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)!

Goodbye Winter

This weekend Dave and I went to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Long Beach Island for our final birding trip of the winter. Barnegat Light is at least an hour away from us, so we usual go there in the mid-morning, but for this trip we went in the late afternoon/early evening. It was quiet as far as people go, but busy with birds, which is just how I like it.

We started our trip on the paved walkway near the lighthouse, where we spotted a group of 6 Red-breasted Mergansers. It was our second time seeing this kind of merganser (first was at our last Forsythe trip) , but our first time seeing them at Barnegat Light. Red-breasted Mergansers look similar to Common Mergansers, but there are a few key differences. Red-breasted have long slender bills, are smaller, and both male and female have crests. Red-breasted Merganser are also more likely to be found in saltwater habitats than Common and Hooded Mergansers. The ones we saw were busy preening while floating along in the ocean. I love seeing their cute feather “hair-dos” :-).

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Male Red-breasted Merganser (Image by BirdNation)

We spent awhile walking on the jetty. There were hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls along the rocks. They were resting, standing, preening, pulling muscles from the rocks, and calling to each other. They didn’t seem phased that we were so close to them and continued with their normal routines. Out in the ocean Black Scoters flew by, Red-breasted Mergansers swam, and Long-tailed Ducks dove in small groups. The best part of walking on the jetty was seeing all the loons. There were about 25 Common Loons all spread out along the jetty. We always see Common Loons at Barnegat Light in the winter, but we don’t usually see that many (no more than 4 or 5 in past trips). It felt lucky to see such a high number of loons in one day.

The strangest bird of the day was a lone Black Skimmer. It flew by low to the water, and had the distinctive longer lower mandible/black and orange bill. It was quite a bit early to be back on LBI, but it was an interesting surprise. I wonder where it was headed.

We also added a new addition to our life list while standing on the jetty. A sparrow landed on a small rock on the beach. At first I thought it could be a Song Sparrow; I just heard one and this little guy was pretty streaky. Upon closer examination we noticed that his breast was whiter and he had a yellow streak before his eye. We found a Savannah Sparrow! It’s possible that this bird is an “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow, a subspecies that breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. They spend the winters on the mid-Atlantic coast and can be found along the Jersey Shore.

At the end of the jetty there was a large sandbar covered with gulls and a group of Dunlins. A lone Red-throated Loon dove close to the shoreline. We could tell it was a Red-throated and not a Common Loon because it was a pale gray and white, had a smaller, sharper bill, and lacked the white “neck collar” that a Common would have.

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Red-throated Loon (Image by BirdNation)

The tide was pretty low at the end of the beach, so Dave and I were able to walked farther out than usual. Because of the low tide, a lot of seaweed, shells, and other interesting objects washed onto the beach. We took a little break from bird watching to do some shell collecting! We collected some moon shells, a small conch-looking shell, small pieces of coral, and some sort of marine vertebrae (maybe? I’m not sure it was just cool-looking!). In the picture below Dave’s shell collection is the left side and mine is the right. We also stumbled upon a starfish! I’ve never seen one on the beach before. As usual, we had another successful Barnegat Light trip.

Well friends, in less than 12 hours here on the East Coast of the United States it will finally be spring! The Vernal Equinox starts at 6:28am, so winter is almost over! It was another great winter birding season, but I’m also looking forward to the Spring migration. What was your favorite winter birding moment? Tell me about it in the comments 🙂

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Herring Gull (Image by BirdNation)

Hitting the Waterfowl Jackpot

Last Sunday was about 35 degrees, making it perfect weather to look for waterfowl. To find them, Dave and I decided that we should go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park  on Long Beach Island, NJ.

It seems that going to Barnegat Lighthouse SP in December has turned into somewhat of a tradition. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve made a December trip, but the difference this time: it was 35 degrees, not 75 degrees. Somehow it’s always really warm when we were able to go, so I was really excited about the cold, seasonal weather we were in for. The night before on one of my Facebook bird groups I saw that NJ Audubon took a trip to LBI on Saturday. They saw all sorts of waterfowl, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, and more that day, so I was hoping that we would be lucky on our trip. Turns out we were.

We started our trek on the cement walkway right outside the lighthouse. This area is usually swarming with tourists, but thanks to the cold weather it was just us. This is where we got our first glimpse of Long-tailed Ducks. Long-tailed Ducks spend their summers breeding in the Arctic and spend the winter all along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts of North America. We get to see them in their winter plumage. Males are striking with a mix of white, black, and gray and a pink spot on the tip of the bill. Females are duller, but stockier with a thick bill. And of course, they have distinctive long tails that stand out even from a far distance. Unfortunately they were too far away for us to get any pictures, but they were cool to see. Life list addition #1 for the day.

From the cement walkway you can walk onto the jetty. The jetty stretches all the way down to the south end of the beach and out into the ocean. During the summer it’s covered with fishermen, but today it was covering in Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. While standing on the rocks were were able to watch gulls flying out over the ocean as well as Double-crested Cormorants, Brants and Common Loons bobbing in the water.

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Herring Gull with a crab (Image by BirdNation)

Usually in December we see Ruddy Turnstones hanging out on the jetty but instead we had a surprise guest: a Merlin. Merlins are small falcons, not much larger than American Kestrels. They usually spend time in open woodland, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see on at the beach (although according to e-bird you can find them in this location). We watched him for a bit before he flew off. We decided to get off the jetty and walk down to the southern tip of the beach.

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Merlin on the jetty (Image by David Horowitz)

The south end of the beach is usually where we see different kinds of gulls wading around. We did see many Herring and Ring-billed Gulls on the way, but there was also a small flock of Ruddy Ducks floating around. The tide seemed lower in this area, and there was a smaller jetty leading out into the ocean that we normally don’t see.

That’s when we hit the jackpot. Everything we were looking for that NJ Audubon mentioned was in this location. There were Harlequin Ducks (Life List #2), Common Eiders (Life List #3), Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers (Life List #4), Dunlins, and a Black Scoter (Life List #5). They were all scattered around the area; swimming, diving, walking around the rocks. There were different kinds of gulls and Ruddy Ducks mixed in too. Every December I go to this location looking for these species but usually don’t see them since it’s always unseasonably warm when we’re able to go. But this day was special, and am so happy I was able to experience some of these winter species for the first time.

The excitement wasn’t over however. The Merlin reappeared on the jetty and we were able to sneak our way a little closer to see him before he flew off. We also observed a flock of Snow Buntings. I only ever saw one Snow Bunting before. We were at Amico Island at the end of October last year, and there was a single bunting in a field. I didn’t know what it was at the time and didn’t have a camera, so it remained a mystery until I saw a picture of one a month later. When I went to add it to my checklist, E-bird didn’t believe me! But this time I was positive, and was getting to see a flock of about 80. They flew around erratically, landing for a second before taking flight again. They were extremely hard to follow, so my pictures turned out pretty badly, but they were awesome to see. (Below is the best picture I was able to get, still pretty bad, but at least you can see their colors).

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Snow Bunting Flock (Image by BirdNation)

The annual December Long Beach Island birding trip was a success, with 5 new birds added to our Life List. I’m excited to see more winter visitors over the next few months. What’s the most exciting winter bird you’ve seen so far? Tell me about it in the comments.

Gulls Galore

This past Sunday was warm: a whopping 76 degrees here in New Jersey. I’m not the biggest fan of that kind of heat in the fall, but I thought it would be nice to go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Long Beach Island, NJ. I figured that it’s usually cooler at the shore, so we should have a nice cool breeze while birding. I wanted to see some shore birds and new migrants who I’ve been hearing about on some of my birding Facebook groups.

Things didn’t quite turn out as I expected though. There was no cool breeze (although it was nice and sunny). You know what else was missing?

Shorebirds. There were no shorebirds in sight. Zero. Once again, birding got me by giving me exactly what I did not expect. But instead I got something else that’s pretty great.

Gulls. Lots and lot of gulls. Gulls galore.

Like Turkey Vultures, I feel like gulls also get a bad rep. They are noisy, they steal, they invade our parking lots. Many people think of them as a nuisance.

If you feel that way about gulls, I challenge you to look closer. Gulls are actually pretty fascinating. They have complex communication systems and are excellent parents. Gulls are also extremely adaptable. People may get annoyed seeing gulls hanging out by all the garbage, but let’s remember who created all that garbage in the first place…(hint: it’s not the gulls :-P)

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“Mr. Sandy-bill” takes a stroll on the beach (Image by BirdNation)

So although I did not get to see shorebirds, I was happy to spend some time with the gulls. I felt honored to be able to get so close and observe. We watched them preen, rest, hang out together, swim in a tide pool, float on ocean waves, and soar over the water. It was a nice day to be with these underappreciated sea birds.

As I explained in my Seashore Saturday about Laughing Gulls, the term “seagull” is not real. There are only “gulls”, and there are many different kinds that live here at the Jersey Shore in the fall and winter. We saw a healthy mix of Ring-billed, Herring, Laughing, and Great Black-backed Gulls (I heard later through Facebook that there were Bonaparte’s Gulls somewhere that day but I did not personally observe them).

I’ll admit, I’m not the best at gull identification. Gull plumage varies greatly. It depends on the season, breeding vs. nonbreeding, and how old a bird is. Juveniles of all the species listed above tend to be more brown, but some gulls have different winter plumage depending on if they are 1st winter, 2nd winter, or 3rd winter. I would be remiss if I acted like I knew what all these specific gulls were in the pictures of this post. I have a long way to go in my gull id skills. But it is a work in progress that I am determined to improve over time. So I will caption these pictures with simply just “mixed flocks of gulls”.

However, I feel somewhat confident of this picture:

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Herring Gull? (Image by David Horowitz)

After much deliberation I believe this fellow is a 3rd winter Herring Gull. But don’t quote me on that! (lol 🙂 and please correct me if I’m wrong!).

I may have only gotten decent pictures of gulls, be we did see some other species on our trip. These included male and female Northern Cardinals, two Brown Creepers, two Great Cormorants, a Double-crested Cormorant, a Red-bellied and a Downy Woodpecker, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and a juvenile Eastern Phoebe. We determined the Phoebe was juvenile because of its pale yellow belly.

We even picked up two new feathers for our collection: a Northern Flicker and some sort of gull (again, I have no clue who’s feather this may be, I just thought it was cool).

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Northern Flicker and gull feathers (Image by BirdNation)

I’m glad we had a day full of gulls. These interesting birds deserve more respect and positive attention. The shorebirds can wait until the next Long Beach Island trip.

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Gulls getting their feet wet (Image by BirdNation)

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 :-).