Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Barnegat Beauties!!

For any birdwatcher living in New Jersey or any of the surrounding states, there is one destination to which an annual winter pilgrimage just has to be made - Barnegat Light. On first appearances, Barnegat Light is pretty much like any other part of the Jersey shore; a small town at the north end of Long Beach barrier island, bordered by an inlet where the waters of the mighty Barnegat Bay spill into the Atlantic Ocean. The ends of the barrier islands bordering the inlet are protected - as at other inlets along the shore - by granite jetties that jut out into the ocean, providing a rocky coastline where naturally there would not be one. But Barnegat Light seems to offer something special, maybe it's just the fact that it juts out into the Atlantic further than any other point to the south; whatever it is, Barnegat Light attracts a great range of birds, most specifically, the spectacular Harlequin Duck. This is the most southerly point on the eastern Atlantic seaboard of North America where this species can be seen regularly and that makes it a very special place.

Barnegat Light is 85 miles from my house, but well worth the hour and a half that it takes to nip up the Graden State Parkway to enjoy some spectacular winter birding. I'll let the pictures tell the story...

To get the best out of Barnegat Light, it is usually necessary to walk down the stone jetty, as most of the birds favour the far end - wouldn't you just know it!!

Once out on the jetty, fine panoramic views can be had of the inlet and of the lighthouse which, built in 1859, gives the location its name.

When the tide is in, the stone jetty can be a great place for roosting shorebirds. Remarkably, if you walk carefully and feign disinterest in the birds, they'll let you stroll right on by. Having got them used to you, it is then possible to just sit down with them and snap away with the camera...

Dunlins are usually the commonest species within a winter roost at Barnegat. The plain grey upperparts are a real contrast to the strongly-patterned feathers of breeding plumage.

This dozing Dunlin will appear odd to someone used to British birds. Wintering birds in New Jersey are of the race hudsonia, a form which has a noticeably longer bill than Dunlin in the UK.

Roosting alongside the Dunlin in winter, will be darker-backed birds with ochre-coloured legs and a stocky shape...

...these are Purple Sandpipers, a species that winters on rocky coasts and ne which has benefited from man's use of rock jetties, which provide them with ideal feeding places.

Another snoozing Purple Sandpiper.

Chunky Ruddy Turnstones with bright orange legs are common at Barnegat too.

A handful of Grey Plovers also often join the roost - though over here I should be calling them Black-bellied Plovers of course!

Spending time with the birds will allow them to get used to you and some intimate shots are possible. I particularly like the birds that just keep an eye on you from behind a higher piece of rock, such as this Dunlin...

...and this Purple Sandpiper. Though it's great to be able to get such close shots, it is always of utmost importance to keep an eye on the birds' behaviour and pull back if they are getting disturbed from important rest.

Towards the far end of the jetty, flocks of sea ducks become more in evidence, such as this party of Surf Scoters. The white patches on the heads of the males earned them the local name of 'Skunkhead'.

In flight, it's easy to see the reddish legs of male Surf Scoter.

Red legs can be seen on the water too if the view is close enough. Evolution seems to have played a cruel trick on Surf Scoters though, as that gaudy bill really looks pretty horrible!

By mid-winter, first-winter male Surf Scoters will be moulting from their brown, juvenile feathers into adult-type black plumage. The multicoloured bill starts to bulge out and the eye gradually turns white. A bit of a mess to be honest!

In contrast to 'Skunkheads', Black Scoter really look pretty dapper.

Careful scanning through the ducks found me a nice female King Eider. At first she was way across the inlet with a group of Surf Scoter, but later the birds all moved in to feed close to the stone jetty and I got some nice shots. This is not a common bird in New Jersey, but one or two do appear annually at Barnegat Light. Note the all dark bill which is shorter than that of Common Eider and with a 'smiley' curl to the gape.

Well, I mentioned Harlequin Duck in the first paragraph just to tease you! Yes indeed, the reason for a drive up to Barnegat Light was to have a go at photographing this stunning bird. I had seen a party of five at Cape May back before the turn of the year, but it is at Barnegat Light where the opportunity to get close to this species can really be fulfilled. The males are a truly spectacular bird, but the females have a fabulous charm about them too. On the day I visited, a party of five Harlequin Ducks was feeding just a short way along the jetty and I managed to gradually get them used to me hanging around and looking like I was harmless. Eventually they trusted me enough to actually choose to swim along towards me and climb out onto the rocks some eight feet from me!! The group increased to nine birds and I snapped away for over an hour. Another 19 Harlequins were with the scoter at the far end of the jetty, making this a very special place for this species. I got carried away, filling three memory cards and then struggling to whittle down the pictures to a small selection for this blog! Enjoy the following pictures, then ponder on the fact that it is legal in the USA to shoot this species just for fun. Ponder on the fact that the government actually allow it, and ponder on the fact that people actually want to do it - just to take them home and have them stuffed, not even for food!!

Big gun small brain? What do you think? Still, it is in Alaska and we all know who comes from there.....

A first sighting of the Harlequin Ducks often involves a confusion of white blobs and stripes, bobbing in the water. Here, 14 birds feed in the rough water around the end of the jetty.

Careful approach will bring better views and the pattern on the males becomes clearer - and the rufous flanks can be seen too.

Like many bird species that spend their lives in open water, Harlequins search for food by peering into the water from the surface - like the female on the right here.

This male is having a good old peer too!

Having spotted a tasty morsel, Harlequins open their wings and literally fly through the water.

With far more skill and brain power than it takes to shoot a Harlequin Duck for fun, it is possible to acclimatize the birds so that really close views can be enjoyed.

Having decided I seemed harmless enough, the ducks started to come out onto the rocks right next to me.

Alert and a little nervous at first, the birds eventually got used to me and settled down for a rest after a hectic feeding session.

After a good rest, it's time for another feed.

Well, that's Barnegat Light and, more especially, that's Harlequin Ducks. It's going to be a difficult blog to follow, so apologies if the next post seems a little mundane!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kicking off the garden list – and the 100th species for the year

Having moved into our house south of the Cape May canal, it’s been a busy time for us, unpacking boxes (yet again!!) and trying to work out where to put everything. More inspirational is the thought of developing the garden; we have an acre of land, most of which is currently grass, so we have pretty much a blank canvas to work with. The garden is bordered on one side by a strip of land that has been put into the local Green Acres program and is managed as wildlife habitat. This strip runs back and joins onto an outlying part of Higbee’s Beach Wildlife Management Area, which means we have good habitat right on our doorstep and it should be easy to allow the scrub habitat adjoining us to progress onto our land. We have a cluster of large shade trees around the house, including a couple of Red Maples, three Indian Bean Trees and a massive Chinese Elm. The latter is the largest tree in the immediate area so is favoured by a lot of birds as an ideal lookout spot. American Black Vultures often stop by and survey the area – though when it’s cold, they prefer the warmth of a brick chimney on a neighbour’s house! At the moment, though, the trees are far from a god-send; a flock of some 400 Common Starlings are working their way through the local juniper berries and, having gorged themselves, they then sit and digest. The end result? Wads of purple gunk splatting out of one end and the stone of the juniper fruit coughed up from the other end! And it’s all over our cars, our back steps, the drive – still you gotta luv ‘em!!

American Black Vultures warm their toes on the neighbour's chimney. This species is a relatively recent breeder this far north and is also incxreasing as a wintering species, thanks in no small part to Man's influence on the environment.

The lads!! A small part of the local Common Starling flock.

We’ve erected our feeders which have brought in quite a lot of birds already, though the ruffians are currently ruling the roost. Common Starlings, House Sparrows and the odd American Crow, Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird have been muscling in but other birds are finding their way to the feeders. Having moved from a house within the woods to one surrounded mostly by open fields and gardens, we’ve lost some of the species we had got used to, but gained some new ones. We still have Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers popping in, but have yet to see a Tufted Titmouse. House Finches are regulars though and the rosy males are a fine sight – though a bit shy so no pictures yet! Sprinkling seed on the ground along the edge of the scrubby area has attracted in a nice range of birds, including White-throated, White-crowned, Field and Song Sparrows and plenty of Northern Cardinals – though the latter are not popular with our resident Northern Mockingbird who thinks they’re going to steal all his rose hips that he’s been guarding to see him through the winter! A flock of up to 15 Cedar Waxwings has also been attracted to the rose hips.

Note a great shot of the Cackling Goose, but the light was going and this was just a quick shot from the car window on the way home from work one evening. However, it does show very nicely this species small size, relatively stubby bill and rather square head and darker breast, when compared with the Canada Goose behind.

Open land means open skies and we regularly get parties of Canada and Snow Geese flying over. I also added the Cackling Goose to our house list, which has been wintering in the area with a flock of Canada Geese. We actually started our house list on December 15th, the day we completed on the purchase, so here is the full list of species recorded so far:

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Cackling Goose
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
American Black Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
American Herring Gull
Feral Rock Dove
American Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Chickadee
Caroline Wren
Northern House Wren
Grey Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Common Starling
American Robin
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
House Finch
Brown-headed Cowbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Northern Cardinal

Not a bad start!

Elsewhere, things have been a bit quiet over the past week. Temperatures have risen enough that the woodcocks have retreated back into the shadows and the Killdeers have stopped dodging traffic along Bayshore Road. My best find was an American Kestrel which was sitting beside Bayshore Road on the 15th, while a trickle of new birds for the year list came my way – oh, and the 100th bird? Turned out to be a nice little Northern House Wren that spent at least three days in the scrubby area across the road from our house.

Lunch time walks around Cape May Point State Park always offer something of interest. One one occasion, a party of Snow Geese were bathing at the Plover Ponds behind the beach.

Mystery in the Marsh! Many people are surprised by the mounds of vegetation that stand out prominently amongst the marsh vegetation at the state park, becoming all the more prominent as the vegetation dies down. Looking for all the world like bonfire heaps, they are actually the homes of Musk Rats and it's only when you see the heaps of vegetation scattered across the marsh that you realise just how common these chaps are.

New year birds
The following species have weedled their way onto the year list:

January 14th
Northern House Wren – Bayshore Road
Purple Sandpiper – One near the fish packing plants, Cape May Harbor
Canvasback – A male with Ruddy Ducks in Cape May Harbor

Male Canvasback with Ruddy Ducks in Cape May Harbor. Once a very scarce bird historically around Cape May, this species increased in occurence during the 1980s and 1990s, but has seemingly returned to its former scarcity in recent years.

Male Redhead on Lighthouse Pond with male Gadwall and female Ring-necked Duck. I include this Redhead picture to allow direct comparison with the Canvasback above. The two are essentially very similar, but Canvasbacks are much whiter on the body and, when it can be seen, have a black forehead. The long bill of Canvasback is also a give away when they wake up!

January 15th
American Kestrel – Bayshore Road by The Beanery
Red-throated Diver – off St Peter’s, Cape May Point

January 16th
Black Scoter – Good numbers at Townsend’s Inlet, Avalon
White-winged Scoter – A single female at Townsend’s Inlet, Avalon
White-crowned Sparrow – a first-winter bird in our garden

A trip over to Avalon on the barrier islands gave me an interesting insight into the feeding behaviour of Pale-bellied Brent Geese. It occurred to me that ducks and swans up-end to feed regularly, but I don't recall seeing geese do this before. These Brent Geese were up-ending during high tide, to reach a bed of Ulva (a type of seaweed) that was temporarily inundated by seawater.

So the total moves on to 107

For posterity, here's a record of the CMBO store as you may never have seen it before! Stripped to the bare boards and ready for a new carpet. Yep, we're already getting ready for the coming season...