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The flocks of Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Great Egrets, Glossy Ibis and other summer visitors have been replaced by waterfowl.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! ❤

 

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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.

Shorebird Central

On Sunday we took a trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. Despite the flies, Forsythe is a wonderful summer birding location. I heard that there were White Ibis around, so we decided to see if we could find this rarity.

We left pretty early in the morning and it was quiet when we arrived. We spent a little time walk around the visitor center and towards Lily Pond. At the pond we found at least 5 Wood Ducks as well as some Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. At the visitor center we found a Chipping Sparrow being followed by a large (compared to the sparrow) juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. Unfortunately that Chipping Sparrow was cursed with a brood parasite. Brown-headed Cowbirds always lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, although the parasitic egg isn’t always successful (check out my post on brood parasites here).

 

Next we went to the first observation platform. It was swarming with a large flock of Barn Swallows. In the distance we were able to see a few Osprey on their nest, while also spotting Laughing Gulls, Seaside Sparrows, and Marsh Wrens. There even was a little snail crossing the platform, so he was fun to see.  At Gull Pond Tower, we saw even more Wood Ducks, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Great Blue Heron, Eastern Kingbirds, and many more Barn Swallows. The surprise bird over at the Gull Pond for me was a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron. It was our first juvenile BC-NH since our 8/23/16 Forsythe trip.

It was Shorebird and Wading Bird Central once we hit the wildlife drive. Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlins, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere you looked. There were a few surprises scattered around too. There was a lone American Avocet among the smaller plovers and sandpipers. It was the first time we’ve seen one at Forsythe (our firsts were at Bombay Hook NWR). We also ended up finding the White Ibis! There were 2: both juveniles. They had brown backs, white rumps, and orange bill/legs. They were foraging in a group of Snowy and Great Egrets. (Sorry the White Ibis picture isn’t that great, they were really far so it was basically so we can prove the rarity on ebird)

There were plenty of Seabirds around too. These included Forster’s/Common Terns (many of them juveniles), Laughing/Herring/Great Black-backed Gulls, Black Skimmers, and Gull-billed Terns.

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Juvenile Tern (Image by BirdNation)

 

As far as Raptors, there were at least 20 Ospreys throughout the drive. At one point we watched at least 3 of them chase one that was holding a fish. The poor guy being chased eventually lost his fish back to the water. There were also some Ospreys chasing after an adult Bald Eagle.

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We actually found a second rarity: a lone Snow Goose. This poor little guy looked like his wing was messed up, which would explain why he was still here. He waddled along the trail and disappeared into the grass.

The second half to the wildlife drive brought some more interesting surprises. There were even more wading/shorebirds/seabirds already mentioned, but on this half added Short-billed Dowitchers, Double-crested Cormorants, a single Whimbrel, Glossy Ibis, and one Ruddy Turnstone. When we were watching the Whimbrel, a small bird swam across the water in the distance. It was hard to make out, but we could see it’s downturned bill and rump sticking out. It quickly disappeared into the reeds, but we were able to figure out that it was a Clapper rail, another life bird for us.

August at Forsythe NWR is beautiful. There marshes and pools were dotted with flowers, while butterflies and bees flew to the different plants. The variety of birds at this time of the year is fantastic. We ended our day with a total of 55 species (2 rarities: White Ibis/Snow Goose and 2 life bird: Clapper Rail/White Ibis).

Stay tuned: Dave and I have been birding yesterday and today in some surprise birding locations we didn’t expect to go to. I’ll have some posts about that in the upcoming days. 🙂

 

 

A Record Day

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.

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.

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Male Red-winged Blackbird (Image by BirdNation)

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.

least sandpiper
Least Sandpiper (Image by David Horowitz)

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.

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.

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.

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!

Snow Goose: Waterfowl Wednesday

Today’s featured waterfowl is the Snow Goose, a winter visitor who travels in flocks that can number to the several hundred thousand.

I remember my first experience with Snow Geese a few winters ago. It was at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. A large flock flew in and made landed in middle of a field, honking loudly. There were thousands of them, and it was quite a spectacle to watch. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a flock of Snow Geese. Have you experienced a Snow Goose flock? Tell me about it in the comments.

Snow Goose (Chen caerulesens)

Description:

Snow Geese come in two color morphs: white and dark (or “blue”) morph.White adult Snow Geese are mainly white with black primary feathers and pink legs/bills. White juveniles have grayish upperparts and dark legs/bills. Dark adults have grayish-brown bodies with white heads and pink legs/bills, while juveniles are dark overall. There is a considerable amount of variation between birds that have a mix of white and dark morph plumage.

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White Morph Snow Geese (Image by Jeff Lewis via fws.gov/refuge/mackay_island

Range:

Summer (breeding): high arctic and subarctic areas of Canada and Northern Alaska. Migrates in large flocks through the middle of North America to reach winter destinations on the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast into parts of the Midwest USA, and scattered areas around the Western United States. Snow Geese for 3 populations: west, central, and east; and will migrate south in the same region.

Habitat:

Tundra during breeding season; winters in agricultural fields, saltmarshes, streams, ponds, grasslands, and lakes.

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Dark, or “blue” morph (Image by Adrian Pingstone via wikimedia commons)

Diet:

Almost entirely plant materials: grasses, seeds, sedges, horsetails, shrubs, grains; and will consume any part of a plant. May also eat berries. Goslings (young geese) may eat insect larvae

Breeding/Nesting:

Snow Geese usually start to breed around 3 years old, and may mate for life. In courtship displays, a pair will face each other and repeatedly stretch their necks up in unison. Pairs will pick a nest site together, but the female will build the nest. She will put a scrape in the ground and may add natural materials. As she lays more eggs, the female will line the nest with feathers plucked from her breast. Females can incubate the 2-6 eggs for up to 21 hours a day, with the male standing guard to defend the nest site. After 22-25 days of incubation, the goslings will hatch and leave the nest site within a few hours. Being precocial, they can forage for themselves, but will be tended to by the parents. Goslings fledge around 42-50 days after hatching.

Sounds:

One of the noisiest of waterfowl, giving a one-syllable harsh honk. Family groups will communicate using guttural notes.

Conservation:

Snow Goose numbers have grown considerably over the last century. Hunting is permitted, and about 400,000 geese annually are hunted in the United States and Canada.

flock-of-geese
Flock of Snow Geese (Image via wildfowlmag.com)

Fun Facts:

  • There are 2 races of Snow Geese: the Greater Snow Goose, who breeds in the northeastern region and winters on the Atlantic Coast, and the Lesser Snow Goose.
  • While choosing a mate, a Snow Goose will usually choose another goose of the same “morph” (white or “blue”), or a mate that looks similar to its family members.
  • Although their main activities are eating and resting, Snow Geese are strong swimmers, fliers, and walkers. Within the first 3 weeks of life, goslings may walk up to 50 miles with their parents to find a more suitable brood-rearing sight.

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Dave and I took a trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on Saturday.

It wasn’t our normal trip however.The wildlife drive is under construction. A few years ago Hurricane Sandy hit the shore hard, so the refuge is finally being revitalized the way it should be. The wildlife drive was only accessible up to Turtle Cove Tower and up Gull Pond Road (which is a very small part of the 8 mile drive). We were hoping that there would see be a lot of birds to see despite being limited.

As usual, the refuge was filled with thousands of birds. Now that the weather cooler, the waterfowl have returned! There were large flocks of  Canada Geese, Brant, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Northern Pintails. Large flocks of Dunlins and various gulls were present as well. Some other birds we saw included Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, Northern Harriers, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, and Mute Swans. There were even a few Horseshoe Crab shells on the beach.

We decided to drive up Gull Pond Rd, a first for us. When we arrived there was a small crowd (about 8 people) gathered by the reeds snapping pictures excitedly. I heard someone talking about Ruddy Ducks and Hooded Mergansers as we approached. So I started to wonder, “Is everyone taking pictures of a duck?”

We stopped by to investigate, but…it seemed like nothing was there. I searched the water. There must have been something, or people wouldn’t have been so excited. I was at a loss. So after a minute I turned to a lady who was standing behind us on top of her truck and asked:

“Excuse me… what are we looking at?”

She replied, “An American Bittern. It’s right in front of us in the reeds. See it now?”

And I did! There it was! Hiding in plain sight.

American Bitterns are part of the heron family. They are brown with strong stripes on their underparts. They look similar juvenile Night Herons. American Bitterns live in meadows and marshes with grassy or reedy vegetation. They are very inconspicuous. Spotting one is extremely difficult because their bold stripes help them blend into the reeds perfectly.

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American Bittern (Image by David Horowitz)

This bird was standing at the edge of the reeds. It was beautiful. We watched it for a few minutes as it watched us back. We took a few pictures then moved on. The American Bittern was a new addition to our life list.

You know the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens”? In our case when one road closed, another opportunity opened. Having most of the drive closed forced us to explore a different area, so we were able to find something new. That’s my favorite thing about birding, never knowing what amazing bird you’ll find. Maybe you’ll even find a bird hiding in plain sight.