One of those days…but with a phenomenal ending

My brother Scott and I always try to spend one long day together each Spring, birding southern Jersey. Last Saturday, May 21, was our day together. Although it promised to be beastly hot, I had lined up a “tour” of spots along the Cape May peninsula for Scott’s and my targets.

We started at the Ocean City Welcome Center at dawn, where Scott got his lifer White-faced Ibis sitting on her nest. Then on to Belleplain for the residents: Prothonotary Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager, and an exceptionally cooperative Hooded Warbler at the stream near the magic triangle. We left Belleplain and were going to go straight down the western Cape when I decided that a side trip to Heislerville might be interesting. We stopped at Langley Road to look for a Blue Grosbeak…no (none all day long). We were there about 25 minutes, and I’d not checked any alerts. As we walked back to the car after a lengthy walk to see a Prairie Warbler, I noticed: Black-necked Stilt at Heislerville! 8 minutes away! ZOOM! But: the bird was gone…five minutes before. Had I had the alert sounds on, we could’ve truncated our PRWA chase…there were many others during the day…and would’ve easily seen the Stilt, as it had been foraging right next to the viewing area.

Later, we were at Reed’s Beach looking at a couple of Red Knot (we only saw seven the entire day. Ugh), and a nice couple pulled up and said, “The Iceland Gull is still back there.” That was a Lifer for Scott as well, and “back there” was the several-hundred-foot section of Reed’s Beach Road where there are no beachside buildings. It was a distance of <1/2 mile and a travel time of <4 minutes. But: no gull.

Later still, we were at the Stevens Street Hawkwatch for a hoped-for Mississippi Kite, as there have been many observed all over the state recently, including there. After awhile in 92 degree heat with no raptors of any kind other than TVs, I suggested we go to Coral Avenue. It was 2:45. When we got to Coral and were set up, I checked alerts again: at 2:52, Lisa Fanning had observed a MIKI fly right past the Stevens Street Hawkwatch. Strike three for the day. Oh yes, we had had other fine birds thus far: Brown Pelicans flying down the bay at East Point Lighthouse, all three of the marsh sparrows at Thompson’s Beach Road, beautiful views of the Red-headed Woodpeckers along Delsey Road, but we’d missed three unusual species by minutes each time.

After Coral, we were again at Stevens Street after having walked the Beanery grounds, hoping to find the MIKI perched. No. An alert pinged: Little Stint refound at Heislerville. We considered hopping in the car and driving 45 minutes for it. “Nah,” I said. Too far, and we’d both be delayed getting back to our families. “Let’s just remain here.” This time, staying put paid off: A raptor sailed in just under treetop level and I caught the light head and the long pointed wings against the leafy background. But my heart stopped when I looked closer and picked out details: this bird was too big and too black-and-white for a MIKI. Then I saw a forked tail and I was jumping up and down and hollering like Mel Hodges after Bobby Thomson’s home run in the Dodgers / Giants pennant game in 1957: “It’s a Swallow-tailed Kite! It’s a Swallow-tailed Kite! It’s a…(well, you get the idea).” Our observation period wasn’t very long…maybe 90 secs to two mins…but it was enough. After a decade of serious birding in New Jersey, I finally was at the right time and place to encounter this most beautiful and graceful of birds.

122 species, 14 different stops, 3 near-misses, and one giant “get” in the end. My heart is beating faster even as I type.

GREAT birding, everyone.

Glenhurst “Meadows” – read “Swamp” – lively this morning with both migrants and residents

I visited Glenhurst Meadows in Warren this morning, arriving just after dawn to the ultrasmooth parking lot (I kinda miss the old gravelly, rutted one), stocked with a couple of huge mounds of wood chips. Somerset County’s workers are going to need every shovelful of those wood chips to even attempt to provide a moderately walkable trail system at Glenhurst: the trail on the west side of Cory’s Brook is now a shallow lake, impassable unless one has chest waders or a coracle. The center trail and east trails are extremely muddy in places; shin-high boots are a must, and one must assure they’re firmly cinched!

The birding was thoroughly enjoyable once the squelching of boots and the roar of airplanes diminished. Residents (Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue-winged Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Field Sparrows, and at least 200 Gray Catbirds) were all singing away, perched up in trees or bushes to make their voices heard. Many migrants were also feeding eagerly and singing as well…onesies each of Pine, Palm, Nashville, Prairie, and Magnolia Warblers, several Northern Parulas, Redstarts, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Black-and-White Warblers, and numerous loud Northern Waterthrushes. Yellow-throated Vireos are in and singing on the north side of the river. I saw four Least Flycatchers, which E-Bird’s filter seemed to think was an unusual number, but only one Kingbird and one Great Crested Flycatcher. The Red-headed Woodpeckers put on quite a show on the northwest side of the powerline, their big blocks of color…flash of red, flash of white!…stark against the deep green and dark brown of the open forest. Two Woodcocks burst out of the bushes when I stopped to look at something else. And, always a favorite experience, a hummingbird zipped by; I love seeing them away from feeders, a reminder that these tiny creatures flourish quite well without our help!

Not a bird, but notable: A Beaver slapped its tail VERY loudly in the river numerous times; the splashes sounded like someone had dropped a boulder from 100 feet up. That was unique.

After an out-and-back trip of about 3 miles walking over 2-1/4 hours, I logged 60 species, including four “FOY” species. Glenhurst is still a wonderful place, despite the slop. I do hope Somerset County’s public works team manages to cover over the worst parts with wood chips, though the effect will be temporary, at best.

Garret Mountain, “like the old days”

Although the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “Birdcast” app suggested that only 59,000 birds moved across all of Essex County last night, and an equal number moved across all of Passaic, who would have predicted that so many of them would end up at Garret Mountain Park this morning? The first alert about “new” warbler species arrivals trickled through on the GroupMe app around 7:30. By the time I arrived around 8, the woods at the north end of Barbour Pond had so many warblers (mostly Yellow-rumpeds) that it was very difficult to figure out what bird to look at next. Over the course of about two hours and two miles of walking (all in a tight area), other birders and I encountered at least 16 species of warblers, some in onesies or twosies, others in large numbers. Mixed in were many other spring migrants: kinglets, vireos, mimic thrushes, orioles, grosbeaks, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow, the first time I’ve ever seen one in the springtime. The latter bird violated all rules and behaviors by perching up on an exposed twig for a good minute or so to have a preen and a sunbath. Equally showy was a quiet American Bittern, which offered great photographic opportunities if one had a long lens, as it sat out in the open at the edge of the pond. Jim Kuelke and I showed it to a novice birder who had made the mistake of asking, “Anything interesting here today?”

I had been, and continue to be worried about Garret Mountain as a birding location: the overabundant deer have eaten everything that doesn’t have thorns, other than what’s contained in the exclosure that Passaic County built in the interior of the park. The presence of just mono-specific ground cover–barberry–ought to bode ill for thicket-loving migrants (Kentucky, Mourning Warblers, etc.). And I don’t think a new tree will ever grow outside that exclosure; every leaf will be eaten and therefore it would seem that no sustained photosynthesis is possible. How would a tiny oak ever survive all those ungulate mouths to grow to 40-50 feet high?

But at least for today, the barberry brambles and the numerous insects in the “wet area” and up on the ridge were enough. Birds were everywhere, singing, flitting about, chasing each other…like Garret Mountain when I first visited, after the late Pete Bacinski first mentioned it to me in 2012. Fifty-four species for me, many more that others encountered. Birdcast suggests tonight as another big migration night. Let’s see what flies in at sunrise tomorrow – at Garret, or all over the state!

Good birding!

Encounter with a Ruffed Grouse family

For those who have never been, the Dryden Kuser Natural Area (generally known as “Kuser Bog” or, if you’re typing fast and your ‘phone autocorrects, “Kaiser Bog”) is a wonderful place for a 90 minutes to two-hour birding stroll. It’s a roughly 2-mile round trip walk on a well-trodden path from the parking are just below the High Point monument. Mosquitos abound; insect repellant is absolutely required.

I’ve made several visits there this year already, hoping to recreate Andres Choussy’s and my experience of two summers ago, when we stopped to look at some other bird and flushed a Ruffed Grouse from just a few feet away-we got a two-second look only. Other birders have also seen or heard Ruffed Grouse there this year, but I had not been so fortunate. In fact, in thinking about it, I have not SEEN a Ruffed Grouse for more than a few seconds in more than a decade, other than a sighting of one in Higbees Field 4 on Cape May a couple of years ago (it was part of a release program, I believe). The last really good sighting was on a cool Fall morning just before sunrise at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, when I arrived in half-light to find an adult grouse perched at the North Lookout, seemingly annoyed that I’d disturbed its vigil.

Until today.

This morning, about one-quarter of the way along the western side of the Kuser Bog trail, as I was walking very slowly and the woods were quiet, I heard a rustling on the slope to my left. Scanning, I espied a juvenile Grouse picking its way through the undergrowth. Fantastic! And then, the adult was there, just for a moment, a spectre of brown and red in dense mountain laurel. More fantastic! I watched, unmoving, trying to see “her” (I assume it was a female) and her young again, with no success. So, I followed their path up the hill, moving as quietly as I could. Eventually, I saw more scuttering ahead, and was able to see one, two, THREE juveniles. I took another step. One of the youngsters flew a short distance, and I headed in that direction. There appeared another juvenile…four altogether! Then, I saw the adult female again, and she saw me. At first, she moved away, but when I leaned forward to follow, she must have decided I was a threat to her young and, unselfishly, she turned back TOWARDS me (!!), clucking softly. I surmise that she was hoping to lure me away from her brood, which had gone on ahead. So, she and I had a staredown over a distance of about 20 feet, she not moving other than to turn her head every once in awhile, me changing stance only to lower my binoculars to rest my arms. I hadn’t brought my camera, which I think in the long run was fortunate; she might’ve been truly spooked by the sight of a large metallic object being pointed in her direction. So I have only my mind’s eye to remember the complexity of her plumage…the bars, the stripes, the browns and russets, the perky crest…perfectly evolved for hiding amidst fallen leaves.

It was I who eventually backed up and then turned away, leaving the grouse to shepherd her young ones towards more forage. Thus ended one of those magical moments that made all the hours driving up and down Route 23 behind dump trucks, the many miles walked, and all the dousing with DEET, worthwhile. I won’t soon forget this encounter.

Good birding!

You know it’s a good day when…

…you arrive at what you think is going to be a quick stop (Wagner Arboretum in Warren), and you spend 2-1/2 hours there; …you see your “target” species (Vesper Sparrow) not once, but four times over the course of the visit, with long looks three of the four times (gosh what a handsome bird!); …there are Purple Finches and Pine Siskins in the air nearly every minute, the latter in flocks of 8-12; …two Pileated Woodpeckers are flying around non-stop for nearly an hour, raising a ruckus; …you can’t see the Screech-Owl the small birds have found, but you know it’s there, because every small bird in the vicinity is looking into a hole in a snag and chipping loudly; …TEN American Kestrels are perched on one strand of telephone wire, and four more are perched in another tree across the road; …your favorite sparrow (Lincoln’s–OK, not the 23 that Roger Johnson observed this morning) perches atop a bush for three full minutes, with the illumination so perfect you can see the rose-colored eye ring against its olive face, the narrow stripes on the chestnut crown, and the tiny streaks on the white throat; …a lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker comes down out of the sky just as you’re thinking it’s time to go; …an adult Bald Eagle is perched in a nearby tree when you DO get into your car, making it a 51-species visit;

…and you read about Brown Boobies, a Northern Wheatear and an Evening Grosbeak (what a dichotomy!) on text alerts.

I hope everyone else who was able to be outside this morning had as enjoyable a few hours.

Great birding!

Reflections on a Deceased Wader

I feel inspired to write some thoughts about the Wood Stork first spotted last weekend at Cape May.

I was genuinely saddened upon reading yesterday of its death. I had observed the bird roosting in the pond at the Beanery late Tuesday afternoon. It seemed serene and calm. In retrospect, I realize that I was looking at a creature sapped of all energy and vitality, and likely unable to do anything other than allow its life essence to slowly drain away. It almost seems a pyrrhic victory to have it on my year’s list: as birders, we know we can’t “tick” a dead bird. This one was, at least by the time I observed it, on an inexorable and very short path to that status.

But I think it goes further than that: the thrill of “rarity” is that fate, luck, the Eternal…call it what you will…has brought a vital, free, living entity with wings (thus, theoretically, allowing it to be anywhere on the planet) and its observer to an improbable confluence in time and space. We want that existential moment of contact to have a continuance into the future for both entities. It seems a shame if one of the two members experiences a termination of its life’s path right there.

We know that some rarities are not likely to survive: I think about the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Hadlyme, CT a few winters back. The berry supply in the micro-territory where it was foraging would run out in a matter of days, and there were no insects in 10 degree weather. All of the thrilled observers knew, I think, that the bird was doomed. But that demise no doubt happened long after, out of the view of the dozens of birders who saw it in its early days. The Stork, by comparison? We practically watched its dying.

I hope that the autopsy helps increase understanding of bird mortality and big-bird wanderings. What brought that magnificent, enormous wader to the quiet of the Beanery pond for us to watch its last moments? What drove it from its warm, southern home 800 miles north into colder, less friendly air, just to pass away? We will really never know, but perhaps we can learn something from its last, fateful journey.

Good birding.

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