Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Spring, a Young Man's Fancy Turns to Heislerville

 [The lone dark bird at left in the flock of Snowy Egrets is the season's first Glossy Ibis, at Heislerville, NJ on Saturday. Click to enlarge photos.]

Zeroes are still data, and so I hereby report zeroes for Little Gull and Black-headed Gull and every other damn rare gull on the Delaware Bayshore from Norbury's Landing south to Cape May Point and back again on Saturday morning. Grrrrr. You can add a zero for the Glaucous Gull at Bivalve, which we dipped on Saturday afternoon after Brian Johnson showed me a photo of it he had taken Friday.

Heislerville was much more satisfying, with first of year (for me) Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper and a riddling of 1200+ Green-winged Teal with smaller numbers of other ducks, including two pairs of Blue-winged Teal in the main impoundment. Heislerville is a happening place in spring. High tide is traditionally best here, because tidal shorebird habitat is flooded then, making the impoundments that much more attractive to the hordes.

If you go, be aware that Matt's Landing Road is closed for construction, so to access the impoundments you have to drive the loop backwards, heading through Heislerville and on towards East Point before picking up the dirt road for the wildlife loop on the right. The impoundment you come to first when going backwards is the one I always called the "second" impoundment, the one with all the phragmites in back of it. This one is tidal, and at high tide had almost no shorebird habitat. The main impoundment is partially drawn down already and good for shorebirds, and interestingly the impoundment along Matt's Landing Road (the one with the heron rookery island) is also low and has shorebird habitat in the upper end.

 [The PSE&G -built boardwalk at Bivalve was wrecked by Hurricane Sandy and remains impassable.]

While I'm giving out tips on birding spots, here's one: don't drive your car through the shells at Bivalve, which will impart a lasting south Jersey experience, that of rotten clam bits baking onto your muffler. Yum. Better to take a friend's car. Also, as you can see from the photo above, part of the boardwalk has been damaged.

An idea just popped into my head. With limited birding time, to maximize birds, a great spring 1-2 punch is Belleplain State Forest followed by Heislerville. I'm just saying.. . .you might see that combo here repeatedly this spring. A couple years ago I hit Belleplain every weekend for 9 straight weeks, why not add Heislerville to that mix?

 [This cooperative Brown Creeper entertained the crowd during the CMBO walk at Cox Hall Creek WMA on Sunday morning.]

[Red-winged Blackbird challenges my car at close range along the Nummy Island causeway. I once owned a red Jeep Cherokee, and in spring had Red-wingeds in fits when I drove by. The response to my current silver truck is much milder.]

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fri-D: Loon Feet + Western Sandpiper

The position of a loon's legs isn't exacly an i.d. mark, unless you want to stretch it to, "If it's walking or standing, it's not a loon." Might help a neophyte with cormorants, I guess. This Red-throated Loon, under the toll bridge to Nummy Island, NJ last Saturday, shows why loons can't walk: their legs are positioned all the way at the back of the bird, exactly where you'd want them when your priority is swimming.

A Dunlin (rear) and Western Sandpiper (front) share space at Stone Harbor last weekend. Compare size and bills. Why isn't the Western a Semipalmated? The easy answer is because it is March, and the first Semis won't be around until late April. Plus the bill is out of spec, too long and drooped, and the neck too thick.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday - Jack-in-the Green

[Salem County, NJ Ring-necked Pheasant last weekend.]

Have you seen Jack-In-The-Green?
 With his long tail hanging down.
 He sits quietly under every tree ---
 in the folds of his velvet gown.
 He drinks from the empty acorn cup
 the dew that dawn sweetly bestows.
 And taps his cane upon the ground ---
 signals the snowdrops it's time to grow.

It's no fun being Jack-In-The-Green ---
 no place to dance, no time for song.
 He wears the colours of the summer soldier ---
 carries the green flag all the winter long.

Jack, do you never sleep ---
 does the green still run deep in your heart?
 Or will these changing times,

 motorways, powerlines,
 keep us apart?
 Well, I don't think so ---
 I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

The rowan, the oak and the holly tree
 are the charges left for you to groom.
 Each blade of grass whispers Jack-In-The-Green.
 Oh Jack, please help me through my winter's night.
 And we are the berries on the holly tree.
 Oh, the mistlethrush is coming.
 Jack, put out the light.

- Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull

Wordless Wednesday - RB Merg

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Another March Day

 [Male Pine Warbler forages on the ground in Cape May Point State Park, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge all photos.]

With the wind windy and the temp in the 30's and whitecaps on Delaware Bay, it sure still felt like March this morning, and I drove to Cape May Point thinking, yeah, there'll be like 2 birds around. And then when I saw two Laughing Gulls at the Cape May Ferry Terminal, I thought, great, there they are, my two birds.

I repeated the two-bird sentiment when I bumped into Scott Whittle along Lincoln Avenue, who agreed, it's March. When I told Scott I was headed over to the state park, he said, "Find some Pine Warblers or something." And happily, I did. One was the drabbest of females chipping along the blue trail, a good candidate for examination with Scott's new warbler book in hand - when it comes out, I'll compare his and Tom Stephenson's photos with the one below, and read their i.d. tips. This is a great practice, looking up supposedly familiar birds in new guides.

 [Always a good quiz warbler: female Pine Warbler, Cape May Point State Park today.]

Besides the Pine Warblers, there were birds around. If two Ospreys constitute a movement, then there was a movement of Ospreys at the point in the northwest wind. Northwest is just always good at the point. Though most ducks have moved out, a diverse smattering remains around Cape May, and the shovelers were courting and doing their funny, chuckling "dook - dook" calls.

 [Male Northern Shoveler shows his powder blue wing patches, revealing the similarity of this bird to Bue-winged Teal. Cape May Point State park today.]

 [Osprey overhead takes a look at the photographer before. . .]

 [. . .whirling and plunging for a sunfish in Lighthouse Pond. Note the band on the left leg.]

Besides the Ospreys and the Pine Warblers, a real sign of spring was an American Crow carrying a stick, i.e. building a nest. It flew off with its mate, headed to the interior of the state park.

[This young Harbor Seal was hauled out on the beach at the state park in CApe May. It moved and looked around, but I'm not sure if it was feeling entirely well.]

[I met a nice couple at the ferry terminal while I was photographing these Laughing Gulls. They asked if the gulls were Laughing or Bonaparte's, and after I told them I got thinking about all of the reasons I used to tell they were not Bonies that would be unavailable to a new birder, because the reasons involved cues only experience gives. Like, a Bonie wouldn't be standing on a piling, and would look obviously tiny, and wouldn't have a full hood yet at this time of year. The couple had been puzzled by the black looking bill, which is typical of newly arrived Laughers (it will turn red). And I thought what a lousy observer I am because I didn't really look the gulls over much at all. I'm sure I didn't look at a single detail like bill or leg color or back color or tertial crescent or any of that, but I'm sure Laugher's larger jizz penetrated my skull.]

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday - Francis

[Gray squirrel and his shelter, Higbee Beach, NJ last week.]

"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

- Francis of Assisi

Sunday, March 17, 2013

March Is . . .

 [Dunlin, Avalon Jetty, NJ Sunday March 17 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

March is swirls of Dunlin and prettier ducks. . . but fewer of them. It is trickles of the new, like Laughing Gulls and Pine Warblers, and lots of the old, like Common Loons in the channels and Hooded Mergansers in the creeks. It is wind, and waiting for birds to come across the Bay, like the American Kestrel we saw come across at Cox Hall Creek yesterday. It's daffodils and bluebells poking through cold ground, and Mourning Cloaks flying above it. It is the waterthrush that is not here yet, but the Osprey that is. It's friends sharing evening fun and pizza around a poker table talking of these things, and a friend in a hospital far away who we're waiting for, too, like a spring bird we want to return. March is a hard month, hard as in difficult, and hard as in solid, unmoving, unmoved.

[Ring-billed Gull between February and April, with February's streaks and April's blood red orbital ring and gape. Waiting in a shopping center parking lot, where else, until it is time to go. ]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

[Red-billed Tropicbird off Little Tobago.]

“Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?” 
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wordless Wednesday

[Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad about a week ago.]

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trinidad: Aripo Agricultural Field Station by Day and Night

 [Southern Lapwing at the Aripo Agricultural Field Station on Trinidad.]

Birders learn this early and learn it well: different birds like different habitats, so by extension, to see different birds you go to different habitats. When on Trinidad, of course we're interested in the rainforest, but the lowland savanna habitat provided by the Aripo Agricultural Field Station (no, Mr Customs Official, we were not at any ranches or farms. . . ;>) ) has different species, like the meadowlark-like Red-breasted Blackbirds, or the Southern Lapwings, Savannah Hawks, White-headed Marsh-tyrants, Pearl Kite, and many others. If you go, go here.

 [Savannah habitat on Trinidad.]

 [Night-birding yielded White-tailed Nightjar, Common Potoo, and this Pauraque on the Aripo Savanna.]

[Tropical Screech-owl cooperates during our night-birding expedition.]

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Like Being in Montana

I looked up from photographing my first Piping Plover of the year to find Will Kerling also watching the bird. We were at Stone Harbor Point, the only two people in sight on beautifully clear but somewhat chilly morning, and we chatted awhile about birds, butterflies (always a topic with Will), and the place. Will said, "I think you can appreciate this. This is one of the few places down here that remind me of the wilds of Montana." Will lived in Montana for 35 years, and I'm sure longs for expanses of people-less plains and mountains.
I do get the comparison - when you're on Stone Harbor Point, you are in the middle of a large, functioning ecosystem of beach and estuary, and the buildings seem far away, and the roads cannot be heard. Piping Plovers and Oystercatchers can be, and of course there are the waves breaking.

 [Piping Plover at Stone Harbor Point.]

[This American Bittern popped up from the marsh at the back side of Stone Harbor Point. The contrasting dark flight feathers on the upperwing help separate the bird from the night-herons.]

[Western Sandpiper, center, with Dunlin. A bit smaller, a bit grayer, skinnier legs.]

As I drove home from Stone Harbor, I reflected that even after the trip to Trinidad, Cape May feels like a very birdy place, and now we're on the cusp of spring, and things only improve from here. Soon I'll see my first Osprey of spring (it is possible it wintered in Trinidad, I guess), and the first Laughing Gull, and maybe tomorrow an early waterthrush or Pine Warbler will sing in Belleplain. The seasons go around again.

[It was an amazingly high tide at dawn today, with Grassy Sound (seen here from the bridge to North Wildwood) showing no grass tops at all, just looking like a big, wide bay. We're near the new moon, when the moon and the sun's gravity pull in concert and tides run high.]

Friday, March 8, 2013

Trinidad: the Northern Range

 [Streaked Xenops along the Blanchiseusse Road in Trinidad's Northern Range.]

Among the field trips you can choose from Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad is an excursion through the Northern Range's montane rainforest along the Blanchiseusse Road, the only road to bisect this range. It can be done as a half day, but a full day allows more time to work birds, so that's what we did. We found the especially interesting Black-faced Antthrush, a forest-walking species very difficult to see well or photograph, among 60 or so species.

 [Montane Rainforest along the Blanchiseusse Road.]

 [Common Black Hawk soars at eye level in the mountains along Blanchiseusse Road.]

 [This Blue-chinned Sapphire chose a home with a roof.]

[Smooth-billed Anis are common on Trinidad.]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Trinidad: What We Did Part I - the Grounds at Asa Wright

 [Golden-headed Manakins at a lek at Asa Wright, Trinidad. Click to enlarge all photos. A note about the photography from T&T: a lot of it is in the shade of the rainforest, and I made the decision not to do much with a flash, because flashes can frighten birds - I spooked a bellbird with one, for example - and I often don't get the natural look I strive for with photos when the flash is on the camera. The consequence of shooting sans flash, however, is shooting at a high ISO - a lot of these shots were at ISO 3200 or even 6400, which adds grain. You'll want a camera that can handle dark conditions here.]

When you go to Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad by yourself, you have only one option to work with. Luckily, it's a good one: Caligo Ventures, which has sole rights to booking there. I worked with Mark Hedden of Caligo, and between Mark and advice from our dear friend Megan Crewe (who does the Trinidad and Tobago trip with Field Guides), I was able to work out an independent birding venture that covered most of what we wanted to see and do in Trinidad and Tobago. I couldn't recommend a better way to see T&T than with Megan and Field Guides, but this is also a trip that is easy to do independently (you'll probably see fewer birds than you would with Meegs, though).

Birding highlight number one is the veranda at Asa Wright (see posts below for more about that), but you should also build in time for some exploring of the center grounds, either with a guide (like on their Orientation Walk or special trip to the Oilbird cave). The grounds are quite birdy, and you can expect things like Bearded Bellbirds bonging in the jungle, leks of manakins, Orange-winged Amazon parrots flying overhed constantly, and good looks at Channel-billed Toucans and Squirrel Cuckoos, with a little luck.

By the way, you have the option of setting up your field trips at Asa Wright either in advance, or you can add some by speaking to the staff at the center when you get there. We added a night birding option this way. Another by-the-way is that Caligo will set up your transport to and from the airport, and this for the most part went very smoothly for us. Like I said, this is a trip you can do on your own if you are a comfortable traveler.

In the blogs that follow, I'll detail some of the field trip options we chose while in T&T, in case you're thinking about a trip there. And you should be. It is often said that a trip to T&T is the ideal introduction to tropical birding, and I would agree. Many bird families are represented, but the species numbers are not overwhelming and the viewing is often pretty easy. This is the sort of trip that reminds you how to bird, using your knowledge of your native avifauna to recognize when you are looking at a thrush or flycatcher, and using your previously developed birding skills to collect field marks like size, shape and behavior as well as colors when you encounter something from a bird family that might be unfamiliar.

One tip I'll offer whenever you travel to a new foreign country is to set up your field guide with tabs marking the places of different bird families, to make it easy to page through the guide to the right page when you need to. Often I'll carry a pad and pen and make notes on birds as I see them, and then look them up, but Trinidad was vacation so I was lazy and just used my memory to keep the field marks and carried the book to look birds up as I encountered them.

Right then, here's a sampling of the treasures from the Asa Wright Nature Center grounds. You might see these from the veranda, but they aren't frequenting the feeders much if at all.

 [Boat-billed Flycatcher, not far from the center at Asa Wright. Like a Kiskadee with an oversized bill, and eyelines that don't connect behind the head.]

 [The much sought after Oilbird, a nocturnal fruit eater whose habit of eating, and feeding its chicks, the fruits of palms make it a very fat bird - the chicks can be more than half fat, which is why the natives were able to render oil and use it for torches from these cave-nesting birds. To see the oilbirds at Asa Wright, you are required to stay in the lodging there. They are very careful to avoid overly disturbing the birds, and no flash photography is allowed - this was handheld in the light of a flashlight with 640mm equivalent of lens at 1/25 - and a lot of luck to get an image with only a little motion blur.]

[Tiger lizard on the grounds.] 

 [White-tailed Trogon.]

[Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. Here was a case where knowing your "home" birds made an i.d. easier. From the wingbars, posture, bill shape, and behavior I knew it was a flycatcher, kind of Empid-like, but the color was new to me - but easy to find in the field guide under the flycatchers!]

The next three species are ubiquitous around Asa Wright, so learn these before you get there to save yourself time.

 [Bananaquit. They may be common, but I never did get one to pose showing its bright yellow belly.]

 [Male White-lined Tanager.]

[Palm Tanager. These things are everywhere on T&T.]

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

More from the Asa Wright Veranda

 [Violaceous Euphonia, Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad, last week. Click to enlarge all photos.]

I'm back in the states, albeit in the Miami airport, and sorting through a week's worth of Trinidad photos (see post below, too).  All these were taken from the veranda at Asa wright Nature Center.

Somebody, a British birder, remarked to me there something to the effect of, "you're done with all these now, eh?" Meaning, I've seen all of them, and maybe am ready to move off. No WAY! The longer I watched the tropical bird show at Asa Wright, the more I wanted to stay and watch, and learn more than the bird names, and for that matter, even if someone didn't know a single bird name, they would, or ought to, thrill to the sights of. . .

 [Barred Antshrike male.]

[Crested Oropendola.]

 [Blue-gray Tanager.]

[White-necked Jacobin.]

Still more to come, with perhaps a bit of trip narrative as well as photos.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Veranda of Your Dreams

 [Purple Honeycreeper and Green Honeycreeper, Asa Wright Nature Center veranda, February 27, 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

You will never forget your first morning on the veranda at Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad. Foreign sounds rise from the forest, forms flicker in and out from the feeders as light rises to reveal a parade of colors - what's that one? Oh, that one? Should have studied the field guide more!

No worries, though, the birds come and come and stay and stay, a contrast to much rainforest birding where the looks are fleeting. Blue-purple of Purple Honeycreepers, crazy green-blue of Green Honeycreepers, white flashing on the black White-lined Tanagers, a Northern Waterthrush joining the funny little agouti underneath the food trays. And the hummingbirds! White-necked Jacobins, Copper-rumpeds. . .

Many more pictures to come, this is but a glimpse of our first morning at Asa Wright.

[Male and female White-lined Tanagers and a Green Honeycreeper feast on fruit at Asa Wright. We saw over 50 species well our first day at the center, most of which were at or near the veranda feeders.]