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!

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