Old Friends

At the end of March, Dave and I visited Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows for some early spring birding. There were still a lot of winter visitors around, but many spring migrants were starting to arrive.

First of season (year) species during this trip included Ospreys, Field Sparrows, Common Grackles, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets, Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows, and my favorite: the American Oystercatchers.

The beach of South Cape May Meadows is where we ran into one of our old friends: Oystercatcher 38. We met 38 last year at the same location, but according to his account from the American Oystercatcher Working Group, 38 is about 8 years old.

American Oystercatcher 38 (Image by BirdNation)

This year 38 was with an unbanded Oystercatcher that could potentially be its mate. They were running around the beach together.

38 with its potential mate (Image by BirdNation)

At one point, 38, his mate, and another pair engaged in a courtship display. During a courtship display, pairs will stretch their necks forward and down with their back parallel to the ground. They will run side-by-side with their mate will making pip! notes and bobbing their heads. Occasionally the pair will fly up in the air while piping. Many times pairs from other territories will join in on the display. When multiple pairs display together it is referred to as a “Piping Tournament” or “Piping Ceremony”. It was fun to see our friend 38 again. Below is a video of their piping tournament.

American Oystercatcher Piping Tournament (Video by BirdNation)

If you ever see a banded oystercatcher I would recommend submitting your sightings to the American Oystercatcher Working Group. They are a great organization, and their website contains a wealth of information about the American Oystercatcher’s life history, behavior, and banding. Check out their website at http://amoywg.org/

Flag Ponds Nature Park, MD

Greetings from Chesapeake Bay! Dave and I decided to have a weekend get-a-way in Calvert County, Maryland. We’ve enjoyed birding in Maryland a few times in the past. But we’re not only here just for birding this time…we are also fossil hunting!

There are a few places throughout Maryland where you can collect fossils. During the Miocene Epoch (10-20 million years ago), southern Maryland was covered by ocean. Once the water receded, cliffs were exposed and started eroding. Some of the most common fossils found in Calvert County are shark teeth and shells, but whales, dolphins, and seabird fossils have also been unearthed here by paleontologists. We spent the day fossil searching and birding at Flag Ponds Nature Park in Lusby, MD.

Highlights:

  • Shark Teeth: We ended up finding 3 shark teeth on the beach. Dave found the large tooth and I found the 2 smaller teeth.
Shark Teeth found at Flag Ponds Nature Park, MD (Image by BirdNation)
  • Red Fox in the parking lot
Red Fox (Image by David Horowitz)
  • Butterflies: Zebra Swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Zebra Swallowtail (Image by BirdNation)
  • Shore and Wading Birds: Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egret, Least Sandpiper, Green Herons, Semipalmated Sandpipers
  • 4 Wood Warblers: Yellow-throated Warbler (life list bird!), Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat
  • Raptors: Red-tailed Hawk, Osprey, juvenile Bald Eagle
  • Others: Eastern Bluebird, Blue Grosbeak, Pileated Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher flying over the ocean

We observed a total of 26 bird species. Flag Ponds is a really beautiful park. I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re ever in the area. Tomorrow we will be heading out again to a few other parks in the area for fossils and birds. By the way, today is John James Audubon’s birthday. Birding would not quite be the same without him. Check out my post about him here.

Cliffs. (Image by BirdNation)

Timberdoodle!

Spring is almost here, and we are certainly getting signs of the coming season in New Jersey. The weather is finally starting to warm up a bit, and I’ve been hearing American Robins start their bouncy spring songs each morning. The spring migrants are returning, and that includes a very fascinating and unique species…the Timberdoole!

Well, the Timberdoodle is its nickname (and an awfully cute one at that). I’m referring to the American Woodcock, a small bulbous shorebird that migrates through New Jersey in March.

I heard about these birds pretty early into my life as a birder, but never have had the chance to see them because…I would forget. I would be so busy in the spring that I would remember about the timberdoodle after it already passed through the area. I knew this year would be different.

Dave and I went to Rancocas Nature Center (where I’m a teacher naturalist on some weekends) to watch the display. The meadow at RNC is a great place to check out the Timberdoodle. The Timberdoodle is not just a bird you simply go to just get a sight of, the allure of this little bird is the famous “Sky Dance”.

American Woodcock (Image via Pinterest)

Timberdoodles like to spend their time in brushy fields near deciduous forests. In the cover of darkness, the male Timberdoole will give a distinct buzzy “peent!” to get the female’s attention. After a few calls, the male rockets up into the air with a flutter, soaring up and circling about 200-300 feet in the air. As the male ascends into his dazzling display you can hear his wings twitter. After reaching his peak, the male circles back down to the ground and land in the same spot next to the female. These aerial display can last into the night and take place around dawn as well. Once a pair does mate, the male provides no parental care. Males usually mate with multiple females. The female will feed the chicks for a week, and about a month later the chicks will become independent.

It was really amazing to see the American Woodcock’s sky dance. We observed at least 4 birds participating in the display. We even had a pair fly right over us! I’m so glad we had a chance to observe these magnificent birds in action.

I was able to get a short recording of the “peents” at the beginning of the display (I was too mesmerized watching to record anything after it start lol). You can hear a few peents through the wall of sound that is a bunch Spring Peeper frogs calling.

American Woodcock “peents!” with Spring Peeper background

Have you seen a Timberdoodle? Tell me about your experience in the comments!

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.

Cape Cod Vacation: Race Point Beach

Hi friends! This past week, Dave and I went on an amazing vacation to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We’ve vacationed at Cape Cod twice in the past with Dave’s family (Dave going many more times throughout his life), but these trips occurred before we were birders. Therefore, we were really excited to go back to see what we may have missed in the previous years.

During our recent visit to The Wetlands Institute, we purchased the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight by Ken Behrens & Cameron Cox. According to the guide, Cape Cod is considered one of the top seawatching sites in North America. Many locations throughout the Cape are discussed in the seawatching book, including our first vacation spot, Provincetown.

Provincetown is located at the tip of Cape Cod, where Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet. We spent our first morning exploring Race Point Beach, on the Atlantic side. Race Point Beach is part of the National Park Service’s Cape Cod National Seashore. (Side note: interestingly, on Thursday there was a shark dangerously close to the shore attacking a seal, causing Race Point Beach to be closed. Other areas along the cape have reported sharks really close to shore over the past day) 

Highlights from our trip (26 species):

  • 1000s of terns (including 2 lifers)!  Large mixed-species flocks that included Common, Least, Forster’s, Roseate, and Black Terns. The terns were varying ages/plumage and would frequently take flight and land again on the beach.

  • Common and Red-throated Loons. In New Jersey, we usually don’t see loons until the winter. One cool thing about traveling 7 hours North of where we live was seeing some of our winter visitors in their summer spots. The Red-throated Loons were juveniles, and one of the Common Loons was sitting on the beach for a bit. Loons are designed to be expert divers, so their feet look like little wedges sticking out behind their tail. Therefore, they are pretty awkward moving on land. To get back in the water, this loon would slowly shuffle until the water helped it back in.

  • Our first Great Shearwater. We saw a few throughout our walk.
  • Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants (and lots of gulls of course lol)

the crew
The Crew (Image by BirdNation)

  • Small groups of seals close to shore. The first time I’ve ever seen seals in the wild!

grey seal
Grey Seal (Image by David Horowitz)

 

  • Lots of shorebirds/”peeps”. Including Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, and Piping Plovers. The Piping Plovers were juveniles. We watched a few Semipalmated Plovers do what looked like some sort of dance or pair bond display.

 

Race Point Beach was an amazing birding spot and a great way to start our vacation. Our trip was really action-packed, so instead of telling you about it based on each day, I’m going to split up the posts into specific places we went. There’s just too much for one post :-)! So this post was just about our Monday morning. Stay tuned to hear about our cool evening at Skaket Beach!

 

 

Stone Harbor

Sunday we took a trip down to Stone Harbor, NJ. Stone Harbor Point is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society and the surrounding area has many birding hotspots. We visited 3 areas on our Stone Harbor trip: the SH Bird Sanctuary, SH Point Beach, and The Wetlands Institute.

Our first stop was the 21-acre Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary consists of maritime forests and meadows. The paths were relatively short and sometimes it was difficult to see what birds were around . We ended up seeing/hearing 15 species of birds in our short visit. There were a few Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, some Osprey, and House Finches.

 

 

The second destination was Stone Harbor Point. This was actually our second trip to the Point. The last time we were at the Point was after seeing our first Red Knots at Fortescue Beach in May. At that point it was about to thunderstorm, so I was looking forward to seeing the Point in sunny weather. I definitely was not disappointed.

The beach was busy with a variety of shore and seabirds. Three Brown Pelicans and a few Ospreys soared above the waves. As with almost all beaches, there were many gulls, including Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed. Black Skimmers floated above a tide pool hunting for fish at a dizzying pace. There were also many terns in different stages of development. Least Terns (mainly adult but a few juvenile) dotted the sand near a tide pool. They looked like little wind-up toys as they shuffled along the beach with their tiny legs. There were a few Forster’s and Common Terns.  Two juvenile Common Terns squawked incessantly at a parent who seemed indifferent to their clamor. S/he eventually gave them some fish, but seemed to wonder when their annoying mainly-grown chicks would move out to a different patch of sand and start hunting for their own food 😂. I have to admit, all those terns really tested my identification skills. I’m not the best at terns, so it was challenging but definitely educational

IMG_6711
“FEED US!” (Image by BirdNation)

One of the most exciting parts of this trip was having the opportunity to observe a family of American Oystercatchers. (Last year we were lucky to see T2’s family on LBI, you can read about that here). This family had 5 oystercatchers and 4 out of 5 were banded. The adults were A58 and its unbanded mate; the chicks were A78, A79, and A80. I reported the banded birds to the American Oystercatcher Working Group, so I’m excited to learn their story. I’m assuming the chicks were hatched/tagged at Stone Harbor, but curious about A58.

Throughout our walk we kept seeing small groups of shorebirds zooming over the waves and beach. They all congregated at the end of the beach in a massive flock. It was a mixed flock of Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red Knots, and Ruddy Turnstones with gulls interspersed. The shorebirds were also in various stages like the terns were, with many birds transitioning between breeding and nonbreeding plumage.

 

After our awesome walk at the Point, we visited The Wetlands Institute. The Wetlands Institute is an organization aiming to conserve coastal ecosystems as well as educate the public. You can view the beautiful marshland from their lecture hall as well as the observation tower and Salt Marsh trail. We saw at least 10 Ospreys, a Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egrets, and a Great Egret. “Terrapin Station” was all about terrapins and horseshoe crabs. “Secrets of the Salt Marsh” featured a small aquarium with the featured animal being a Common Octopus. Octopuses are fascinating and intelligent creatures. The octopus at the Institute was really cool; I could have watched it all day. The Wetlands Institute was a great way to end our birding excursion to Stone Harbor.