Working Ocean Drive – Day 1

This past weekend – January 15th to the 16th – we took a trip down to Ocean City yet again to do some birding around Cape May (Updates:  since I have been very busy with school over this winter, I have not been able to post as frequently as hoped.  In that time period, I have received new equipment: Nikon Prostaff Angled Spotting Scope, and a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D5000).  To get to Cape May, we decided to take the Ocean Drive: a road that takes you through different cities and towns (including Avalon, Wildwood, Sea Isle City, Strathmere, and Stone Harbor), and at some points takes you right next to the ocean.  Once you have passed through Wildwood Crest, Ocean Drive suddenly merges with Garden State Parkway, but then leads right into Cape May.  We took this way both days – on Saturday to get to Avalon, and on Sunday to get to Cape May.

On Saturday, we were driving down Ocean Drive and spotted a group of ducks.  They appeared to be Brant, and then I noticed a straggler lagging behind the group.  That bird ended up being a totally different species from the Brant – a Common Loon

Common Loon, winter plumage. See the ring of white partially around his neck?

– my first lifer of the day!

Typically during winter, Common Loons and Red-Throated Loons are very hard to distinguish.  They can both be found in New Jersey in the winter, which makes the identification matters even harder (it isn’t like the Red-Throated Loon is a mega-rarity, so if someone sees it, it’s just as if they see an American Robin; they don’t cause an uproar). The Common Loon can be distinguished from the Red-Throated by it’s large bill in comparison to the latter species’.  This is obviously the case year round, but in winter, things get tricky.  In my opinion, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two species is the Common Loon’s white-ish “necklace”, whereas the Red-Throated Loon is just a drab brown-gray all over the back of it’s body, and it’s front being a white color (these same characteristics apply to the Common Loon as well).  Also, the Red-Throated Loon is considerably smaller than the Common Loon – the Red-Throated can get to be about 27 inches in length, and the Common can get to be about 38 inches!

Shortly after we left the Loon, we came to our destination – Avalon’s 6th Street and 8th Street jetties.  One of my birding trips that I had failed to post about was our last trip to this area.  We came to the same place, and I added both White-Winged Scoter and a probable Red-Throated Loon to my life list.  Last time we were here, the skies were cloudy, and to make matters worse, it was raining!   This time around, not only was the weather great and very conducive to exceptional photographs, but when I emerged from behind the sea wall blocking my view, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  There was a raft of at least a thousand Surf and Black Scoter, with a good 30 Long-Tailed Duck mixed in!  The massive flock even held a lone Harlequin Duck!  I had heard of this type of phenomenon happening at the jetties at Barnegat, but I had no such luck with my travels there, unfortunately.  This was all taking place at the 8th Street jetty, so I was eager to find what bird life the 6th Street jetty held!  All three birds that I mentioned before (Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, and Long-Tailed Duck) were lifers.  Each of the three Scoter species are unique in their own way.  To start, let’s look at the Black Scoter.

The Black Scoter male

Male Black Scoter. Notice the yellow knob at the base of his bill.

is, as its name suggests, black.  The only coloration on this bird is a bright yellow lump on its bill.  The female of this species has a brown overall body with lighter brown cheeks and neck.  Also, small traces of yellow can be found toward the base of the bill.  Our next species, the Surf Scoter,

Male Surf Scoter. Notice the white patches on his forehead and nape.

can’t be missed.  This is one of, in my opinion, the most unique birds that can be found along the east coast.  To me, the male’s bill is what gives this species 100% of its uniqueness.  The colors that can be found on the bill of the male Surf Scoter are as follows: black, white, orange, yellow, and a touch of pink.  The rest of the bird is black, other than a white patch on their forehead, and then a larger one on their nape.  On the female Surf Scoter (which is difficult to distinguish from the female White-Winged Scoter), I typically look for two faint white patches on both sides of the bird’s face.  On the female White-Winged Scoter, these patches are more prominent, and the Scoter bearing them will have white wing bar (the white wing bar will definitely show you which species it is!).  Overall, the female Surf Scoter is a brown color, other than the two white patches I mentioned.

The fourth lifer of the day was the Long-Tailed Duck.

Long-Tailed Duck, winter plumage.

We only get them down here during migration and winter.  They are overall white and gray, and, as its name suggests, a long tail.  Its tail is black, and is very, very noticeable!  This is a very interesting bird as well.  It has a bill that consists of the colors pink and black.  Its head is white with a gray patch around the eye, and then a relatively thicker white eye ring around the rim of the eye.  It has a large patch of black mixed with brown on the sides of its neck.  They have black wings, a black chest, and a white stomach.  This is just a description of the males of the species in winter plumage.

As we continued to Avalon’s 6th Street jetty, excitement levels rose.  When we walked out on the jetty, I noticed that there was nothing that I haven’t seen before, but then we saw a white speck on the horizon.  I put my scope on it, and it turned out to be a preening Common Eider.  This was the fifth lifer of the day!  I immediately noticed the Eider’s greenish-yellow, distorted bill, which is a telltale sign that the species of Eider is a Common.

This is the Common Eider. I had to crop down all the way on this one, and had to heavily crop on many of the others. The birds weren't being very photogenic today!

Each of the three Eiders that can be commonly seen in North America have very distinguishable characteristics from one another.  The Common Eider was fairly easy to identify (only two of three eiders of North America can be seen in New Jersey: Common and King).  You can identify this bird almost by process of elimination (you should never do this when birdwatching, though.  Any bird could show up at any time, so don’t just assume or jump to conclusions that it is the species that you think it is); the King Eider is arguably the most spectacular duck in North America!  The Common Eider is more of a drab black, gray and white color, and has a very high level of contrast all over its body – the merging points of many body parts of this bird are indistinguishable where they meet the main body.

After the first day of working Ocean Drive, I already had 5 lifers!  Little did I know, the day wasn’t over yet!  When we were driving back to Ocean City on Ocean Drive, we passed over a bridge (at which point I can’t remember), and I noticed some ducks on an inlet.  We pulled off the road, and I walked over to the inlet.  Immediately, I identified the ducks as a species of Scaup, but they started to swim away as soon as they saw me.  Since I don’t have the identification confirmed yet, I will just give tips on how to tell the difference between the two Scaups.

The Greater Scaup is typically found in salt water, whereas the Lesser Scaup prefers freshwater.  The Greater can grow roughly four inches larger than the Lesser.  Another distinguishing characteristic, although not always reliable, is the difference of the color of the iridescence of the two species’ heads.  The Lesser Scaup’s head iridescence is a purple color, and the Greater Scaup’s is green.  This species would prove to be my sixth and final lifer for the day – but not for the weekend!

These birds were found in salt water, so I am guessing that they are Greater Scaup.



Working Ocean Drive – Day 2

On Sunday, we headed down Ocean Drive yet again, but saw no uncommon species on the way down.  Our destination was Cape May, my target bird being American Woodcock, a small game bird that was being seen all over the place down there on the previous Friday.  I didn’t end up getting my target bird, but I did get a rather unexpected lifer!  Once again, Ann Smith’s Farm Market (the place where I saw the Cattle Egret for the first time) paid off!  This time, the half-an-acre farmland produced two lone American Pipits!

I find the behavior of American Pipits to be slightly similar to that of the American Robin.  Frequently bobbing their tails, feeding on the ground, etc.  But the looks of the American Pipit are far from similar to any bird that can be commonly seen during a New Jersey winter.  The American Pipit is mostly a pale gray color overall,  with some sparse white patches mixed in between.  It has a slightly streaked chest, with a pale white underbelly.  Also, you might be able to see some dull white wing bars, but they are not always apparent if you are not looking through binoculars or a scope, etc.  Their feet are a black-pink color, but the lighter pink color is not very prominent.  Their bill is black, but has yellow at the base and on much of the lower bill.  The American Pipit only comes to this area during migration, but by closely observing a range map of this species, I have found that American Pipits actually come to the very southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May, during winter as well.

American Pipit. See how he blends in with the dead grass, the prefered feeding habitat for him at this time of year.

After today’s American Pipit, Cape May didn’t produce any uncommon species, so we headed back up to Ocean City via Ocean Drive.  This time, unlike earlier in the day, Ocean Drive was productive.  We stopped at Hereford Lighthouse at the north end of North Wildwood, which is just minutes away from Stone Harbor.  It is amazing that a small saltwater pond can produce one of my most important lifers of the day.

In the back of the Hereford Lighthouse gardens, there is a path that leads up to a long concrete trail that takes you by the ocean side.  Immediately off of the first path coming out of the gardens, there was a small saltwater pond, closely bordering the beach of the Atlantic Ocean.  I saw some Ring-Billed Gulls, but nothing else, so after a few minutes, I was about ready to head back to the car.  But then, I heard a splash, and up popped a male Red-Breasted Merganser, just done fishing!

Male Red-Breasted Merganser. Notice the green tufts of feathers on his crown and nape.

This completed my trio of Mergansers that can be found in North America.  This was my seventh lifer for the weekend (which I feel that by now, birding on the east coast should only be producing lifers in “onesies” for me, but then again, in previous years I have been too much of a wimp to bird in the winter!), which was very exciting for me!

I hope that these identification tips will help all readers who haven’t seen these species yet have an easier time identifying them in the field!

The three different Merganser species found in North America look much alike… but also can look totally different.  For example, Hooded Mergansers versus Common and Red-Breasted Mergansers.  Hooded Mergs can be distinguished from their two cousins from a mile away, not only from the Common- and Red-Breasteds lack of hoods, but also coloration and size differences.  The two species that are hardest to discern  (granted, from afar) are Common Mergansers and Red-Breasted Mergansers.

Common Merganser males have a green head with a pinkish bill with its base starting right in line with the bird’s eye.  There is also a slight black nail at the end of the bill.  In fact, the bill is a major distinguishing factor in several ways.  For instance, the bill of the Red-Breasted Merganser is much longer than that of the Common Merganser, and the base does not start as noticeably high up on the bird’s head.  Also the bill of the Red-Breasted has more of an orange-ish hue to it.

The Common Merganser male also has a white neck that stays white all the way down through the bird’s underbelly.  This is where yet another of the vital identification keys comes into play.  The Red-Breasted Merganser has only a thick white stripe on the neck, and then has a mottled brown chest.  They have a black back with black wings, but in flight with both sexes, a white patch can be seen.  This is also the same with the other Merganser species.  The Red-Breasted Merganser has a tuft of green feathers starting at the bird’s crown and ending at about the middle of the nape, which isn’t apparent on the Common Merganser.  The back of this species is black, and the sides of the body are gray.

Now for female identification (hang in there – it’s almost over!).

The telling the difference between a female Common Merganser and a female Red-Breasted Merganser is, in my opinion, very difficult.  The females of both species have cinnamon-colored heads with crests of the same color, just the same as male Red-Breasted Mergansers. However there is one thing on the head of the Red-Breasted Merganser that manifests itself so much that it can be seen from a very far distance away.  The eye color.  The female has a bright red eye (the same goes for the male of this species, but looking at the red eye on the male’s dark green head makes it very hard to notice with the naked eye), whereas the female Common Merganser has a black eye.

The female Common Merganser has a thick white ring around its neck, and then has a light gray back, white underbelly and chest, and pinkish-orange feet.  The female Red-Breasted, however, has no such ring around its neck, and has not a light gray back, but a dark gray back, and the same white underbelly and chest.  Finally, both sexes have pinkish-orange feet as well.

Today goes to show that you can never underestimate even the smallest pond – finding a duck of large lakes and saltwater in a small pond with no other birds of its same species.  If you can’t get to a park or nature trail, make the best of your situation.  Birds are virtually everywhere outside.  So even if your birdwatching for the day is pulling off of the road next to a small marsh, depending on the time of year and the location, you could see Red-Winged and Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Swamp Sparrows, and Marsh Wrens.  Again, make the best out of your situation at the time, and BIRDWATCH.  You could see very unexpected things at very unexpected times.

I hope that these identification tips will help all readers who haven’t seen these species yet have an easier time identifying them in the field!

Until next time!