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The flocks of Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Great Egrets, Glossy Ibis and other summer visitors have been replaced by waterfowl.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! ❤


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)

First Hike 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! Did you observe a “first bird” of 2017? A lot of people in bird internet groups I’m on like to share what the first bird they saw of the year was. Mine was a Blue Jay. I think that’s a fun was to start a new year of birding :-). On New Years Day, Dave and I took our first hike of the year at Palmyra Cove Nature Park.

If I had to choose one word to describe January 1, 2017 I would have to say: peaceful. It was a lovely morning. It was sunny and cool but not too cold. Our usual route when we go to Palmyra is the forest, the beaver ponds, then the cove. On this trip we worked backwards and headed to the cove trail first.

The trail to get to the cove was pretty quiet, while flocks of gulls flying high overhead. At one point there was a trilling sound coming from the understory. It was hard to track where the sound was coming from because it seemed to be moving around. Then suddenly one of the nearby bushes shook; and there was a Carolina Wren.

Male Carolina Wrens can have 30-40 songs in their repertoire, but females have a “chatter”. Her chatter sounds insect-like, so sometimes it’s easy to overlook her chatter for something else. Even though the female doesn’t “sing” per se, the male and female will duet, where the male with sing a song and the female will respond with different degrees and intensity of chatter. (Fun fact: female Carolina Wrens are the only wrens of the genus Thryothorus that don’t sing melodious songs like the males). I recently learned this from the book The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma, so I was excited to recognize the female chatter in the field. Another bird quickly showed up after she did, so I’m guess that’s her mate since pairs stay together year-round. It ended up being the “Day of the wrens” because we ended up seeing a few more pairs of wrens throughout the hike in different territories.

Carolina Wren (Image by David Horowitz)

We also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. I’m always excited to see my first Junco every winter; these little birds are fun to watch. They zip around the forest, hopping on the ground, trees, and everything in between. I love the flash of their black and white tail as they rise into flight. To me, Dark-eyed Juncos are like the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers of the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco (Image by BirdNation)

If you’re at the cove at high tide, you usually see different kinds of waterfowl. It was low tide though, so the only waterfowl around were the American Black Ducks. We did get a good view of a beaver dwelling that the ducks like to sit near and found some tracks in the mud. The area were were standing in also had a lot of gnawed beaver trees, which were cool to see. Upon standing in that are for a few minutes, other birds started to appear. Crows flew by and a juvenile Bald Eagle soared above us.

That’s when I spotted an unexpected visitor: a male Red-winged Blackbird.  To me there are 2 possibilities of why he’s still here: 1. He didn’t leave with the rest of the flock for the winter or 2. he’s back 2 months too early. I certainly didn’t expect him in the area. It started getting windy at the cove so we made our way to the beaver ponds.

The beaver ponds were fairly quiet as well. A small group of Wild Turkeys strutted by, possibly the same female/juvenile group we saw on our last trip to the Cove (remember when we did the turkey trot?). We saw a Northern Cardinal pair, some Mallards, Canada Geese, Downy Woodpeckers, and…a Sharp-shinned Hawk taking a bath?

A pretty pair (Image by BirdNation)

He was at the far side of the lake and really difficult to see. All we could see was a tiny bird, with a white belly that seemed to be stripey. What was it?? Every once in awhile it would splash but it was just slightly too far to identify. We could tell it was some sort of a raptor, maybe a juvenile? After a few minutes it flew up onto a tree to reveal a dark back and a square tail. Mystery solved: Sharp-shinned. But it’s definitely not every day you see a hawk bathing in a pond, now is it?

Instead of walking through the forest we took the Perimeter Trail back to the entrance. The perimeter was pretty uneventful, but that’s ok. Like I said earlier, it was a peaceful morning that ended up staying peaceful throughout the rest of the day. I hope that mood is a sign for what’s to come in 2017. I thought visiting Palmyra Cove was a refreshing was to start the new year.

Did you take a “first hike” this year? If you did let me know in the comments.

Mallard Party

My final birding trip of 2016 was to Haddon Lake Park, my original birding “hotspot”. I usually walk with my mom and sister at Historic Smithville Park, but if we ever have extra time we head down to Haddon Lake instead to visit the waterfowl. It was a nice way to end the year, because we attended a party of sorts while we were there.

It all started with spotting an unusual duck. As I mentioned in my last post, ducks often hybridize, so there’s an assortment of ducks in addition to Mallards at Haddon Lake. The duck in the middle of the picture below has features of both a Mallard and one of the white ducks that reside at the lake. We stopped to take a look a him. He was swimming by with a few friends and when they noticed we stopped they got out of the water and started walking towards us.

So there we were, the 3 of us and a small group of ducks. We were admiring how cute they were when we realized that more ducks were coming over to where we were standing. It started to get noisy with females quacking and males giving their little raspy quehp calls (When you hear a duck “quack” you are actually hearing the females; male’s don’t quack, they just quehp). 

Mallards with a hybrid in the middle (Image by BirdNation)

And before you know it, that’s when the party started. As you know, Mallards don’t tend to party alone, they like to hang out in flocks. So within a minutes time we went from a small gathering to a full out Mallard Party (with the hybrids being the special guests) with the entire flock flying in from all sides of the lake.

Mallard Party (Image by BirdNation)

Even Pretty Lady Duck, a lighter female, who I blogged about a few months ago made an appearance. I was happy to see her.

Pretty Lady Duck (Image by BirdNation)

Now let’s be real for a quick second. We all know what they wanted: food. Unfortunately, people feed these ducks, so they expect a handout when visitors stop to look at them. (We interrupt this lighthearted duck story with an important PSA: please DO NOT feed waterfowl. It’s bad for their health, the surrounding area, and encourages unwanted behaviors. Thank you. And now back to our regularly scheduled story). Of course we didn’t have food for them, but it was cool to get to see them up close.

The party last for a few minutes. We giggled and observed them while they quacked and observed us. A Mallard party tends to be a little chaotic though, with lots of quacking, running, and even a small fight breaking out. They then realized that we weren’t going to feed them, so the ducks started making their way back to the water.

We said are goodbyes and continued to walk the loop. But it seemed like the Mallards weren’t ready to say goodbye just yet. For about a minute or two, the flock decided to swim next to us. It was like we were the leaders of the Duck Parade.

Leading the Duck Parade (Image by BirdNation)

We eventually lost them, but the moment was fun while it lasted. During the walk we also observed some Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls, Dark-eyed Juncos, a Blue Jay, and a Red-tailed Hawk. But I though having a Mallard Party was a fitting way to celebrate the end of another birding year. I look forward to the fascinating birding adventures that await in 2017. Happy New Year, friends. See you in 2017!

Cape May Point

On Wednesday, Dave and I made our way down to Cape May for the second time. We went to two locations: Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows. The two parks actually connect, so it was easy to explore both locations.

We arrived at Cape May Point mid-morning. It was in the low 4os, which to me is perfect winter birding weather. The first stop was the Hawk Watch platform, which I sometimes see listed on as a location on the NJ Rare bird list. No rare birds today, but the lake was full:  Mute Swans, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, 2 Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Canada Geese, and even a male Gadwall (the first life list bird of the day).

Double-crested Cormorants (Image by BirdNation)

There are a few small ponds that dot the trail. At one of them we found 4 Mallards swimming together. One looked a little unusual though. He had some Mallard features; such as the curly black tail and yellow bill, but he only had a partial green head and lacked the white neck ring. He clearly is some sort of hybrid, which is common among ducks. Upon further investigation on the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, I found that he may possibly be a Mallard and American Black Duck hybrid. This hybrid features darker plumage and a partially green head.

Possibly Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

The next pond over was a small group of Bufflehead (who I just featured for Waterfowl Wednesday). Buffleheads tend to stay in small groups as opposed to large flocks. They were swimming closely together and sometimes would seem to dive at the same time. There were also 4 American Widgeons (life list bird #2). Males have white and green heads while females have gray-brown heads with a dark smudge around the eye. They kept going over to the 2 Mute Swans, almost swimming into them at times.

Male American Widgeon (Image by BirdNation)

While watching the Widgeons and Buffleheads, a small gull flew overhead. It was a graceful and skillful flyer. Everyone once in awhile it would dive down to the water, and just as easily maneuver its way back into the air. I finally got a good look at it, and it wasn’t our usual gull: it was a non-breeding Bonaparte’s Gull (life list #3)! It had a small black dot on each side of its head. This gull was a 1st winter Bonaparte’s. It had black wing tips and narrow dark patches on its upper wings. He gave us a pretty cool flight show, before flying off to a new pond. We continued on our way to the connector of the Point and South Cape May Meadows.

1st winter Bonaparte’s Gull in flight (Image by BirdNation)
Bonaparte’s Gull (Image by David Horowitz)

We didn’t spend too much time in the Meadows, but we did get to explore some of the same ponds that we saw on our last Cape May trip. As expected there were large flocks of waterfowl: Mallards, Shovelers, Pintails, Ruddys, Buffleheads, and more Swans. The was a species that we didn’t expect to see: Tree Swallows. I though they would all be gone by this point, but there were a decent amount of them flying over the pond. There were also a large number of Turkey Vultures. They found a carcass of a gull, so they were having a feast across the pond. We did find one other gull at this pond: over on the side we were on. He looked pretty worn and a little chubby. I’m not sure what kind of gull it was, but we joked that maybe he looked kind of sad because his friend was being eaten by vultures.

The “chubby” gull (Image by BirdNation)

As we were listening to some Carolina Wrens sing, a flock of quick, small birds flew into nearby trees. It was a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. They were eating little white berries. They were quick, but Dave ended up getting a really great picture of one.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)

We didn’t see anything new on the trip back to the car, but we saw a nice variety of species on our trip. It has been a great month for waterfowl: we added 6 new species to our life list over the past couple of weeks. I’m glad we had a chance to return to Cape May for some winter birding. I hope to visit Cape May again for the spring migration.

Have you gone winter birding yet? If you have tell me about it in the comments.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.