Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pine Siskins, Ewing, Jan 27th

This morning there were (at last!) two Pine Siskins at my yard feeders, making me not quite the last feeders in NJ to get a visit from these irruptives. Also new for the feeders was a Northern Flicker, making rapid headway through the suet block that had only just been discovered by the pair of Carolina Wrens that have been overwintering. Things are going to get busy with this afternoon's scheduled snowfall.

(Update: Siskins returned on the 29th, briefly, and there was a fly-over winter finch flock on the 30th).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Round Valley, Alpha, Great Swamp

Showing a startling lack of innovation and general laziness, I birded much the same areas as the previous weekend over the 24th and 25th.

Saturday dawned cloudy but after it started to clear I made a late afternoon run to Round Valley and back to Pole Farm near sunset. Up at the northern end of Round Valley at the boat ramp the Eared Grebe was quite cooperative and near the ramp, but too far away for worthwhile photographs. This turns out to be the first Eared Grebe I'd seen in NJ. A white-ish immature Iceland Gull was also in the Ring-billed Gull flock at the boat ramp. Common Merganser and Bufflehead were also there. Because Round Valley closes at 4pm I didn't check the interior lots but instead came back south and went to Pole Farm as the sun set. There were several hopeful photographers swarming all over the place, and there seemed to be quite a lot of Harriers around - perhaps up to 4 females and one male but the light was bad enough that I left the camera in the car. After sunset, and just as I was headed out, a single Short-eared Owl put in an appearance.

On Sunday morning I was back at Round Valley. The south lot was very quiet but I did at least hear Pine Siskin sound off once - I never did see it. The Eared Grebe was still at the boat launch but still outside photo range. So I went east to Great Swamp NWR and parked at the heronry overlook. After a little effort I got distant but diagnostic looks at the adult Red-headed Woodpecker, then after returning to the lot some other birders found the Northern Shrike which was moderately cooperative at range for a while before it vanished. The Shrike appeared to be an adult but apparently there's also an immature around. The icing on the cake was being told of a Long-eared Owl roost nearby, which had attracted predictable attention. I still don't understand why people hold full-volume conversations about camera gear right in front of an owl roost, but I guess we can call these the "sacrificial owls" in terms of human disturbance. Two of the LEOs showed some stress in posture (narrow and vertical) but the other two seemed more relaxed. Thankfully all were obscured and not viable for photographs, so that probably relieved some of the pressure.

After Great Swamp I made a very quick stop at Scherman-Hoffman to check out the feeders - non-photographable (at least in the PM) but there were Pine Siskins on them. Then on to Alpha where I was primarily looking for photos of Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur. Only one Horned Lark, no flocks, and since the clouds had moved in just as I arrived I contented myself with a couple of sweeps of the area and watching the large Snow Goose flock accumulate in the fields nearby.

On the way home a stop at Round Valley once more produced a Lesser Black-backed Gull but nothing else of note.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Florence and Pole Farm: Jan 20th, 21st

While waiting for FedEx Ground to screw up a delivery I birded Florence (NJ) and the Mercer County Park NorthWest (i.e. Pole Farm).

At Florence I arrived to find a lot of ice on the Delaware River at the boat ramp park. This stretch of river heads east-west and of course such is the curse of Florence that the river view overlooks the large Tullytown landfill on the Pennsylvania side. The upside, of course, is that landfills attract a ton of gulls and many of these loaf on the river.

The moment I arrived at the boat ramp park a Great Cormorant flew by and helpfully circled back around to help me clinch the ID - it was starting to molt into breeding plumage so the white flank patch was partially formed. There were quite a few Common Mergansers on the river - probably frozen out further north and from interior lakes. But the main deal is the gulls, many thousands of them, most of them Herring and Ring-billed: there were relatively few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, perhaps less than 10 seen on the entire trip, but I found a pale immature Iceland Gull on the second pass through the flock, and then a second one that kept flying around that was a little darker - towards pale coffee color. After scanning the flock multiple times I went west (i.e. downstream) a few blocks to River's Edge Park where there were very few gulls but luck produced a fly-over third Iceland Gull.

Back at the boat ramp the gull flock had taken flight and moved upstream, so I went to neighboring Roebling and at the park along Riverside Ave I scoped through the chain link fence at the more distant gull flock, (re-)finding two Iceland Gulls and Lesser Black-backed but no Glaucous. I hadn't birded Roebling before but in line with the whole Florence experience the park there overlooked an EPA Super Fund site along the river and seemed to be next to an abandoned manufacturing center. The dilettante nature of birding seems somewhat at odds with the gritty nature of these two towns.

Back at Pole Farm in Lawrenceville a mid afternoon visit yielded the usual suspects: Northern Harrier (2 females, at least one of which was immature), Red-tailed Hawk, a female American Kestrel, American Tree Sparrow and a Short-eared Owl that put in an appearance at a relatively early 3:30pm. Around that time two Eastern Meadowlarks zoomed overhead. Lets hope all these species can hang on for the snow thawing toward the end of the week.

The following morning at Pole Farm I pulled up to find a hovering Red-tailed Hawk, then panned to what I thought was another one before realizing that it was a pale morph Rough-legged Hawk. Possibly the same one that has been in the area for several weeks. I watched this bird for a while as it hunted the field, catching at least one rodent, before it circled high into the air and headed north. I suspect these Rough-legged Hawks cover quite a lot of territory in one day, whereas the Harriers (1 male, 1 female on this visit) seem to cover more limited ground.

(Thursday 22nd: both pale morph and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks were at Pole Farm, with the dark morph showing some aggression toward the light morph. Also there was the female American Kestrel, a single Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Dark-eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow. The Kestrel showed signs of food caching, something I hadn't observed before.)

(Friday 23rd: one apparent male pale morph Rough-legged seen well at Pole Farm, with what appeared to be a second adult female pale morph seen just before I left - it appeared different with a solid black breast band but was only seen at a distance)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Round Valley, Alpha, Califon

Despite the biting cold I made an afternoon run to Round Valley Reservoir and while there were still water birds around (Common Loon, American Coot, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead) the number of passerines were very low indeed. Two interesting birds were a vocal Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and 8-10 Lesser Black-backed Gulls amongst the predominantly Ring-billed on the reservoir itself.

Headed further west to Oberly Road in Alpha near the PA border and found the expected Horned Lark flock in the fields. Amongst the somewhat flighty groups of Larks were a few Snow Buntings, and then when one flock settled close to me I spied a Lapland Longspur. Nothing was close enough for photographs, however and the light was particularly bad. Since it was relatively late in the day several large flocks of Snow Geese flew over, presumably from feeding grounds to the (south-east) en route to a roost at Merrill Creek Reservoir.

On the way back home I diverted via Califon and found the Raritan river to be frozen - not a huge surprise with overnight temps in the low single digits and daytime temperatures in the teens. In fact more reminiscent of the time I spent birding Duluth MN four years ago.....but without the owls.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Siskins, siskins everywhere: Jan 11th and 12th

Sunday at 1:30pm I took a late day jaunt to Round Valley Recreation Area (reservoir) in search of water birds including the reported Eared Grebe. Not a great deal to see at the boat launch (Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Loon, one American Coot) but at the South Lot things were more interesting in the land bird dept. Chickadee sp. (hybrid), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, American Goldfinch and a nice flock of 15-20 Pine Siskin that were quite vocal. A fly-over Sharp-shinned Hawk completed the set.

Then, on Monday I was walking to Nassau St to get lunch when three Pine Siskins dropped into the pines at Prospect House on Princeton University campus. ID by call - the rising buzzy trill - there was still a mixed flock feeding there coming back to the lab, but I had no optics at work. A Cooper's Hawk fly-over was an added bonus. Pine Siskin is certainly the most interesting campus bird I've had - wonder if they'll make my feeders next ?

(Update Wednesday: the Pine Siskins were still at Prospect House and low enough to be ID'd by the naked eye. Still none at my feeders.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

It is an ex-Murre, it has ceased to be

(If you're not familiar with Monty Python's Parrot Sketch .....)

The major reason for the trip onto Long Island on Saturday morning was to see the Thick-billed Murre at Hempstead Lake State Park. I knew it was sick, so there was a risk, nevertheless I wasn't entirely happy that I was told the bird had died before I even got the spotting 'scope out of the car.

C'est la vie.

Instead I went to Massapequa Preserve, further to the east. At the pond near the Pittsburgh Ave entrance there were a good number of waterfowl, especially Green-winged Teal. Also present were Gadwall, Mallard, American Wigeon, Mute Swan and the inevitable Canada Goose. The best birds were five Long-billed Dowitchers and a small flock of fly-over probable Pine Siskin (call and silhouette fit, but I like to see more on a year bird). Black-capped Chickadee and Winter Wren were also nice firsts for the year - I had heard but not seen another Winter Wren in Princeton in the previous week.

Then on to Jones Beach SP where I started at the West End at the Coastguard Station which was very quiet (one Long-tailed Duck at the dock). More interesting was a duck hunting boat (and "hunter" both in full camo) with a 500mm lens pursuing pictures of ducks in the inlet and bay. I mean pursuing literally, and I think he was flushing more birds than he was getting pictures of. West End 2 was similarly dead with the first of many Song Sparrows along the roadside, but West End 1 (Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center) was more productive. There was one flighty flock of 50-60 Snow Buntings milling around, and on the boardwalk there were Yellow-rumped Warbler, a few more Song Sparrows, many Savannah Sparrows including a couple of the "Ipswich" subspecies, Northern Harrier and Horned Lark. I didn't manage to pick out any Lapland Longspurs but there were many passerines in this section. There was also a single immature Snow Goose in with the Canada Geese feeding in the median strip outside West End 1.

Next I went to West End 6, where I scanned the ocean looking for ducks and Gannets. No Gannets but quite a few Long-tailed Ducks, some Surf Scoter, two Black Scoter and one fly-by Greater Scaup showing the full extent of the wing bar rather nicely. Both loons, Horned Grebe and a mere handful of Sanderlings were also present.

Finally, and to complete the rare bird strike-out sweep for the day, I went to Camman's Pond in Merrick where the Ross's Goose was nowhere to be seen but there were a decent number of dabbling ducks on the pond including Northern Shoveler, new for the day/year.

Aggregate list:

Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Surf Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Bonaparte's Gull
Horned Lark
Winter Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
House Finch
probable Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pole Farm - Jan 8th

A brief morning foray to the nearby Pole Farm (Mercer County Park NorthWest) mainly looking for photographs of Rough-legged Hawk. In the event, no Rough-legs were to be found, and instead there was a relatively low count of two Northern Harriers (male+female), two Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrel and both species of Vulture. Numerous Canada Geese were spilling out of overnight roosts at/near Rosedale Park in small foraging flocks. A few Northern Flickers were milling around and the most interesting bird was a sleepy Carolina Wren calling from the field edge - this was species #46 for the year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wild Goose Chase - Jan 4th

Barnacle Goose and Pink-footed Goose were in NJ and NYC respectively, which was enough of a lure to make me chase them.

But first I started out locally, visiting Pole Farm briefly to check on the pale phase Rough-legged Hawk which was hunting over the field off the Federal City Rd entrance, but too distant for photos. Then up to northern NJ and DeKorte Park in the Meadowlands to look for the Snowy Owl that seemed pretty reproducible there. About all it took to find it was to walk up to the other birders that were already there at 10am. Northern Harrier and Rough-legged Hawk were also present in this area. Thank God - at this rate I was going to miss all the Snowys during an invasion year, perhaps the best one in quite some time.

Feeling optimistic I skipped across Staten Island quickly, along the Belt and into Flushing Meadows Corona Park where I started scanning Canada Goose flocks to no avail. And driving the wrong way on roadways that were extremely badly signed. Mea culpa. I checked both north and south of the Long Island Expressway and found a few Canada Goose flocks and no Pink-foot. After a while, I gave up on this first version of the wild goose chase and headed back down the Belt. I decided to stop at Floyd Bennett Field to scope for water birds in Jamaica Bay, coming up with the usual suspects: Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. I didn't find a Great Cormorant, however, often quite regular there in winter.

After that, I decided to try for the Western Grebe on the south shore of Staten Island. Thankfully this was a lot more cooperative, being seen well in NY waters from the pier just to the east of Mount Loretto. Also present were several Long-tailed Duck.

Then out of Staten Island by way of the Goethals Bridge and back north to DeKorte Park to see if the Snowy Owl was any closer - in fact it was further away but there were still birders there looking at it. There probably was a slow trickle of coming and going all day.

The light was waning, so I gave up on staking out Northern Shrike at Great Swamp NWR and decided to try for the Barnacle Goose at Califon in NJ towards sunset. Predictably for my karma on Sunday the bird did not come into roost while I was there - I've seen that bird twice in ~8 visits, but there's always more time to look for it and the Canada X Barnacle hybrid that I'm particularly interested in before it leaves in spring.

My year list sits at a modest 43 species, but it's early days yet.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jan 2nd - Mercer County Parks

To start the year out, I decided to head to Florence NJ to view the gulls in the river that accumulate there when the dump was in operation. Of course, on Friday the dump wasn't operating at all and there were very few birds to be seen, only the three species of gulls, and in the light snow not a great deal else.

While contemplating this debacle I decided to visit Mercer County Park in Lawrenceville/Hamilton to see if I could at least find a Common Merganser. I did, almost immediately, and there were a few small flocks flying around. Most of the lake was frozen but at the marina a decent size Canada Goose flock had accumulated. In the midst of it I found a Cackling Goose - classical in petite structure with a paler and pale-fringed mantle. Then while looking for more of them I came across a Greater White-fronted Goose in the same flock. After I returned with my scope I couldn't find the GWF but finally tracked it down after the flock decided to leave the lake and feed on the ball fields behind the ranger station near the marina. Two nice geese and not a bad consolation for Florence.

Near home I decided to check out the other version: Mercer County Park North West i.e. Pole Farm. The snow had stopped and the weather was starting to clear as I made it to the park. Almost immediately I saw a pale phase Rough-legged Hawk - rather unexpected - and then a few Northern Harriers (including two males) and an American Kestrel. A rather nice mix of raptors, padded by one of the local Red-tailed Hawks. After sprinting home to get the camera to see if I could get photos of the Rough-legged I returned just to watch the pale phase decided it had had enough action for one day and perch on the far side of the field. The icing on the cake was a dark phase Rough-legged that flew over the park toward dusk, ultimately ending up roosting on the far side of the other field I was monitoring.

I waited around until dusk and after the sun went down the final bird of the day was a single Short-eared Owl. Not as prolific as last year in terms of owls, Pole Farm still has some nice birds hunting the grassland this winter.

Interesting invasion patterns related to food supplies in northern wintering areas: last year was a Short-eared Owl invasion year, at least at Pole Farm but also in general; this year the numbers are low but in turn Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks are having some of the best invasion numbers in years. I'm always conflicted about this - I love these birds but invasion years always correspond to years in which food supplies crash and the birds are starving. Many will not make it to return to breeding grounds.