure, behavior, and status. There are 870 beautiful full color photos included in this guide. The variety of photos for each species is quite impressive. For each species there are close-ups, plumage variations, age variations, flocks at a distance, species in flight, and mixed species photos. Each photo has captions that go into detail about characteristics to look for, as well as some quiz questions to test your knowledge.

The third section is Species Accounts. This section has no photos. It includes information about status, migration, taxonomy, molting, vocalizations, and more details about behavior.

The final section features the appendix with the quiz answers and a glossary. I like that back cover contains silhouettes that are intended to be used as a quiz so you can practice.

I would highly recommend The Shorebird Guide to anyone who is interested in improving their shorebird identification skills.

Chincoteague Waterfowl Weekend

We are on Thanksgiving break, so Dave and I took a one-day getaway to Chincoteague, VA. Thanksgiving weekend is Waterfowl Weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Being a waterfowl enthusiast, I thought it was a perfect time to head down to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to seek out winter visitors. (We went to Chincoteague for our honeymoon in March, check out that trip here).

Tom’s Cove Beach Highlights

  • Snow Geese! Over a thousand of them! The longer we watched the flock, the more Snow Geese arrived. They circled above us as they joined the huge flock resting on the beach. Mixed within the sea of white were “blue morphs”, a color variation of the Snow Goose. Individuals will mate for life, choosing the same color morph as their family members. Two white morphs will have white offspring, a pure dark with a white morph will likely have dark morphs (sometimes with white bellies), and two blue morphs will likely have blue offspring, although white offspring are possible. Dave spotted two individual with bands, one in which he got a clear picture of.

Snow Goose Parade (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

Snow Geese soaring overhead (Image by David Horowitz)

  • Shorebirds: Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlins, Sanderlings, Willets, and Yellowlegs

  • Lots of Gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), Common and Red-bellied Loons, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Bufflehead, Forster’s Terns. 

Extended Wildlife Loop Highlights

Chincoteague NWR has a 3.2 mile wildlife loop for walking, bicycling, and driving. For Waterfowl Weekend, the refuge opens up a 7.5 mile service (15 miles round trip) road to extend the drive. I’ll admit it was a little strange at first because it just seemed like a road with dead trees. However, further down the trail there were pools and dikes with many birds. 

  • American White Pelicans!: We saw 2 American White Pelicans floating and flying over a pool. It was Dave’s first White Pelicans (I saw my first in NJ, read about the awesome experience with Mr. Pelican  here). I discovered while entering my checklist on e-Bird that the pelicans were considered rare in our location, so we were lucky enough to have some “rare” birds on this trip. At this time of year American White Pelicans are usually in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, or parts of California.  
American White Pelicans (Image by BirdNation)
  • Yellow-rumped Warblers, more Bufflehead, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, White-breasted Nuthatch, Snowy and Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles 
  • And of course, the famous Chincoteague Wild Ponies. In March we had a cool experience of the wild ponies parading past our vehicle. There were a lot more visitors this time, so the ponies caused quite a spectacle (and traffic!). We again had a pretty “up close and personal” encounter with the ponies, although I don’t think the actually realized how close they came to our car. They were too busy just being wild ponies to notice how close they were.
Chincoteague Wild Ponies cause a commotion 

I’m so thankful that we had the time to head down for a fun-filled day at Chincoteague NWR. There’s always something amazing to see on Chincoteague Island. 

World Migratory Bird Day 2018

October 13 is World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD).

WMBD-slide2018-1_0

Today was very special day for me. I had a chance to celebrate WMBD by presenting my first birding program at Rancocas Nature Center called “The Miracle of Avian Migration“. I had a wonderful audience and we had a nice hike after the presentation. While walking through the meadow we observed Eastern Phoebes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Turkey Vultures, a Red-tailed Hawk, Red-winged Blackbirds, House Finches, and American Robins. Other creatures included a raccoon, an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, a Wolf Spider with an eggs sac, and a woolly bear caterpillar (Isabella Tiger Moth). Thank you to everybody who came out to the program!

In honor of World Migratory Bird Day here are some fun facts about bird migration:

  • 4,000 species (40%) of the world’s almost 10,000 bird species are migratory.
  • Shorebirds are some of the most fascinating migrants. Bar-tailed Godwits from Alaska will migrate nonstop to New Zealand, a trip that is over 7,000 miles and takes about 9 days. In order to migrate such a far distance, these bird increase the size of their pectoral muscles, heart, and lungs and decrease the size of their stomach and gizzards.
  • Migratory birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, as well as use the Sun and starts to orient them in the correct direction. A study done on captive-raised Indigo Buntings who were exposed to natural and artificial star patterns at a planetarium found that birds don’t memorize the position of the stars, but observe the rotation of the star patterns to orient their direction.
  • Birds will engage in anxious behavior before they migrate, referred to as Zugunruhe, or migratory restlessness.
  • There are 350 species of long-distance migrants in North America.

What migrants have you been seeing in your area? Tell us in the comments!

 

 

 

Cape May Big Day

Yesterday, October 6th, was the first October Global Big Day. For the past 4 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has held an annual Global Big Day event in May. 2018 is the first year that this Big Day event was also held in autumn. With spring now in the Southern Hemisphere and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, the Lab thought it would be great time to track the migrations around the world.

Dave and I went to Cape May for our big day. We hiked around our two favorite Cape May locations: Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows.

It seemed like everyone had the same idea about going to the Point. It was packed with birders of all ages. Many people were participating in the fall Hawk Watch, which takes place daily during the migration. Located on a prime location of the Altantic Flyway, Cape May is one of the best birding areas in the country to catch a sight of migrants, whether they are hawks, warblers, or anything in between.

Cape May Point highlights:

  • Tree Swallow massive flock!: We had the opportunity to observe a large flock of Tree Swallows gathering on the beach. It was amazing to watch them swirl around over the sand. Tree Swallows migrate in huge flocks that can number in the hundreds of thousands. They take about 3-4 months to migrate from their summer to their wintering grounds, leisurely stopping en route to forage, preen, and rest.  Sometimes the flocks are so large that they come up on weather radar as “roost rings”.

 

  • Monarch Butterflies. It’s also migration time for the Monarch Butterfly. Cape May happens to be a fantastic place to experience their journey. We saw many as we walked the trails.

 

  • Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Warblers are now migrating through the area to their wintering grounds. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees, Common Yellowthroats skulking through the bushes, and Palm Warblers zooming across the path. During fall migration, warblers adopt more drab plumage as opposed to their bright spring breeding plumage. The Palm Warblers we saw were actually the Western subspecies. The Western Palms are more numerous on the Atlantic Coast during fall migration.

Palm Warbler (Western)
Palm Warbler “Western” subspecies (Image by BirdNation)

South Cape May Meadows Highlights:

  • Atlantic Ghost Crab: Atlantic Ghost Crabs can be found from Block Island, Rhode Island south to Brazil along the coast. They are primarily nocturnal, so it was a surprising but wonderful sight to see one running along the trail.

Atlantic Ghost Crab (Image by BirdNation)

  • Winter Waterfowl: The winter Waterfowl are already starting to arrive. We saw groups of Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls at the Meadows (as well as some Ruddy Ducks and American Wigeons at the Point).
  • Common Buckeyes. We saw a few Common Buckeye butterflies fluttering around the paths.

Common Buckeye
Common Buckeye (Image by BirdNation)

Overall, we saw 31 species for our October Big Day (60 species for the May Big Day at Forsythe NWR. It’s always a joy to go birding in Cape May, especially during fall migration.

Tell us some of the migrants you’ve been seeing in your area in the comment section!

Finally Fall!

Happy Autumn Equinox, my friends!

I’m back!

I missed writing on here. After our Cape Cod vacation mid-August, life got really crazy real fast. There were a lot of major transitions going into September (work/college starting up). Being a teacher, September is always chaotic and exhausting for me, so as much as I wanted to write I haven’t had the time. But I’m very happy that we finally made it to my favorite season.

The Autumn Equinox is taking place here in the United States today, September 22. Since we live in New Jersey, the equinox is occurring at 9:54 EST. “Equinox” is a Latin word that translates to “equal night”. Fun fact: the day and night are almost equal, but not quite. There are actually about 8 more minutes of daylight than of nighttime during an equinox.

Since we are now in a new season, I thought it was the perfect time to reflect on my summer and my year list. Here are the highlights:

  • I was lucky to spend a majority of my summer outside as a summer camp intern at Rancocoas Nature Center. I worked with amazing staff and students and learned so much about nature beyond birds. I started a Butterfly/Moth life list, saw tons of really cool fungi, went birding everyday (as well as taught the kids about birds), and learned to identify more plants/trees/insects. I also have occasionally been leading hikes on the weekends since camp ended, and am running my first birding program in October. 

  • My 200th bird: the Roseate Spoonbill! July 1, 2018 was an fantastic birding day for me. We started by seeing our first Yellow-crowned Night-herons (#199) at Ocean City, NJ. Afterwards we visited Forsythe, where the juvenile Roseate Spoonbill was with the other wading birds. I couldn’t have asked for a better 200th bird! We also saw our first Saltmarsh Sparrow in the same trip.

 

  • Cape Cod birding vacation. We spent a few days birding in Cape Cod, Massachusetts during mid-August. We added 3 new life list birds: Roseate Tern, Black Tern, and Great Shearwater. In addition to tons of birds, we went on an amazing seal tour(I actually have a few more Cape Cod posts coming soon!)

 

  • This summer was also special because I started studying a subject again that I haven’t thought about in a long time: astronomy.  I have loved learning about space since I was a little kid. I had a telescope, and I enjoyed looking for and learning about constellations, planets, and meteors. At Nauset Beach in Orleans, MA, we had a chance to see 4 planets in an arc with the moon: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Ever since that night, I subscribed to some astronomy sites, and spend each day looking up at the night sky and reading about space. Now I look for planets and stars in the sky in addition to my birds :-). (If you look closely in the picture below, you can see a faint Venus coming into view over the clouds)

The Moon with a faint Venus coming into view at Nauset Beach, MA (Image by BirdNation)

I added 14 birds to the Year List this summer, bring the total to 166 species so far this year. 7 of those 14 were life list birds: Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Chimney Swift, Black Tern, Roseate Tern, and Great Shearwater.

I can’t wait to “fall” into some autumn birding (Sorry, I couldn’t resist 😂).

Cape Cod Vacation: Monomoy Island Excursions

This is Part 3 of our Cape Cod Vacation. You can check out Part 1 (Race Point Beach) here and Part 2 (Skaket Beach) here.

On August 14th, the second day of our Cape Cod vacation, Dave I and went seal watching with Monomoy Island Excursions. We took the 10 am seal cruise on their boat, The Perseverance from Harwich Port into Nantucket Sound. The cruise includes stops at Wychmere Harbor, Stage Harbor in Chatham, and Monomoy NWR; as well as pass many of the popular beaches along the cape.

The seal cruise was definitely the highlight of my trip. It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed every moment. Not only did we have an amazing experience seeing Grey Seals, we also saw many birds.

Highlights of our Seal Cruise

  • The seals, of course! We saw a herd of at least 70 Grey Seals on our trip. Low tide hit its peak 2 hours before our cruise, so many of the seals we saw were relaxing on a sand bar. It was fascinating watching the seals interact with each other, vocalize, and curiously watch us back.

 

  • Our “Winter Birds” on summer vacation. We saw immature Common Eiders, Black Scoters, and White-winged Scoters, which we usually see in New Jersey during the winter.

flock of eiders
Common Eiders (Image by David Horowitz)

  • Lots of seabirds, including Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Forster’s Terns, Roseate Terns, Least Terns, Common Terns, and a Great Shearwater.
  • A few hundred Double-crested Cormorants
  • Many Osprey and a Northern Harrier

captain osprey
Captain Osprey (Image by David Horowitz)

  • A huge school of fish under the boat (in the thousands)
  • Stage Harbor Lighthouse 

Stage Harbor Lighthouse

  • Shorebirds and Wading Birds, including Willets, Snowy Egrets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Spotted Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and a Great Egret
  • The Staff. Our Captain and the naturalist on our cruise were really friendly and informative. A few minutes into the trip, noticing our Cape May/NJ Audubon binocular straps, the naturalist (I don’t remember his name) asked if we were birders. It turns out that he’s been birding on Cape Cod for over 30 years. He spent many years leading tours at Monomoy, as well as participating in the local birding community. He is also a bird bander. Throughout the trip he would come over and talk to us about birds. It was really fun to talk to as well as learn from him.

My seal cruise with Monomoy Island Excursions was fantastic and will certainly be an experience that I won’t soon forget.

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Journey On (Image by BirdNation)

 

Cape Cod Vacation: Skaket Beach

This is Part 2 of our Cape Cod vacation posts. Check out Part 1: Race Point Beach here

Skaket Beach is located on the bayside of Orleans, Massachusetts. We went to Skaket Beach twice on our trip: Monday early evening during low tide and Tuesday mid-afternoon during high tide.

Low tide is a really amazing time at Skaket Beach. You can walk far out towards the ocean and explore small tide pools. During high tide you can see some marsh grasses, but when everything is exposed during low, you can find really cool creatures and plants. It’s also fun to see all the families out enjoying the low tide. All the pictures and videos featured below were taken on my Iphone 7.

Highlights from Monday evening, 8/13/18 at low tide:

  • Ring-billed Gulls: Apparently these gulls, which we consider one of our “winter” gulls in New Jersey, also vacation at Cape Cod.
  • Eastern Mud Snails: hundreds of them! Here’s a short video of them, well, being snails 😁 I like how you can hear the shorebirds in the background.

https://youtu.be/5Tp3hZ6U04Q

  • Hermit Crabs: found in the shallow water
  • “Peeps”: many Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings running along the beach
  • Horseshoe Crab: 

https://youtu.be/CKSotpHIoT8

  • Feeding Frenzy of Laughing Gulls and Snowy Egrets

https://youtu.be/rw3N7T533jM

Here are some other pictures from our Monday Skaket visit:<<
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It was high tide on Tuesday at the beach. Skaket feels like a totally different place during high tide. There were hundreds of people tanning, swimming, playing, and relaxing on the beach. We swam for a little bit before heading to dinner.

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efore I end, here's a fun little tidbit:

Many things in life change, but some things remain the same…

Here we are at Skaket Beach during low tide in 2012 and at low tide in 2018 :-).

Stay tuned for Part 3: Monomoy Seal Excursions coming soon!<<
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