Nests and Surprise Guests

Hi friends! I received an update from the American Oystercatcher Working Group about T2, who we spotted for the second year in a row at Barnegat Light State Park. T2 was banded on Island Beach State Park (which is on the barrier island directly north of Long Beach Island). T2 was banded on September 19, 2007 and spends its winters in Cedar Key, Florida, which is about a 1,050 mile migration one-way from Barnegat Light. Pretty cool to get to know a bird personally, right?

This past Friday (June 16), Dave and I took a trip to Cape May. We spent some time at South Cape May Meadows (SCMM) and Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP).

SCMM and CMPSP actually connect through a path. We made our way through the meadow with the intent of taking this path, but it turns out it was closed off. The connecting path is right before entering the beach, so we decided to explore the beach instead. It turns out the path being closed was a good thing, because we had the opportunity to watch some nesting Least Terns.

Least Terns are the smallest of the North American Tern species, standing only at about 9 inches tall. In breeding plumage, Least Terns have unique bills because they are yellow with a black tip, as opposed to orange or black of other terns. Least Terns also have a white forehead and two dark primary feathers. There were a few pairs either sitting on eggs, flying around to get food for their mate, or some defending their nests. We watched one one breeding pair repeatedly dive bomb an American Oystercatcher pair, who quickly got the message that they weren’t welcome in that spot. It was the first time we had the chance to see any sort of nesting tern. They were fascinating to watch. If you look closely to the picture on the right of the tern standing, you can see its 2 speckled eggs behind the sticks.

Throughout our walk we kept seeing an Oystercatcher pair. Eventually we saw one of them sitting on their nest. We were observing this oystercatcher from a distance when its mate came from the other direction and walked right up to us. This Oystercatcher had bands which read M3. Before walking off Dave was able to get some good pictures of M3’s metal band, so I submitted a report about M3 to the Oystercatcher Working Group as well. M3 was banded on Avalon Beach, NJ on June 26, 2009. It migrates over 670 miles one way to spend the winters at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

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American Oystercatcher M3

Other birds we saw at the Meadows included at least 8 Ospreys, Common Yellowthroats, Black Skimmers, a Willet, and Great Black-backed Gulls to name a few. We drove over to CMPSP to see what we would find there.

It was pretty quiet bird-wise at the Point since there were more people around. From the Hawk Watch platform we saw 20 Mute Swans (never saw that many at once!), Great Egrets, Canada Geese, Mallards, House Finches, and Red-winged Blackbirds. We were getting tired, so we decided we were only going to walk up the path a little bit then head back to the car. We didn’t expect to see too much.

On the way back, Dave paused. “Is that…a Bobwhite?”. I listened closely.

“poor- bob-WHITE!” 

Yep. Our ears weren’t playing tricks on us. It was a Northern Bobwhite. A Bobwhite is not quite who we expected to hear at the beach since they tend to live in forest or brushy habitats. Then I remembered that people were reporting Bobwhites here at the Point on the NJ Rare Bird List. Some people say they were released there, which is very likely. We started walking towards the sound when a cute, plump brown bird popped out from the grass.

The next moment made the whole trip for me. It ran right at us, stopped, and started making little mumbling sounds at us. It was adorable to watch it run around. It quickly ran back into the grass only to emerge onto a large sand pile a few moments later. Then its friend showed up on another sand pile and began to make the “bob-WHITE!” call. The original Bobwhite wasn’t too happy with the other’s appearance though, because it ran down the sand pile and waddled straight down the path until we couldn’t see it anymore (I couldn’t help but think of Forrest Gump, “Run, Bobwhite, Run!” hahaha :-P). The Bobwhites were really amusing, and a fun way to end our Cape May trip.

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Male Northern Bobwhite (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

Hey, I Know That Bird!

Every June, Dave and I take a trip out to Long Beach Island to explore Barnegat Light State Park. June 9th was our 3rd annual “late spring” LBI birding trip. It’s nice to have a trip “tradition” so you can compare what species you see around a specific time/season and see how your location list changes from year to year.

This year we didn’t see too many species (16, probably because we went in the late afternoon this time, but that’s ok!). Every year I hope to see Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers. We had a special treat when we it came to the Oystercatchers: an Oystercatcher family! We had the opportunity to watch 2 adults with the 2 chicks walk/forage around the dunes. I’ve seen pictures of Oystercatcher chicks before, but they were even cuter in person.

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American Oystercatcher family (Image by David Horowitz)

I have to admit: I’ve been a little lazy with my birding stuff the past week or two. My job (teacher) just ended for the summer and I’ve been taking a summer class (Biology 1) so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment. I mention this because I didn’t look at any of our June 9th LBI pictures until tonight (June 16). And while zooming in on the Oystercatcher family photo I found a surprise.

I zoomed in on an adult and chick. The adult had 2 yellow bands that said T2. Then it hit me: “Hey, I know that bird!”

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Oystercatcher and chick (Image by David Horowitz)

I don’t think that’s what Dave expected me to say. But it’s true. We know Oystercatcher T2. I quickly opened up my Barnegat Light picture folder and pulled up this picture from last year’s trip:

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American Oystercatcher T2 in 2016 (Image by BirdNation)

Well, well, well, look who it is. T2 from 2016. I wonder how many years this particular Oystercatcher has come back to Barnegat Light. And this time I got to see his/her family!

Once Dave and I made this discovery I went to the American Oystercatcher Working Group website. This organization works with conservation groups throughout the East Coast to band, study, and conserve American Oystercatchers. I reported T2 and all the information that I know about this bird (as well as someone from today, but I’ll tell you about that in the next post). Now I wait to hear back about this particular Oystercatcher’s backstory, which of course I will update you on.

If you happen to see a banded American Oystercatcher, try to take some pictures and send your info to the American Oystercatcher Working Group (click that link to see their site).

Here are a few more pictures from out Barnegat Light trip.

This was the only Piping Plover we saw, and it was the first time we’ve seen one on a nest. It was sitting inside a wire fence to protect it. The Great Egret was looking stunningly beautiful in its breeding plumage.

It’s exciting to go to the same location each year to compare, especially when you rediscover a familiar friend (as in the case with T2)!

Hitting the Waterfowl Jackpot

Last Sunday was about 35 degrees, making it perfect weather to look for waterfowl. To find them, Dave and I decided that we should go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park  on Long Beach Island, NJ.

It seems that going to Barnegat Lighthouse SP in December has turned into somewhat of a tradition. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve made a December trip, but the difference this time: it was 35 degrees, not 75 degrees. Somehow it’s always really warm when we were able to go, so I was really excited about the cold, seasonal weather we were in for. The night before on one of my Facebook bird groups I saw that NJ Audubon took a trip to LBI on Saturday. They saw all sorts of waterfowl, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, and more that day, so I was hoping that we would be lucky on our trip. Turns out we were.

We started our trek on the cement walkway right outside the lighthouse. This area is usually swarming with tourists, but thanks to the cold weather it was just us. This is where we got our first glimpse of Long-tailed Ducks. Long-tailed Ducks spend their summers breeding in the Arctic and spend the winter all along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts of North America. We get to see them in their winter plumage. Males are striking with a mix of white, black, and gray and a pink spot on the tip of the bill. Females are duller, but stockier with a thick bill. And of course, they have distinctive long tails that stand out even from a far distance. Unfortunately they were too far away for us to get any pictures, but they were cool to see. Life list addition #1 for the day.

From the cement walkway you can walk onto the jetty. The jetty stretches all the way down to the south end of the beach and out into the ocean. During the summer it’s covered with fishermen, but today it was covering in Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. While standing on the rocks were were able to watch gulls flying out over the ocean as well as Double-crested Cormorants, Brants and Common Loons bobbing in the water.

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Herring Gull with a crab (Image by BirdNation)

Usually in December we see Ruddy Turnstones hanging out on the jetty but instead we had a surprise guest: a Merlin. Merlins are small falcons, not much larger than American Kestrels. They usually spend time in open woodland, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see on at the beach (although according to e-bird you can find them in this location). We watched him for a bit before he flew off. We decided to get off the jetty and walk down to the southern tip of the beach.

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Merlin on the jetty (Image by David Horowitz)

The south end of the beach is usually where we see different kinds of gulls wading around. We did see many Herring and Ring-billed Gulls on the way, but there was also a small flock of Ruddy Ducks floating around. The tide seemed lower in this area, and there was a smaller jetty leading out into the ocean that we normally don’t see.

That’s when we hit the jackpot. Everything we were looking for that NJ Audubon mentioned was in this location. There were Harlequin Ducks (Life List #2), Common Eiders (Life List #3), Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers (Life List #4), Dunlins, and a Black Scoter (Life List #5). They were all scattered around the area; swimming, diving, walking around the rocks. There were different kinds of gulls and Ruddy Ducks mixed in too. Every December I go to this location looking for these species but usually don’t see them since it’s always unseasonably warm when we’re able to go. But this day was special, and am so happy I was able to experience some of these winter species for the first time.

The excitement wasn’t over however. The Merlin reappeared on the jetty and we were able to sneak our way a little closer to see him before he flew off. We also observed a flock of Snow Buntings. I only ever saw one Snow Bunting before. We were at Amico Island at the end of October last year, and there was a single bunting in a field. I didn’t know what it was at the time and didn’t have a camera, so it remained a mystery until I saw a picture of one a month later. When I went to add it to my checklist, E-bird didn’t believe me! But this time I was positive, and was getting to see a flock of about 80. They flew around erratically, landing for a second before taking flight again. They were extremely hard to follow, so my pictures turned out pretty badly, but they were awesome to see. (Below is the best picture I was able to get, still pretty bad, but at least you can see their colors).

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Snow Bunting Flock (Image by BirdNation)

The annual December Long Beach Island birding trip was a success, with 5 new birds added to our Life List. I’m excited to see more winter visitors over the next few months. What’s the most exciting winter bird you’ve seen so far? Tell me about it in the comments.

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.

 

 

 

Piping Plover: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! It’s the most hectic time of the year for me: back to school (this year as a teacher and a student). Everyone is one the move again, and birds are no exception: fall migration is underway. There are so many exciting things going on this time of year. Autumn begins on Thursday the 22nd, and right now we are in the midst of warbler and shorebird migration. Yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day, which is a day to raise awareness of ground-nesting plovers around the world and how we can help them. Today there are two personal special things happening: the last Seashore Saturday of the season and my birthday! I decided to combine those last two events by choosing one of my favorite shorebirds to write about: the Piping Plover. Starting next week I’m going to kick off Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I also have a birding trip post coming soon and a book review, so stay tuned!

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Description:

Piping Plovers are small, stocky plovers. They have pale upperparts, white underparts, and short bills. Their legs are orange-yellow and they have black feathers on the tips of their tails and sides of their wings. During breeding season they have a black, narrow breast band while juvenile and non-breeding birds have a pale band. Their bills are orange with a black tip during breeding.

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Piping Plover on Long Beach Island, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

Breeding: northern Atlantic Coast, parts of the northern plains (mid-Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska)/Great Lakes region (although population have dramatically declined there.) Winter: southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast

Habitat:

Sandy beaches, sand bars, tidal flats, alkali lakes

Diet:

Insects, crustaceans, marine worms, invertebrates. Piping Plovers are ground foragers who run a few steps then stop to look for food and peck around.

Breeding/Nesting:

Piping Plovers are a threatened and priority bird, partly due to the fact that they breed on the ground. Piping Plovers lay their eggs in a scrape in the sand, usually some distance from water. The problem is that they blend in so well with their surroundings that their nests can easily be destroyed by beachgoers who are not aware the plover eggs are there. Because of this, many Atlantic Coast beaches have blocked off areas were Piping Plovers and other threatened shorebirds, such as terns and Black Skimmers, nest.

Piping Plovers lay on average about 4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for 26-28 days. The young are downy and leave the nest a few hours after nesting to look for food. The parents brood the young, but the female usually deserts the chicks after a few days and the male cares for them. The chicks fledge between 21-35 days after hatching. Not much is known about the Piping Plover’s development.

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Piping Plover chick on Long Beach Island (Image by David Horowitz)

Sounds:

peep, peeto! or a series of pehp, pehp, pehp when agitated.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Piping Plovers are seen in small groups, but they are usually solitary and don’t mix with other shorebirds often.
  • Piping Plovers are native to the United States and just barely disperse into Mexico. They also winter in The Bahamas.
  • Male Piping Plovers have thicker breast bands during breeding season, which is one of the only ways to tell the sexes apart.
  • During breeding, males display elaborate courtship ceremonies, such as flights that feature dives and stone tossing. Males create multiple scrapes in the ground for nest sites and female will choose the site she likes best to camouflage it.
  • Like, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Piping Plovers use the “broken-wing display” to distracted predators from their young.

Please be mindful of your surroundings while visiting beaches. Make sure to obey any signs you see, especially if they are telling you to avoid a shorebird nesting area. Piping Plover populations are under 10,000, so it’s important that we are taking proper precautions to protect their habit.

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Piping Plover parent and chick (Image by Johann Schmacher via audubon.org)

Cape May!

We finally did it! Dave and I took a trip to Cape May, NJ to go birding.

Birding is a big deal in Cape May. New Jersey is part of what is called the Atlantic Flyway, which is a migration route use by birds on the Atlantic Coast. There are 4 flyways in the United States; the other 3 are Pacific, Central, and Mississippi. Due to its location, Cape May experiences hundreds of thousands of birds during spring and fall migrations. New Jersey Audubon headquarters and the Cape May Bird Observatory are stationed here, and there are tons of “birding hotspots”. Cape May is the host of The World Series of Birding and two annual migration festivals (fall and spring). It’s a birder’s paradise. People flock (pun intended) to Cape May for birds. Dave and I visited 3 different locations .

Our first stop was Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.We were right in time to watch the Cape May-Lewes Ferry take off, which shuttles people from New Jersey to Delaware. It was a pretty quiet day at the beach. We spotted some gulls, terns, and cormorants flying across the bay. On the beach was a flock of Sanderlings with some Semipalmated Plovers mixed in. It’s fun to watch them scurrying around the sand trying to avoid the waves. There was a trail that went through the forest nearby, but we didn’t hike long since it was overgrown.

Our second stop was the Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood Branch. There are two branches of the CMBO, but this one was a store. You can pretty much find any birding supply or accessory there: binoculars, spotting scopes, books, feeders, nest boxes, clothing, and artwork. The staff was knowledgeable about great birding locations and they were watching the Cornell Lab’s Texas Hummers. I ended up buying myself a print by artist David Kiehm of a Pileated Woopecker (longtime readers know about my love for Pileateds) called “Lunch Counter”. You can check out his amazing artwork at Dead Drift Studio at this link.

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“Lunch Counter” by David Kiehm

Our last stop of the day was South Cape May Meadow, which is run by The Nature Conservancy. The trails take you through marsh meadows with small ponds interspersed and leads to the beach. The first section of the trail featured Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Tree Swallows, and some Ospreys. The Mute Swans were very close to us and beautiful to watch.

Farther down the trail we came to a second pond. There were more Mute Swans, but then we had some surprises. A Pied-billed Grebe was popping in an out of the water. Then four American Oystercatchers arrived. I was thrilled to see them. They are one of my favorites, and I haven’t seen them since June. A small flock of Snowy Egrets arrived. One of them continued to hover and it seems like he wasn’t sure where to land. He was quite a sight to watch. I was glad that I was able to get some clear pictures of him.

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A  Hovering Snowy (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds we saw at this pond were Black Skimmers, more Osprey, Glossy Ibis, and Seimpalmated Sandpipers. We also had a great view of the Cape May Lighthouse, which is at a park down the street. There were more trails to explore, but unfortunately we had to head home at one point  since we live an hour and a half away.

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Cape May Lighthouse (Image by BirdNation)

We will certainly return to Cape May (especially The Meadows) during fall migration. There is so much to see and do there. Next time I would like to explore the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve been to Cape May in the past for other reasons, but this was my first birding specific trip. Have you been birding in Cape May, NJ? If you have tell us about your experience in the comments! Don’t forget, if you have a specific bird or topic you want me to write about I would love to hear your suggestions.

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)

Description:

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.

Range:

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.

Habitat:

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

Food:

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!)

Breeding/Nesting:

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.

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Juvenile Laughing Gull (Image via wikimedia commons)

Sounds:

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

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(Image by Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. via otlibrary.com)

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.