Nests and Surprise Guests

Hi friends! I received an update from the American Oystercatcher Working Group about T2, who we spotted for the second year in a row at Barnegat Light State Park. T2 was banded on Island Beach State Park (which is on the barrier island directly north of Long Beach Island). T2 was banded on September 19, 2007 and spends its winters in Cedar Key, Florida, which is about a 1,050 mile migration one-way from Barnegat Light. Pretty cool to get to know a bird personally, right?

This past Friday (June 16), Dave and I took a trip to Cape May. We spent some time at South Cape May Meadows (SCMM) and Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP).

SCMM and CMPSP actually connect through a path. We made our way through the meadow with the intent of taking this path, but it turns out it was closed off. The connecting path is right before entering the beach, so we decided to explore the beach instead. It turns out the path being closed was a good thing, because we had the opportunity to watch some nesting Least Terns.

Least Terns are the smallest of the North American Tern species, standing only at about 9 inches tall. In breeding plumage, Least Terns have unique bills because they are yellow with a black tip, as opposed to orange or black of other terns. Least Terns also have a white forehead and two dark primary feathers. There were a few pairs either sitting on eggs, flying around to get food for their mate, or some defending their nests. We watched one one breeding pair repeatedly dive bomb an American Oystercatcher pair, who quickly got the message that they weren’t welcome in that spot. It was the first time we had the chance to see any sort of nesting tern. They were fascinating to watch. If you look closely to the picture on the right of the tern standing, you can see its 2 speckled eggs behind the sticks.

Throughout our walk we kept seeing an Oystercatcher pair. Eventually we saw one of them sitting on their nest. We were observing this oystercatcher from a distance when its mate came from the other direction and walked right up to us. This Oystercatcher had bands which read M3. Before walking off Dave was able to get some good pictures of M3’s metal band, so I submitted a report about M3 to the Oystercatcher Working Group as well. M3 was banded on Avalon Beach, NJ on June 26, 2009. It migrates over 670 miles one way to spend the winters at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

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American Oystercatcher M3

Other birds we saw at the Meadows included at least 8 Ospreys, Common Yellowthroats, Black Skimmers, a Willet, and Great Black-backed Gulls to name a few. We drove over to CMPSP to see what we would find there.

It was pretty quiet bird-wise at the Point since there were more people around. From the Hawk Watch platform we saw 20 Mute Swans (never saw that many at once!), Great Egrets, Canada Geese, Mallards, House Finches, and Red-winged Blackbirds. We were getting tired, so we decided we were only going to walk up the path a little bit then head back to the car. We didn’t expect to see too much.

On the way back, Dave paused. “Is that…a Bobwhite?”. I listened closely.

“poor- bob-WHITE!” 

Yep. Our ears weren’t playing tricks on us. It was a Northern Bobwhite. A Bobwhite is not quite who we expected to hear at the beach since they tend to live in forest or brushy habitats. Then I remembered that people were reporting Bobwhites here at the Point on the NJ Rare Bird List. Some people say they were released there, which is very likely. We started walking towards the sound when a cute, plump brown bird popped out from the grass.

The next moment made the whole trip for me. It ran right at us, stopped, and started making little mumbling sounds at us. It was adorable to watch it run around. It quickly ran back into the grass only to emerge onto a large sand pile a few moments later. Then its friend showed up on another sand pile and began to make the “bob-WHITE!” call. The original Bobwhite wasn’t too happy with the other’s appearance though, because it ran down the sand pile and waddled straight down the path until we couldn’t see it anymore (I couldn’t help but think of Forrest Gump, “Run, Bobwhite, Run!” hahaha :-P). The Bobwhites were really amusing, and a fun way to end our Cape May trip.

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Male Northern Bobwhite (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

Hey, I Know That Bird!

Every June, Dave and I take a trip out to Long Beach Island to explore Barnegat Light State Park. June 9th was our 3rd annual “late spring” LBI birding trip. It’s nice to have a trip “tradition” so you can compare what species you see around a specific time/season and see how your location list changes from year to year.

This year we didn’t see too many species (16, probably because we went in the late afternoon this time, but that’s ok!). Every year I hope to see Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers. We had a special treat when we it came to the Oystercatchers: an Oystercatcher family! We had the opportunity to watch 2 adults with the 2 chicks walk/forage around the dunes. I’ve seen pictures of Oystercatcher chicks before, but they were even cuter in person.

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American Oystercatcher family (Image by David Horowitz)

I have to admit: I’ve been a little lazy with my birding stuff the past week or two. My job (teacher) just ended for the summer and I’ve been taking a summer class (Biology 1) so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment. I mention this because I didn’t look at any of our June 9th LBI pictures until tonight (June 16). And while zooming in on the Oystercatcher family photo I found a surprise.

I zoomed in on an adult and chick. The adult had 2 yellow bands that said T2. Then it hit me: “Hey, I know that bird!”

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Oystercatcher and chick (Image by David Horowitz)

I don’t think that’s what Dave expected me to say. But it’s true. We know Oystercatcher T2. I quickly opened up my Barnegat Light picture folder and pulled up this picture from last year’s trip:

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American Oystercatcher T2 in 2016 (Image by BirdNation)

Well, well, well, look who it is. T2 from 2016. I wonder how many years this particular Oystercatcher has come back to Barnegat Light. And this time I got to see his/her family!

Once Dave and I made this discovery I went to the American Oystercatcher Working Group website. This organization works with conservation groups throughout the East Coast to band, study, and conserve American Oystercatchers. I reported T2 and all the information that I know about this bird (as well as someone from today, but I’ll tell you about that in the next post). Now I wait to hear back about this particular Oystercatcher’s backstory, which of course I will update you on.

If you happen to see a banded American Oystercatcher, try to take some pictures and send your info to the American Oystercatcher Working Group (click that link to see their site).

Here are a few more pictures from out Barnegat Light trip.

This was the only Piping Plover we saw, and it was the first time we’ve seen one on a nest. It was sitting inside a wire fence to protect it. The Great Egret was looking stunningly beautiful in its breeding plumage.

It’s exciting to go to the same location each year to compare, especially when you rediscover a familiar friend (as in the case with T2)!

A Record Day

Over the weekend, Dave and I went to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on a mission. There were 2 birds at Forsythe on the NJ Rare Bird List: an American Golden-Plover and a Black-headed Gull. Our mission was to see if we could find either of these species. By the end of the trip, we set a personal record for our Forsythe trips (I’ll tell you what it was at the end).

It was our first spring trip down to the refuge. The weather was nice; it was actually pretty cool (only around 60), but not too cold. We walked a little bit around the visitor’s center, where we saw a Chipping Sparrow, some Purple Martins, Tree Swallows, Savannah Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, and heard a House Wren.

We also walked a bit on the Songbird Trail, which becomes part of the Wildlife Drive. There were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Mallards, a female Bufflehead, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Male Red-winged Blackbird (Image by BirdNation)

Once on the Wildlife Drive, the search for the rare birds began. Willets marched through the mudflats  looking for food. While watching a sleeping Mallard we spotted some tiny shorebirds running on the water’s edge. They were too small to be Sanderlings and were about sparrow-sized. Upon closer examination we determined that they were Least Sandpipers. It was a new edition to our life list. A Greater Yellowlegs was also hanging out nearby.

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Least Sandpiper (Image by David Horowitz)

At one point there was a mudflat/low tidal area that was occupied by a mixed flock of shorebirds. It mainly consisted of Dunlins, but there were also Whimbrels (life list #2), Black-bellied Plovers (life-list #3), Short-billed Dowitchers (life list #4), and American Oystercatchers. It wasn’t an easy crowd to watch though, because that area was overcast and the birds were slightly too far, so the more we watched, the more the colors would get washed out. I was seeing all these plovers, and trying to carefully scan for the American Golden-Plover. The supercilium (eyebrow), of the American Golden-Plover is very distinctive,  but we weren’t seeing that. No American Goldens here.

There was a gull that was hanging out near the shorebird flock. It was small, and had a red bill/legs. It was our Black-headed Gull! A birder nearby with a scope confirmed the id with us. Black-headed Gulls have black hoods similar to a Laughing Gull, except that their hood only goes to the top of the head and not the full head. This gull was nonbreeding, so it just started getting its hood, and had the characteristic two gray stripe on its head. I was so excited to find this gull! It could have been anywhere in the refuge and we happened to find him. Black-headed Gulls are rare because they usually are found in Northern Canada, Europe, or Asia.

A small group of terns arrived on the other side of the drive where the tide was higher. Terns plunge dive from the air into the water to catch fish. They can’t see under the water, so they rely on accurately locating a fish above the water. Sometimes they skim the water’s surface instead of plunging all the way under. The Double-crested Cormorants nearby took note, and decided to join in on the action. It’s cool when you see different bird species “helping” each other find food. Here’s a short video I took on my Iphone from the car.

Other birds we saw along the drive included Snowy and Great Egrets, 6 pairs of Ospreys on their nests, Great Blue Herons, Laughing Gulls, Northern Rough-winged/Barn/Tree Swallows, Common Grackles, and some left over Snow Geese to name a few. Our final life list addition for the day was two Boat-tailed Grackles. Boat-tailed are larger than Common Grackles, and have long tails that are almost half their body length. They typically fan their tails out into a V-shape, like the keel of a boat.

We had a great afternoon at Forsythe. We added 5 birds to our life list, making our total for the day 53 species, which is a record for our Forsythe trips. We didn’t see the American Golden-Plover, but did get to see the Black-headed Gull, which was a great experience, and another rare bird for the year. I’m looking forward to more great spring birding trips.

American Oystercatcher: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! This week we are starting a new feature to celebrate the summer: Seashore Saturday! I was raised at the Jersey Shore, so the beach and ocean are very special to me. I don’t live at the shore anymore, but I look forward to taking birding trips at the shore every summer. Many people in New Jersey spend the weekends at the shore, so I figured I could give you a little glimpse of the shore each weekend (even if you don’t live near the ocean!). So this summer we will be exploring some of the shorebirds and seabirds you would find on the coasts if you spend time out on the ocean or on the beach.

Shorebirds and Seabirds are not one in the same. These are actually two distinct groups. Shorebirds are small to medium-sized birds that are found on the beaches and along the water’s edge. This group includes true sandpipers, avocets, oystercatchers, and plovers. Seabirds can be seen along the coastline but many are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time on the open ocean. Seabirds include terns, gulls, auks, kittawakes, albatrosses, petrels, pelicans, and noddies, just to name a few. Throughout the summer I will be featuring birds from both groups.

Today’s shorebird is one of my personal favorites: the American Oystercatcher.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

Description:

American Oystercatcher are large shorebirds that are about the size of a crow. They have black heads/upperparts, white underparts, and a bright, long red-orange bill. Their yellow eyes have a red ring around them and they have pale pink legs. Males and females look identical. American Oystercatchers can be found combing the beach for their main food source: bivalves (mussels, oysters,  and clams).

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A pair of American Oystercatchers (Image by David Horowitz)

Range:

Atlantic Coast of the United States from New England down to Florida, Gulf Coast down to South America. Also found on the Pacific Coast of California, Mexico, and down to Chile

Habitat:

Always found near salt water habitats, beaches, mudflats, islands, sandbars

Food:

Shellfish, oysters, clams, mussels, marine worms, sand crabs, jellyfish, sea urchins. American Oystercatcher forage in shallow water and use their long bills to break open shells. They have two techniques for breaking shells: hammering the shell or finding a shell that is slightly open and jabbing its bill inside to clear the contents.

 

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(Last summer Dave filmed an American Oystercatcher foraging at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Here’s the footage)

 

Breeding and Nesting:

American Oystercatchers start breeding when they are 3-4 years old. Sometimes they form pairs for life, but sometimes they may form trios of one male and two females to tend to a nest. Both males and female will create a nest on the ground by scraping out sound and lining it will pebbles or shells. Nests are usually found in sand dunes or  marsh islands above the high tide mark. They will make multiple nest sites, but only line one.Oystercatchers have one brood per year with a clutch size of 1-4 eggs. There may be 5 or 6 eggs if two females are sharing a nest with a male. The eggs are incubated for 24-28 days. The young will leave the nest within a day after hatching and be fed by the adults for about 2 months. The chicks will take their first flights at about 5 weeks old.

Sounds:

Loud wheep! whistles

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American Oystercatcher (Image by BirdNation)

Fun Facts:

  • Courting pairs will walk together making a loud single piping note. They will proceed to bend over, extend their necks, and run while calling side by side. Sometimes they will go into flight and be joined by other Oystercatchers in the area.
  • Atlantic Coast and Pacific Coast Oystercatchers  are considered different races. The Pacific race is from Baja California southwards; north of Baja the species of Black Oystercatchers are prevalent.
  • They can be confused with Willets during flight, because both birds flash black and white as they fly. However, the American Oystercatcher’s bright bill is noticeable during flight.

Shore to Please

It’s Memorial Day weekend. Although summer doesn’t start until June 20th, many people consider this weekend to be the start of the summer season. In New Jersey, this means that thousands of people make their way to the Jersey Shore each weekend from now until Labor Day.

I grew up at the Jersey Shore. The strange thing is though, I barely spent any time at the beach until I became an adult. Once I became a birder and moved away from the shore I realized that there were so many birds that I missed out on growing up. So I try to go to the shore a few times a year to enjoy the beach and the shore birds.

Dave and I visited Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Friday morning. Barnegat Light SP is located on the northern  tip of Long Beach Island in the town of Barnegat Light. It’s a great place to see all different kinds of shore birds as well as waterfowl in the winter. Whatever time of the year, Barnegat Lighthouse SP is shore to please (bad pun, I know haha!). It seems like a crazy idea on Memorial Day weekend but we got there early and beat all the crowds. We started our hike by walking along the short pine trail near the visitor entrance. I finally got to see my first Black and White Warbler. Other birds on the trail were Northern Cardinals, a Mourning Dove, Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, Gray Catbirds, and American Robins.

We continued onto the beach and walked along the jetty towards the end of the beach. The first thing we spotted was a small group of gulls, but there was something else mixed in…a Piping Plover! Piping Plovers are small and blend in perfectly with the sand. They are considered endangered in New Jersey as well as in some of the other states they live in. Human recreation, habitat loss, and predators have all contributed to the decrease in numbers of Piping Plovers over the years. Here in New Jersey we’ve had some good new though. Last year Conserve Wildlife New Jersey reported that the breeding population of Piping Plovers increased from 92 pairs in 2014 to 108 pairs in 2015. On Long Beach Island certain parts of the beach are blocked off to avoid people from interfering with the shorebird’s nests.

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Piping Plover (Image by David Horowitz)

This Piping Plover was putting on a show. It was rapidly flying through the gulls and running around with its tail feathers down while being chased. Then we spotted it…a chick! The other adult and chick were nearby and this adult was trying to distract the gulls. I have seen Piping Plovers before but this was my first chick! It was so adorable.

The Piping Plovers disappeared into the sand, so we continued on our way. There were 5 Semipalmated Plovers resting nearby and 2 Eastern Kingbirds fluttering through the sky. We ran into one of my favorite summer residents: the American Oystercatcher. These birds are so striking to me: medium-sized, black/white/brown bodies, with a long bold orange bill and entrancing red eyes.

 

We saw 3 Oystercatchers, but my favorite was the one towards the end of the jetty. It found an oyster and happily strutted around with it in its bill. It would stop every so often to twist the shell in the sand then continue on its way. We watched it run to a tide pool near the jetty where it finally cracked open the shell to enjoy its snack.

 

Another bird we watched along our walk was the Ruddy Turnstone. A few days after Christmas it was 75 degrees (crazy New Jersey!), so we went to Barnegat Light and saw our first Ruddy Turnstones. There were a handful of them running around on the jetty in non-breeding plumage that December day. We saw many of them on Friday and finally got to see them live up to their names. They walked around in small flocks, turning over any object that was in the way to find food. They were fun to watch.

Towards the end of the jetty we saw some more gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. As we looked out at the ocean a few Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings foraged along the coastline. When we were ready to leave we were in for a surprise: a whole mixed flock arrived! There were a mix of about 30 Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones running out towards the ocean then being chased back by the waves. And suddenly, they were gone as quickly as they arrived.

We saw the same Piping Plover family on our way back towards the lighthouse. There was not one chick though…there were 3! What a wonderful sight! I still can’t believe we were lucky enough to see a whole family of Piping Plovers. I hope through conservation efforts these beautiful plovers and other endangered shorebirds continue to see their populations increase. If you happen to go to the beach this weekend (or know anyone who is) please remember to share the beach with our avian friends. Don’t you want to continue experiencing this cuteness in the years to come? I shore do :-).