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!