Bringing Back the Bobwhite (and the blog!)

Hi, friends! Long time, no see! Sorry I’ve been m.i.a. for the past few weeks. To be honest, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block since my summer break from work has started. A lot of my time lately has been taken up by my Biology I lecture/lab class. I’ve also completed my Picture Life List (to be continued…), which was a goal of mine for awhile now. And I have another exciting bird-related journey that I’ll be starting on, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to learn about that one!

My blog is not the only thing returning though. The Bobwhites are starting to return too!

The Northern Bobwhite (a.k.a. the Virginia Quail), is a small quail that lives in the Eastern United States. They are found in weedy meadows, fields, open woods with dense native grasses, and clear cuts. Grasses are important to Bobwhites because they spend their lives on the ground. Over the past 40 years, Northern Bobwhites, and other species that depend on the same habitat, have been declining.

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Northern Bobwhite (Image by BirdNation)

Although Bobwhites were commonly hunted, the reason for the decline is mainly habitat degradation. America’s grasslands are rapidly disappearing, and changes in agricultural policies and cattle grazing have all had an impact on the Bobwhite. Young forest is also important to Bobwhites, which could be managed with prescribed fires. Over the years, prescribed burns have become less accepted, therefore not rejuvenating the young forests that Bobwhites and other related species need to thrive. Northern Bobwhites do very poorly in urban habitats and dense forest. Bobwhites are not the only species on the decline due to habitat degradation. Pollinators, native plants, and a variety of grassland birds (such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissels, and Eastern Meadowlark to name a few) have been suffering along with the Northern Bobwhite.

There are many conservation groups working together to help the Bobwhites and other grassland creatures. One of these groups is the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, which consists of 25 states coming together to form an action plan to save the Bobwhite.

Another group involved with the NBCI is New Jersey Audubon (I mention them specifically because I’m from NJ and an NJ Audubon member). The Northern Bobwhite population nationally has decreased 82% between 1966 and 2010, and the bird was considered functionally extinct in New Jersey. The tide is slowly starting to turn however. In April 2015, NJ Audubon translocated Northern Bobwhites from Georgia (which has a viable Bobwhite population) to the Pinelands area. 3 months later they found the first Bobwhite nest, which was the first one in the NJ Pinelands since the 1980s. 66 eggs were found during the first release, as well as more nests from the second 2016 release, and the 2017 release. The first 2017 nest was found at the Pine Island Cranberry Study sight in June, as well as 3 more active nests. This is great news for the Northern Bobwhite!

When it comes to conservation, birds are considered an indicator species. If there’s a problem with the local bird population, chances are very high there are other major issues affecting other members of the ecosystem. Maintain healthy grasslands and open forests are not only going to help the Northern Bobwhites, but the other species that depend on these habitats for their survival too.

I started actively birding over 3 years ago now, and this year was the first time that Dave and I have seen/experienced Bobwhites. I hope that as conservation efforts continue, the Bobwhite can return to New Jersey and other Eastern states so that future generations can enjoy hearing and seeing these adorable little quails.

If you’d like to read our most recent Northern Bobwhite experience at Cape May, click here.

If you’d like to learn how you can help Northern Bobwhites and conservation efforts, check out the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative website here.

To read the New Jersey Audubon bobwhite article, click here.

 

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.

Strawbridge Surprise

Last Tuesday Dave and I went to Strawbridge Lake to destress after a long work day. The evening started out normal enough. We saw Canada Geese, American Robins, American Crows, Turkey Vultures, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Northern Mockingbird, and House Finches to name a few. You know, the usual cast of characters.

As we approached the end of the lake, something small was swimming in the distance. It was a Pied-billed Grebe! We’ve seen Pied-billed Grebes in the past, mainly at Palmyra and Amico Island. They are usually really far out though, making it hard to see their details.

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Pied-billed Grebe (Image by BirdNation)
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Pied-billed Grebe resting (Image by BirdNation)

This was our first Pied-billed Grebe at Strawbridge Lake. The best part was that instead of swimming away, the Grebe swam towards us! What a cutie it was :-). I couldn’t believe how close it got to us as it preened and splashed in the water. I think it knew we were there, but didn’t seem to mind putting on a show for us. This Pied-billed Grebe was a fantastic surprise to an otherwise seemingly normal night.

Here are some fun facts about Pied-billed Grebes:

  • The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s entry about the Pied-billed Grebe call them “part bird, part submarine”, which is an apt description of these expert divers. These grebes dive to catch crustaceans, fish, and other invertebrates with their chunky silver and black bills. They can trap water in the feathers to control their buoyancy and reducing drag as they chase after prey. Sometimes they submerge themselves in the water with only their eyes and nostrils on the water’s surface, similar to a crocodile, to avoid danger. If they do run into danger, they’ll “crash-dive”, plunging head first to make a splash.
  • Like other grebes, Pied-bill ingest a decent amount of their own feathers. Sometimes these feathers make up half their stomach contents. The purpose  of these feathers is to create a sieve-like plug to prevent hard parts of their prey from entering the intestines. They later regurgitate pellets of indigestible materials.
  • Pied-billed Grebes have lobed feet that help propel them through the water. Their feet are very close to their rears. This makes them excellent swimmers, but makes walking on land awkward. They are also poor fliers, so they try to stay on water as much as possible.

Have you seen a Pied-billed Grebe? Tell me about it in the comments.

Day 4 GBBC 2017 and Total Count!

For the final day of GBBC 2017 I went with Maria, my sister Mary, and my mom to Smithville Park. Last year my mom, sister, and I went to Smithville for the count while the lake was frozen and it was snowing (you can read about our trip last year here). This year it was cool and breezy, but much warmer. Instead of just walking around the lake we took the longer trail into Smith’s Woods.

One of the first birds we spotted was this lovely female Northern Cardinal. We heard chipping coming from the trees and it took us a few minutes to find the source of the sound. She flew over and perched on a nearby tree to allow us to admire her. I think female cardinals are so beautiful.

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Female Cardinal (Image by BirdNation)

Last year Common Mergansers spent part of the winter on Smithville Lake. They are back again this winter. As usual, they were just out of good camera range for me, but they were fun to watch. They were actually sleeping for a bit (Common Mergansers float on the water while sleeping). I’m happy that they returned to Smithville again. They were also a life bird for Maria, making it her second life bird this weekend.

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Carolina Chickadee (Image by BirdNation)

Day 4 Official Count

  • 7 Canada Geese
  • 12 Common Mergansers
  • 4 Black Vultures
  • 7 Turkey Vultures
  • 2 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers (male and female)
  • 1 Hairy Woodpecker (drumming)
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 8 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmice
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 3 Northern Cardinals (2 male, 1 female)

It was so fun birding 4 days in a row for the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. We won’t know the official results for a few days, but it was a record-setting year for us at BirdNation. These past 4 days Dave, Maria, Mary, my mom, and myself count 45 different species and over 5,000 individual birds! What a weekend!

 

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!

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017 Day 2!

Over the past few years it’s been a tradition to go to Haddon Lake Park for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The tradition continued today, this time with my mom, sister Mary, and best friend/original bird teacher Maria.

It was certainly a different experience than the past few years. 2 years ago Dave and I went out in the snow to watch hundreds of Canada Geese land in the lake. Last year, my mom, sister, and I went there in 18 degree to watch the “waterfowl highway” from the car. (You can read about last year’s Day 2 of GBBC at this link.) This year was sunny and around 60 degrees, so we saw 16 more species than we did last year.

The Mallards and Canada Geese were relaxing by the water at the beginning of the loop. There were also a few Ring-billed Gulls. One seemed to be a 1st winter gull due to his pink bill, pale legs, and overall darker plumage, while the others were adults.

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Cute Mallard pair (Image by BirdNation)
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1st Winter Ring-billed Gull (Image by BirdNation)

Farther up the path it becomes more wooded. There were a variety of small birds in this area. We spotted Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, American Robins, a Dark-eyed Junco, and a large flock of 150+ European Starlings. Maria and Mary even had the chance to add a new bird to their life lists: a Brown Creeper. I’ve seen them before, but this was my first time finding one at Haddon Lake.

There was also an American Coot swimming around with some Canada Geese. Throughout the years of going to Haddon Lake we’ve seen Coots at random times, but there is always just one. It makes me wonder if it’s the same one or a different one each time. It was cute swimming around with birds that were much bigger.

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American Coot (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds we observed were a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-winged Blackbird (that Maria could pick out/hear in the middle of a group of noisy Starlings!), some Song Sparrows, American Crows, Turkey Vultures, and this (possibly) 2nd winter Ring-billed Gull.

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2nd Winter Ring-billed Gull (Image by BirdNation)

We ended our walk by running into The Squad (a.k.a a bunch of white domestic geese). Not a group I’d want to mess with hahaha. :-p

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The Squad (Image by BirdNation)

Day 2 Official Count

  • 100 Canada Geese
  • 104 Mallards
  • 2 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 American Coot
  • 5 Ring-billed Gulls (3 adults, 1 1st winter, 1 2nd winter)
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 1 Downy Woodpecker
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 6 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmouse
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Brown Creeper
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 160 European Starlings
  • 1 Dark-eyed Junco
  • 2 Song Sparrows
  • 1 Northern Cardinal
  • 1 Red-winged Blackbird (male)

Overall, it was a great count. It was a lovely day and we had a total of 20 species. Tomorrow Dave and I are going down to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for Day 3, another GBBC tradition. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Have you participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count yet? You still have 2 more days to participate! If you went on a bird count so far, what have you seen?

 

Great Backyard Bird Count 2017 Day 1!

The Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! I got out of work a little earlier today, so Dave and I went to Amico Island. It was about 40 degrees at the time, so 20 degrees warmer than Day 1 last year. We didn’t get too many pictures because of the sun was setting and washing everything out, but we did what we could.

Upon entering the park, we heard some Mourning Doves and the conk-la-ree! of male Red-winged Blackbirds. Male and female Red-winged Blackbirds migrate separately. The males arrive at the breeding grounds a few weeks before the females in order to establish a territory. They tend to start migrating mid-February and usually arrive up north by March, so the 5 males we saw got a head start. Guess the early bird gets the territory (sorry, I had to haha :-p).  

We walked the blue loop that goes through the forest along Dredge Harbor first. Along the way we spotted Carolina Wrens, a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls, a Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpeckers, a Tufted Titmouse, American Robins, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I even heard my first Gray Catbird (my favorite) of the year, but didn’t actually see it.

Remember the Great Blue Heron rookery that we would watch last year? The herons were back and getting their nests established. We weren’t able to see the back end of the island, but from our view could spot at least 32 Great Blue Herons. They seemed to be pretty relaxed for the most part, either sitting on their nests or standing around.

Then the trouble started. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and flew towards the rookery island. The herons started yelling and flying away from their nests in a large group. But that wasn’t all! Once the juvenile landed in one of the trees, 2 adult Bald Eagles showed up. The herons continued to yell and circle the island, while the adult eagles made loud high-pitched whistles. One adult eagle landed near the juvenile, while the second adult sat down in a nest right below the other one. Once the Bald Eagles settled down, the Great Blue Herons returned to their nests. What a spectacle!

(Sorry that this is not the best quality picture. The rookery is just slightly too far out for our current lens, so this was the best we could get until we buy a new lens that zooms in farther. I chose to post it though because you can see all 3 Bald Eagles together)

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3 Bald Eagles at the heron rookery (Image by David Horowitz)

Then we realized something. Last year, we saw a Bald Eagle hanging out near some Great Blue Herons in that same tree (see image below). At that time, nobody seemed to phased and the 3 birds just sat there together. We began to wonder: does a pair of bald eagles nest in the heron rookery? After a little research I found that sometimes Bald Eagles will nest in the same tree as a Great Blue Heron colony, but it’s unclear why. The nest did look a little bigger, so it’s a possibly, especially since one of the eagles was sitting in it. Bald Eagles tend to return to the same nest site each year. We’ll just have to find out if these Bald Eagles nest here in the coming months.

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Great Blue Herons and a Bald Eagle 2016 (Image by BirdNation)

 

Other birds we saw were Common Mergansers, a large flock of Common Loons, Bufflehead, and Herring Gulls.

Here’s the official Day 1 count:

  • 12 Canada Geese
  • 2 Mallards (male and female pair)
  • 6 Bufflehead (4 male, 2 female)
  • 3 Common Mergansers (2 male 1 female)
  • 15 Common Loons
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 32 Great Blue Heron
  • 3 Bald Eagles (1 juvenile, 2 adults)
  • 200 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 10 Herring Gulls
  • 10 Mourning Doves
  • 3 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Carolina Chickadee
  • 1 Tufted Titmouse
  • 6 Carolina Wrens
  • 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • 17 American Robins
  • 4 Song Sparrows
  • 1 Northern Cardinal (male)
  • 5 Red-winged Blackbirds

It was a great way to start off the Bird Count weekend, especially with 32 Great Blue Herons and 3 Bald Eagles! Tomorrow I’m off to Haddon Lake Park to continue my tradition of doing the bird count at that location (not in 18 degree weather this time). I’ll be going with my mom, sister, and my original bird teacher, Maria. See you tomorrow!

To read Day 1 of the 2016 bird count, click on this link.