Chincoteague Waterfowl Weekend

We are on Thanksgiving break, so Dave and I took a one-day getaway to Chincoteague, VA. Thanksgiving weekend is Waterfowl Weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Being a waterfowl enthusiast, I thought it was a perfect time to head down to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to seek out winter visitors. (We went to Chincoteague for our honeymoon in March, check out that trip here).

Tom’s Cove Beach Highlights

  • Snow Geese! Over a thousand of them! The longer we watched the flock, the more Snow Geese arrived. They circled above us as they joined the huge flock resting on the beach. Mixed within the sea of white were “blue morphs”, a color variation of the Snow Goose. Individuals will mate for life, choosing the same color morph as their family members. Two white morphs will have white offspring, a pure dark with a white morph will likely have dark morphs (sometimes with white bellies), and two blue morphs will likely have blue offspring, although white offspring are possible. Dave spotted two individual with bands, one in which he got a clear picture of.

Snow Goose Parade (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

Snow Geese soaring overhead (Image by David Horowitz)

  • Shorebirds: Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlins, Sanderlings, Willets, and Yellowlegs

  • Lots of Gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), Common and Red-bellied Loons, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Bufflehead, Forster’s Terns. 

Extended Wildlife Loop Highlights

Chincoteague NWR has a 3.2 mile wildlife loop for walking, bicycling, and driving. For Waterfowl Weekend, the refuge opens up a 7.5 mile service (15 miles round trip) road to extend the drive. I’ll admit it was a little strange at first because it just seemed like a road with dead trees. However, further down the trail there were pools and dikes with many birds. 

  • American White Pelicans!: We saw 2 American White Pelicans floating and flying over a pool. It was Dave’s first White Pelicans (I saw my first in NJ, read about the awesome experience with Mr. Pelican  here). I discovered while entering my checklist on e-Bird that the pelicans were considered rare in our location, so we were lucky enough to have some “rare” birds on this trip. At this time of year American White Pelicans are usually in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, or parts of California.  
American White Pelicans (Image by BirdNation)
  • Yellow-rumped Warblers, more Bufflehead, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, White-breasted Nuthatch, Snowy and Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles 
  • And of course, the famous Chincoteague Wild Ponies. In March we had a cool experience of the wild ponies parading past our vehicle. There were a lot more visitors this time, so the ponies caused quite a spectacle (and traffic!). We again had a pretty “up close and personal” encounter with the ponies, although I don’t think the actually realized how close they came to our car. They were too busy just being wild ponies to notice how close they were.
Chincoteague Wild Ponies cause a commotion 

I’m so thankful that we had the time to head down for a fun-filled day at Chincoteague NWR. There’s always something amazing to see on Chincoteague Island. 

Cape May Big Day

Yesterday, October 6th, was the first October Global Big Day. For the past 4 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has held an annual Global Big Day event in May. 2018 is the first year that this Big Day event was also held in autumn. With spring now in the Southern Hemisphere and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, the Lab thought it would be great time to track the migrations around the world.

Dave and I went to Cape May for our big day. We hiked around our two favorite Cape May locations: Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows.

It seemed like everyone had the same idea about going to the Point. It was packed with birders of all ages. Many people were participating in the fall Hawk Watch, which takes place daily during the migration. Located on a prime location of the Altantic Flyway, Cape May is one of the best birding areas in the country to catch a sight of migrants, whether they are hawks, warblers, or anything in between.

Cape May Point highlights:

  • Tree Swallow massive flock!: We had the opportunity to observe a large flock of Tree Swallows gathering on the beach. It was amazing to watch them swirl around over the sand. Tree Swallows migrate in huge flocks that can number in the hundreds of thousands. They take about 3-4 months to migrate from their summer to their wintering grounds, leisurely stopping en route to forage, preen, and rest.  Sometimes the flocks are so large that they come up on weather radar as “roost rings”.

 

  • Monarch Butterflies. It’s also migration time for the Monarch Butterfly. Cape May happens to be a fantastic place to experience their journey. We saw many as we walked the trails.

 

  • Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Warblers are now migrating through the area to their wintering grounds. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees, Common Yellowthroats skulking through the bushes, and Palm Warblers zooming across the path. During fall migration, warblers adopt more drab plumage as opposed to their bright spring breeding plumage. The Palm Warblers we saw were actually the Western subspecies. The Western Palms are more numerous on the Atlantic Coast during fall migration.

Palm Warbler (Western)
Palm Warbler “Western” subspecies (Image by BirdNation)

South Cape May Meadows Highlights:

  • Atlantic Ghost Crab: Atlantic Ghost Crabs can be found from Block Island, Rhode Island south to Brazil along the coast. They are primarily nocturnal, so it was a surprising but wonderful sight to see one running along the trail.

Atlantic Ghost Crab (Image by BirdNation)

  • Winter Waterfowl: The winter Waterfowl are already starting to arrive. We saw groups of Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls at the Meadows (as well as some Ruddy Ducks and American Wigeons at the Point).
  • Common Buckeyes. We saw a few Common Buckeye butterflies fluttering around the paths.

Common Buckeye
Common Buckeye (Image by BirdNation)

Overall, we saw 31 species for our October Big Day (60 species for the May Big Day at Forsythe NWR. It’s always a joy to go birding in Cape May, especially during fall migration.

Tell us some of the migrants you’ve been seeing in your area in the comment section!

March Vacation Part 1: Blackwater NWR

Dave and I are on a weekend get-away to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. On the way to Virginia, we stopped at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

Blackwater NWR is more than 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed loblolly pine and hardwood forests located along the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge features a 4.5 mile wildlife drive as well 4 walking trails. Blackwater NWR has one of the highest concentrations of nesting Bald Eagles on the Atlantic Coast.

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Blackwater River (Image by BirdNation)

The first bird that we saw upon arriving into the refuge was an adult Bald Eagle. By the end of the afternoon we ended up seeing 10 eagles. We saw a mix of adults and juveniles. Bald Eagles don’t fully gain their adult plumage of white heads/tails until they are 5-years-old.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle (Image by BirdNation)

There were still many large flocks on wintering waterfowl. Hundreds of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese gathered together in the pools behind and next to the visitor’s center. Northern Shovelers were also very abundant. Other waterfowl included Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Interspersed between the waterfowl were small groups of American Coots. Although they look duck-like, American Coots are not closely related to ducks. They are more closely related to rails.

 

We spent some time walking along the Woods Trail which consists of pine and mixed hardwood trees. This area is prime habitat for the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. Along the trail we saw Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Brown Creepers, a Carolina Wren, and a Hermit Thrush.

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Hermit Thrush (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds observed included Great Blue Herons, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-winged Blackbirds, an Eastern Bluebird, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Tree Swallows.

After spending a lovely morning at Blackwater NWR, we made our way to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. After checking into our hotel, found Veteran’s Memorial Park (on eBird as Chincoteague Memorial Park.). From the park we could see Assateague Lighthouse across the water as well as about 8 of the famous wild ponies. At Memorial Park we saw Bufflehead, American Oystercatchers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Vultures, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Loons, various gulls, and a bunch of Turkey Vultures sunbathing on a house.

Tomorrow we plan on exploring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. I’m looking forward to see what we discover!

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Assateague Lighthouse across the water (Image by BirdNation)

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

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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:

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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…

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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.

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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).

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Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

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

The Whistler

Sorry I missed Waterfowl Wednesday this week! It was my first night of my Bio 2 Lab, so I didn’t get home until late. To make up for it, I wanted to share some facts about my newest life list addition, the Common Goldeneye.

  • Hunters sometimes refer to the Common Goldeneye as the “whistler”. Goldeneyes are rapid flyers, so their wings make a whistling sound when they fly away. They can reach speeds of around 40 mph in flight.
  • Common Goldeneyes are part of the genus Bucephala, which is derived from the Greek word boukephalos, meaning “bull-headed”. The other two living species of this genus are the Barrow’s Goldeneye and the Bufflehead.

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Common Goldeneye female and male (Image via pinterest)

  • Goldeneyes have up to 14 different movements that they can use during courtship displays. One common display is when the male stretches out his neck, suddenly whips it back over his body, and kicks his feet up to cause a splash while making a two-note call. Many males will try to court a single female. (I recommend searching “common goldeneye courtship” on Youtube and watching some of the cool display videos).
  • Common Goldeneyes sometimes act as brood parasites  and lay their eggs in another Goldeneye’s nest, particularly when nest sites are in short supply.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Goldeneye females lay their eggs high up in tree cavities. They commonly use Pileated Woodpecker holes, but will use artificial nest sites if readily available. Chicks will leave the nest cavity one day after hatching. They have quite a fall to endure: some Goldeneye cavities can be as high as 60 feet from the ground!
  • During breeding season, Common Goldeneyes are found in the taiga through Alaska and Canada. They spend the winter throughout a majority of the “lower 48” of the United States.
  • The Common Goldeneyes are obviously named for their gold-colored eye, however their eyes change colors many times before adulthood. All chicks are born with gray-brown eyes. By five months of age, their eyes will have transitioned from purple-blue, to blue, to green-blue, to pale green-yellow. Males will have their eyes change to golden by adulthood, while females will have a range from yellow to white.

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The Beautiful Golden Eye By Francis C. Franklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons