Monday, June 27, 2011

Salt Marsh Morning

 [Great Egret with just-captured juvenile Seaside Sparrow, Tuckerton NJ Saturday.]

Getting up at oh-dark-thirty to do a marsh bird survey has its benefits. There's a world of difference between a salt marsh at 5:30 a.m. and the same marsh at 9:00 a.m. This was my second run through of my portion of the SHARP survey at Tuckerton, along Great Bay Boulevard, and the numbers from my 10 survey points speak volumes: 45 Clapper Rails, 65 Seaside Sparrows, and a very strong 22 Saltmarsh Sparrows. Understand, we only need to detect (i.e. hear) birds to count them, but it was astonishing how easy a time I was having seeing these birds. The high tide might have had something to do with it, but I think it was mainly the height of breeding season expressing itself, especially for the strange, promiscuous, late-breeding Saltmarsh Sparrows, sometimes tricky to see but this day chasing each other around, sometimes in groups, and singing their weak little song.

The craziest thing, as you might have discerned from the picture above, was the Great Egret with a bird in its bill, a bird that turned out to be a just captured, still struggling juvenile Seaside Sparrow. Struggle was hopeless - I've once before seen an egret devour a female Red-winged Blackbird, to the horror of the group I was leading. Maybe National Audubon should have chosen a different symbol. . .

[A few dips in the water to smooth the swallowing, and down it goes.]

When I first saw the sparrow through the camera lens, I thought it might be a Saltmarsh Sparrow, but the buff wasn't orange or extensive enough, and it had the dark lore and yellow supraloral of a Seaside. Young Seaside Sparrows can be pretty buffy, and are pale with fine streaking below. I should mention that the new Crossley Guide does a pretty good job on this i.d., particularly the text.

Besides the breeding birds, Tuckerton had one each of Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpiper, all in winter plumage and none of which likely made it to the breeding grounds this year, maybe not even north of Tuckerton. Likely one-year olds. A Willow Flycatcher sang at the end of Great Bay Boulevard.

[The concerned apparent parent called and worried nearby. Look how big a Seaside Sparrow's bill is.]

[One of the 22 Saltmarsh Sparrows I recorded. I saw most of these; their weak songs are difficult to detect at distance.]

[Clapper Rail swimming a high tide channel along Great Bay Boulevard.]

[Luckily, I didn't hit this juvenile Chuck-wills-widow as I drove to my survey - it was on Lily Lake Road near Forsythe NWR, where they are common. I sorely wished I had had time to wait around for a parent to come feed it. Chuck's, besides being much bigger than Whip-poor-wills, are quite warm-toned to the Whip's gray. Click to enlarge.]


  1. Absolutely great photos! I love the juvey Chuck especially.

  2. Wow, these are amazing photos. Obviously, the series of the egret eating the sparrows offers something we just don't see any day, but every other image is outstanding as well!

  3. Great shots, Don! Thanks for posting.

  4. Wow. what a day..

    Thanks for the report and photos.

  5. @ everybody, thanks for the comments! First rule of good photos is access (thanks Scott W. for pointing that out long ago), which means simply right place, right time, with camera set right for the situation, and then being prepared to pull the trigger. It was a great morning!

  6. Awesome work Don. Thanks for taking us along on your survey :)

  7. Unbelievable egret shots. Like something you'd see on boingboing. Nice work.

  8. Crazy! We were just talking about the egret photos in the lab today.