Starting Right at the Light

Dave and I took our first Barnegat Light trip of 2018 on Sunday, February 4. It was a chilly, windy, and overcast day. We left right before the afternoon rain started to fall, but we did see a decent amount of species.

On the jetty we came across this young gull with a sea urchin test. A test is a skeletal structure made of calcium carbonate. It contributes to the sea urchin’s five-fold symmetry and helps protect the internal organs. After a minute or two the gull dropped the test and flew away, since it turns out that it was already empty.  As far as the gull itself, I’m going to venture and say 2nd winter Great Black-backed Gull, but I’m not 100% (don’t quote me on it, I’m still studying my gulls! They’re tricky to id lol).

gull with test

Other birds found on the jetty included other Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ruddy Turnstones, and Purple Sandpipers.

Dave took a few pictures of a Purple Sandpiper taking a bath on one of the rocks.

In Barnegat Inlet we watched Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Common Eiders, and Harlequin Ducks float and feed.

On the beach there were a few American Crows and a small flock of Snow Buntings zipping around.

Snow Buntings (Image by David Howoritz)
American Crow (Image by David Horowitz)

It was a nice way to start off our Barnegat Light trips for 2018.


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 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.

brown pelican 4
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.

tern 4
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.

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” :-).

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.

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 🙂

Herring Gull (Image by BirdNation)

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.

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.




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)

“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:

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).

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.

Gulls getting their feet wet (Image by BirdNation)

Laughing Gull: Seashore Saturday

I was unsure about what seabird I wanted to write about this week. Earlier in the day I was hanging out with my mom and brought up my predicament. She reads all my posts, so I wanted to know what she wanted to read about.

“Oh, you should write about the seagull!”, she suggested. I liked that idea. I asked her what kind.

“You know, the seagull.”, she replied. Her response was an extremely common answer that you would get from a majority of people. But it’s actually not correct (sorry Mom, no one else realizes that either! 🙂 )

A lot of people are surprised to find this out, but there is no such thing as a seagull. You read that right: it doesn’t exist. But about 98% percent of people I talk to have no clue that there are no seagulls, only gulls. The term “Seagull” is the informal layperson’s word that is used all around the world to refer to members of the Laridae family, or gulls. There are 27 species of gull in North America. The word Laridae is Greek and means “ravenous sea bird”. This week’s featured bird is the Laughing Gull, which is a summertime visitor here at the Jersey Shore.

Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)


Laughing Gulls are medium-sized gulls that have long wing/legs and stout bills. They are considered a “three-year gull”, meaning it takes 3 years for Laughing Gulls to reach adult plumage. In summer breeding plumage adults have black “hood” plumage on their heads/black wing tips, white underparts/eye-arcs, and a drooped red bill. In non-breeding winter plumage their black heads change to a blurry gray mask on white. Throughout the year adults have gray wings and black feet. Immature birds are browner.


Resident to long-distant migrant. Year-round resident south of Virginia through the Gulf Coast and west coast of Mexico. Migrating populations spend the winter in Central and South America and spend the summer in the Northeastern United States.


Atlantic and Gulf Coast saltwater beaches and marshes. Can also be found at parks, landfills, or parking lots where food is readily available.


Laughing Gulls have a highly-varied diet. They eat insects, fish, invertebrates, squid, and crabs while they gather while walking the beach, swimming, or stealing from other birds. They are scavenger, and will eat human-made objects such as garbage and refuse from boats. Laughing Gull are notorious for eating anything toss by or offered from beachgoers. (Or sometimes food not offered by beachgoers. I certainly have had Laughing Gulls steal food from me while living at the shore!)


Laughing Gulls breed in large colones, often mixed with other gulls, American Oystercatchers, and Black Skimmers. Colonies can be up to 25,000 pairs and thousands of nests. Both sexes help construct the nest out of grasses/seaweed on the ground or under shrubs in some regions. They have 1 brood with a clutch size of 2-4 eggs which are incubated by both sexes for about 20 days. The young leave the nest within a few days of hatching and are feed by the parents. They start with half-digested food and transition to solid food as they grow. Their first flights are at about 5 weeks old.

Juvenile Laughing Gull (Image via wikimedia commons)


They are named “Laughing” Gulls because their loud nasal descending calls sound like laughing.

(Image by Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. via

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Laughing Gulls will eat the young or eggs of other birds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornitholgy, John Jame Audubon saw Laughing Gulls eating Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern eggs/chicks. They also eat Royal Tern eggs sometimes.
  • They are known to steal food from birds that are much larger than them, such as Ospreys and Pelicans.
  • Laughing Gulls are monogamous and stay with the same mate for several breeding seasons.