2017 Birding Vacation! Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.

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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!