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.


4 thoughts on “Working Ocean Drive – Day 1

  1. Very nice Eric! Some awesome birds here. Awesome photos considering how much you had to crop them.

    A couple things:
    With enough time spent, winter plumage RT Loons and C Loons are fairly simple to ID unless they’re super far out. In addition to the bill size and the white collar, you want to look at the angle the bill is held at in relation to the water. RT almost always holds it’s bill at a fairly high angle. Also, RTLO has a lot of white on it. White on the neck, on the flanks, including fairly high up the flanks. In flight, the pattern is different, the way the neck and bill are held is different from Common and in the case of multiple birds, the grouping pattern is different. So just a few suggestions on what to look for on Common vs RT Loons. 🙂

    On Scaup ID, you can sometimes use the head color if you have good light, but since the head feathers of both species are iridescent, it’s not a completely reliable field mark. More reliable is the head shape. Greater has a rounded head and Lesser is more peaked at the back.

    Btw, using the process of elimination is immensely valuable in the field. Especially when you can’t see small field marks. Just when using it, don’t use location. 🙂

    Keep up the good work! –Chris

  2. Chris – Wow! Thank you for all of these identification tips! They have surely helped me! Thank you for your comments, as well!
    Dan and Kerri – thank you for your kind comments!

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