Friday, December 30, 2011

Bell's Vireo

The Bell's Vireo cooperated at the Beanery on Thursday morning, about 40 yards left of/south of the gate. More to follow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


 [This Bald Eagle learned something: don't go cruising offshore in a west wind gale. "Boxing Day," i.e. the day after Christmas, this bird came pumping in over the waves at Stone Harbor, first sighted all of a half mile offshore, and settled (collapsed?) on reaching the beach after flying into the teeth of a December cold front gale. There it stood, being sandblasted, for a good ten minutes before resuming flight inland. Who knows how many miles it got offshore before it thought better of its travels?]

'Tis a reflective time of year, a time to share, to learn, to teach, to be taught. When I started this blog last spring, I somehow imagined I'd share what I've learned of birds and the identification of birds and such, and it seems I've strayed to more of a storyteller. So here are a few learnings, and I'll try to stick to the program in the future. . . sometimes ;>) .

My good friend Tony Leukering left me a message that "the" Great Cormorant still resides at Lake Champlain in the Villas, and dated his message "Boxing Day," which I knew meant the day after Christmas but didn't know that "Boxing Day is traditionally a day following Christmas when wealthy people in the United Kingdom would give a box containing a gift to their servants.Today, Boxing Day is better known as a bank or public holiday that occurs on December 26, or the first or second weekday after Christmas Day, depending on national or regional laws. It is observed in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and some other Commonwealth nations." (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Saw a fine young Great Cormorant facing a gale at Townsend's Inlet yesterday, see below.

[Distant, dull light all day today, and yet we can see one of these is a Ring-billed  and the other a Herring Gull. How? Which bird is 'on stilts?' The Herring, on the right. Besides being smaller and more compact and rounded, Ring-billeds have proportionately shorter legs than Herring Gulls. Flick your eyes back and forth between the legs of these two birds, photographed at Two Mile Beach today. Most birders struggle to tell these two apart at a glance. Just have to change your way of looking - skip leg color and bill pattern.]

[Common Loon vs. Red-throated Loon seems tough to new birders (including me), but they are fundamentally different, including in head shape. Common Loons, like this one, almost always look like someone rapped them on the head with a beer bottle, and they've grown a lump on the noggin - I mean forecrown. RTLO shows a smoother head contour. Avalon yesterday]

 [Tail too short for an accipiter, breast too streaked for a Red-tailed. . . Red-shouldered Hawk at the Beanery Christmas Day.]

[Great Cormorant alluded to above, on a piling in Townsend's Inlet Christmas Day. I see more Great Cormorants than Double-cresteds in winter in Cape May.]

[Just 'cause it's pretty, and well-(re)-named - Long-tailed Duck, formerly Oldsquaw, at Avalon yesterday. Burrow into the seawall there, and wait, and good things will come.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Merry Christmas to All!

 [May you be blessed. . .King Eider at Avalon this morning. The sea ducks came close to the seawall every 15-20 minutes for bouts of foraging as the tide fell. The King stayed down way longer than the other birds - and often came up with food. . . ]

[May you feast. . .Common Eider with a mouthful of blue mussels, adult and first year Surf Scoters behind. These sea ducks seem to be able to process shellfish incredibly rapidly - I watched the same individuals forage for multiple dives, then drift offshore for only 15-20 minutes before coming in and doing it again.. It's difficult to know how much food these birds were consuming, because they were probably swallowing most underwater. Birds that did come up with food inevitably had Blue Mussels, sometimes in clusters that they had to manipulate before swallowing. I'd ballpark a dozen or more mussels per feeding bout, based on the number of dives and on birds that came up with visible food. That's one tough gizzard and gut!]

[May you laugh. . . someone has asked me for a stuffed animal Surf Scoter for Christmas. . .this one is laughing with its mouth full. ]

[May you fly! Female Black Scoter pattering across the surface on take-off.]

Merry Christmas, all!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Counts

 [Something's going on with several key bird food plants this winter, one of which is sweetgum. I've never seen so many birds of so many species feeding on the seeds of sweetgum, contained in prickly "gumballs". This Carolina Chickadee at Cape May NWR is an example, but watch for sparrows, finches and blackbirds on, or under, this tree.]

It's only about 125 miles as the robin flies from the Walnut Valley Christmas Bird Count circle in (mainly) Warren County, NJ southward to the Cape May circle. Other than the obvious (like ocean versus no ocean), the following numbers speak volumes about how NJ is more than one state, biologically:

                                 Walnut Valley     Cape May
Carolina Wren                     4                    30
Hermit Thrush                     1                    30
Gray Catbird                        0                     5
Brown Thrasher                   0                   10
Eastern Towhee                  5                    14
American Tree Sparrow    20                     0
Fox Sparrow                        6                    33

The above numbers are just from my territories on both counts, but the implication is clear: north Jersey is the northeast verging on New England; south Jersey is the mid-Atlantic verging on the southeast.

 [Used to say you can't sneak up on Wild Turkeys, but we did on these in the Schellenger tract of the Cape May NWR on Sunday, right after we found some of the distinctive, pie-pan sized, somewhat triangular patches of scraped-away leaves that feeding turkey flocks leave behind.]

Speaking of north-south differences, one difference that has largely disappeared is where you go to find a Wild Turkey. They're all over the south now, but 25 years ago, Sussex and Warren counties were the place to look, near the original reintroduction site for turkeys in NJ in Sussex, which I believe occurred in 1977.

[The Green Creek Bald Eagle pair put in a showing north of Norbury's Landing during the Cape May CBC. Not sure where this pair nests - but it has to be nearby, they're often out there, sometimes sitting right on the muddy sand flats at low tide.]

Our count territory list for the Cape May count on Sunday is below.

Freiday Cape May CBC territory, Cape May, US-NJ
Dec 18, 2011 5:15 AM - 4:00 PM
Protocol: Traveling
17.0 mile(s)
Comments: Cape May CBC. Owling: 1:15, 5 miles. Day: 9.5 hours on foot, 1 hour by car, 5 miles on foot, 12 miles by car. a.m. partly cloudy 30's, p.m. clear 40. With Beth. covered Norbury's Landing, Del Haven north of Millman, Cape May NWR Burleigh, Schellenger, and "Paul's spot" west of 47.
68 species (+1 other taxa)

Snow Goose 450
Canada Goose 302
American Black Duck 29
American Black Duck x Mallard (hybrid) 2
Mallard 2
Hooded Merganser 4
Red-breasted Merganser 4
Wild Turkey 8
Great Blue Heron 6
Black Vulture 9
Turkey Vulture 20
Bald Eagle 2
Northern Harrier 1
Red-tailed Hawk 6
Merlin 1
Clapper Rail 13
Black-bellied Plover 2
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Western Sandpiper 1
Dunlin 170
Wilson's Snipe 2
American Woodcock 2

Ring-billed Gull 12
Herring Gull 16
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Rock Pigeon 16
Mourning Dove 17
Great Horned Owl 6
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 17
Downy Woodpecker 1
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Blue Jay 12
American Crow 12
Carolina Chickadee 32
Tufted Titmouse 9
Brown Creeper 1
Carolina Wren 30
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3
Eastern Bluebird 16
Hermit Thrush 30
American Robin 4264
Gray Catbird 5
Northern Mockingbird 15
Brown Thrasher 10
European Starling 1055
Cedar Waxwing 5
Orange-crowned Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 14
Eastern Towhee 14
Field Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 30
Seaside Sparrow 1

Fox Sparrow 33
Song Sparrow 27
Swamp Sparrow 5
White-throated Sparrow 175
Dark-eyed Junco 16
Northern Cardinal 30
Red-winged Blackbird 1980
Rusty Blackbird 13
Common Grackle 2450
Brown-headed Cowbird 360
House Finch 10
American Goldfinch 16
House Sparrow 115

Saturday, December 17, 2011

CBC Time: Can you i.d. an Indigo Bunting in 10 Seconds (in December!!); and About That Gull

First: the Wordless Wednesday Gull. It was on the beach on the north side of Townsend's Inlet. Transmission fluid is red, but this bird didn't seem oiled, just colorful. Experienced mariner Tony Leukering looked at the photo, and looked again. Ideas are welcome.

Today we had an excellent day on the Walnut Valley, NJ (and PA) Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which I've done annually since 1992. But tomorrow's the Cape May CBC, and one must sleep, so here's our list for today without much comment, and no time to process photos.

A note on CBC territories - good ones are to be coveted, and for Walnut Valley we have a great one, both sides of the Delaware River just south of the Water Gap, including some gorgeous hilly farmland with that river bottom. Tomorrow, I'll be working portions of the Cape May NWR. . .and my own yard.

On the bunting. . . If Dennis Briede, Walnut Valley compiler, takes my word, Indigo Bunting will be a first for that count. And how could you screw up an Indigo Bunting? Even if a female? Answer: easy, and one must be cautious.

On counts - There's a world of difference between northern and southern NJ, e.g. 5 Eastern Towhees and 6 Fox Sparrows north of Route 80 in a day of December birding is extraordinary. Down south, here, I've got both species hanging out in my yard. On the other hand, we saw 20 American Tree Sparrows, a bird I'll likely miss tomorrow in Cape May.

Freiday Walnut Valley CBC territory, Warren, US-NJ
Dec 17, 2011 6:00 AM - 4:00 PM
Protocol: Traveling
59.0 mile(s)
Comments: Walnut Valley CBC. Mostly cloudy, temp 28-40 F, wind light to moderate north. All water open.With Don J., Tim, Rebecca, and Andrew. 1 hour, 2 miles owling. 9 hours, 55 miles by car, 3 miles by foot.
54 species

Snow Goose 120
Canada Goose 519
Mallard 6
Bufflehead 2
Common Goldeneye 17
Black Vulture 10
Turkey Vulture 3
Bald Eagle 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 12
Peregrine Falcon 1 -  adult bird perched on power tower PA side of river, west of Portland generating station. It pursued a mourning dove in a ~2 minute tailchase while we watched, eventually pulling some wing feathers off the bird's right wing, after which the dove disappeared behind trees and the peregrine, with some difficulty, worked its way into the trees behind it, but we never saw it emerge.
Ring-billed Gull 23
Rock Pigeon 9
Mourning Dove 21
Eastern Screech-Owl 2 along river, responded after about 3 minutes of calling, did not see.
Great Horned Owl 4  - pairs dueting along river and along Limekiln Road
Red-bellied Woodpecker 5
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 17
Hairy Woodpecker 3
Northern Flicker 3
Blue Jay 17
American Crow 23
Black-capped Chickadee 18
Tufted Titmouse 35
White-breasted Nuthatch 16
Brown Creeper 3
Carolina Wren 4
Winter Wren 5
Golden-crowned Kinglet 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Eastern Bluebird 9
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 1
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 65
Cedar Waxwing 6
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) 2
Eastern Towhee 5
American Tree Sparrow 20
Field Sparrow 2
Fox Sparrow 6
Song Sparrow 36
Swamp Sparrow 5
White-throated Sparrow 197
Dark-eyed Junco 90
Northern Cardinal 20
Indigo Bunting 1 - 1 female. Seen PA side of River on dirt road running west from Portland generating station. Found on weedy edge of cornfield in company of sparrrows, mainly white-throated. Had been scoping field, which contained a mixed blackbird flock including cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles, when noticed sparrows working margin about 60 yards away. Bunting popped up and I immediately recognized it, but because of rarity for season was very careful. It was significantly smaller than whitethroats in direct comparison; that plus proportionately smaller bill than cowbird, buffier tones, and faint but evident buff wingbars eliminated that species. This bird was drab buff-brown, with conical bill, gray-white throat framed by faint dark malar stripes. It had 2 narrow buff wingbars. It's dark eye stood out on plain face. Overall a very plain bird. I considered Lazuli bunting but ruled out based on probability, white throat, too narrow wingbars, and warm upperparts tones. I did not notice any streaking evident on this bird, either above or below.The only problem with this observation was its brevity, about 10 seconds. The bird dropped out of view as I watched it at 20X in a Swarovski scope - it had been perched on corn stubble and picking at foxtail seeds - and when we moved closer we were unable to relocate it. Nonetheless I am completely confident in the i.d., being extremely familiar with INBU.
Red-winged Blackbird 40
Common Grackle 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 60
American Goldfinch 80
House Sparrow 1

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kings, Princes, Hat Tricks, and What Is a Good Bird?

 [A king and a prince: adult male and first year male Black Scoters, 8th street jetty at Avalon Saturday. I almost passed off the pair as, well, a pair, until I looked closer at the young bird's bill and face.]

Multiple parties polled Friday night offered Avalon as their pick for a Saturday morning free from commitments beyond binoculars and camera, so that's where I went. After poking around various spots north and south of Townsend's Inlet (the inlet between Avalon and Sea Isle City), I wandered over to visit with Tom Reed et. al. at the Seawatch, end of 7th street. Et. al. included Chris Hajduk and Clay Sutton, and Clay looked at me curiously before surmising, "I take it your freezer's full." Knowing me, he couldn't figure why I had been crawling around on the 8th street jetty on the last day of deer season.

Crawling I was, trying to stay low and let the sea ducks come close, which they eventually did, including a nice group of Common Eiders.

[Another king, plus princes of two ages, and a bevy of queens and princesses besides. Adult male Common Eider, center left, with a first year directly behind it and, second from right at the top, a presumed second year male, or adult lagging in its molt from eclipse to  basic, or breeding plumage. And the lustrous brown hens, of course. I think of sea ducks as the waterfowl royalty, even though these aren't King Eiders.]

The eiders got me thinking. Many years ago I would target a "hat trick" as the mark of a good day's birding. I knew the term from hockey, but in case you don't, according to Wikipedia, "A hat-trick or hat trick in sport is the achievement of a positive feat three times during a game, or other achievements based on threes." E.g., any eider, either white-winged gull, and Purple Sandpiper used to combine to make a hat trick. It's one way to approach birding. A well remembered hat trick day at Sandy Hook included Bohemian Waxwing, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and. . . hmm. Well, maybe its not that well-remembered. Maybe the 3rd bird was a Common Eider, which is really what I was thinking about. A Common Eider wouldn't make it to hat-trick-member status anymore, in fact they've become so commonplace that when the little flock dropped in next to the jetty, I thought, "Neat!" but kept right on taking pictures of a Ruddy Turnstone that had befriended me. Purple Sandpiper similarly has fallen from hat-trick status in NJ, too easy to get at Barnegat, Avalon and elsewhere, as these birds have become more accustomed to finding rock jetties this far south.

Now Razorbill, that's still a hat-trick bird, for now, so much so I told Tom Reed his Razorbill numbers this fall are lies, lies, lies - which means I haven't seen one yet, though of course I don't stare at the sea all day, 5 days a week. But if trends continue, Razorbill may similarly become "too common to count."

Birds aren't hockey goals for me anymore, and so I wonder, what is a good bird to you? For me, any bird I can watch is a good one, and the longer I can watch it, the better it gets. And if it does something interesting, well that's the best bird of all.

 [Got this one? Powerful broad body, long pointed wings, gray back - this adult Peregrine ruined my attempts to photograph Purple Sandpipers, sweeping the jetty clean of shorebirds simply by flying over.]

[My friend the Ruddy Turnstone. This one spent an hour on the jetty watching birds with me, weathering even the Peregrine's pass with only an eye cocked upward warily. I love the upward bend on the turnstone's bill, shaped just like the pry bar in my shed and used the same way.]

[What's poison ivy good for? Ask this Song Sparrow, in the Avalon dunes, where P.I. is plentiful.]

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I Wish I Had

 I'd already decided on the title of this blog before I read Seagull Steve's comment on the Ivory Gull post, below, him wishing he had gotten there in time. . . and I so sympathize, like I wish I had been able to get to Cape May yesterday to see Sam Galick's Bell's Vireo at Higbee, not to mention the continuing Painted Bunting.

And I wish I had followed my photography mantra, LUCK FAVORS THE PREPARED, when the bittern sprang up right in front of me and the "flight shot" pre-set I always maintain on my camera, and in theory keep constantly updated, was about 2 stops too dark. Not to mention, I wish I had been little quicker on the draw.

I wish had been quick enough to capture this lovely Cooper's Hawk when it bolted over the cattails for a crazed tailchase of what I think was a Marsh Wren. Notice the big white spots on the upperparts of Coop - on average, more prominent than on Sharp-shinned, one of the 16 ways to tell the two apart.

I wish I could spend a little of each winter afternoon listening to Tundra Swans, and watching them lit by the setting sun. I wish I had a video camera that enchanting November afternoon at Forsythe many years ago, when Tundra Swans rained from the blue sky, turning from white shimmers to snow flakes to swans as they settled into the pool, 700 birds strong arrived from the north.

All these shots, by the way, are from a rare time at Forsythe NWR when I wasn't working, and wasn't in too much of a hurry to be doing something else. 

I wish I had a longer lens, or better, more skill getting close to wildlife. Like these White-tailed Deer way way out on the salt marsh.

I wish I had the ability to make all people know the value of these wild things and wild places.

I wish I had more time. Everyone wishes that. More time to hunt (and a place less than 3 hours from Cape May to do it), more time to bird, more time to be at more dinner parties with more friends. I wish you had more time, too.