A Really Big Day!

May 4th was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is a citizen science event run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birders from all over the world count as many birds species as they can for a 24 hour period. This year, over 30,000 people participated and counted 6,899 bird species. Team BirdNation had an awesome Big Day with 61 total species for the day.

I started the morning at Rancocas Nature Center where I am a teacher naturalist. I led a spring migration birding walk. We had a nice variety of songbirds and warblers. During this walk I spotted my first of year/season Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Veery, Red-eyed Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher.

In the afternoon, Dave and I went birding at Palmyra Cove Nature Park. We saw 55 species! Here are the highlights:

  • 11 Warbler Species! Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Yellow, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, and Prairie
  • Red-breasted Nuthatches
  • A House Wren trying to set up their nest box
House Wren on its nest box (Image by BirdNation)
  • 2 Great Horned Owls on an old Bald Eagle nest
  • Many Baltimore Orioles, an Orchard Oriole, and an Eastern Towhee
  • Chickies!
Gosling (Image by David Horowitz)

Did you go birding on Global Big Day? Tell us about it in the comments.

From the Cliffs to the Cypress

At the end of April, Dave and I took a vacation to Calvert County, Maryland. We started our trip at Flag Ponds Nature Park looking for fossils as well as birds. The next day (4/27/19) we visited two very cool sites: Calvert Cliffs State Park and Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. Calvert Cliffs State Park, Lusby, MD The Calvert Cliffs were formed 10-20 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch along the Chesapeake Bay. The park is a popular fossil site as well as a lovely place to hike. We didn’t find too much in the way of fossils like we did at Flag Ponds (where we found a few really cool shark teeth). We did however find a great variety of birds. Red-headed Woodpeckers! Finally! A life list bird we’ve been seeking for a long time.
  • A lot of Wood Ducks. The wetlands here are the perfect habitat for them.
  • 6 Warbler species, including our new Yellow-throated Warbler
  • The 1.8 mile Red Trail that leads you to to the beach is absolutely breathtaking in the spring. The lush forests and wetlands were brimming with bird life and sounds. Our early morning hike was very serene.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Image by BirdNation)
Calvert Wetlands (Image by BirdNation)
Calvert Cliffs (Image by BirdNation)
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, Prince Frederick, MD Protected by the Nature Conservancy, Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is unique because it is the only Bald cypress stand in Maryland west of the Chesapeake Bay. Bald cypress trees are native to the southeastern United States. This area of Maryland is the northernmost limit of their natural range. Bald cypress are known for their “knees” which protrude from the ground and surround the tree. The purpose of the knees are still unknown, but scientist hypothesize that they transfer air to the drowned roots or acts as anchors. The Bald cypress trees were so cool. Such an interesting habitat. A must-see if you visit Calvert County.
Bald cypress trees and knees (Image by BirdNation)
Prothonotary Warblers! Another awesome life list addition. These brilliant yellow warblers are known as the “swamp warbler” and nest in dead trees.
Prothonotary Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)
Our first Waterthrush species in awhile. Still trying to decide if its a Northern or Louisiana, but I’m leaning now towards Louisiana (opinions always welcome!) Fun fact: waterthrushes are actually part of the Wood Warbler family, not Thrushes.
Waterthrush (Image by David Horowitz)
I’m so happy we had the opportunity to visit Calvert County, Maryland. I always enjoy birding in Maryland, and Calvert County has such beautiful and unique landscapes to explore.

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!

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.

New Adventures

We took advantage of our 3 day weekend by going on 3 birding adventures. One of our trips was to Palmyra Cove Nature Park, but the other days we explored 2 new places: Taylor Wildlife Preserve and Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve.

On Saturday night we wanted to go to Amico Island. Every time we go there, we pass a place called Taylor Farm & Wildlife Preserve. People go to Taylor Farm to pick their own fruits and vegetables, but part of the property was turned into a wildlife preserve with a few hiking trails. We’ve been curious about Taylor’s for awhile, so we decided to check it out. We never made it to Amico that night, but had a great time exploring Taylor Wildlife Preserve instead.

Taylor’s Wildlife Preserve is right on the Delaware River and Dredge Harbor. It’s a wooded habitat that features stretches of wetlands. We arrived to the sounds of Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. As we walked towards the foot trails we spotted some Northern Cardinals, Eastern Phoebes, and Baltimore Orioles. Yellow Warblers and Warbling Vireos sang from high in the trees while we explored the winding trails. We found the wetlands area not long after entering the trails. There was a beaver lodge, Eastern Kingbirds, swallows, Common Yellowthroats, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

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Taylor Wildlife Preserve (Image by BirdNation)

“Breep! Breep!” A raucous call came from high in the tree over our heads. It was a Great Crested Flycatcher! These large flycatchers have lemon-colored bellies and long tails, although the crest mentioned in their names are not very prominent. For being about 7 inches in length, the Great Crested Flycatcher has a pretty ear-piercing call. These flycatchers are agile fliers, and we watch it for a bit before it disappeared into the treetops. We also ran into a muskrat on the trail. He didn’t notice us right away, and was pretty surprised when he realized he was being watched. It was a fun moment.

Another highlight of our Taylor trip was finding Wright Cove, where there is a platform with an Osprey nest. At the end of April, Dave and I bought a spotting scope and tested it out at the local yacht club where some Osprey nest nearby. We found a second tower with nesting Osprey that night, and wondered if there was a way to see them better from land. It turns out the Wright Cove in Taylor Preserve is exactly where we want to be to see these Osprey really well. We will definitely go back to observe them, as well as explore more the preserve.

We woke up early Sunday morning to spend some time at Palmyra Cove. It was a quiet morning so we were able to see 42 species. Some highlights included Cedar Waxwings eating berries, a Green Heron flying through the woods, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the honeysuckles, and an Orchard Oriole pair chasing each other around. We ended up seeing some more Great Crested Flycatchers on this trip too. Ever have the experience where once you learn something is around, you start seeing it everywhere? Well it seems like we’ve been missing Great Crested Flycatchers for awhile, because now that we know them, we’ve been seeing them all weekend! Amazing how learning about a species can open up a brand new world you never knew was there before.

Today we went to Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve in Woodland Township for the first time. The preserve is 1,227 acres of pitch pine/scrub oak woodlands. An interesting feature of the preserve is a spung. A spung is a hydrologically isolated wetland that relies entirely on rainfall/snowfall to maintain its water level and is habitat to rare plants/amphibians.

Our hike started off with some of the usual suspects: Eastern Wood-pewees, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Towhees Gray Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats and woodpeckers. But we kept hearing an ascending buzzy sound. It turned out this was the sound of the park’s namesake: the Prairie Warbler. Despite its name, these warblers don’t live on prairies, they prefer scrubby pine forests. This makes Huber Preserve the perfect breeding habitat. We were able to see and hear these beautiful yellow and black warblers throughout the entire walk.

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Prairie Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)

At one point on the blue trail Dave heard a low bellowing call. We froze and listened. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” I couldn’t believe it. I could recognize that voice anywhere; it was a Barred Owl! It was in the distance, but we heard it call a few times. I’m so excited that we added our 2nd owl to our lifelist :-).

There are actually 2 spungs at the preserve: one on the green trail and the other on the red trail. I really wanted to go to the red trail spung (which was mentioned on their website), but we would have had to walk at least 3 miles (one way that is). You can bike at the preserve, so we will probably go back and bike to that spung. We did try to find the green trail spung, but its seems like it dried up. So no spungs for us today :-(. We did however see a Pine Warbler, more Great Crested Flycatchers, Ovenbirds, an American Redstart juvenile male, Black-and-White Warblers, and the Prairie Warblers/Barred Owl listed above, so it was a great day despite there being no spung. It was a fun weekend of adventures, and overall May was a great birding month for us.

2017 Birding Vacation! Part 1

Hi friends! Sorry I disappeared for a little bit, but I have a good reason… Dave and I went on a birding vacation! We spent the weekend in Maryland and Delaware hiking and looking for new birds.

We had two major stops planned for our day in Maryland. In the afternoon we drove into Baltimore to explore the National Aquarium. It happened to be 90 degrees that day, so it was the perfect escape from the heat. There were some birds in the aquarium: an alcid (auk) exhibit featuring Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, and Razorbills,;and a rainforest exhibit with a variety of birds flying around. But the main highlight of our day was spending the morning at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, Maryland.

Pickering Creek Audubon Center is a 400-acre park on an undeveloped tributary of the Wye River. In 1981, George Olds and Margaret Strahl, who were brother and sister, donated Heigh-Ho Farm to the Chesapeake Audubon Society. The property later became Pickering Creek Audubon Center. The farmhouse and adjacent builds are still there and the first thing you see when you enter the park. Pickering Creek is hidden in a quiet rural area, and features fresh water wetlands, a meadow, and a mature hardwood forest. In the forest you can visit the house of Gilbert Byron, the American author and poet who lived on the property for 45 years.

Our adventure began on the Pond Loop Trail behind the farm. The trail was densely lined with trees and had numerous Wood Duck and Bluebird nest boxes. We were hearing a lot of birds but they were hard to spot through all the leaves. Some of the birds around the pond included Mourning Doves, Common Yellowthroats, Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings.

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Pond at Pickering Creek (Image by BirdNation)

We moved on to the Wetlands Trail. There are 2 observation decks that overlook a few small pools. The Wetlands Trail is where we saw most of our Wood Duck observations. Pickering Creek had numerous small ponds and plenty of trees/nest boxes, so it was no wonder that we saw at least 18 Wood Ducks (the most we’ve ever seen on a trip). There were even a few chicks swimming around with their mom. Other birds in the wetlands included Tree Swallows, an Osprey, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  We even found a raccoon sleeping in a tree with his little ear sticking out :-).

From the beginning of the hike we were seeing a bright yellow bird fly around over head. It was very vocal, had dull upperparts, white eyerings, and black on its face. It flew deep into the thickets being loud. We kept trying to get a good look at it, but were continually missing it. It wasn’t until towards the end of the Wetlands Trail when this mystery bird landed at the top of a nearby tree and sang that we got a good look at it. It’s song was quite unusual. It croaked, rattled, gurgled, whistled, and made all sorts of jumbled sounds. We later learn that we were watching a Yellow-breasted Chat. Yellow-breasted Chats are part of the Wood Warbler family, but seems like more of a mix between a warbler and a tanager. It’s the largest warbler, with a longer tail, a heavy bill, and a more varied repertoire of songs. It was fascinating to watch him sing from the treetops.

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Yellow-breasted Chat (Image by David Horowitz)

The final trail we took was the Farm to Bay trail, which leads out to part of the creek. Along the way we found Eastern Wood-Pewees, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and our first White-eyed Vireo (although we wouldn’t find that out until the next day). Overall we saw 33 species during our walk.

We had a really lovely morning exploring Pickering Creek Audubon Center. If you ever happen to be in Eastern Maryland and want a quiet, rural environment, Pickering Creek is the way to go. You can check out their website at pickeringcreek.audubon.org.It was the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk about our birding day in Delaware!

Orange-crowned Warbler Sunday

Hi, friends! Our warbler of the week is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s one of the few North American warblers that is more abundant in the Western US than the East.

Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothypis celata)

Descriptions:

Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the plainest New World warblers. Their plumage varies, but they tend to be yellowish or olive. Western Orange-crowns are yellower while Eastern birds are grayer, especially around the head. The orange crown described by their name is very rarely seen in the field. It’s usually only seen when the warbler raises its crest in agitation or excitement. Orange-crowned Warblers have small, sharp pointy bills, short square tails, and short wings. These features help distinguish them from other similar-looking warblers, such as Tennessee, Yellow, and Nashville Warblers. They are also slim and the brightest part of their plumage is usually the yellow under their tails. Orange-crowns also have a split eyering and thin dark eyelines.

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Orange-crowned Warbler in Texas (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Alaska and Canada, parts of the Western United States. Migrates throughout most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. They migrate early in the spring and leave later in the fall. Winters further north than most other warblers. Instead of wintering in Central/South America like most wood warblers, Orange-crowns stay in the southern United States, Mexico, and some parts of California.

Habitat:

Shrubby vegetation, brushy deciduous undergrowth near or in forests.

Diet:

Mainly insects, some berries, nectar, and sap from woodpecker sapwells. They flutter around from branch to branch catching insects and will feed at flowers for nectar. In the winter Orange-crowned Warblers sometimes visits feeders looking for peanut butter and suet. They’ve even been spotted drinking from hummingbird feeders.

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Orange-crowned Warblers (Image by Easton Parkhurst via utahbirds.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

Orange-crowned Warblers tend to return to the same breeding spot each year. Males return first and sing to defend the territory. The female builds the nest low to the ground and covers it with vegetation. It takes her about 4 days to build an open nest cup out of a variety of grasses/twigs and lined with animal hair/grasses. The male does not assist with building the nest but will keep a close watch over the female.

3-6 white and reddish brown-speckled eggs are laid and incubated for about 11-13 days by the female. Both parents will feed the young, who will fledge 10-13 days after hatching. The parents will feed the young for a few days after they leave the nest.

Sounds:

A trilling song that may rise up then fall at the end: chee chee chee chew chew! The songs vary geographically. Males form “song neighborhoods” where males who live in adjacent territories will mimic each others songs.

Conservation:

Populations have declined slightly since the late 60s, but are generally stable. These warblers don’t face many of the same issues that other warblers do, such as deforestation in tropical areas, since their wintering grounds are farther north.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4 subspecies of Orange-crowned Warblers: the Pacific Coast lutescens, who are brighter yellow; the celatathe grayest and dullest form in Canada and Alaska; orestera found in the Rocky Mountains/Great Basin who are intermediate in color; and the sordida,  he darkest green form found only on the Channel Islands and small parts of California and Baja, California.
  • Orange-crowned Warblers breed in more forest types than any other warbler. They like open woodland and can be found in oak, laurel, fir-aspen, maple, willow, alder, and chaparral (to name a few).