Big Listers

Many birders, myself included, like to keep lists of the birds we’ve seen. We refer to them as life lists, where you record each new bird species you observe in the field. There are a number of reasons why somebody would want to keep a list of bird species seen. I use eBird from the Cornell Lab to track my birding data. Personally, I like eBird because scientists use the data collected from around the world to track bird populations. The program also makes it easy for me to keep track of my observations. (I am notoriously bad at making lists of things I have to remember to do, but I’m great at keeping my life list. Go figure.) 

The level of detail in which birders keep lists varies by individual. Variations of lists include state, country, location/park, county, yard, year…the list goes on. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist! I’m corny as heck lol). Some birders keep no lists at all. But then, there’s the extreme of all birding lists: the big list.

Big listers don’t want to just keep track of birds…they want all the birds. There are around to 10,000 bird species world wide, and big listers want as many of those birds on their list as humanly possible. These individuals will go at great lengths to add a bird to their checklist. Here a few of the most well known big listers.

  • Jon Hornbuckle, a retired metallurgist originally from England, currently holds the record the most birds ever observed at 9,600 bird species. If you would like to learn about him you can check out his website, where he documents his bird trips, species lists, and photos. Jon Hornbuckle website
  • Tom Gullick  of England was the first person in the world to see over 9,000 birds species back in 2012 at the age of 81. His 9,000th bird was the Wallace’s fruit dove in Indonesia. He started birding in 1971 after he retired from being a navy officer and moved to Spain. One of his accomplishments was helping to discover the São Tomé grosbeak with a group of birds. It was thought that the grosbeak was extinct. He has since retired from big listing, and doesn’t want to try for 10,000. His current record is 9,096 bird species.
  • Phoebe Snetsinger, an American birder, was the first person to observe over 8,000 bird species. Phoebe started birding when she observed her first Blackburian Warbler in 1961. She found out in 1981 at the age of 50 that she had a melanoma, which inspired her to start birding aggressively. By the time Phoebe died in Madagascar in 1999 (from a car accident, not cancer) she saw 8,398 species. Her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, was published posthumously in 2003.
  • Arjan Dwarshuis is a Dutch birder who broke the world record for most birds seen in a calendar year in 2016 (referred to as a Big Year) with a total of 6,852 species. This total breaks the previous record that was set just the year before in 2015 of 6,042 species by Noah Strycker. While doing his Big Year, Arjan started raising money for BirdLife International’s “Birdlife Preventing Extinctions Programme”. His goal is to raise 100 thousand Euros for the program. You can find out more at his website: arjandwarshuis.com

Seeing a majority of the world’s bird species in a lifetime is an amazing and fascinating feat. It’s interesting to read about the people who dedicate their lives to finding and documenting birds. I don’t plan on becoming a Big Lister, but it’s exciting to know that there are so many possibilities out there in the world of birds. My current goal is to reach 200, but who knows where my birding adventures will take me! The sky’s the limit! 🙂

Do you keep a life list? What’s your current total? Tell me in the comments below!

 

 

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Call of the Grackle

October 22 is a special day for Dave and I. It’s our anniversary date. So we thought what better way to spend our 9 year anniversary than at one of our favorite birding locations: Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather. It ended up getting quite warm today, but in the mid-morning it was cool and breezy. Even though the weather has been kind of strange lately, you can tell that winter will be on it’s way in a few months from the flocks that were hanging around.

The flocks of Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Great Egrets, Glossy Ibis and other summer visitors have been replaced by waterfowl. I did end up seeing 2 Forster’s Terns and a few Great Egrets, but it was clear the winter crowd is slowly starting to take over. There were still plenty of Snowy Egrets wading through the water and a large flock of Tree Swallows scooping up the flies that are still hanging on to the warm weather.

Waterfowl observed included Wood Ducks, Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, and over 40 (!) Mute Swans. We didn’t add any new birds to our life list overall, but we did add someone new to our park list: Pied-billed Grebes! We saw at least 6 in different parts of the refuge, sometimes in pairs. This was the first time we’ve seen them at Forsythe although we have seen this grebe species elsewhere (like this surprise one at Strawbridge Lake. There were a few raptors hanging around as well: 2 Cooper’s Hawks, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a female Northern Harrier.

The highlight of the trip for me were the Boat-tailed Grackles. I’ve seen one or two from a distance before, but this was the first time we saw a flock and we were able to get close to them. They were really fun to watch and very noisy. Boat-tailed Grackles and Common Grackles are similar, but do have some distinct differences. Boat-tailed Grackles are larger, have longer tails, have larger bills, and are more of a bluish iridescence. We saw both male and female Boat-tailed Grackles. The females are rufous brown with dark tails and wings. They were really beautiful.

Boat-tailed Grackle male
Boat-tailed Grackle male singing (Image by David Horowitz)
Boat-tailed Grackle female
Boat-tailed Grackle female (Image by BirdNation)
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Boat-tailed Grackle on sign (Image by BirdNation)

We even got a few videos of their calls. Their common songs is a jeeb-jeeb-jeeb sound but like other grackles they make a variety of calls, whistles, guttural noises, and clicks. I like that after the grackle in the first video calls it makes a wing flutter that makes an interesting sound. (These videos were taken on my Iphone, so please excuse the quality :-), I was more concerned about the sounds). 

Overall we saw 29 species on our Forsythe trip. I’m glad we got to spend our special day at one of our favorite birding areas. Here’s to many more years of birding together! ❤

 

Barnegat Light Records

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.

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.

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.

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Merlin in flight (Image by David Horowitz)

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.

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Brown Pelican over Barnegat Inlet (Image by David Horowitz)

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.

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Tern with a fish (Image by David Horowitz)

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 :-).

Waders Far and Wide

Happy Autumn everyone!

Autumn is my favorite season. I’m usually the first person to wish people a happy autumn. On the 22nd I actually forgot it was autumn until about 9 pm…probably because it was 90 degrees outside! We’ve had unseasonably warm weather the past week and a half, but of course that didn’t stop us from going birding. On Sunday Dave and I took a trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR for our first fall birding trip.

September is always a busy time at the refuge with a mix of fall migrants and summer stragglers. It’s also peak time for waders, who could be seen all over the wildlife drive. Wading Birds are not the same as Shorebirds. Shorebirds consist mainly of plovers, sandpipers, avocets, and oystercatchers. Wading Birds refer to herons, egrets, ibies, bitterns, spoonbills, and storks. Wading birds can be found at the shore, but they are actually listed in between Pelicans/Frigatebirds/Boobies and Hawks/Falcons in field guides, meaning they are more closely related to those families than shorebirds.

We saw 6 species of wading birds on this trip: Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-herons, Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis. There were 3 Black-crowned Night-herons hanging out on an island of shrubs. We actually found them in the same place I saw my very first Night-heron on my very first birding trip with Maria (my best friend/birding buddy), so that was special.

Black-crowned Nigh-Heron Immature
Black-crowned Night-heron Juvenile (Image by BirdNation)

The 6th species of wading bird was a bit of a surprise and the most interesting species for me on this trip. Dave and I were standing atop the Gull Pond Observation Tower when a medium-sized white wader landed in the water. At first we thought it was a Snowy because of its size, but then changed our minds and thought Great Egret. But the size seemed too small, and the legs weren’t quite the right color. A second bird of this species showed up.

They were also kind of, well, weird. Their movements while foraging were different compared to a Great Egret. They moved slowly, but would stretch out their necks and rock them from side to side. I feel like all the Great Egrets I’ve watched forage extremely carefully, while Snowy Egrets move quickly and erratically (sometimes I wonder if Great Egrets find it annoying to hunt next to a crazy-moving Snowy Egret lol). 

Then we noticed the bill and it all clicked. It was darker compared to the Great Egret’s bill and too light to be a Snowy.

Immature Little Blue Herons! Immature Little Blue Herons are in fact white, not blue like the adults. Why are they white? Ornithologists believe that blending in with the other egrets puts Little Blues at an advantage. Not only do they catch more fishing with the other species, but they get extra protection by blending into a mixed-flock. They are also better tolerated by Snowy Egrets, who can be aggressive towards Little Blues.  We’ve seen Little Blue Herons before (our first at Cloverdale Farm and second at Bombay Hook NWR), but these were our first juveniles. These Little Blues were fun to watch.

Little Blue Heron juvenile
Little Blue Heron juvenile (Image by David Horowitz)
Little Blue Herons
Little Blue Heron juveniles foraging (Image by David Horowitz)

Other highlights of our trip included a large flock of Greater Yellowlegs, Forster’s Terns in non-breeding plumage, Double-crested Cormorants, tons of gulls, a single Osprey, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Wood Ducks, and a Belted Kingfisher (our first for our Forsythe list) to name just a few from our 39 species total.

I’m glad autumn is finally here, but I can’t wait for the weather to finally cool down! I’ll miss the wonderful summer visitors, but am also looking forward to the winter birds. I’m happy we had the opportunity to enjoy all the waders before they migrate.

Birthday Birds

When Dave asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks ago, I told him I wanted warblers (naturally lol :-p). What I really meant was that I wanted to spend the morning birding in Cape May, NJ, which is a great spot to see warblers during migration. We actually did not see many warblers; only a few Yellow and Pine Warblers. But you know what, I’m okay with that, because instead I saw this guy:

Wood Stork
Wood Stork (Image by David Horowitz)

A Wood Stork!

Wood Storks are primarily found in Florida and South America, but can also be in other Southeastern/Gulf Coast states certain times of year. They are considered rare outside their range, so a Wood Stork in New Jersey is a special treat! Adult Wood Storks are bald, so this bird is a juvenile since it has brown head feathers.

This particular Wood Stork has been around Cape May and showing up on the NJ Rare Bird List for the last few weeks. I checked the list on Saturday night and there were 22 sightings, but over a few different Cape May locations, so I wasn’t sure where it would be.

The first destination for our trip was Cape May Point State Park, where it was previously seen around the Hawk Watch Platform. We were driving past Lake Drive, when the car in front of us (who’s license plate happened to be “SAWWHET” as in saw-whet owl haha) started randomly pulling over. Dave was driving so I looked to my right and saw a few birders looking up at a tree. And there was the Wood Stork.

“OH MY GOSH! WOOD STORK! IT’S RIGHT THERE!”

Dave quickly turned the corner onto Lake Dr. We quietly parked an made our way to the other birders. The Wood Stork was sitting up on a tree preening. It was so beautiful, especially its eyes. It would interrupt its preening every so often to look back at us, almost as if it was posing for our photographs. Then it would preen again and loudly shake its feathers back into place. It was a fascinating bird to watch, and I’m thankful we had the opportunity to spend some time with this magnificent Wood Stork.

Once we arrived at the Point, the sound of a familiar friend echoed through the air.

“poor-bob-WHITE!”

I was happy to hear that the Northern Bobwhites from our last trip were still around, although we didn’t actually see them today. At the ponds near the Hawk Watch Platform there were over 20 Mute Swans, Mallards, Tree Swallows, and a Great Egret. We also were able to watch a number of Northern Mockingbirds fly around with each other through the bushes and shrubs. Other birds at the Point included a Yellow Warbler, Pine Warblers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Snowy Egret.

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows. It was quieter for us than in the past, but we still managed to see some birds. These included another Yellow Warbler, Carolina Wrens, a Black Vulture, a Turkey Vulture eating a dead gull, a Cooper’s Hawk, Mourning Doves, more Mockingbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

I’m so happy that I had a chance to see the Wood Stork and was able to have a wonderful birding day with Dave. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my birthday.

 

Double Day Trip

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).

red-bellied woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Image by BirdNation)

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.

black rat snake 1
Black Rat Snake (Image by BirdNation)

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”.

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.

 

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Piping Plover (Image by BirdNation)

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?

Double birding days are certainly a special treat! 🙂

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Barnegat Light Beach (Image by BirdNation)

Day 4 GBBC 2017 and Total Count!

For the final day of GBBC 2017 I went with Maria, my sister Mary, and my mom to Smithville Park. Last year my mom, sister, and I went to Smithville for the count while the lake was frozen and it was snowing (you can read about our trip last year here). This year it was cool and breezy, but much warmer. Instead of just walking around the lake we took the longer trail into Smith’s Woods.

One of the first birds we spotted was this lovely female Northern Cardinal. We heard chipping coming from the trees and it took us a few minutes to find the source of the sound. She flew over and perched on a nearby tree to allow us to admire her. I think female cardinals are so beautiful.

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Female Cardinal (Image by BirdNation)

Last year Common Mergansers spent part of the winter on Smithville Lake. They are back again this winter. As usual, they were just out of good camera range for me, but they were fun to watch. They were actually sleeping for a bit (Common Mergansers float on the water while sleeping). I’m happy that they returned to Smithville again. They were also a life bird for Maria, making it her second life bird this weekend.

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Carolina Chickadee (Image by BirdNation)

Day 4 Official Count

  • 7 Canada Geese
  • 12 Common Mergansers
  • 4 Black Vultures
  • 7 Turkey Vultures
  • 2 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers (male and female)
  • 1 Hairy Woodpecker (drumming)
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 8 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmice
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 3 Northern Cardinals (2 male, 1 female)

It was so fun birding 4 days in a row for the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. We won’t know the official results for a few days, but it was a record-setting year for us at BirdNation. These past 4 days Dave, Maria, Mary, my mom, and myself count 45 different species and over 5,000 individual birds! What a weekend!