Flock Friday

While many Americans were out shopping on Black Friday in crazy crowds, Dave and I we among the flocks of water in Cape May.

Last Sunday we went to Barnegat Lighthouse SP with the goal of seeing the winter waterfowl. It turns out we picked the windiest day to go (40+ mph winds!). We didn’t see much more than Brants, many gull varieties, Forsters Terns, and a few Sanderlings hiding from the wind behind rocks. No waterfowl to besides Brants to be seen, and I don’t blame them for not being around with the rough waters and high winds. It was still a fun trip, but we more than made up for the lack of waterfowl last week with today’s trip.

We started the morning at Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP) where we saw 7 species of waterfowl. They were Mallards, Gadwalls, Mute Swans, Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, American Wigeons, and Canada Geese.

 

Interspersed between the waterfowl were American Coots. Many people think that Coots are similar to ducks, but these species are not even in the same family. Coots belong to the family Rallidae (while ducks are in the family Anatidae) and are more closely related to rails and cranes. American Coots also lack webbing on their feet and instead have comically large lobed toes. Other birds at CMPSP included Yellow-rumped Warblers, an Osprey, Pied-billed Grebes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Double-crested Cormorants, and Dark-eyed Juncos.

yellow-rump
Showing off its Yellow-rump (Image by BirdNation)

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows, where we saw even more waterfowl. Waterfowl included Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, a drake Northern Pintail, 3 female Surf Scoters, and more of the other species observed at CMPSP. At this location we spent most of our time walking on the beach instead of through the meadow itself. On the beach there were large groups of Greater Black-backed Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. Sanderlings ran along the crashing waves and a few Black-bellied Plovers joined them. Out over the ocean large rafts of Scoters flew by, though it was hard to identify which kind with how far out they were. We also saw a few Red-throated Loons. Like CMPSP, we found a lot of Yellow-rumped Warblers on the trails to and from the beach.

After exploring the Point and the Meadows, we tried a new birding area: Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. Cape May NWR is actually split into 3 units. The Great Cedar Swamp Division is near Upper Township, the Delaware Bay Division is in Middle Township, and Two Mile Beach Unit is in Lower Township. We decided to check out Two Mile Beach. At Two Mile Beach we saw tons of Dunlins, Sanderlings, gulls, some Black-bellied Plovers, and some Red-throated Loons. I didn’t take any pictures, but it was a nice way to end our day. I would certainly like to check out the other two units during future trips.

I’m so glad that we were able to spend some time with the birds down in Cape May. I certainly enjoyed spending my time among the large waterfowl flocks than with the crazy shopping crowds!

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Barred Owl Wednesday

Exciting news before I start the feature: Dave and I saw our first Short-eared Owl a few weeks ago! We were walking along the Delaware River at Palmyra Cove when Dave spotted a male soaring over the river near some gulls. It was pretty overcast so we didn’t get any good pictures, but we watched it for about 10 minutes before it flew over our heads and into the wooded area of the park. It was amazing!

This week’s featured owl is the Barred Owl. Although we have not yet seen one, we did hear a Barred Owl when we hiked at Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve in the Pinelands.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Description:

Barred Owls are medium-sized owls that are a little smaller than the Great Horned. These beautiful owls are brown to brown-gray on their upperparts and heads. As their name suggests, their necks, nape, back, wings, tails, and crowns feature white/buffy barring. Barred Owls are tuftless with round heads. Their blacks eyes stand out against their gray facial disks. Juveniles have white natal down until about 2-3 weeks when their adult flight feathers start to develop.

422px-Barred_Owl_(Canada)
Barred Owl (By Peter K Burian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Range: 

Resident of the United States from the Great Plains to the East Coast. In Canada, found in the southern regions of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba; through central Saskatchewan and Alberta; throughout British Columbia expanding south to Washington, Idaho, Oregon and northern California. Also found in parts of Mexico.

Habitat: 

Woodlands and wooded swamps, including deciduous, mature conifers, and mixed forests. Also does well in older suburban neighbors with a lot of shade trees.

Diet:

Opportunistic hunters. Mainly eats small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, shrews, rats, and squirrels. Also hunts small birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, some insects, and aquatic prey. Barred Owls watch prey from a perch or glide low through the forest. They mainly hunt at dusk and dawn. Sometimes they will hover over prey before grabbing it. These owls usually swallow small prey whole, but tears large prey into pieces.

Breeding/Nesting:

Referred to as a “duet”, mating pairs will court by raising wings, bobbing heads, and calling while perched together. Males may also feed the females during courtship. Scientist are unsure whether Barred Owl pairs stay together in the long term, but pairs begin to form in late winter/early spring. Pairs will choose the oldest tree they can find since they are likely to have large cavities, which Barred Owls depend on. Sometimes they will evict other occupants, such as Red-shouldered Hawks, if needed. Barred Owls may also use nest boxes.

The female will incubate a brood of 2-3 eggs for about 28-33 days while the male provides her food. Egg hatching is asynchronous, so the eggs hatch a few days apart. The female will stay with the owlets much of the time while the male feeds them. The young will begin branching (exploring the area around the nest) at around 4-5 weeks and take their first flights at 6 weeks.

5-17 sleepy sibs
Sleepy Barred Owlets from Wild Birds Unlimited/Cornell Lab’s 2015 Barred Owl Cam (Screenshot by BirdNation)

Vocalizations:

Extremely vocal and instantly recognizable. Their loud calls, which are typically described as “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-aaaaaallllllll!”, are made by males and females. Female’s calls are higher-pitched than the males. Scientists have recently started to study a suite of 13 complex vocalizations.

Conservation:

Still common and widespread. Their range is expanding into central Quebec. These owls were originally only found in the East, but over the past century have dramatically expanded their range into the Northwest. While this may be good for the Barred Owl, it’s having a detrimental effect on its close relative, the Spotted Owl.

Fun Facts:

  • The Barred Owl’s most dangerous predatory threat is the larger Great Horned Owl. Barred Owls will try to avoid Great Horns since they usually live in the same habitats.
  • One study done on on Barred Owls in Oregon found that the birds had 95 different species represented as prey items.
  • They mainly are active at night, but may sometimes hunt during the day more than other owls.
  • Studies on banded Barred Owls have shown that these owls do not travel much. They are usually found living no more than a few miles away from where they were banded.

Island Beach State Park

Dave and I spent Sunday exploring Island Beach State Park, a popular birding hotspot in Ocean County, NJ. Island Beach State Park (IBSP) is a 10-mile long preserved barrier island that extends along Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The southern tip of the island runs along Barnegat Inlet, where you can view Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. IBSP also includes the Sedge Islands Marine Conservation Zone. The park is a popular recreation area used for ocean swimming, fishing, birding, and kayaking, especially in the summer months.

IBSP is easily one of the best birding spots in Ocean County, with 330 species of birds reported over the years. The park is also known for its elusive red foxes. We didn’t see any foxes on our trip, but we did see a decent number of bird species.

We started our trip walking the trails around the Visitor’s Center and the Interpretive Center. There we saw a Hermit Thrush, a Gray Catbird, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Song Sparrows. From there were took a short maritime forest trail to the ocean. There were numerous gull species throughout the beach, as well as Dunlins, Sanderlings, and Black-bellied Plovers. The Dunlins were standing around on one foot and tucking their bills in their wings to stay warm from the wind. They kept making be giggle because when they wanted to move they would hop on their one little leg. They are such cuties :-).

Some of the other trails we explored were the Johnny Allen’s Cove Trail and Spizzle Creek Trail (which has a bird blind that overlooks Osprey Pond). We found Red-throated Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, Bufflehead, Carolina Chickadees, Eastern Phoebes, Brant, a Great Blue Heron, juvenile Little Blue Herons, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Goldfinches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and our first Blackpoll Warbler (life list #1 for this trip). Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of the tidal marshes.

Our last stop on IBSP was the beach near the south end of the island. There were mainly gulls on the beach, but all the action was happening in the water. Large rafts of scoters were rapidly flying across the ocean. Our second life list birds of the day were Northern Gannets who were flying by with some gulls. We saw both juveniles and adults. Gannets are usually found pretty far into the ocean, but are sometimes able to be spotted off shore. I was waiting so long to observe these seabirds, so I was so excited to get a quick glimpse.

We had a really enjoyable trip to IBSP. I hope to visit again in the winter when more waterfowl arrive.

Short-eared Owl Wednesday

Time for the second owl post of the week! Today’s featured owl is the Short-eared Owl, one of the most widespread owls in the world. It’s Latin name is Asio flammeus, translated to “flame-colored horned-owl”.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Description:

Short-eared owls are sandy-colored, medium-sized owls. Their short ear tufts are so tiny they are almost impossible to see unless you are close to the owl and it’s alarmed or agitated. Their underparts are heavily streaked and their upperparts are brown with white and buff. Males are grayer than females with whiter undersides/underwings. Their facial disks are lightly streaked and whitish with blackish triangular spots around the eyes. Short-eared Owls have very short tails and round heads. Juveniles are downy, and as they start to get adult plumage, their facial disks are black with white crescents with a white “mustache” chin.

Short-eared_owl_(Asio_flammeus)_Photograph_By_Shantanu_Kuveskar
By Shantanu Kuveskar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Range:

Short-eared Owls live throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. They are also found in the southern part of South America and on islands including Micronesia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Galapagos. In North America they are residents in the American West, parts of Canada, and Cuba. They spend the summers throughout Canada and winters in the Midwest and Northeast. Irregular irruptions can be found in the Southwest and Southeastern United States. The Caribbean population regularly invades Southern Florida.

Habitat:

Open country, such as grasslands, marshes, prairies, farmland, dunes, and tundra.

Diet:

Mainly meadow voles, but other small mammals such as mice, muskrats, moles, rabbits, pocket voles, and weasels. Also known to eat large insects and small to medium-sized birds. Short-eared Owls hunt most actively during dawn and dusk, but can be found hunting in daylight. They soar low to the ground and hover over their prey before landing on it.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males perform a “sky-dancing” display which include impressive spiraling flights, diving, calling, and wing-clapping. They will start courting in late winter, but pair bonds don’t usually last for the season. Nests are usually just a small depression in the ground, but Short-eared Owls have be occasionally known to also nest in trees with Long-eared Owls.

Short-eared Owls have one brood per year with the average clutch size of 5-6 eggs. However, when prey is abundant, it’s possible for the female to lay up to 11 eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 21- 31 eggs and hatching is asynchronous (meaning the eggs hatch over a number of days, not at the same time). The male will bring food to the female who will feed and brood the owlets. The owlets will usually leave the nest on foot at 12-18 days and can start to fly around 27 days.

Vocalizations:

Bark calls are given by both females and males, a nasal and harsh eee-YUURK! that can be short or drawn out, or a short rik-rikr-rik!.  Males hoot during courtship activities.

seow_perched_gth3
Short-eared Owl (Image by Gregg Thompson via birdnote.org)

Conservation: 

Still widespread, but have declined by 50-80% in its North American range, mainly due to the fact that these owls are grassland specialists. They are listed as “endangered” or “special concern” in 26 states. They are still relatively widespread in other parts of their range. The Caribbean populations of Short-eared Owls have been expanding. Habitat restoration program have help populations improve.

Fun Facts: 

  • They are one of the few owl species to construct their own nests.
  • Hawaii’s only native owl is the Pueo, a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl.
  • Males can be extremely aggressive towards other males in the territories. They will duel by flying towards each other, locking talons and tumbling to the ground. They let go right before they hit the ground.

 

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)
boat-tailed grackle
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! ❤

 

Elf Owl Wednesday

Last week we learned about one of the tallest owls in the world, the Great Gray Owl.  This week we’ll go to the other extreme: the Elf Owl, which is the smallest owl in the world.

Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)

Description:

Standing at around 5 inches in length, the Elf Owl is no larger than a sparrow or small thrush. These tiny owls have brown/gray upperparts and white/cinnamon colored barred stripes on its underparts. Their legs are relatively long and covered with small bristles. Elf Owls have piercing yellow eyes that are surrounded by a black rim. Over the eyes there is a narrow white eyebrow. Other owl species have 12 tail feathers, but Elf Owls have only 10 tail feathers.

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Elf Owl (Image via birds-of-north-america.net)

Range: 

Resident of Baja, California  and Central Mexico. Breeds (summer) in parts of Arizona, New Mexcio, Texas, and Mexico. Winters in Mexico.

Habitat: 

Sonoran saguaro deserts, large mesquites, wood canyons, riparian woods, montane forests of oak, thorn-scrub. Does surprisingly well in suburbs, but urbanization is a threat to this species.

Diet: 

Almost entirely insects, scorpions, spiders, but may rarely eat small vertebrates such as rodents, lizards, and small snakes. Elf Owls are crepuscular, meaning they forage most actively at dawn and dusk. They forage while flying, hovering, swerving, or grabbing insects off of trees.

elf owl
Elf Owl with a scorpion (Image via pinterest)

Breeding/Nesting:

When male Elf Owls return to their breeding grounds, they will pick multiple potential nesting sites. Females will arrive later, and the male will sing from his cavity entrance to attract her attention. Once the female approaches, the male will continue to sing from inside his cavity to convince the female to go in and mate.

Elf Owls do not make their own cavities. In their Sonoran desert habitat, they rely on existing holes from woodpeckers such as the Acorn, Ladder-backed, and Gila Woodpeckers. In other habitats, they will nest in whatever large trees are available such as cottonwoods and sycamores. Although Elf Owls only stay with a mating partner for one season, they may use the same nest site for up to 3 years.

The female will incubate 3 white eggs for about 2 weeks (although 1-5 eggs is possible). She starts incubating once the second egg is laid. The hatching is asychronous; the first 2 eggs tend to hatch together while the third hatches a few days later. The owlets will nest for about 4 weeks. The parents will encourage the young to fledge by withholding food. An astounding fact about Elf Owls is that they have around a 90% nest rate, the highest of any owl in the world.

Vocalizations:

The males are known for a “chatter call”, 6 or 7 rapid squeaky notes that are higher pitched in the middle.

Conservation: 

Locally common or abundant in manyareas of it’s range, but sharply declined in the lower Colorado River. Population trends are unclear, but they face threats such as urbanization, habitat loss, frequency of wild fires, and droughts.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4  subspecies: M. w. whitneyi, M. w. sadfordi, M. w. grayson, and M. w. idonea.
  • It’s assumed that owls migrate individually, but there’s some evidence that Elf Owls may sometimes migrate in small flocks.

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.

Merlin
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 :-).