Call of the Grackle

October 22 is a special day for Dave and I. It’s our anniversary date. So we thought what better way to spend our 9 year anniversary than at one of our favorite birding locations: Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather. It ended up getting quite warm today, but in the mid-morning it was cool and breezy. Even though the weather has been kind of strange lately, you can tell that winter will be on it’s way in a few months from the flocks that were hanging around.

The flocks of Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Great Egrets, Glossy Ibis and other summer visitors have been replaced by waterfowl. I did end up seeing 2 Forster’s Terns and a few Great Egrets, but it was clear the winter crowd is slowly starting to take over. There were still plenty of Snowy Egrets wading through the water and a large flock of Tree Swallows scooping up the flies that are still hanging on to the warm weather.

Waterfowl observed included Wood Ducks, Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, and over 40 (!) Mute Swans. We didn’t add any new birds to our life list overall, but we did add someone new to our park list: Pied-billed Grebes! We saw at least 6 in different parts of the refuge, sometimes in pairs. This was the first time we’ve seen them at Forsythe although we have seen this grebe species elsewhere (like this surprise one at Strawbridge Lake. There were a few raptors hanging around as well: 2 Cooper’s Hawks, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a female Northern Harrier.

The highlight of the trip for me were the Boat-tailed Grackles. I’ve seen one or two from a distance before, but this was the first time we saw a flock and we were able to get close to them. They were really fun to watch and very noisy. Boat-tailed Grackles and Common Grackles are similar, but do have some distinct differences. Boat-tailed Grackles are larger, have longer tails, have larger bills, and are more of a bluish iridescence. We saw both male and female Boat-tailed Grackles. The females are rufous brown with dark tails and wings. They were really beautiful.

Boat-tailed Grackle male
Boat-tailed Grackle male singing (Image by David Horowitz)
Boat-tailed Grackle female
Boat-tailed Grackle female (Image by BirdNation)
boat-tailed grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle on sign (Image by BirdNation)

We even got a few videos of their calls. Their common songs is a jeeb-jeeb-jeeb sound but like other grackles they make a variety of calls, whistles, guttural noises, and clicks. I like that after the grackle in the first video calls it makes a wing flutter that makes an interesting sound. (These videos were taken on my Iphone, so please excuse the quality :-), I was more concerned about the sounds). 

Overall we saw 29 species on our Forsythe trip. I’m glad we got to spend our special day at one of our favorite birding areas. Here’s to many more years of birding together! ❤

 

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Barnegat Light Records

On September 7th, Dave and I went birding at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. In our area that day it was supposed to be around 80 degrees (too hot for October in my opinion), so we escaped from the heat to the breezy shore.

We saw 12 American Oystercatchers on the beach, a personal record for us. Usually when we go to Barnegat Light we see T2’s family (a resident oystercatcher who you can read more about here), and sometimes an unbanded pair. So we were delighted to see such a high number of them. American Oystercatchers from South Carolina to Florida tend to be non-migratory. Many Northeastern populations use what is called “leap-frog” migration, where instead of migrating down the Atlantic Coast they winter in Northwest Florida (we learned our friend T2 does this, and winters in Cedar Key, Fl). American Oystercatchers will start forming pre-migration flocks in late summer and will migrate usually between mid-September and mid-November. Our group of 12 oystercatchers was probably one of those migration flocks. Our friend T2 was among them. I hope s/he has a safe migration and winter in Florida, and I hope to see T2 again for a 3rd year next summer.

There were also many smaller shorebirds running around the beach and on the jetty. These included Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers (in non-breeding plumage) , Least Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones. It was fun watching them run around the rocks looking for food. There was somebody else watching these “peeps”, although not for the same reason we were.

Every once in a while, a Merlin would swoop by and startle the the shorebirds, sending them off in a frenzy flock to escape becoming lunch. Merlins are swift, little falcons who hunt prey by using high speed attacks. Shorebirds are one of the many menu options for Merlins, who like to feast on birds that weight between 1-2 oz. The first time we saw a Merlin at Barnegat Light was December 2016. It makes me wonder if it’s possibly the same one or another individual.

Merlin
Merlin in flight (Image by David Horowitz)

Each year, Brown Pelicans show up around Barnegat Light in late summer/early fall, and during our August LBI trip we saw a few for the first time. This time we saw 10 Brown Pelicans flying towards Island Beach State Park (which you can see from Barnegat Light). We saw each pelican fly by individually, but learned they sit on some small islands out in Barnegat Inlet near Island Beach. I’m so happy that we’ve been able to see the late summer Brown Pelicans this year.

brown pelican 4
Brown Pelican over Barnegat Inlet (Image by David Horowitz)

Other highlights from our October LBI trip included a variety of gulls, a tern catching a fish and flying with it over our heads, and many Double-crested Cormorants.

tern 4
Tern with a fish (Image by David Horowitz)

We’ve had a few personal records this year at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. It was our first year seeing Brown Pelicans, we saw 12 American Oystercatchers in one visit, we’ve added a few birds to our life list, and we visited the park 5 times this year (as opposed to maybe twice per year in the past). I’m happy that we have been spending more time exploring and witnessing the seasons at Barnegat Light. I’m sure we will have a few more adventures on LBI for the remainder of the year, especially since the winter waterfowl will soon be on their way :-).

Birthday Birds

When Dave asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks ago, I told him I wanted warblers (naturally lol :-p). What I really meant was that I wanted to spend the morning birding in Cape May, NJ, which is a great spot to see warblers during migration. We actually did not see many warblers; only a few Yellow and Pine Warblers. But you know what, I’m okay with that, because instead I saw this guy:

Wood Stork
Wood Stork (Image by David Horowitz)

A Wood Stork!

Wood Storks are primarily found in Florida and South America, but can also be in other Southeastern/Gulf Coast states certain times of year. They are considered rare outside their range, so a Wood Stork in New Jersey is a special treat! Adult Wood Storks are bald, so this bird is a juvenile since it has brown head feathers.

This particular Wood Stork has been around Cape May and showing up on the NJ Rare Bird List for the last few weeks. I checked the list on Saturday night and there were 22 sightings, but over a few different Cape May locations, so I wasn’t sure where it would be.

The first destination for our trip was Cape May Point State Park, where it was previously seen around the Hawk Watch Platform. We were driving past Lake Drive, when the car in front of us (who’s license plate happened to be “SAWWHET” as in saw-whet owl haha) started randomly pulling over. Dave was driving so I looked to my right and saw a few birders looking up at a tree. And there was the Wood Stork.

“OH MY GOSH! WOOD STORK! IT’S RIGHT THERE!”

Dave quickly turned the corner onto Lake Dr. We quietly parked an made our way to the other birders. The Wood Stork was sitting up on a tree preening. It was so beautiful, especially its eyes. It would interrupt its preening every so often to look back at us, almost as if it was posing for our photographs. Then it would preen again and loudly shake its feathers back into place. It was a fascinating bird to watch, and I’m thankful we had the opportunity to spend some time with this magnificent Wood Stork.

Once we arrived at the Point, the sound of a familiar friend echoed through the air.

“poor-bob-WHITE!”

I was happy to hear that the Northern Bobwhites from our last trip were still around, although we didn’t actually see them today. At the ponds near the Hawk Watch Platform there were over 20 Mute Swans, Mallards, Tree Swallows, and a Great Egret. We also were able to watch a number of Northern Mockingbirds fly around with each other through the bushes and shrubs. Other birds at the Point included a Yellow Warbler, Pine Warblers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Snowy Egret.

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows. It was quieter for us than in the past, but we still managed to see some birds. These included another Yellow Warbler, Carolina Wrens, a Black Vulture, a Turkey Vulture eating a dead gull, a Cooper’s Hawk, Mourning Doves, more Mockingbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

I’m so happy that I had a chance to see the Wood Stork and was able to have a wonderful birding day with Dave. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my birthday.

 

A Whirlwind of Warblers

Ah, fall migration! One of the most exciting times of the birding year. As I stated in the recent Barnegat Lighthouse trip post, winter migrants have started to arrive and summer visitors are getting ready to go down South. This means that we get another chance to see warblers passing through the area, now in their fall plumage.

Saturday we took a trip to Palmyra Cove Nature Park. It started out normal enough: Wild Turkeys, a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, Mallards. Recently we’ve been taking the trail to the Dredge Retention Basin then the Red-wing Blackbird Trail to the Cove. This time Dave said he wanted to take the Saw-whet Trail. The Saw-whet Trail is only 1/4 of a mile, but it ended up being the busiest 1/4 mile of the day. Busy with what?

Warblers. A whirlwind of Warblers.

We were surrounded by warblers in all directions. They were flitting around the trees looking for food and chasing each other. There were other birds too, such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Cedar Waxwings, Great Crested Flycatchers and American Robins. But they were mostly warblers.

There are 56 species of warblers found in North America. Warblers are a diverse groups of small birds that can be found in all different colors. Sometimes male and females of a particular species will look the same and sometimes they are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different from one another). There are also some warbler species that have a “Bright” and “Drab” plumage variations. But that’s just the start. There’s spring vs. fall plumage, 1st year male/female vs. adult male/female and so on.

So the world of warblers is wonderful but it’s also…confusing. And while I was happily surrounded by warblers of many kinds, the big question became: who are they?

We did recognize a few of them; namely Black-and-white and a male American Redstart. But everyone else was a mystery. One was yellow with a black eye patch. A few had distinctive yellow and black tails. Others were gray with wingbars and yellow bellies. I had no clue who they were, but I was excited to spend time watching them.

Figuring out who they were wasn’t easy. Thankful, Dave bought me The Warbler Guide last year. If you want to learn about warblers, this book is essential for your library (you can read my review at the link above). Dave and I (as well as my friend Maria) figured out that our new warblers included: many female/1st year male American Redstarts, a Blue-winged Warbler, “Drab” Chestnut-sided Warblers, “Drab” Magnolia Warblers, and Mourning Warblers. The “drab” warblers would have been more difficult to figure out if it wasn’t for The Warbler Guide because not all fields guides are as detailed with plumage variations.

Dave was able to take a decent amount of picture so that we can try to identify the new warblers when we got home. The problem with warblers is that they are small, usually far away, and moving non-stop. Basically, they are challenging to photograph. So the pictures below aren’t the best we’ve ever taken, but I think he did a nice job considering (we don’t consider ourselves photographers, just birders who happen to take pictures of who we see).

So by the end of the day we added 4 new birds to our life list: Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and a Veery (we’ve seen the male versions of our other “new” warblers, so they weren’t new to our life list). I didn’t realize we saw a Veery until a few days later. I was entering my list onto ebird thinking we saw a Hermit Thrush, but that bird wasn’t on the list under thrushes. Veery was there so I decided to see what it looked like and aha! There it was! It looked just like the picture we had.

I’m so happy fall migration is here. Have you seen fall warblers migrating through your area? Who are you seeing? Tell me about your fall warblers in the comments.

 

 

Eclipse Plumage

Today, August 21, 2017, was a big astronomical event: the first total solar eclipse seen over the United States since 1918. The path of totality went through 14 states from the Pacific to Atlantic Coast, while the rest of the states could view a partial eclipse. Here in New Jersey, we could only see a partial eclipse. I didn’t buy special eclipse glasses so I couldn’t watch it directly. I did however, watch a live stream of the eclipse from South Carolina State Museum, which happened to be in the totality path. It was extremely cool to watch.

Although the eclipse happened at a specific time today, many people don’t realize that an “eclipse” of sorts has been occurring the last few weeks. Have you gone to your local lake or pond and notice that it seems like the male Mallards are “missing”? Many ducks molt their feathers twice a year, one of these times being mid/late-summer. At this time they go into dull-colored basic plumage, or what is referred to as eclipse plumage. For reference, a male duck is called a drake and a female duck is called a hen. In eclipse plumage, drakes take on a hen-like appearance.

male eclipse plumage
Drake (male) Mallard in Eclipse Plumage (Image by BirdNation)

All birds molt their feathers at some point during the year. For many birds, this takes place after breeding season and before migration. Molting is when old worn out feathers are replaced by new feathers. Many species undergo was is called a sequential molt. During a sequential molt, birds lose one flight feather at a time from the innermost primary feather to the wing tip. This allows the bird the ability to still be able to fly. Waterfowl, however, undergo what is referred to as simultaneous wing molt. As a result, waterfowl loses all their flight feathers at the same time and therefore lose their flying ability. This period of being flightless can last between 20 and 40 days depending on duck species.

Wood_duck_eclipse
Wood Duck male in Eclipse Plumage (Image via wikimedia commons by Meidosensei)

Eclipse plumage acts as a camouflage for these flightless drakes. The drakes molt their bright colored plumage first, which is replaced by dull brown feathers. This gives them the hen-like appearance. When it comes to Mallards, it could be hard to tell whether you are seeing a hen or drake in eclipse plumage. The trick is to look at the bill. Drakes have yellow bills while hens have orange bills with black markings. Eclipse plumage only happens for a few weeks. After eclipse plumage Mallards will  go into “alternate”  plumage for the fall/winter.

So even though the total solar eclipse is over, you can still see some eclipse plumage with the ducks at your local pond.

Have you been seeing any eclipse plumage drakes lately? And did you watch the solar eclipse? Tell me about these things in the comments!

Rhode Island Adventures

Last week Dave and I took a 3-day vacation to Rhode Island. We’ve visited Rhode Island in the past, but just as a day trip stop on the way to or from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This time the trip’s main purpose was birding (of course! hehe), but we did some other fun things along the way. As far as the birding went, we did see a decent amount over the 3-day period. It was a little hard to get close to anything though with the way the trails were laid out, so we don’t have too many bird pictures, but we did get to explore a variety of habitats.

Ningret National Wildlife Refuge

There are 5 National Wildlife Refuges in Rhode Island, and Ninigret was our first stop. Ninigret NWR is 858 acres that is divided by Highway 1. The Northern section has the headquarters, Kettle Pond Visitor Center, and the other section is the Salt Pond Unit. We stopped at Kettle Pond, but mainly explored the Salt Pond Unit. There are a variety of habitats to explore, such as wooded swamps, grasslands, and freshwater ponds. Part of the refuge used to be the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Landing Fields. Nature has mainly taken over the area, but there is still evidence of some landing strips and the trail in this area is paved. We also spent some time at Grassy Point, where you can see Ninigret Pond, Rhode Island’s largest coastal salt pond.

Bird Highlights: Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Green Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls, Cedar Waxwings

Norman Bird Sanctuary

On Thursday we spent the morning at Norman Bird Sanctuary in Newport County. Norman Bird Sanctuary is 325 acres and has an impressive 7 miles of hiking trails. Ecosystems found at Norman include salt marsh, ponds, streams, ridges, shrub growth, forests, and open fields. The Sanctuary also has a number of gardens on the property as well as Paradise Farm, where groups can stay as part of their ecotourism programs. The ridges ascend 70 feet and overlook Gardiner Pond and Nelson Pond.

Bird Highlights: Solitary Sandpiper (lifer for us), Green Herons, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Eastern Towhees, Black-capped Chickadees

Newport

Thursday night we spent some time in the city of Newport. Our purpose wasn’t birding, but if you stay in Rhode Island I highly recommend checking out Newport. This charming maritime city sits right on Narragansett Bay and is known as the sailing capital of the United States. There’s so much to do and see in Newport: relax at the numerous beaches, tour the famous Gilded Age mansions, museums like the International Tennis Hall of Fame, dining at fantastic restaurants, or the Cliff Walk. We stopped at Easton Beach and saw the beach dotted with over 100 Semipalmated Plovers. We also did a small portion of the Cliff Walk. On the Cliff Walk we happened to see a decent amount of birds such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Song Sparrows, and American Goldfinches.

Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Our final destination was Trustom Pond NWR. This 787-acre refuge has freshwater/saltwater ponds, woodlands, fields, and sandy beach habitats. There are two points (Otter Point and Osprey Point) that look out over Trustom Pond, Rhode Island’s only undeveloped coastal salt point. We only had time to go to Osprey Point, but from their we were able to see a barrier beach that is one of the few Rhode Island nesting spots of Piping Plovers and Least Terns. There’s also a small Farm Pond where we spotted many frogs and turtles.

Bird Highlights: Numerous Ospreys, Mute Swans, large groups of Double-crested Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls, Yellow Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Hairy Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees

 

We had a wonderful time birding in Rhode Island. We love being near the ocean, so  there’s no better place to go than The Ocean State. Although Rhode Island is the smallest state, there are tons parks and beaches to explore. I would love to go back once in the fall to experience the migration, which I heard was really nice, especially at Block Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Shorebird Central

On Sunday we took a trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. Despite the flies, Forsythe is a wonderful summer birding location. I heard that there were White Ibis around, so we decided to see if we could find this rarity.

We left pretty early in the morning and it was quiet when we arrived. We spent a little time walk around the visitor center and towards Lily Pond. At the pond we found at least 5 Wood Ducks as well as some Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. At the visitor center we found a Chipping Sparrow being followed by a large (compared to the sparrow) juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. Unfortunately that Chipping Sparrow was cursed with a brood parasite. Brown-headed Cowbirds always lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, although the parasitic egg isn’t always successful (check out my post on brood parasites here).

 

Next we went to the first observation platform. It was swarming with a large flock of Barn Swallows. In the distance we were able to see a few Osprey on their nest, while also spotting Laughing Gulls, Seaside Sparrows, and Marsh Wrens. There even was a little snail crossing the platform, so he was fun to see.  At Gull Pond Tower, we saw even more Wood Ducks, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Great Blue Heron, Eastern Kingbirds, and many more Barn Swallows. The surprise bird over at the Gull Pond for me was a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron. It was our first juvenile BC-NH since our 8/23/16 Forsythe trip.

It was Shorebird and Wading Bird Central once we hit the wildlife drive. Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlins, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere you looked. There were a few surprises scattered around too. There was a lone American Avocet among the smaller plovers and sandpipers. It was the first time we’ve seen one at Forsythe (our firsts were at Bombay Hook NWR). We also ended up finding the White Ibis! There were 2: both juveniles. They had brown backs, white rumps, and orange bill/legs. They were foraging in a group of Snowy and Great Egrets. (Sorry the White Ibis picture isn’t that great, they were really far so it was basically so we can prove the rarity on ebird)

There were plenty of Seabirds around too. These included Forster’s/Common Terns (many of them juveniles), Laughing/Herring/Great Black-backed Gulls, Black Skimmers, and Gull-billed Terns.

juvenile tern.jpg
Juvenile Tern (Image by BirdNation)

 

As far as Raptors, there were at least 20 Ospreys throughout the drive. At one point we watched at least 3 of them chase one that was holding a fish. The poor guy being chased eventually lost his fish back to the water. There were also some Ospreys chasing after an adult Bald Eagle.

feeding ospreys.jpg

We actually found a second rarity: a lone Snow Goose. This poor little guy looked like his wing was messed up, which would explain why he was still here. He waddled along the trail and disappeared into the grass.

The second half to the wildlife drive brought some more interesting surprises. There were even more wading/shorebirds/seabirds already mentioned, but on this half added Short-billed Dowitchers, Double-crested Cormorants, a single Whimbrel, Glossy Ibis, and one Ruddy Turnstone. When we were watching the Whimbrel, a small bird swam across the water in the distance. It was hard to make out, but we could see it’s downturned bill and rump sticking out. It quickly disappeared into the reeds, but we were able to figure out that it was a Clapper rail, another life bird for us.

August at Forsythe NWR is beautiful. There marshes and pools were dotted with flowers, while butterflies and bees flew to the different plants. The variety of birds at this time of the year is fantastic. We ended our day with a total of 55 species (2 rarities: White Ibis/Snow Goose and 2 life bird: Clapper Rail/White Ibis).

Stay tuned: Dave and I have been birding yesterday and today in some surprise birding locations we didn’t expect to go to. I’ll have some posts about that in the upcoming days. 🙂