First of Season

Tonight we walked at Boundary Creek. During this walk we saw 4 “first of season” birds. “First of season”  (or “first of year”) is a term birders use to simply refer to the first time they observed a specific species in a specific season.

We were greeted by the crooning of a Northern Mockingbird from high upon a tree.

While searching for the singing Mockingbird, we discovered a male Orchard Oriole (first of season). Unlike the bright orange of the male Baltimore Oriole, male Orchard Orioles are chestnut and black.

orchard oriole
Orchard Oriole (Image by BirdNation)

The observation platform that overlooks the creek was filled with birdsong. We saw/heard a male Baltimore Oriole and Yellow Warbler (first of season for both). Other birds included a Carolina Wren eating a worm, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Canada Geese, and American Robins.

This recording prominently features the Baltimore Oriole, Canada Geese, Yellow Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbirds.

At the beaver pond platform we saw a first of season Common Yellowthroat. We also observed Mallards, a small flock of Great Egrets flying overhead, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling, and a Gray Catbird. On the way back to the car we found an Eastern Bluebird, which is the first time we’ve seen one at Boundary Creek.

It was great to get out on a warm spring evening to experience the new arrivals.

Sights of Spring

Over the past 2 weeks, Dave and I have gone birding 7 times. We’ve had an interesting variety of early spring weather conditions, including chilly 40s and rain in the 70s. Here are some of my favorite moments from the last two weeks. (I don’t have pictures from all 7 trips)

Palmyra Cove Nature Park (3/23/18): first of season Killdeer and Osprey. Also saw a Muskrat

 

Barnegat Lighthouse State Park (3/25/18)

 

Palmyra Cove Nature Park (4/4/18): It started raining when we arrived, so we ended up walking in the middle of a short rainstorm. It was a really cool experience. There were still a lot of birds out, and by the time we finished walking the rain had stopped (29 species in total, including a first of season Palm Warbler and many Eastern Phoebes). We also had a chance to watch the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge open, found a goose egg, saw interesting fungi, and discovered a bunch of forest snails.

 

Island Beach State Park (4/6/18): Saw about 200 Northern Gannets and many Osprey. First of season Snowy Egrets and Laughing Gull

GBBC ’18 Part 2: A Rare Surprise

Today’s post is Part 2 of the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count. You can read about Day 1 here.

We spent the last half of the bird count weekend at the Jersey Shore. For the last few weeks, many birders on some of the Facebook groups I’m a member of have been posting about Redhead ducks. A large flock of these ducks, as well as other waterfowl, have been observed at Lake of the Lilies in Pt. Pleasant, NJ. We’ve never seen Redheads before, so we thought it would be fun to check out this new location.

The first thing I noticed about Lake of the Lilies is that it’s relatively small. It’s also a little unusual because it’s surrounded on all sides by beach houses. I heard the Redheads tend to show up every winter, but with such a small lake I wasn’t sure what else would be around.

What a treasure trove! We observed 13 different waterfowl species. There were Mallards, Gadwalls, Greater Scaups, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Buffleheads, an American Wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and as we expected, a large raft of Redheads. All these different species congregated together to sleep, preen, feed, and float around the lake. We even had a chance to see two Horned Grebes and tons of American Coots. Lake of the Lilies is a lovely little gem. I was so satisfied watching all the waterfowl together. Mission accomplished.

We started head back around the lake to our car when a van stopped. The man in the van yelled out, ” Hi! Did you see the Tufted Duck? My friend told me that there’s a Tufted Duck hanging around here. Supposedly it’s pretty rare!”

No, we have not seen the Tufted Duck. We actually didn’t even know one was there. So we thanked the man  and turned around (obviously lol!) to search for the Tufted Duck. We scanned the lake. Tufted Ducks look very similar to Great Scaups, and as their name suggests, they have a tuft of feathers sticking out from the back of their heads. By this point, most of the duck had their heads tucked in to sleep. I did see one duck with some feathers sticking out, but wasn’t sure if that was the bird. I took some more pictures and after awhile we went on our way.

It turns out that after we left a large number of birders arrived at Lake of the Lilies to find the Tufted Duck. Many people posted the duck on Facebook. I scanned through all the photos I took and checked every single duck. Only one duck looked suspect with some feathers sticking out, so I asked my Facebook group. It was confirmed: we saw the Tufted Duck!

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Sleepy Tufted Duck (Image by BirdNation)

Tufted Ducks are from Eurasia, so finding one here in America is pretty rare. We didn’t expected to find a rare bird during the count, but we ended up nabbing our first ever Eurasian rarity!

Here’s our count from Lake of the Lilies (17 species, 305 individuals):

  • 45 Canada Geese
  • 3 Mute Swans
  • 5 Northern Shovelers
  • 4 Gadwall
  • 1 American Wigeon
  • 84 Mallards
  • 45 Redheads
  • 4 Ring-necked Ducks
  • 1 Tufted Duck
  • 35 Greater Scaup
  • 3 Bufflehead
  • 6 Hooded Mergansers
  • 22 Ruddy Ducks
  • 2 Horned Grebes
  • 30 American Coots
  • 10 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 5 Rock Pigeons

Our final park of the day was Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area. We didn’t stay too long, but did see 14 species and 233 individuals.

  • 100 Brant
  • 2 Long-tailed Ducks
  • 2 Mallards
  • 42 American Black Ducks
  • 8 Bufflehead
  • 1 Horned Grebe
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 3 Great Blue Herons
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 24 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 37 Herring Gulls
  • 5 American Crows
  • 3 White-throated Sparrow
  • 2 Song Sparrows

Here’s what we saw last year on Day 3. We were not able to participate on Day 4 this year, so you can read about 2017’s Day 4 here.


In the 2 days that we were able to participate this year, we saw 33 different species and 793 individual birds. Two of our species were life-list birds. It will certainly be a Great Backyard Bird Count to remember.

 

Backyard Bird Count ’18: Lakes Edition

2018 is was our 4th year of participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. What an interesting weekend it was!

Unfortunately, Day 1 (2/16) ended up being a washout. It was a miserable, dark, rainy day. Here is what we saw on Day 1 last year. 

Thankfully the Sun made an appearance for a little while on Day 2 (2/17) . The temperature was around 40, so we ended up birding at two lakes. First up was Smithville Lake in Eastampton.

Every January/February we end up seeing Common Mergansers at Smithville Lake. I was hoping to see them again, but they weren’t around. It was pretty quiet, but we did see a few species. In total we saw 7 species and 22 individual birds. They were:

  • 4 Mallards
  • 3 Black Vultures
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 3 American Crows
  • 2 Carolina Chickadees
  • 6 White-throated Sparrows
winter at Smithville
Winter at Smithville Lake (Image by BirdNation)

Our second stop was Haddon Lake Park in Mt. Ephraim. Upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by the leader of the welcoming committee:

stalker goose
Canada Goose (Image by BirdNation)

Clearly he wanted food, but I certainly wasn’t going to feed him (Quick PSA: don’t feed the waterfowl!). We continued on our way to find more Canada Geese, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls. We also spotted some of the “strange ducks”, like the hybrid below, who seems to be a mix of a Mallard and one of the white domestic ducks.

 

Haddon Lake is a GBBC tradition for us. Now that we’ve been participating for multiple years, we can compare what we’ve observed this year to the past. Two species that we saw this year for the count but not past years were the Northern Mockingbird and Double-crested Cormorant. We had the opportunity to watch the cormorant climb out of the water and dry its wings off for a few minutes. Surprisingly, for a bird who’s livelihood is diving for fish, the Double-crested Cormorant’s feathers are not waterproof. Therefore, you’ll commonly see these birds fanning out their wings to dry. I took a video the cormorant preening.

We weren’t the only ones taking a stroll around the lake. It turns out that we were being followed around the whole lake by…

stalker goose 2
Canada Goose follower (Image by BirdNation)

The Canada Goose from the welcoming committee.  It was the first time I’ve had a Canada Goose participate in my bird count walk haha! :-p

Haddon Lake Park count (8 species, 233 individuals):

  • 130 Canada Geese
  • 90 Mallards
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 7 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Northern Mockingbird
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 1 Common Grackle

Overall our total count for Day 2 was 14 different species and 255 individual birds. Check our what we saw on Day 2 last year here).

Stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

Strange Ducks

Imagine you are at your local pond and all the ducks are out and about. You scan through a flock of Mallards with your binoculars.

Mallard…mallard…mallard…wait, what is that?

You spot a duck that looks…strange. It kind of looks like a Mallard, but something is not quite right. It’s possible that you found a hybrid.

Hybridization is common in birds, but especially so in waterfowl. When two birds of different species mate they can produce a hybrid offspring. The hybrids will usually display characteristics of both parents to some degree. Two of the most common hybridizing species in North American waterfowl are the Mallard and Wood Duck. In fact, scientists have identified around 400 different waterfowl hybrid combinations.

In general, many hybrid offspring are infertile. This is not always the case. Sometimes a hybrid can reproduce, but usually with not as much success as a pure-breed duck. This may occur in species that are more closely related in the same genus. The more evolutionary distant two species are, the more likely their hybrid will have low fitness (relative success of an individual in passing along their genes) or be sterile. Female hybrids are more likely to be inviable than males, due to the fact that sames have two different sex chromosomes and males have two of the same sex chromosomes (the opposite of mammals).

Hybrids actually tend to be rarer than people think. This is because there are many barriers to reproduction between unique waterfowl species. Examples of these barriers include songs/calls, habitat preference, physical attributes, and courtship behaviors. However, when everyone arrives at the breeding grounds and all those hormones get going, well….just about anything can happen.

It’s pretty interesting seeing a hybrid duck. It’s fun to try and figure out what species the parents were. Although interesting, unfortunately sometimes hybridization can lead to a decline in population of a species. Let’s use our Mallards again as an example. Over time, habitat changes in some duck species has led to Mallards expanding their range. In the case of the American Black Duck, their shrinking range has been encroached by Mallards and since these species interact more often,  they result in more American Black Duck x Mallard hybrids. Species threatened by Mallards also include the Mottled Duck of Florida and the Hawaiian Duck.

hybrid duck 1
American Black Duck x Mallard Hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

Other common duck hybrids include Mallard x Northern Pintail, Gadwall x American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon x American Wigeon, and Wood Duck x Mallard.

There’s also the good possibility that the odd duck you saw at the pond could be a domestic duck. It’s not uncommon to find domestic ducks mixed into the waterfowl flock. If a strange duck seems comfortable with/approaches people or has large white patches where you don’t expect it, then it is most likely a domestic duck. We have seen plenty of these domestic ducks at Haddon Lake over the years.

 

And last but not least, my favorite: Puff Duck ( aka “Puffy”, R.I.P. You can read his story, “The Tale of the Three Amigos”, here).

puff duck and friend 1
Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

Keep an eye out for strange ducks! Happy duck watching!

A Golden Day

Today Dave and I took a trip to Amico Island. It was only 30 degrees, but we ended up seeing 14 species, including a new life list bird.

We spotted Golden-crowned Kinglets as soon as we got out of the car. There were at least two of them swiftly jumping from branch to branch. These cute little birds are extremely agile while gleaning the branches for food. They sport a golden yellow crest surrounded by black stripes. It’s no surprise that we found these kinglets in the freezing weather: they can survive -40 degree nights!

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Image by David Horowitz)

There weren’t only kinglets when we arrived at the park. On a nearby tree was a Brown Creeper. The tiny Brown Creeper happened to be on the largest tree in the area. Brown Creepers are very hard to spot because they blend in perfectly with the tree bark. Unlike White-breasted Nuthatches, who climb both up and down tree trunks, Brown Creepers only climb up the tree. Once it reaches the top, a creeper will fly back down to the base in order to ascend again. Brown Creepers actually hop up the tree using their curved sharp claws and tail to help keep them stable.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper (Image by David Horowitz)

For the first part of the hike we took the blue trail through the woods. Along the way we saw more creepers, kinglets, a Tufted Titmouse, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and some Carolina Wrens. The Carolina Wren pictured below was doing an interesting little back-and-forth dance while chattering. I’m guessing it was a female since female Carolinas are the ones that chatter.

Carolina Wren 3
Carolina Wren (Image by BirdNation)

We spent the second part of the walk near where Rancocas Creek and the Delaware River meet. The creek was really frozen, but parts of the river were starting to melt. It was really cool hearing the sounds of the cracking and melting ice while we looked for birds. Along the way we spotted two Great Blue Herons, a Bald Eagle, tons of Ring-billed Gulls, a Bufflehead, some Canada Geese, and Common Mergansers.

Not far from the mergansers was a dark diving duck. It had a distinct white patch towards the rear of its body. Another one soon arrived, and this duck had a white patch near the bill. The heads of these ducks were more of a triangular shape, and the newly arrived bird had a large white section. We got our moment of confirmation when these ducks flew away: a bright gold eye. Our first life bird of the year were a small group of Common Goldeneyes. The picture below isn’t that great (they were really far), but it was able to help us with id.

Common Goldeneyes.JPG
Common Goldeneyes (Image by BirdNation)

It was cold, but at the same time refreshing to be out with the waterfowl in the crisp air. Although it was a pretty drab-looking day, we came out golden with our kinglets and goldeneyes :-).

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Frozen Delaware River (Image by BirdNation)

Flock Friday

While many Americans were out shopping on Black Friday in crazy crowds, Dave and I were among the flocks of water in Cape May.

Last Sunday we went to Barnegat Lighthouse SP with the goal of seeing the winter waterfowl. It turns out we picked the windiest day to go (40+ mph winds!). We didn’t see much more than Brants, many gull varieties, Forsters Terns, and a few Sanderlings hiding from the wind behind rocks. No waterfowl to besides Brants to be seen, and I don’t blame them for not being around with the rough waters and high winds. It was still a fun trip, but we more than made up for the lack of waterfowl last week with today’s trip.

We started the morning at Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP) where we saw 7 species of waterfowl. They were Mallards, Gadwalls, Mute Swans, Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, American Wigeons, and Canada Geese.

Interspersed between the waterfowl were American Coots. Many people think that Coots are similar to ducks, but these species are not even in the same family. Coots belong to the family Rallidae (while ducks are in the family Anatidae) and are more closely related to rails and cranes. American Coots also lack webbing on their feet and instead have comically large lobed toes. Other birds at CMPSP included Yellow-rumped Warblers, an Osprey, Pied-billed Grebes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Double-crested Cormorants, and Dark-eyed Juncos.

yellow-rump
Showing off its Yellow-rump (Image by BirdNation)

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows, where we saw even more waterfowl. Waterfowl included Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, a drake Northern Pintail, 3 female Surf Scoters, and more of the other species observed at CMPSP. At this location we spent most of our time walking on the beach instead of through the meadow itself. On the beach there were large groups of Greater Black-backed Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. Sanderlings ran along the crashing waves and a few Black-bellied Plovers joined them. Out over the ocean large rafts of Scoters flew by, though it was hard to identify which kind with how far out they were. We also saw a few Red-throated Loons. Like CMPSP, we found a lot of Yellow-rumped Warblers on the trails to and from the beach.

After exploring the Point and the Meadows, we tried a new birding area: Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. Cape May NWR is actually split into 3 units. The Great Cedar Swamp Division is near Upper Township, the Delaware Bay Division is in Middle Township, and Two Mile Beach Unit is in Lower Township. We decided to check out Two Mile Beach. At Two Mile Beach we saw tons of Dunlins, Sanderlings, gulls, some Black-bellied Plovers, and some Red-throated Loons. I didn’t take any pictures, but it was a nice way to end our day. I would certainly like to check out the other two units during future trips.

I’m so glad that we were able to spend some time with the birds down in Cape May. I certainly enjoyed spending my time among the large waterfowl flocks than with the crazy shopping crowds!