Monday, January 16, 2012

Defining Moments

 [Bald Eagle shepherds some of a 5,000+ bird flock of Snow Geese over the Cohansey River, northern Cumberland County, NJ today.]

Did you ever notice how a day, or even week, of birding can come to be defined by a single sighting? It's something I became aware of leading tours and day trips. You'll bird along, taking in good views of more or less usual things, some more important than others ("important" often relating to rarity). If you're on a guided trip, your leader is not yet satisfied. They are looking for the one bird, the one sighting that will make the trip, after which they know they can relax. Everything after is anticlimactic. A trip can turn on a dime, from good (because a bad birding trip is rare indeed) to extraordinary. You don't always find that dime, but that makes it sweeter when you do.

Our birding day today would have been cumulatively extraordinary with or without the scene of 5,000+ Cohansey River Snow Geese pouring straight over our heads under hunting Bald Eagles, and simply being out alone with my daughter defined the trip well enough. But. . .well, my goodness, it's fine to drop a jaw now and then, to see wonder on a college girl's face (Becky's), to hear a dog whine to be let out of the truck so he can watch, too. If it had been a birding tour, well, the folks got their money's worth.

 [Above, "White-belly 1," or second life year: this young Bald Eagle has two generations of flight feathers, the longer ones left over from its first year plumage, the short ones replacements. The result is a jagged trailing edge to the wing. Below, "White-belly II," or third life year - the flight feathers have all been replaced, and are all the same length. This bird also shows more white on the head. One year to go to adult-like plumage. Both flew with the Snow Geese over the Cohansey today.]

Becky was helping me cover the Cohansey for the mid-winter Bald Eagle Survey. We found at least 22 different eagles, over half adults. Something like 10 or more eagle pairs nest along the Cohansey, which weaves a path of u-shaped bends south and then west from Bridgeton, so more eagles were certainly present than what we could detect in a day's looking.

I'm drawn to the Cohansey, for the marshes that attract abundant waterfowl and raptors in winter, the sparrow flocks of Dix WMA, the river's curving and curling pattern, and the roll to the terrain on the north side of its watershed. A good place. We had a dark Rough-legged Hawk today, a couple Cooper's Hawks, 14 Red-taileds, both yellowlegs, Belted Kingfishers, Northern Pintails, Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead. . .a good day with a defining moment. I'll be back next week for the Winter Raptor Survey focused on harriers and Short-eared Owls.  Spring migrants and breeders here probably merit more investigation than what I've given them  - perhaps more daunted by warm season insects than I'd care to admit. Mostly, it's the drive. Seems like the Cohansey is 2 hours from everywhere.

 [One of four Killdeer north of the Cohansey today, my FOY (first of year.)]

[22 eagles, but this was the one lonely American Kestrel, a male - but at least there was one.]

We began our day with a dawn stop at Jake's Landing on the way up to let the dog stretch his legs. An utter lack of wind mediated the 17 degree temperature, with warm sun lighting the frosted marsh. Magical. A few harriers were up, a Red-tailed Hawk perched in the sun at the edge of the woods, just where a red-tail should be, and the insistent dog ferreted out a Clapper Rail.

[Clapper Rail, Jake's Landing this morning. My dog Boone gets an assist. Many more Clappers remain during winter than are detected - like all birds, they're quieter in the cold months, but not silent. Try clapping at dawn or dusk to set off a chorus of grunts.]

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