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!

Gulls Galore

This past Sunday was warm: a whopping 76 degrees here in New Jersey. I’m not the biggest fan of that kind of heat in the fall, but I thought it would be nice to go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Long Beach Island, NJ. I figured that it’s usually cooler at the shore, so we should have a nice cool breeze while birding. I wanted to see some shore birds and new migrants who I’ve been hearing about on some of my birding Facebook groups.

Things didn’t quite turn out as I expected though. There was no cool breeze (although it was nice and sunny). You know what else was missing?

Shorebirds. There were no shorebirds in sight. Zero. Once again, birding got me by giving me exactly what I did not expect. But instead I got something else that’s pretty great.

Gulls. Lots and lot of gulls. Gulls galore.

Like Turkey Vultures, I feel like gulls also get a bad rep. They are noisy, they steal, they invade our parking lots. Many people think of them as a nuisance.

If you feel that way about gulls, I challenge you to look closer. Gulls are actually pretty fascinating. They have complex communication systems and are excellent parents. Gulls are also extremely adaptable. People may get annoyed seeing gulls hanging out by all the garbage, but let’s remember who created all that garbage in the first place…(hint: it’s not the gulls :-P)

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“Mr. Sandy-bill” takes a stroll on the beach (Image by BirdNation)

So although I did not get to see shorebirds, I was happy to spend some time with the gulls. I felt honored to be able to get so close and observe. We watched them preen, rest, hang out together, swim in a tide pool, float on ocean waves, and soar over the water. It was a nice day to be with these underappreciated sea birds.

As I explained in my Seashore Saturday about Laughing Gulls, the term “seagull” is not real. There are only “gulls”, and there are many different kinds that live here at the Jersey Shore in the fall and winter. We saw a healthy mix of Ring-billed, Herring, Laughing, and Great Black-backed Gulls (I heard later through Facebook that there were Bonaparte’s Gulls somewhere that day but I did not personally observe them).

I’ll admit, I’m not the best at gull identification. Gull plumage varies greatly. It depends on the season, breeding vs. nonbreeding, and how old a bird is. Juveniles of all the species listed above tend to be more brown, but some gulls have different winter plumage depending on if they are 1st winter, 2nd winter, or 3rd winter. I would be remiss if I acted like I knew what all these specific gulls were in the pictures of this post. I have a long way to go in my gull id skills. But it is a work in progress that I am determined to improve over time. So I will caption these pictures with simply just “mixed flocks of gulls”.

However, I feel somewhat confident of this picture:

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Herring Gull? (Image by David Horowitz)

After much deliberation I believe this fellow is a 3rd winter Herring Gull. But don’t quote me on that! (lol 🙂 and please correct me if I’m wrong!).

I may have only gotten decent pictures of gulls, be we did see some other species on our trip. These included male and female Northern Cardinals, two Brown Creepers, two Great Cormorants, a Double-crested Cormorant, a Red-bellied and a Downy Woodpecker, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and a juvenile Eastern Phoebe. We determined the Phoebe was juvenile because of its pale yellow belly.

We even picked up two new feathers for our collection: a Northern Flicker and some sort of gull (again, I have no clue who’s feather this may be, I just thought it was cool).

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Northern Flicker and gull feathers (Image by BirdNation)

I’m glad we had a day full of gulls. These interesting birds deserve more respect and positive attention. The shorebirds can wait until the next Long Beach Island trip.

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Gulls getting their feet wet (Image by BirdNation)

Living on the Edge

“Does losing one more bird matter?”

This question was asked by author Deborah Cramer in her book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

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(Image via amazon.com)

In The Narrow Edge, Cramer explores this question through documenting the journey of the Red Knot, a tiny shorebird. She focuses on Calidris Canutus rufa, one of the six subspecies of Red Knots worldwide. The rufa species uses most of the Atlantic Flyway for their migration route from South America to the Arctic. It’s an extremely long journey – around 19,000 miles round trip- and a dangerous one. Cramer sets out to learn about the obstacles the Red Knots face by traveling the migration route with them.

The journey begins on the beach of  Bahía Lomas in Tierra del Fuego, located at the southern end of South America. She refers to this place as the first “rung on the ladder” for the Knot’s epic migration. From the start, the population of rufas is lower than in the past. They continue up the coast, briefly stopping in Brazil to refuel before landing in Delaware Bay.

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A Red Knot at Delaware Bay (Image by Bill Dalton via conservewildlifenj.org)

Although our trip started with Red Knots, there is another creature involved. Enter the horseshoe crab. Considered “living fossils” by some, and have changed very little in the last 445 million years. Red Knots rely eating the horseshoe crab’s eggs to help them complete their migration to the Arctic. However, horseshoe crab populations on the East Coast of the United States have been decimated over the years, due to being used as bait, fertilizer, and for biomedical research.

Horseshoe crab’s blood is copper-based (and therefore blue), as opposed to our iron-based blood. Scientist learned that horseshoe crab’s blood is highly sensitive to endotoxins. Amebocytes from their blood is used for the endotoxin  detector LAL (limulus amebocyte lysate). Humans rely on the crab’s blood to make sure medicines and devices such as IVs are free from harmful bacteria.

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© Hans Hillewaert via wikipedia.com

Delaware Bay use to overflow with horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, but the last few decades have been much quieter. Cramer discovers this is having an impact on how many shorebirds make it to the Arctic, a region already threatened tremendously by climate change. Cramer spends 3 1/2 weeks with a team of scientists tracking shorebird nests in the Arctic, then heads back south to James Bay, Ontario. This is where she ends her migration trip, but journey continues for the Red Knots.

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Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs in Georgia (Image by Brad Winn, Manomet via shorebirdscience.org)

The Narrow Edge is a fascinating book. Cramer presents the struggle of the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs by combining history, scientific evidence, and personal stories (from herself and other). She doesn’t just focus on Red Knots and horseshoe crabs, however. When she asks if losing another bird matters, she reminds the reader that every species is interconnected, a notion that many humans tend of forget.

She goes on to say, “The loss of a bird can reverberate through a food web, touching its many strands in ways we have only begun to measure.”

The loss of any species, whether or not they are birds, can have a negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem in which it lives. So many animals and plants in the natural world are living on the edge, just like the Red Knots and horseshoe crabs that Cramer writes about. She brings up many ecological and conservation issues, such as the value of the natural world to humans, ocean acidification, global warming, and habitat loss. The solutions to these problems are complex, and although Cramer alone cannot offer solutions, she presents what we already know and what is currently being done.

Cramer wants us to remember that humans are interconnected with nature as well.  Our actions do have an impact on all forms of life, from the Red Knots to the tiniest insects to the largest mammals. Although the stakes are high, horseshoe crabs and Red Knots continue to persist the best they can. Through Cramer’s cautious warning, there is a glimmer of hope. If conservation of all life becomes more of a focus, maybe someday we can persist like the Red Knots and create a healthier Earth.

 

(If you want more information about the Red Knots and climate change in addition to the book, you can check out an article written by Deborah Cramer for the May/June 2016 issue of Audubon Magazine. It’s called Red Knots are Battling Climate Change- On Both Ends of the Earth.)

 

 

 

Piping Plover: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! It’s the most hectic time of the year for me: back to school (this year as a teacher and a student). Everyone is one the move again, and birds are no exception: fall migration is underway. There are so many exciting things going on this time of year. Autumn begins on Thursday the 22nd, and right now we are in the midst of warbler and shorebird migration. Yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day, which is a day to raise awareness of ground-nesting plovers around the world and how we can help them. Today there are two personal special things happening: the last Seashore Saturday of the season and my birthday! I decided to combine those last two events by choosing one of my favorite shorebirds to write about: the Piping Plover. Starting next week I’m going to kick off Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I also have a birding trip post coming soon and a book review, so stay tuned!

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Description:

Piping Plovers are small, stocky plovers. They have pale upperparts, white underparts, and short bills. Their legs are orange-yellow and they have black feathers on the tips of their tails and sides of their wings. During breeding season they have a black, narrow breast band while juvenile and non-breeding birds have a pale band. Their bills are orange with a black tip during breeding.

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Piping Plover on Long Beach Island, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

Breeding: northern Atlantic Coast, parts of the northern plains (mid-Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska)/Great Lakes region (although population have dramatically declined there.) Winter: southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast

Habitat:

Sandy beaches, sand bars, tidal flats, alkali lakes

Diet:

Insects, crustaceans, marine worms, invertebrates. Piping Plovers are ground foragers who run a few steps then stop to look for food and peck around.

Breeding/Nesting:

Piping Plovers are a threatened and priority bird, partly due to the fact that they breed on the ground. Piping Plovers lay their eggs in a scrape in the sand, usually some distance from water. The problem is that they blend in so well with their surroundings that their nests can easily be destroyed by beachgoers who are not aware the plover eggs are there. Because of this, many Atlantic Coast beaches have blocked off areas were Piping Plovers and other threatened shorebirds, such as terns and Black Skimmers, nest.

Piping Plovers lay on average about 4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for 26-28 days. The young are downy and leave the nest a few hours after nesting to look for food. The parents brood the young, but the female usually deserts the chicks after a few days and the male cares for them. The chicks fledge between 21-35 days after hatching. Not much is known about the Piping Plover’s development.

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Piping Plover chick on Long Beach Island (Image by David Horowitz)

Sounds:

peep, peeto! or a series of pehp, pehp, pehp when agitated.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Piping Plovers are seen in small groups, but they are usually solitary and don’t mix with other shorebirds often.
  • Piping Plovers are native to the United States and just barely disperse into Mexico. They also winter in The Bahamas.
  • Male Piping Plovers have thicker breast bands during breeding season, which is one of the only ways to tell the sexes apart.
  • During breeding, males display elaborate courtship ceremonies, such as flights that feature dives and stone tossing. Males create multiple scrapes in the ground for nest sites and female will choose the site she likes best to camouflage it.
  • Like, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Piping Plovers use the “broken-wing display” to distracted predators from their young.

Please be mindful of your surroundings while visiting beaches. Make sure to obey any signs you see, especially if they are telling you to avoid a shorebird nesting area. Piping Plover populations are under 10,000, so it’s important that we are taking proper precautions to protect their habit.

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Piping Plover parent and chick (Image by Johann Schmacher via audubon.org)

Whimbrel: Seashore Saturday

For BirdNation’s 100th post, we are featuring the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world: the Whimbrel.

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

Description:

Whimbrels are large sandpipers that have a distinctive long down-curved bill. They are one of the eight species of the Curlew family (genus Numenius). They are buffy and streaky overall, with long necks/legs. They have a dark crown and an eye stripe. In flight they are mainly white with no visible field marks. They  have strong wing beats and their wings are very pointed.

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Whimbrel (Image by Terry Hartley of Due South Photography via outdooralabama.com)

Range:

Whimbrels are found in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres and winter on the coasts of 6 continents. Whimbrels in the Western Hemispheres winter from the coasts of the United States all the way down to the end of South America. They breed in Alaska nad Northern Canada.

Habitat:

Shores, beaches, mudflats, tundras, marshes, and grassy fields

Diet:

Invertebrates, crabs, insects, berries. Whimbrels use their long down-curved bills to probe just below the water or pick up food on the surface. When eating crabs they crush the shell and remove the legs.

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Feeding Whimbrel (Image by Ganesh Jayaraman via allaboutbirds.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

During courtship males perform circular aerial flights while whistling. Nests are a shallow depression on the ground in the tundra and lined with natural materials. 3-5 egg are incubated by both sexes for 24-28 days. Like many other shorebirds, the young will forage on their own while being watched by the parents. The parents are very protective and will even attack humans who are in their territories. The young’s first flight occurs between 5-6 weeks.

Sounds:

Rapid, loud pip-pip-pip-pip-pip! Usually between 5-7 notes.

Fun Facts:

  • Some Whimbrels migrate from Southern Canada to South America, which can be around a 2,500 mile non-stop trip.
  • Whimbrels are sometimes referred to as “Short-billed Curlews”. They look similar to Long-billed Curlews, but has a shorter bills.
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Whimbrel in flight (Image via birdinginformation.com)

 

Cory’s Shearwater: Seashore Saturday

The last few weeks have been about shorebirds, so today I wanted to write about a seabird.

Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea)

Description:

Cory’s Shearwaters are the largest of the North American Shearwaters at around 19″.  They have sandy brown upperparts and white underparts. Their heads are mainly dark and their wings are broad and arched. Cory’s have distinctive, heavy yellow bills.

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Cory’s Shearwater (Image by Adin Vella via birdinginmalta.com)

Range:

Found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts between March and October. . Cory’s have an extremely large range. They are native to North America, Africa, Europe, and many island nations. Savage Islands, Madeira, has the largest breeding colony of Cory’s Shearwaters.

Habitat:

Open oceans. Cory’s prefer warm waters. They nest on mountainous or rocky islands.

Diet:

Fish, crustaceans, and squid. Cory’s forage by plunge diving into the water and grabbing prey from below the surface. Like many other seabirds, Cory’s also scavenge for food near fishing boats and sometimes associate with whales who scare small schools of fish to the surface. Cory’s are usually solitary but will gather in flocks with other shearwaters where food is abundant.

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Cory’s Shearwater in flight (Image by Jeff Slovin via neseabirds.com)

Breeding/Nesting:

Cory’s Shearwaters breed between March and October in large colonies that are mainly active later in the day. During courtship pairs will sit close together and preen each others’ heads and bills. They mainly nest in crevices, burrows, or on the ground using shells and small pebbles. Females lay one egg per year that is incubated by both parents for 52-56 days. They parents feed the young primarily at night and eventually the chick goes out to sea to feed on their own. When tending to the young, parents switch incubation roles around every 6 days.  The young fledge about 90 days after hatching.

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A Cory’s Shearwater at its nesting site (Image by Coimbra68 via wikimedia commons)

Sounds:

Silent when out at sea.

Fun Facts:

  • This species of  shearwater was named after American ornithologist Charles B. Cory.
  • Cory’s Shearwaters are in the family Procellariiformes, more commonly known as tubenoses. Members of this family have have distinctive nostrils, that are covered by tubes on their upper bills. Since they drink salt water they have to excrete excess salt. The nasal glands are above the eyes at the base of the bill. This gland removes salt and creates as saline solution that drips out of the nostrils of their bills. Tubenose birds have a great sense of smell, which aids them in finding prey as well as their nest sites.

 

Semipalmated Plover: Seashore Sunday

I woke up this morning (Sunday) and realized that I didn’t post a Seashore Saturday! I lost track of what day it was. So here’s another Seashore Sunday. This week’s bird is one that I’ve been seeing a lot of lately: the Semipalmated Plover. I saw this bird on my recent trips to Cape May and Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)

Description:

Semipalmated Plovers are about 7.25 in length. They have brown upperparts, white underparts, and orange legs. They have a distinctive dark breast band, as well as dark cheeks. The base of their bill is orange while the bill tip is black. They are smaller than the similar-looking Killdeer, who have a double breast band.

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Adult Semipalmated Plover (Image by Mike Lentz via allaboutbirds.org)

Range:

Breeding (Summer): Alaska and Northern Canada; Migration: Canada, throughout United States; Winter: Pacific, Atlantic, and gulf Coasts, Caribbean Islands, and coast of South America

Habitat:

Shores, sandy beaches, mudflats, lake shores. Prefers open habitats and avoids flats with too much marsh vegetation

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In flight (Image by Mike Danzenbaker via avesphoto.com)

Diet:

Mainly insects, but also marine worms and crustaceans. Semipalmated Plovers forage by running in short spurts and pecking the ground when they spot food. Sometimes they shuffle their foot in the ground to startle prey into moving.

Breeding and Nesting:

To attract a mate in the air, males will flying in circles using slow wingbeats over their territories while calling. Another technique is to fluff his feathers, spread his tail and wings, crouch down, and call excitedly. Semipalmated Plovers build the nest on bare gravel or sand and line it with natural materials.

Both sexes incubate usually 4 eggs for 23-25 days. The downy young leave the nest shortly after hatching and feed themselves while being watched by the parents. Young plovers’ first flight occur between 23-31 days after hatching.

Sounds:

Two-note whistle: tu-wee!

Fun Facts:

  • “Semipalmated” refers to the fact that they have partial webbing in between their toes.
  • Semipalmated Plovers are the most numerous of the small plovers.
  • Like the Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers use the “broken-wing display”, where they pretend to be injured to lure predators away from their chicks.