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.

IMG_3425
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.

IMG_3465
Male Northern Bobwhite (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

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!

Day of the Ibis

This summer turned out to be very different than I expected. I was hoping to go on more birding trips than I actually did, but we had a lot of heat waves (96 with a heat index of 111?! No thanks!). Now that the weather is starting to calm down Dave and I have been able to go birding again. So expect more bird trip posts in the near future!

On Wednesday we took Dave’s mother to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. It was her first time and I was glad that she enjoyed it. It was our 3rd Forsythe trip since May, but as usual, it was a completely new experience and just as exciting.

We took the wildlife drive. There were a lot of “peeps”. People use the term “peeps” to describe species of small sandpipers. Sandpipers can be difficult to identify, especially now during molting and the start of migration. I believe we saw a lot of Semipalmated Sandpipers with some Semipalmated Plovers (who are not “peeps”) mixed in. In the distance were Mute Swans, Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, and a mix of gull species. We were surrounded by different flocks on both sides of the marsh and everyone was either resting, foraging, or preening.

Then The Frenzy happened. I’m not sure what changed, probably the wind, but all the flocks took off at the same time. Everyone was flying in different directions, either with their flocks or as individuals. It’s hard to describe what I refer to as “The Frenzy” in words, but if you’ve ever experienced thousands of birds flying around you at one time you know what I mean. It’s always a spectacular moment.

the frenzy
The Frenzy (Image by David Horowitz)

(I know that’s not the best quality picture, but I wanted to give you an idea of what The Frenzy looked like. Everyone was really high up and scattered, making it hard to get a good shot)

Another great thing about this trip: herons and egrets galore! Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets dotted the landscape, usually in mixed flocks. We even saw our first Tricolor Herons! There were 3 of them hanging with a Great Egret and some Snowies. It’s fascinating to watch the different hunting styles. Tricolor Herons hunch down close to the water/mudflats, Great Blue Herons/Great Egrets are slow and meticulous, and Snowy Egrets look like they are in a rush and run all crazy (haha I love Snowies! I think if I was a Great Blue Heron I’d be frustrated hunting next to a Snowy. He would scare all my fish away!). The Tricolor Heron’s neck was a reddish color, so it’s a juvenile. Adults have darker necks both in breeding and non-breeding plumage.

IMG_1234
Tricolor Heron (Image by David Horowitz)

We also saw 3 Black-crowned Night-herons hiding out in a tree with a variety of egrets. One was an adult and 2 were juveniles. It was our first time seeing Bc-Nh juveniles. They look very similar to juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-herons. Black-crowns have large white teardrop-shaped spots on their wings while Yellow-crowns have small dots. We went with Black-crowned because these guys seemed to have large spots.  True to their names, Night-herons are active mainly at night. People usually tend to find them roosting in a tree during the day. They blend into the branches pretty well, so they can be tricky to spot.

IMG_1213
Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron (Image by David Horowitz)

But the highlight of the day for me were the Glossy Ibis. We’ve seen them multiple times, but this time was special because we counted 100 of them! Usually we see no more than 10 per trip. I don’t know where they were flying in from, but they just kept coming! All 100 were not in the same place at the same time, but they were spread out in flocks of about 30.

IMG_1199
Glossy Ibis (dark birds) with Great and Snowy Egrets (Image by David Horowitz)

Other species on this trip included 11 Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, a variety of Terns (including I think at 1 Least Tern, he was teeny!), Willets, Crows, and Tree Swallows.

Dave and I went to Cape May on Monday, so look out for that post soon!

Side note: After finishing this post, I found a pdf from the American Birding Association about identifying “peeps”. It’s called Identification of North American Peeps: A Different Approach to an Old Problem. If you would like to learn more about “peeps” you can click the link below. You can also download it to your computer (you know I did!) to reference it later.

ABA Identifying Peeps pdf

 

Fun at Forsythe NWR

On Sunday Dave and I visited Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. I make it a point to visit Forsythe at least once a season. I always see something interesting no matter what time of the year I visit, so I was looking forward to seeing what we would discover.

We usually hike a little bit of the Songbird Trail, but it was already getting hot so we went straight for the 8 mile Wildlife Drive. At the beginning of the drive there’s an observation platform that goes out into the marsh. There’s an Osprey nest there, so we like to check out the family in the summer. A few visits ago we observed a small flock of Glossy Ibis foraging there, so I was hoping to see Ibis again.

There were no Ibis but we did see a family of Ospreys (3 chicks on the nest), Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Yellow Warbler. Down below were hundreds of Fiddler Crabs! They were trying to get away though, because a turtle came parading through the mud. The little guy moved pretty quickly like he was on a mission. Although the Fiddler Crabs were scurrying away, he seemed to have no interest in them. He had places to go I guess. Then we heard a call.

‘Ttp Zhe Eeeeeee!”

The call came from within the tall grasses. I’ve heard this call before, but  wasn’t sure who it was. As we scanned the marsh, suddenly a little brown bird popped up from the grass.  Ttp Zhe Eeeeeee!

There it was! A Seaside Sparrow. Seaside Sparrows are drab, with a yellow spot over their eyes, and a large bill. They are usually heard and not seen, so I was shock when it popped out of nowhere. It was our first life bird of the day.

The tide was low, so the first part of our journey was all mudflats. As we continued there was more water, so that’s where all the action began. It was busy: a family of Mallards, Glossy Ibis (finally!), Great Blue Herons, Canada Gee, Laughing Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants. As I was taking notes Dave asked, “Hey, are those birds over the the skimmer things you were talking about?”

IMG_1007
Glossy Ibis (Image by David Horowitz)

Black Skimmers! A dream bird of mine. Every time I visit Long Beach Island during the summer I hope to see Black Skimmers, but never do. There were about 4 of them skimming along the water. Black Skimmers are unique because their lower mandibles are much longer than their upper one. They keep their bills open as they skim the water’s surface until they hit a fish. I was happy seeing them, but wasn’t prepared for what would happen next.

IMG_0944
Black Skimmer (Image by David Horowitz)

On the other side of the marsh something big was happening. There was a flurry of black and white in the distance. I thought it was a bunch of gulls and terns, but it was more exciting than that. It was a huge flock of Black Skimmers coming our way!

I’ve never experienced something quite like it. There had to be at least 200 of them.They were everywhere! And they were loud too, all calling out “Yip! Yip!’. The flock split; some went out towards the ocean, while the rest did a loop around the marsh before landing together in a mudflat. It was by far one of the most thrilling displays I experienced at Forsythe.

IMG_0942
A group of Black Skimmers (Image by David Horowitz0

We continued on and saw another one of my favorite birds, Snowy Egrets. They were stalking around looking for fish while Herring Gulls and Common Terns flew and dove overhead. There were also Great Egrets, Grackles, Red-winged Blackbird, Willets, Lesser Yellowlegs, Tree Swallows, Crows,more Osprey families, and a family of Mute Swans with 2 cygnets.

 

Toward the end of the trail there were some terns hanging around. I’ll admit, terns are new identification territory for me. I was able to figure out that I was seeing some Common Terns, but there was another kind as well. They had black heads, all black bills, and black legs. Turns out they were Gull-billed Terns. They are usually uncommon, but a birder from a Facebook group I’m in told me that they have been starting to breed at Forsythe. It was our final life bird of the day.

IMG_1010
Gull-billed Tern (Image by David Horowitz)

I learned later in the day that Dave and I saw a something rare during our trip. There were 3 Ruddy Ducks hanging out not far from the Gull-billed Terns. I was a little surprised to see them, but we took a few pictures and moved on. In the evening I received my daily E-bird NJ Rare Bird Alert E-mail and the 3 Ruddy Ducks were on there. They should have left for the season, but for some reason these ones stuck around. This was the first time I saw one of the birds on the Rare Bird List in person. I submitted my checklist that night and the following day my Ruddy Duck report and comments were on the e-mail. I know that’s such a bird nerd thing, but I was excited about it! 😛

As usual, Forsythe NWR never fails to please. If you’re ever at the Jersey Shore and want to go birding you should definitely spend a day at Forsythe. Have you done any shore birding lately? If you have, what kind of shorebirds are you seeing?

 

 

A “Big” Day

In the world of birding, the term “Big Day” is used to describe an event where birders try to count as many birds possible in one day. Dave and I didn’t attempt this kind of event, but we had a “big day” in a difference sense: we saw multiple species of large birds.

Rain was a constant threat, but did that deter us from going bird watching? Of course not! Many birders don’t like going out on overcast days, but I love it. The sun isn’t drowning out all the bird’s details as you try to see them in your binoculars and there are less people out so it’s quieter. We decided it would be a nice day to go to Amico Island.

On the way to Amico Island we spotted a large group of Wild Turkeys in a field. There were at least 20 of them. All the males were strutting around doing courtship displays to try to impress the hens.  When a male Wild Turkey  displays he droops his wings, fans his tail feathers, and struts around in a sort of “dance”. They may gobble to warn off other suitors and attract females to watch them. Male Wild Turkeys are polygamous, meaning one male may mate with multiple females. Dave was able to get a video of one of the males mating. Seeing this large flock was a fantastic sight. In the first video you can see the mating pair and in the second video one particular male is trying to woo a hen with his dance.

IMG_0668
Wild Turkeys strutting around (Image by David Horowitz)
male turkey display
A displaying male Wild Turkey (Image by BirdNation)

Once at Amico Island our trend of large birds continued. When we visited Amico Island about a month ago there were about 10 Great Blue Herons preparing their rookery (a.k.a nesting colony). We did see them again, but this time they had a visitor hanging around: a Bald Eagle! The Herons were spending time  in their nests while the Bald Eagle stood on a neighboring branch. They looked out over the water together for a little while until the Bald Eagle finally flew away.

IMG_0680
Great Blue Herons and a Bald Eagle enjoying the view (Image by David Horowitz)

The Bald Eagle wasn’t the only raptor we saw. A pair of Ospreys flew overhead by the pond on the red trail. This was our first Osprey pair we observed for the season. The female flew away, but the male stood around the pond to collect branches for his nest. It was so cool watching him tear branches off the trees. He decided to take a rest on a branch for a bit when another Great Blue Heron showed up. I guess the heron thought the Osprey needed some company, because the heron chose to perch directly next him. The two were an unlikely pair, and it looked like they were having a showdown. (Or a staring contest? If that was the case the Osprey looked away first so the Heron won that haha :-P) They stood facing each other for at least 10 minutes before flying off to continue their duties. This is what I love about birding, you never know what you’ll see!

IMG_0683
The Odd Couple: a Great Blue Heron and an Osprey (Image by David Horowitz)

Of course, we didn’t see only  large birds. We saw many robins, sparrows, 4 Northern Flickers, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, and this Downy Woodpecker. This lovely lady let us get very close to her and didn’t seem to mind us watching her climb up the tree (by the way, this image is not cropped).

IMG_0689
A lovely Downy Woodpecker posing for her portrait (Image by David Horowitz)

It was such a beautiful afternoon. Who needs the sun out when you have wonderful birds to make your day sunny?

Outstanding Ospreys

I read an article from Conserve Wildlife New Jersey that had fantastic news. There are around 600 nesting pairs of Ospreys here in New Jersey. In the 1970s there were 50 nesting pairs. That’s a significant difference! The 2015 New Jersey Osprey Report was released today, so if you would like to see the article and the full 2015 Report click here:

Conserve Wildlife NJ Blog

So in celebration, here are 5 reasons why Ospreys are outstanding:

1.Ospreys are the only hawks in the country to have a diet that’s almost exclusively fish (up to 99% of their diet!). They have the ability to dive underwater from the air in order to catch fish swimming in shallow areas. Other hawks are only able to retrieve fish from the surface. When Ospreys dive their nictitating membranes (3rd eyelids) act as goggles. They can also close their nostrils while diving.

ospreyp14_Osprey
An osprey brings fish to its nest (Photo by George DeCamp)

2. Ospreys are one of the few raptors that have a reversible outer toe. That means they can grasp with  two front and two rear toes. To grip fish they use the barbed pads on their feet.

3. Osprey pairs use the same nests each year. Nests are usually placed up high and can be made of a variety of materials. The nest will start with large sticks as a foundation.The sticks can be lined with materials such as bark, sod, flotsam and jetsam, leaves, sod, and sometimes man-made materials (such as fishing nets). The male will retrieve the materials and the female with arrange them. Ospreys will add new material each year. After many years of reuse, a nest could be up to 10-13 ft long and 3-6 feet in diameter!

Osprey-by-Jim-White-1024x768
Osprey pair on their nest (Photo by Jim White)

4. You can find Ospreys on 6 continents (not on Antarctica). Ospreys that live in temperate areas (like here in New Jersey) will migrate to the tropics and return  in the summer to breed. Species who live in the tropics year-round will breed at the same nest site annually.

5. Ospreys will usually mate for life, unless a bird in the pair dies. Males will start breeding around the age of 3. To attract females, males will hold nesting material or fish in his talons and fly around the nest site. He will alternate between slow swoops high above the nest and hovering while a female watches. If a female approves she will go the nest and eat the fish the male offers her.

osprey_couple_home_page
Male on the right, female on the left

Bonus Fact:

If you see an osprey how will you know if it’s a male or female? An easy way is to look at the bird’s upper chest. Both sexes are brown on their back and white on the chest, but females have brown speckles on her upper chest. People sometimes refer to this as her “necklace”.

I’m looking forward to the Ospreys returning to New Jersey in the spring. It’s always a joy to see these incredible hawks.