2017 Birding Vacation! Part 2

(This is Part 2 of the post “2017 Birding Vacation!”. If you’d like to read Part 1 of our trip, click this link)

We had a blast birding in Maryland at Pickering Creek Audubon Center and checking out the National Aquarium, but the fun wasn’t over yet. The following day Dave and I drove into Delaware to go birding at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Bombay Hook is a 16,251 acre wildlife refuge located on the coast of Delaware near Delaware Bay. The refuge is mainly tidal salt marshes, but also features freshwater impoundments as well as upland habitats. Bombay Hook is a sanctuary and breeding ground for migratory birds as well as a variety of other animals. Spring at the refuge features the large concentration of shorebirds as well as warblers.

We arrived at the visitor center in the morning to a flurry of bird activity. There was a Purple Martin colony and the feeders were busy with House Finches, American Goldfinches, and sparrows. One particular male House Finch was more of an orange shade than red. Plumage (feathers) can vary in color based on diet, so if a finch is lacking certain nutrients it may be orange or yellowish. There was a short loop behind the center where we saw Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow Warblers, woodpeckers, and a few Northern Mockingbirds. We even saw a cute immature Mockingbird.

Like Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, there is a wildlife drive that winds through the marsh and upland habitats. The drive begins at the Raymond Pool, which has a short Boardwalk Trail and an observation tower. Out in the pool there was a huge flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, a Semipalmated Plover, Dunlins, a Solitary Sandpiper, and the bird I’ve been waiting for: the American Avocet. When I was planning our vacation and saw that we could see Avocets at Bombay Hook I knew we had to go. These elegant birds have long legs, rusty-colored necks, and a long upturned bill. They were beautiful to see in person.

 

On the other side of the pool we found some Snow Geese, Laughing Gulls, terns, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Red-winged Blackbirds, Double-crested Cormorants, and Common Yellowthroats. This trip was the first time that I’ve seen Dunlins in their breeding plumage. When they visit New Jersey in the winter they lack their large black belly spot, so it was cool to see them in breeding mode. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and picked up a dead bird that was nearby. We knew it was a juvenile because it was all brown and lacked the white head/tail feathers. It was one of 4 Bald Eagles we saw during the trip.

The Boardwalk Trail looped around a small section of the marsh, and there were Marsh Wrens everywhere. We see Marsh Wrens at Boundary Creek in the summer, but this trail was cool because you were on eye level with them. Marsh Wrens buzz around the cattails and reeds with their tails cocked up while making an elaborate, gurgling rattle. We weren’t able to get any good pictures since they were usually deep in the reeds, but we did get one of their nests. On the boardwalk we also saw Eastern Kingbirds, a female Northern Harrier, Tree Swallows, and Barn Swallows.

The next part of the loop was the Shearness Pool, which also had a short trail and an observation tower. This is were we saw our first Black-necked Stilts. These black-and-white beauties have long, thin red legs. Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (second to flamingos of course). Nearby waded an unusual looking bird. It look nervous, constantly bobbing its head while it walked. It was deep in the water though, and you couldn’t see it’s legs. It’s neck was red, had a clean white belly, a thin bill, grayish-brown upperparts, and a very distinctive black eye patch. After much deliberation, we determined it was a female Wilson’s Phalarope. They are one of the few birds were the “gender roles” are switched: the females are more colorful than the males and defend the males who are busy raising the young. When I enter our finding into ebird, it came up as “rare” (even though our list from Bombay said they were “occassional”. I’ll keep you updated if our Phalarope is confirmed, but it was cool to find a rare bird on vacation. (Sorry the Phalarope photo is real blurry, it was use for proof, but maybe you might be able to confirm it for me)

 

Bear Swamp Pool featured a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers in the stunning breeding plumage. We did see one at Forsythe recently (while looking for the American Golden-Plover), but it wasn’t in breeding plumage. There were at least 60 relaxing on the mudflats. An Osprey appeared and was hovering over the water for a bit. We were watching it dive for fish, and a few more Ospreys appeared, until there were at least 5 fishing over the pool. Then a more unexpected visitor arrived: a raccoon. The raccoon was on the other side of the pool and swam over to our side. It was amusing to see a raccoon swimming in the salt marsh in the middle of the day. We drove up closer to where it stepped on land and it popped it’s head out of the bushes to look at us before hiding!

The last area was the Finis Pool. One the way we heard an interesting call from the woods; 3 clear notes ascending. We didn’t figure out who it was at the time, but I recorded it and learned yesterday it was a Northern Bobwhite singing his “poor-bob-WHITE!” song. We also stumbled upon some Great Egrets resting in a tree. It took a few minutes to realize they weren’t alone: there was a Little Blue Heron right next to them! On the way out we actually found a Bobwhite before it quickly ran back into the bushes.

We saw a whopping 55 species on our Bombay Hook Trip with 4 life birds (avocet, stilts, phalarope, and bobwhite). To see the full eBird checklist you can click this link. Combined with our Maryland trip we saw 6 life birds (the 2 Maryland ones were the Yellow-breasted Chat and White-eyed Vireo). We had an amazing time on our 2017 Maryland and Delaware birding adventure!

American Avocet: Seashore Saturday

Today’s bird of the week, the American Avocet, was a suggestion from one of my best friends, Maria. Maria took me on my very first birding trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR a few years ago and was the person who started teaching me how to id birds. She also suggesting the Northern Harrier and Great Yellowlegs, so I will probably write about them sometime soon. If you ever have any suggestions of birds you would like to learn about, please let me know in the comments.

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)

Description:

The graceful American Avocet is a large shorebird that is a member of the sandpiper family. Its plumage is white and features black stripes on its back. During breeding season, the plumage on the Avocet’s head and neck are rust-colored, while in the winter they are gray. The Avocet’s most distinctive feature is their long, upcurved bill, which makes them unique among shorebirds.

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A pair of breeding American Avocets (Image via houstonaudubon.org)

Range:

Breeding (summer): Western United States and southwestern Canada Winter: Southern Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, parts of Mexico Migration: throughout the Western United States. Year Round on the coast of California and Eastern Coast of Texas

Habitat:

Beaches, shallow lakes, and extensive mudflats. Avocets prefer wide open areas with very sparse vegetation. Birds that live inland prefer freshwater.

Food:

Feeds on mainly crustaceans and insects found in shallow waters. Avocets forage by submerging their upturned bills in the water and sweeping it through to finding food by touch. They also can plunge their heads into the water or visually find food in mudflats.

Breeding/Nesting:

Male Avocets court females by preening themselves with water. By the end of the display he works himself into a splashing frenzy before mounting a female. After mating, pairs will intertwine their necks and run straight ahead to develop their territory. They will perform rituals, such as standing in a circle in pairs and pointing their bills up towards each other.

Avocets nest in loose colonies that are sometimes mixed with Black-necked Stilts. Like many other shorebirds, the nest is not much more than a scrape in the ground lined with materials found nearby. Some Avocets build a small mound that can be around a foot tall. Between 3-5 eggs are incubated by both parents for 23-25 days. The pair switches off during the day while the female incubates at night. Once hatched, the young are precocial, so they leave the nest within 24 hours and can feed themselves. The parents will tend to them until their first flight, which usually occurs between 4-5 week after hatching.

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An Avocet chick (Image by Artur Morris/VIREO via aubudon.org)

Sounds:

a loud repeated kwhep!

Fun Facts:

  • While in their non-breeding winter plumage, American Avocets look very similar to Black-necked Stilts. Avocets have an upturned bill and pale legs, while Stilts have pink legs and straight bills.
  • The female Avocet’s bill is more strongly upturned than the males. Nobody knows why this is the case.
  • American Avocets can be aggressive while defending their territory. They have been known to physically attack birds such as Common Ravens and Northern Harriers. While approaching an intruder, they may outstretch their wings while walking forward as if on a tightrope. They can also use a series of descending pitches to simulate a Doppler effect, making it seem to the intruder that they are closer to attacking than they really are.
  • Female Avocets have been known to sometimes parasitize the nest of others. They may lay up to 4 eggs in another female’s nest to be incubated. Sometimes single Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of Mew Gulls. There have also been cases of Black-necked Stilts or Common Tern eggs being found in Avocet nests.

Black-necked Stilt: Seashore Saturday

This week we will be featuring the Black-necked Stilt, a member of the shorebird family. While you can find them at coastlines, you can also find Stilts inland at grassy marshes and mudflats.

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

Description:

Black-necked Stilts are large, slender shorebirds that are known for their extraordinarily long, thin red legs. They have black from their heads to their tails and white underneath. Their black bills are long and straight.

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Black-necked Stilt (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Year-round on the coast of California, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. Summer (breeding): parts of the Interior West of the United States and Southeastern Atlantic Coast Winters: Baja California Migration: Southwest and Northern Mexico, Central America

Habitat:

Wetlands, grassy marshes, mudflats, coastlines

Food:

Black-necked Stilts probe the water or mudflats for fish and aquatic invertebrates. They will also herd fish into shallow waters to trap them or plunge their heads underwater to catch food.

Breeding/Nesting:

They are considered semicolonial, meaning they will nest in loose colonies of around a dozen pairs, as opposed to colonial birds who nest in the hundreds of pairs. Pairs choose the nesting site together, which is usually on the ground or on a surface slightly above water, such as a small island. Nest sites can be as simple as a scrape in the ground, or gently lined with grasses or small pebbles.

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Black-necked Stilt chick (Image by Shravans14 via wikimedia commons)

They have 1 brood per year with a clutch size of 3-5 eggs, usually 4. Pairs take turns incubating the eggs for about 25 days. The young are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile from the moment they hatch. Young can be seen swimming within hours after hatching. Both parents watch over the young, but they chicks feed themselves. They take their first flights around 4-5 weeks after hatching.

Sounds:

A repeated sharp pleek or taawh

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A Stilt in flight (Image by Joe Fuhrman/VIREO via audubon.org)

Fun Facts:

  • Black-necked Stilts are strongly territorial. They whole colony will participate when it comes to scaring off predators. They will hop up and down, encircle the intruder, and flap their wings.
  • If it’s very hot during breeding, a bird may wet their belly feathers to cool down the eggs.
  • Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird. They are only exceeded by Flamingos.