March Vacation Pt 3: Prime Hook NWR

Our final destination on our winter birding vacation was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Prime Hook is located along the Delaware Bay and mainly comprised of saltwater/freshwater habitats, as well as some mature hardwood/pine forests.

We really didn’t get many pictures of birds that came out well since everything was pretty far out. It was a beautiful refuge though, so here are some pictures of the landscape.

Boardwalk Loop
Boardwalk Trail (Image by BirdNation)
Fleetwood Pond
Fleetwood Pond (Image by BirdNation)
Dike Trail
Dike Trail (Image by BirdNation)
Pine Grove Trail 2
Pine Grove Trail (Image by BirdNation)

Birds Observed (22):

Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Herring Gulls, Carolina Wrens, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Shovelers, American Black Ducks, Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, American Robins, Northern Mockingbird, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbird


We had so much fun visiting 3 national wildlife refuges in 3 different states in 3 days! Can’t wait for the next adventure!

Last year we went to Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware’s other national wildlife refuge. Click here to read about that trip. 

March Vacation Part 1: Blackwater NWR

Dave and I are on a weekend get-away to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. On the way to Virginia, we stopped at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

Blackwater NWR is more than 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed loblolly pine and hardwood forests located along the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge features a 4.5 mile wildlife drive as well 4 walking trails. Blackwater NWR has one of the highest concentrations of nesting Bald Eagles on the Atlantic Coast.

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Blackwater River (Image by BirdNation)

The first bird that we saw upon arriving into the refuge was an adult Bald Eagle. By the end of the afternoon we ended up seeing 10 eagles. We saw a mix of adults and juveniles. Bald Eagles don’t fully gain their adult plumage of white heads/tails until they are 5-years-old.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle (Image by BirdNation)

There were still many large flocks on wintering waterfowl. Hundreds of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese gathered together in the pools behind and next to the visitor’s center. Northern Shovelers were also very abundant. Other waterfowl included Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Interspersed between the waterfowl were small groups of American Coots. Although they look duck-like, American Coots are not closely related to ducks. They are more closely related to rails.

 

We spent some time walking along the Woods Trail which consists of pine and mixed hardwood trees. This area is prime habitat for the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. Along the trail we saw Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Brown Creepers, a Carolina Wren, and a Hermit Thrush.

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Hermit Thrush (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds observed included Great Blue Herons, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-winged Blackbirds, an Eastern Bluebird, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Tree Swallows.

After spending a lovely morning at Blackwater NWR, we made our way to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. After checking into our hotel, found Veteran’s Memorial Park (on eBird as Chincoteague Memorial Park.). From the park we could see Assateague Lighthouse across the water as well as about 8 of the famous wild ponies. At Memorial Park we saw Bufflehead, American Oystercatchers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Vultures, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Loons, various gulls, and a bunch of Turkey Vultures sunbathing on a house.

Tomorrow we plan on exploring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. I’m looking forward to see what we discover!

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Assateague Lighthouse across the water (Image by BirdNation)

E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!

I’m not much of a football fan, but I do have enjoy watching the Super Bowl. Many bird sites like to post about SuperbOwl Sunday,  but this year the Philadelphia Eagles are in the championship game. I live close to Philly, so I’m right in the middle of Eagles country. So in honor of the fact that the birds are in the Super Bowl, here are some fun facts about Bald Eagles, the team’s mascot.

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Bald Eagles (Image by Pasquale Gabrielli via picanimals.com)
  • Bald Eagles are known for their distinctive white heads/tails, dark bodies, and yellow bill/legs. This is actually the adult plumage. Juvenile eagles are all brown and mottled on their body to various degrees. Each year they gain more white feather until the reach their full adult plumage around the age of 5.
  • Fish is the main staple of the Bald Eagle. They are opportunistic and will eat carrion, as well as birds, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates. They will also try to pirate food off Ospreys or fish-eating mammals.
  • The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782.
  • Mate selection begins around the age of 4, and breeding pairs will stay together for life. Both sexes will contribute to making a nest, with the female focusing on stick placement.
  • Bald Eagles construct some of the biggest nests in the world. They can be as tall as 2-4 feet and as wide as 5-6 feet. An eagle pair use the same nest for many years, often adding sticks to it each year.
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Juvenile Bald Eage (Image by CleberBirds via allaboutbird.org)

 

  • The record for the largest Bald Eagle nest was 9 feet, 6 inches in diameter and 20 feet deep! It was located in St. Petersburg, Florida.
  • Bald Eagles are usually solitary birds. In the winter, they will congregate in large groups, especially if there is a salmon spawn.
  • Bald Eagles are known for one of the most dazzling mating displays. A pair will lock talons and rapidly descend to the ground in a dizzying spiral. They will release their talons before hitting the ground.
  • While diving, eagles can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
  • Bald Eagles represent one of the greatest success stories in bird conservation. In the 1978, these birds were added to the Endangered Species Act, mainly due to exposure to the harmful chemical DDT.  After DDT was banned, populations began to rebound through the 1980s. By the 1990s breeding populations started to become more established. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. However, they still face threats from overdevelopment, lead ammunition, and collisions with vehicles.
  • Alaska is home to the highest number of Bald Eagles in North America, with a population of around 70,000. Other states with high Bald Eagle populations include Florida, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Here’s hoping the birds win! Either way, Bald Eagles are still majestic and amazing birds. Fly, Eagles, fly! 🦅

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Bald Eagle By AWWE83 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Day 3 GBBC 2017: Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Dave and I went to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for Day 3 of the GBBC. We also went last year when it was 16 degrees outside (you can read about that here). This year we couldn’t have asked for lovelier weather; it was sunny and 60 degrees. In September the wildlife drive at Forsythe closed for construction to repair leftover damage from Hurricane Sandy. The entire wildlife drive reopened only about a week ago, so we were excited to experience the trail again.

The first bird we counted was a female Northern Harrier. She was swooping around over the marsh. This bird was brown so we knew she was a female (males are gray). In the same field we spotted flocks of Herring Gulls and Snow Geese. We made our way down to the Gull Pond Tower before entering the drive. Last time we visited the refuge we were able to see an American Bittern at the Gull Pond. This time we spotted Turkey Vultures, Great Blue Herons, Gadwalls, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and pair of Common Mergansers, an American Coot, a Mute Swan, and 4 Tundra Swans.

Snow Geese started flying in from all directions as we entered the wildlife drive. There were easily over 2000 of them, either flying or sitting on either side of the trail. We’ve seen large flocks of Snow Geese in past winters at the refuge, but this was probably the most we’ve experienced. Besides them were more Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. There were also Canada Geese, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails swimming nearby.

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Male Northern Shoveler (Image by David Horowitz)
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A Gull with a snack (Image by David Horowitz)

I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced a large flock of Snow Geese before, but it’s loud.We were parked watching some Shovelers when suddenly the volume increased. All the Snow Geese decided to take flight, so the sound of flapping wings and honking became deafening.

Then The Frenzy started (remember the Frenzy last summer?). Not only were all the Snow Geese flying, but they were flying towards us. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to see 2,000+ birds flying towards you, but saying it was amazing is an understatement. I wasn’t actually sure what to do in that moment, I snapped a few pictures but mainly just stood there in awe. A part of the flock flew directly over us while the rest landed in the field next to us. It was certainly one of the most exciting birding moments for me so far.

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Snow Goose Frenzy (Image by BirdNation)

(Sorry, it’s hard to get good pictures of large flying flocks. I did my best.)

After the Snow Goose Frenzy we found a large flock of Brants, an adult Bald Eagle, and gulls dropping clams on the trail from the air. A group of ducks swam in the distance. They weren’t just any duck though, they happened to be a new life list edition for us: Red-breasted Mergansers! There were about 22 of them and they were swimming in a tight group of males and females. They would all dive together then bob up to the surface. (They were slightly too far out to get a picture of, or I would have posted one for you guys). We have now seen all 3 North American mergansers, and happened to see all 3 in this one trip!

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Adult Bald Eagle (Image by David Horowitz)

Day 3 Official Count

  • Snow Goose (too many to count, easily over 2000)
  • 1000 Brant
  • 200 Canada Geese
  • 2 Mute Swans
  • 4 Tundra Swans
  • 2 Gadwall
  • 150 American Black Ducks
  • 50 Mallards
  • 35 Northern Shovelers
  • 60 Northern Pintails
  • 5 Ring-necked Ducks
  • 60 Bufflehead
  • 30 Hooded Mergansers
  • 2 Common Mergansers (male/female pair)
  • 22 Red-breasted Mergansers
  • 4 Great Blue Herons
  • 5 Turkey Vulture
  • 1 Northern Harrier (female)
  • 1 Bald Eagle (adult)
  • 1 American Coot
  • 30 Ring-billed Gulls
  • Herring Gulls (too many to count)
  • 8 American Crows
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 34 Red-winged Blackbirds

I was so happy with our trip today. We always see great things at Forsythe, but the Snow Geese experience was definitely a special moment. I wanted to give a quick shout out to my mom and sister, who went on their own bird count today! It was their first bird count on their own, so I’m excited for them. They went to Smithville Park. I will be going there again with them (and Maria!) to walk the entire loop. Tomorrow is the last GBBC day for this year, so if you haven’t participate yet you still have time! See you tomorrow!

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017 Day 1!

The Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! I got out of work a little earlier today, so Dave and I went to Amico Island. It was about 40 degrees at the time, so 20 degrees warmer than Day 1 last year. We didn’t get too many pictures because of the sun was setting and washing everything out, but we did what we could.

Upon entering the park, we heard some Mourning Doves and the conk-la-ree! of male Red-winged Blackbirds. Male and female Red-winged Blackbirds migrate separately. The males arrive at the breeding grounds a few weeks before the females in order to establish a territory. They tend to start migrating mid-February and usually arrive up north by March, so the 5 males we saw got a head start. Guess the early bird gets the territory (sorry, I had to haha :-p).  

We walked the blue loop that goes through the forest along Dredge Harbor first. Along the way we spotted Carolina Wrens, a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls, a Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpeckers, a Tufted Titmouse, American Robins, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I even heard my first Gray Catbird (my favorite) of the year, but didn’t actually see it.

Remember the Great Blue Heron rookery that we would watch last year? The herons were back and getting their nests established. We weren’t able to see the back end of the island, but from our view could spot at least 32 Great Blue Herons. They seemed to be pretty relaxed for the most part, either sitting on their nests or standing around.

Then the trouble started. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and flew towards the rookery island. The herons started yelling and flying away from their nests in a large group. But that wasn’t all! Once the juvenile landed in one of the trees, 2 adult Bald Eagles showed up. The herons continued to yell and circle the island, while the adult eagles made loud high-pitched whistles. One adult eagle landed near the juvenile, while the second adult sat down in a nest right below the other one. Once the Bald Eagles settled down, the Great Blue Herons returned to their nests. What a spectacle!

(Sorry that this is not the best quality picture. The rookery is just slightly too far out for our current lens, so this was the best we could get until we buy a new lens that zooms in farther. I chose to post it though because you can see all 3 Bald Eagles together)

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3 Bald Eagles at the heron rookery (Image by David Horowitz)

Then we realized something. Last year, we saw a Bald Eagle hanging out near some Great Blue Herons in that same tree (see image below). At that time, nobody seemed to phased and the 3 birds just sat there together. We began to wonder: does a pair of bald eagles nest in the heron rookery? After a little research I found that sometimes Bald Eagles will nest in the same tree as a Great Blue Heron colony, but it’s unclear why. The nest did look a little bigger, so it’s a possibly, especially since one of the eagles was sitting in it. Bald Eagles tend to return to the same nest site each year. We’ll just have to find out if these Bald Eagles nest here in the coming months.

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Great Blue Herons and a Bald Eagle 2016 (Image by BirdNation)

 

Other birds we saw were Common Mergansers, a large flock of Common Loons, Bufflehead, and Herring Gulls.

Here’s the official Day 1 count:

  • 12 Canada Geese
  • 2 Mallards (male and female pair)
  • 6 Bufflehead (4 male, 2 female)
  • 3 Common Mergansers (2 male 1 female)
  • 15 Common Loons
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 32 Great Blue Heron
  • 3 Bald Eagles (1 juvenile, 2 adults)
  • 200 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 10 Herring Gulls
  • 10 Mourning Doves
  • 3 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Carolina Chickadee
  • 1 Tufted Titmouse
  • 6 Carolina Wrens
  • 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • 17 American Robins
  • 4 Song Sparrows
  • 1 Northern Cardinal (male)
  • 5 Red-winged Blackbirds

It was a great way to start off the Bird Count weekend, especially with 32 Great Blue Herons and 3 Bald Eagles! Tomorrow I’m off to Haddon Lake Park to continue my tradition of doing the bird count at that location (not in 18 degree weather this time). I’ll be going with my mom, sister, and my original bird teacher, Maria. See you tomorrow!

To read Day 1 of the 2016 bird count, click on this link.

First Hike 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! Did you observe a “first bird” of 2017? A lot of people in bird internet groups I’m on like to share what the first bird they saw of the year was. Mine was a Blue Jay. I think that’s a fun was to start a new year of birding :-). On New Years Day, Dave and I took our first hike of the year at Palmyra Cove Nature Park.

If I had to choose one word to describe January 1, 2017 I would have to say: peaceful. It was a lovely morning. It was sunny and cool but not too cold. Our usual route when we go to Palmyra is the forest, the beaver ponds, then the cove. On this trip we worked backwards and headed to the cove trail first.

The trail to get to the cove was pretty quiet, while flocks of gulls flying high overhead. At one point there was a trilling sound coming from the understory. It was hard to track where the sound was coming from because it seemed to be moving around. Then suddenly one of the nearby bushes shook; and there was a Carolina Wren.

Male Carolina Wrens can have 30-40 songs in their repertoire, but females have a “chatter”. Her chatter sounds insect-like, so sometimes it’s easy to overlook her chatter for something else. Even though the female doesn’t “sing” per se, the male and female will duet, where the male with sing a song and the female will respond with different degrees and intensity of chatter. (Fun fact: female Carolina Wrens are the only wrens of the genus Thryothorus that don’t sing melodious songs like the males). I recently learned this from the book The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma, so I was excited to recognize the female chatter in the field. Another bird quickly showed up after she did, so I’m guess that’s her mate since pairs stay together year-round. It ended up being the “Day of the wrens” because we ended up seeing a few more pairs of wrens throughout the hike in different territories.

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Carolina Wren (Image by David Horowitz)

We also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. I’m always excited to see my first Junco every winter; these little birds are fun to watch. They zip around the forest, hopping on the ground, trees, and everything in between. I love the flash of their black and white tail as they rise into flight. To me, Dark-eyed Juncos are like the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers of the winter.

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Dark-eyed Junco (Image by BirdNation)

If you’re at the cove at high tide, you usually see different kinds of waterfowl. It was low tide though, so the only waterfowl around were the American Black Ducks. We did get a good view of a beaver dwelling that the ducks like to sit near and found some tracks in the mud. The area were were standing in also had a lot of gnawed beaver trees, which were cool to see. Upon standing in that are for a few minutes, other birds started to appear. Crows flew by and a juvenile Bald Eagle soared above us.

That’s when I spotted an unexpected visitor: a male Red-winged Blackbird.  To me there are 2 possibilities of why he’s still here: 1. He didn’t leave with the rest of the flock for the winter or 2. he’s back 2 months too early. I certainly didn’t expect him in the area. It started getting windy at the cove so we made our way to the beaver ponds.

The beaver ponds were fairly quiet as well. A small group of Wild Turkeys strutted by, possibly the same female/juvenile group we saw on our last trip to the Cove (remember when we did the turkey trot?). We saw a Northern Cardinal pair, some Mallards, Canada Geese, Downy Woodpeckers, and…a Sharp-shinned Hawk taking a bath?

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A pretty pair (Image by BirdNation)

He was at the far side of the lake and really difficult to see. All we could see was a tiny bird, with a white belly that seemed to be stripey. What was it?? Every once in awhile it would splash but it was just slightly too far to identify. We could tell it was some sort of a raptor, maybe a juvenile? After a few minutes it flew up onto a tree to reveal a dark back and a square tail. Mystery solved: Sharp-shinned. But it’s definitely not every day you see a hawk bathing in a pond, now is it?

Instead of walking through the forest we took the Perimeter Trail back to the entrance. The perimeter was pretty uneventful, but that’s ok. Like I said earlier, it was a peaceful morning that ended up staying peaceful throughout the rest of the day. I hope that mood is a sign for what’s to come in 2017. I thought visiting Palmyra Cove was a refreshing was to start the new year.

Did you take a “first hike” this year? If you did let me know in the comments.

John Heinz NWR

Before I tell you about my recent trip to John Heinz Nation Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia I have some exciting news! President Barack Obama created the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Nation Monument and is located 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Monument will cover 4,913 square miles and protects underwater mountains (seamounts) and canyons that are just as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In July I wrote about this and shared a petition from Audubon in my post called Protect the Puffins. This Monument will help protect the Puffins and other marine wildlife. What a great victory!

Saturday was my birthday, so naturally I wanted to celebrate by going birding. I chose John Heinz NWR in Philadelphia as our destination. The 1000-acre refuge is located in Tinicum Township and is right next to Philadelphia International Airport. In 1972 John Heinz, formerly known as Tinicum Wildlife Preserve, became America’s first urban refuge. Despite being in a major city next to the airport, over 300 species of birds have been accounted for, and 85 species nest there. John Heinz consists of tidal marshes, impoundments, and woodlands that supports all kinds of wildlife.

We spent about 2 1/2 hours walking the impoundment trail that loops around the marshes and takes you through the woodlands. We counted over 32 species. Here’s some the highlights:

  • Egrets everywhere! As we crossed the first bridge over the marsh we saw numerous egrets. There were at least 15 Great Egrets and 8 Snowy Egrets. Snowy Egrets are one of my favorites (which is why they are the mascot for BirdNation), so I really enjoyed watching them hunt. We continued to see egrets throughout the walk.
  • We saw numerous raptors, including the resident Bald Eagles. We went to John Heinz last December and saw the Bald Eagle nest, but this is the first time we’ve actually seen the eagles there. There were 2 and they were sitting on the nest preening. We also saw at least 4 Broad-winged Hawks, a few which seemed to light juveniles. Other raptor species were Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.
  • A Northern Waterthrush. Despite having “thrush” in their name, Waterthrushes are part of the Wood Warbler family, not the Thrush family. There are two North American Waterthrushes: the Northern and the Louisiana. They look very similar, being both small, brown streaky birds. However, Louisiana Waterthrushes have a broader and whiter eyebrow, are not as streaky on their breast, and have buffy flanks. The Northern Waterthrush has brown flanks, has a streakier breast, and a yellowish tint to its plumage. Northerns are usually found foraging on the ground and pumping their tails. You can see from the pictures we took that this bird had a yellow hue, so we determined he was a Northern Waterthrush. He was hopping around flipping leaves over to look for insects.
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Northern Waterthrush (Image by David Horowitz)

Other species we observed included Wood Ducks, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellowlegs, Warbling Vireos, an Eastern Kingbird, a Semipalmated Plover and many more.

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Great Blue Heron wades through the mud (Image by BirdNation)

If you ever happen to be in the Philadelphia area and looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city I recommend checking out John Heinz NWR. This refuge offers a nice escape from our over-developed world.

Be on the lookout for our new weekly bird profile series: Woodpecker Wednesday!