Saturday, March 27, 2010

Barnegat, or Always Check Wind Direction

Since I'm mainly waiting for spring to kick in, I thought I'd do another run to Barnegat and then head south. I get to the parking lot at 8am again, walk along the concrete path and look out along the jetty to find breakers crashing in and throwing 6-8 foot of spray onto the breakwater about half way along. The wind was from the north, pushing the waves at high tide onto the rocks.

Even though the temperatures weren't too punishing it would have been suicide to hike along that breakwater more than the 1/4 of the way I actually did. What I actually did see was Long-tailed Ducks milling around in mating flocks, Common Loons (at least two in full alternate), American Oystercatcher (paired), Brant, fly-by Dunlin, fly-by Double-crested Cormorant.

So I got to head south to the Brigantine division of Forsythe NWR relatively early. I wasn't expecting much from Brigantine, although there was some sort of odd flea market in the parking lot. Out on the drive the tide was quite high, and the ducks were seeking shelter from the wind. Three probably Tundra Swans with their heads down (and so only "probables") were the most interesting thing. Signs of spring included paired Osprey, Great Egret, Greater Yellowlegs and a singing Pine Warbler - a particularly bright male - in the parking lot. Hundreds of American Black Duck were present, including at least one hybrid. Although Snow Goose and Northern Pintail were conspicuous by their absence, there were also a few Gadwall, Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal. There was a small group of Double-crested Cormorant headed north into the wind along the coastal boundary.

I decided to head for home via the Carranza Memorial in Wharton State Forest for some non-bird photography. At one of the bridges over the streams an Eastern Phoebe was claiming territory and singing, otherwise the Pine Barrens were predictably quiet.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Barnegat Inlet, March 21st

Overcoming some inherent sloth I headed for Barnegat Inlet on the morning of March 21st. Getting there at a slightly tardy 8am I still managed to be only the second one out on the breakwater in relatively balmy conditions with a moderate breeze from the south.....and found just the usual suspects on the falling tide.

There appeared to be a diminishing number of sea ducks although this could just be day to day variation. While the numbers of Long-tailed Ducks were high, and engaged in mating displays in tightly-knitted flocks, I only saw two scoters (a pair of Black Scoter) and a few Common Eiders. Harlequin Ducks were present in moderate numbers. The bird(s) of the day were three Northern Gannets headed south off the end of the breakwater. Other birds included Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Common Loon and a single Red-throated Loon, Brant, one Red-breasted Merganser and an Ipswich-like Savannah Sparrow.

All of the Common Loons I saw were in pre-alternate molt, with one apparently already in full alternate (breeding) plumage. Some Long-tailed Duck were in pre-alternate molt although most still seemed at or close to basic plumage and I didn't see any obvious full alternate plumages. Looks like it will be soon, however.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Month of Hope Denied - March 18th

AKA a little mid-March skim of three parks.

1. Griggstown. There's a new rail fence around the entrance drive and parking lot, to match the shorter stretch that did exist along the last section of the gravel entrance drive. The ground still shows the very harsh mowing it received last fall. Grand total: one Eastern Bluebird and one Red-tailed Hawk. This clearly isn't going to be interesting until late April after which the foliage might come back in. Or it might remain trashed for another year.

2. Rosedale Park. Despite having the same sort of signage as Pole Farm and being grouped under Mercer County Park NW this really is just a park. Nothing of interest there.

3. Pole Farm. Two singing Eastern Meadowlarks and two more seen in the air at a distance were the main signs of spring. Interesting lack of Red-winged Blackbirds at this stage. There's a new Kestrel nestbox on a tall pole out near the model aircraft field - but no Kestrel in sight. Song Sparrow was also singing and I saw what was probably a Field Sparrow (but the fleeting views didn't make it possible to be sure it wasn't a late American Tree Sparrow).

It will still take a little more time before spring kicks in full gear, although I have been seeing Killdeer on Princeton campus in the last week or two - most recently a pair near Icahn.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Field Guide: Svensson and Mullarney

When I first started birding in the US what was startling was just how mediocre the field guides were by comparison with the European guides (in my younger days the most significant ones published by Collins and Hamlyn respectively). The National Geographic guide was considered the best, but that was highly variable in quality. This is what propelled the Sibley guide series to prominence - it was mostly a lot better. However if you want to see what I consider to be one of the current best field guides, check out the second edition of what's called in Britain the "Collins Field Guide" aka Svensson and Mullarney. I picked up version 2 in Britain while birding at the RSPB Minsmere reserve. The quality is IMHO as much an improvement over Sibley as Sibley was over Nat Geo. In the USA this book is published by Princeton University Press with different cover art. Of course it's not a replacement for Sibley since it doesn't explicitly cover the U.S.A.

Links: Amazon, Princeton

(Caveat: I work at P.U. and have informal links with the University Press so I'm not necessarily unbiased)

New signage at Pole Farm

And by "new" I mean "sometime within the last couple of months" - because of a dearth of Short-eared Owls and even Northern Harriers at Pole Farm I've been going there infrequently despite the fact that it's by far my most local interesting birding area.

However on the tail end of the last big snow storm I made managed to get into the parking area off Federal City Road and found this sign on the old barn. It identifies the breeding and wintering grassland-dependent species there and tells the off-leash dog walker to reign them in. Given that Mercer County had not evidenced a clear direction for Pole Farm in the past, this is great news. I expect the dog walkers to largely ignore it, which is where cameras and video come in .......

The sign is also at the parking area at the other entrance to Pole Farm.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The Timberdoodles were moderately cooperative at Mapleton Preserve - an old nursery that isn't so much managed as let lie - to the north of Princeton. I stood quietly and waiting at the intersection of two trails there - same location as last year - and as it started to get very dark one started peenting in front of me. You could hear the voice aspect change as it moved its head around (I'd seen this happen in previous years). Three or perhaps more joined in by peenting, spread over quite a wide area. Once this provoked the local bird to set off in search - I could hear the low pitched conversational calls as it patrolled the area, then it returned and peented once more. This wasn't quite as good a show as last year, where one circled around me and displayed right above me, but the local bird did take off in a shallow twittering climb and flew past me, climbing into the brighter part of the sky so I could watch it (rather than hear it) climb and descend toward the grassy area west of the road. Although I heard more twittering (climbing) and the burbling it makes on descent, that was the best view I had all night. Last year I watched them on March 12th so I may return here next weekend.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Barnegat to Shawangunk - early signs of spring

A refurbished car (new tires, replaced wheel bearing) led me to do an epic road trip from the NJ shore to the Shawangunks on Saturday.

At Barnegat Inlet at 0700 the surf was up, driven by high tide and brisk northern winds, so few ducks were along the north-facing side of the breakwater. Surf Scoter, Black Scoter and Common Eider were along the mouth of the inlet. Long-tailed Ducks were everywhere, vocal and starting to molt. Common and Red-throated Loons were scare - the Common Loons themselves starting to molt into breeding plumage. A few shorebirds were present - Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone - but no Purple Sandpipers. Not a bad start but the weather reduced the opportunities.

Barnegat List:
Common Loon
Red-throated Loon
Common Eider
Surf Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Great Cormorant
Black-bellied Plover
American Oystercatcher
Ruddy Turnstone
Horned Lark
Savannah Sparrow
Boat-tailed Grackle

After that I went north and stopped at Belmar and Spring Lake for Glaucous Gull and Pacific Loon and didn't find either. Gull #s were low, and the only loons were very obviously Commons.

Then north-west to DeKorte Park in the Meadowlands where I failed once more to find Northern Shrike but did find three Fox Sparrows and a couple of Brown-headed Cowbirds. A Red-winged Blackbird was singing.

Then north-west some more via a somewhat non-optimal route to Wallkill NWR, or more specifically the Oil City Road parking lot on the NY side of the NWR. Here Crows and Turkey Vultures were common (Canada Geese and American Crow being the most common bird over that whole area). I did find two pale and one dark morph Rough-legged Hawk but they were well to the north of Oil City Rd and buried in the heat haze - it was a fairly warm day - for unsatisfying looks. Also of interest was a kettle of Black Vultures headed north.

Finally, the last 45 minute sprint of the day got me from Wallkill NWR to Shawangunk NWR for 5pm. Two Short-eared Owls were already up and perched in the sun, but not all that active apart from periodic harassment of the Northern Harriers (about 6 of them). No Rough-legged Hawks but a local birder told me they were there early in the day and often move off if the human activity is too much. I heard a Common Raven croak but did not see it. I also heard a Barred Owl sound off a couple of times but didn't see that either. After sunset, and about 6pm as it was starting to get pretty dark, I counted 4 Short-eared Owls over the center of the grassy areas. The previous night it was apparently 5. On the walk back to the car I heard the peenting of an American Woodcock and heard it twitter during its song flight.

Then all that was needed was a 2:15 drive home in the dark......

Update: suspicion that the Black Vultures I saw on Sat were migrating was bolstered by the observation of migrating Turkey Vultures over Manhattan on the subsequent Monday. Spring has sprung for the Vultures too.