Saturday, June 14, 2008

Delaware Little Egret - not - June 14th

Emboldened by my successful run for the Prime Hook Wood Sandpiper a few weeks back I made a trip to familiar territory of the Bombay Hook NWR near Smyrna, DE in search of the reported Little Egret. I'd seen a few Little Egrets at my old UK childhood birding patch in January (much to my surprise), but I'd never seen one in the USA.

Little Egret looks a lot like a white Western Reef-Heron, and in fact one may be a subspecies of the other - the taxonomy is in flux. The most pressing problem is telling it from Snowy Egret, with which it shares similar overall size, black legs with yellow feet, and of course an overwhelming whiteness. Telling Little Egret from Snowy is not an issue in the UK. However here in the USA more subtle clues are needed. For one thing Little Egret has a rather thicker and longer bill - it presents as heavier than the Snowy's. The other thing, and something shown by the Delaware bird, is the presence of two thick plumes on the back of the head in contrast to the wispier plumes of the Snowy Egret. A recent post on BIRDWG01 by Alvaro Jaramillo also mentioned that the breast plumes were thicker and coarser in Little Egret. Of much less use, in general, are the bare parts since Little Egret can show yellow lores and the feet have a variable color too. In the case of this specific individual the Little Egret's lores were dull blue-gray so this was another ID mark for this bird, although perhaps not for the species in general.

Getting to Bombay Hook around 8am the tide was high, which I figured would push the small egrets into the pools. Barn Swallows and Purple Martins were at the visitor center. The first pool contained a decent number of Great Egrets, showing just how variable the size of a Great Egret can look when you're looking for small white herons. There were one or two Great Blue Herons as well. In the second pool, Shearness, there were quite a few of both those heron species, Black-necked Stilt and some nervous Killdeer. At the far end of the pool there were a couple of Snowy Egrets. Then onto Bear Swamp pool where there were almost no herons at all. I alternated between Shearness and Bear Swamp while I was there, because this is where the bird was seen. After 3 hours of covering the 3 pools at the reserve, and I wasn't the only one doing this, I gave up and came home. I've seen no sightings of the Little Egret from the past weekend, either.

Nice sightings while I was there were a couple of in-flight Clapper Rails, 5 Bald Eagles (one adult, 4 immatures), several Black-necked Stilts, Marsh Wren. Very few terns were in evidence - perhaps on breeding colonies elsewhere. Other birds included Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Common Yellowthroat and Swamp Sparrow. I attempted a wander down the boardwalk trail to look for other passerines but was literally bombarded by biting insects within the first 50 yards (the greenheads grew more enthusiastic as it got hotter through the morning) so I gave up on that. Not a bad trip, 2 hours each way from Princeton and some relatively cheap gas found at Carney's Point on the NJ side, but ultimately the first failed chase after ten successful ones got me from 599-609.

Can't get them all.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fledgelings, Princeton

The European Starlings and American Robins had their first fledgelings in mid May, the Common Grackles appeared to have starting fledging shortly after that, but this week's new birds of the season were Chipping Sparrows that seem to be popping up all over Princeton University campus in their highly streaked juvenile plumage and begging for food noisily. Over at my apartment complex the Brown Cowbirds are still in evidence but I'm thankful that I haven't run into any juveniles of that species yet.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Delaware Water Gap, June 7th

In a slightly insane move I ignored the prospects of getting fried in 90+ degree heat and drove to the Delaware Water Gap NRA on Sunday to look for breeding warblers.

Van Ness Rd, near Layton, has been in recent years a pretty reliable spot for Golden-winged Warbler, including a male that sings a "Blue-winged" song, albeit with somewhat of a flourish. Visually the bird looks like a pure Golden-winged. However I was reading a paper from 1997 by Frank Gill (Evolution, Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 519-525) that indicated that gene flow from Blue-winged to Golden-winged was strictly one way and that Blue-winged supplanted Golden-winged within 50 years. The cheery title was "Local Cytonuclear Extinction of the Golden-Winged Warbler".

If that wasn't rough enough on Golden-winged, the habitat along Van Ness Rd has been going through rapid succession, possibly aided and abetted by non-native species like multiflora rose. So, as you might have guess, there were no Golden-winged Warblers this year along Van Ness Rd, although that same weekend a "Lawrence's" Warbler (Golden-winged X Blue-winged) was reported singing a few miles to the north. There were plenty of Blue-winged Warblers, along with Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Prairie Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Scarlet Tanager and Eastern Towhee. Still a good place but the best area for Golden-winged is now Sterling Forest over the border in NY where they still hang on.

After finishing up at Van Ness I took a run into Stokes State Forest over the other side of Rt. 206. I stopped at the bridge over the Flatbrook River (Crigger Rd). At this parking lot, where the road becomes one-way, it was less productive than usual. I had heard Blackburnian Warbler and Least Flycatcher on the way up Grau Rd, but they weren't here where I'd seen them in previous years (in 2007 I watched a Blackburnian male bathe at the water standpipe here). However following the trail down the Flatbrook from the bridge I did hear Blackburnian and Black-throated Green in the dense pines, along with the usual Acadian Flycatcher and as a bonus a single tame Hermit Thrush. Based on the range map from the Birds of North America Online this would be the southerly limit of breeding for Hermit Thrush in the more coastal areas around here.

Going back along Crigger Rd towards High Point State Park, and after shedding two noisy Harleys that were tailing me, it wasn't all that difficult to find Cerulean Warbler singing along the road. Their favorite spot seems to shift from year to year. Also here was Yellow-throated Vireo. After turning right (east) onto Deckertown Pike I cut north along Sawmill Rd into High Point State Park. Here again, Least Flycatcher, Cerulean Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo were audible along the road. There was abundant American Redstarts on these higher elevations, and Ovenbirds were heard throughout.

Because the temperature was rising rapidly into the 90's I didn't chase every single bird song or go chasing after northern NJ highland specialties like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, so I retreated out of High Point and Stokes SF back to Rt. 206 and returned home.