There’s something about the end of a calendar year that puts people in a reflective mood. Many people like to think back on the past year and establish goals for the future year.
2017 was a wonderful birding year for Dave and I. We went birding in 5 states, saw some cool rarities, and spent tons of time enjoying nature. So since it’s New Year’s Eve, I wanted to share my favorite birds and birding moments of 2017.
May was filled with tons of great birding moments! Some favorites included: our first Prairie Warbler and hearing a Barred Owl, going on vacation in Maryland and Delaware, and seeing our first Great Horned Owlet.
In June we got to reconnected with one of our favorite local celebrities, American Oystercatcher T2 of Barnegat Light, who had a family in tow. We also saw our first Northern Bobwhite and a Least Tern nest!
On September 7th, Dave and I went birding at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. In our area that day it was supposed to be around 80 degrees (too hot for October in my opinion), so we escaped from the heat to the breezy shore.
We saw 12 American Oystercatchers on the beach, a personal record for us. Usually when we go to Barnegat Light we see T2’s family (a resident oystercatcher who you can read more about here), and sometimes an unbanded pair. So we were delighted to see such a high number of them. American Oystercatchers from South Carolina to Florida tend to be non-migratory. Many Northeastern populations use what is called “leap-frog” migration, where instead of migrating down the Atlantic Coast they winter in Northwest Florida (we learned our friend T2 does this, and winters in Cedar Key, Fl). American Oystercatchers will start forming pre-migration flocks in late summer and will migrate usually between mid-September and mid-November. Our group of 12 oystercatchers was probably one of those migration flocks. Our friend T2 was among them. I hope s/he has a safe migration and winter in Florida, and I hope to see T2 again for a 3rd year next summer.
American Oystercatcher flock (Image by BirdNation)
T2 with its migration flock (Image by BirdNation)
There were also many smaller shorebirds running around the beach and on the jetty. These included Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers (in non-breeding plumage) , Least Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones. It was fun watching them run around the rocks looking for food. There was somebody else watching these “peeps”, although not for the same reason we were.
Sempalmated Plover nonbreeding plumage (Image by David Horowitz)
Least Sandpiper (Image by David Horowitz)
Ruddy Turnstone female (Image by David Horowitz)
Every once in a while, a Merlin would swoop by and startle the the shorebirds, sending them off in a frenzy flock to escape becoming lunch. Merlins are swift, little falcons who hunt prey by using high speed attacks. Shorebirds are one of the many menu options for Merlins, who like to feast on birds that weight between 1-2 oz. The first time we saw a Merlin at Barnegat Light was December 2016. It makes me wonder if it’s possibly the same one or another individual.
Each year, Brown Pelicans show up around Barnegat Light in late summer/early fall, and during our August LBI trip we saw a few for the first time. This time we saw 10 Brown Pelicans flying towards Island Beach State Park (which you can see from Barnegat Light). We saw each pelican fly by individually, but learned they sit on some small islands out in Barnegat Inlet near Island Beach. I’m so happy that we’ve been able to see the late summer Brown Pelicans this year.
Other highlights from our October LBI trip included a variety of gulls, a tern catching a fish and flying with it over our heads, and many Double-crested Cormorants.
We’ve had a few personal records this year at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. It was our first year seeing Brown Pelicans, we saw 12 American Oystercatchers in one visit, we’ve added a few birds to our life list, and we visited the park 5 times this year (as opposed to maybe twice per year in the past). I’m happy that we have been spending more time exploring and witnessing the seasons at Barnegat Light. I’m sure we will have a few more adventures on LBI for the remainder of the year, especially since the winter waterfowl will soon be on their way :-).
Sunday tends to be our normal birding day. This week we were having trouble deciding where we wanted to go. The options were: Palmyra Cove or Barnegat Light. Which park did we choose? We actually went to both!
We started our day at Palmyra Cove Nature Park. The weather was lovely. We had a bright blue summer sky punctuated by white puffy clouds. Our main goal for the trip was to explore the Cove Trail. On the way to the cove we listened to the song of an Indigo Bunting, saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker, watched some Carolina Chickadees chase each other, and got a rare glimpse of a Warbling Vireo (I say rare because they are usually always at the top of the tree, so I tend to hear them frequently instead of see them).
The Cove Trail runs along the Delaware River. Sometimes you can walk on the beach along the river, but it was around high tide so that wasn’t an option. We did see some Double-crested Cormorants, as well as a flock of at least 70 Canada Geese float by.
There’s a wooden platform that extends out into the marshland of the cove. We were pretty close to it when we almost ran right into a Black Rat Snake! It was having a sun-bathing section right in the middle of the trail.
There were a lot of birds around once we reached the platform. There were 2 Bald Eagles in a nest, 6 or 7 Great Blue Herons, Mallards, small flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers, swallows, Eastern Phoebes, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Cedar Waxwing, Orchard Orioles, and juvenile Starlings to name a few. My favorite visitor though was an adorable Spotted Sandpiper. It landed on the platform railing and pumped his little tail. With all their teetering motions, no wonder why people have nicknames these little guys the “teeter-peep” or the “tip-tail”.
Spotted Sandpiper (Image by David Horowitz)
On the Cove Trail (Image by BirdNation)
Great Blue Heron (Image by David Horowitz)
Eastern Phoebe (Image by BirdNation)
After Palmyra we made our way across the state to the Jersey Shore to go back to Long Beach Island. We went to Barnegat Light SP about a month ago, but wanted to spend some time at the ocean. We arrived at the park in the late afternoon. This time we saw 3 Piping Plovers running around the beach. I think one of them was a juvenile, because it lacked the black neck and forehead bands that the breeding adult Piping Plovers exhibit.
We also saw American Oystercatcher T2 and its family again. The 2 chicks are still in what is called their prejuvenal (first prebasic) molt. This means that they have some down on the tips of some of their feathers. They are in this stage from June-August and have their full juvenal plumage by week 6. They also still have a larger black tip on their orange bills than the adults do. I was happy to see the T2 family again. The 2 juveniles were banded. We weren’t able to read their bands from the distance we were at, but maybe if they return in the future we’ll get a better glimpse of them. The picture on the left is one of the chicks a month ago in June, and the picture on the right are what they look like now in July. They grow up so fast, don’t they?
T2 family chicks in June 2017 (Image by BirdNation)
T2 family chicks in July 2017 (Image by BirdNation)
Double birding days are certainly a special treat! 🙂
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.
Least Tern on its nest (Image by David Horowitz)
Least Tern (Image by David Horowitz)
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.
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.
Osprey (Image by David Horowitz)
Barn Swallow (Image by BirdNation)
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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:
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.
Here are a few more pictures from out Barnegat Light trip.
Piping Plover in a nesting area (Image by BirdNation)
Great Egret (Image by BirdNation)
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)!
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.
Savannah Sparrow (Image by BirdNation)
Eastern Bluebird (Image by David Horowitz)
Tufted Titmous (Image by BirdNation)
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.
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.
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.
Black-headed Gull flying (Image by David Horowitz)
Black-headed Gull with Dunlins and Whimbrels (Image by David Horowitz)
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.
Dirty Snow Goose (Image by David Horowitz(
American Oystercatcher (Image by David Horowitz)
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.
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)
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).
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
Always found near salt water habitats, beaches, mudflats, islands, sandbars
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.
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.
Loud wheep! whistles
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.