Check Out My New Blog!

I have not been posting to this blog as much, but I have started up a new one describing a job that I have at a local park.  I am removing non-native plants and promoting the growth of native plants for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.  To read more about it, click HERE!  Enjoy!

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Spring!!!…….Sort of

You know its close to spring when the Bluebirds are checking out possible homes for the breeding season!!

This past Wednesday, I noticed a pair of Eastern Bluebirds flying from birdhouse to birdhouse in our backyard, and occasionally entering one.  When they entered one, they would usually go in together, which, according to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/id, is a good thing.  This behavior indicates that the pair bond is typically established (read more at the link above).

If you have a story similar to this, feel free to comment it!

Shot of a female Eastern Bluebird from a couple of years ago. This shot portrays what will probably be happening at our house soon, though!

I hope as we start a little birding community here, the readers of this blog will be able to share your experiences through comments, and we will all eventually be able to learn from each other!

Staten Island & Ferry Ride Birding

On January 29th, we went to the Manhattan area in New York to visit a family friend.  That friend was kind enough to hook all four of us up with a tour of some Staten Island Parks!

Now, today’s post will be slightly shorter than previous ones because, although the 29th was a beautiful day, many of the pond and lake birding opportunities were spoiled by freezing weather.  The day did not produce any lifers.  It did start out interestingly enough, though.

The ferry ride to the island was great – the Gulls trailing it were very photogenic!

Gulls flying behind the Staten Island Ferry on the Manhattan skyline.

A Ring-Billed Gull following the Ferry

A Ring-Billed Gull that took a ride with us on the Ferry

But what really stood out was when we got off of the ferry.  Immediately, our guide spotted Cormorants, and identified one as a Great.  Now, this would have been a lifer for me, but there were many Double-Crested Cormorants around.  Not that I didn’t trust the guide (he was a great leader and his bird identification skills were very good), its just that the bird was very far away, and I couldn’t get a positive ID on it.  If there is something as serious (well, serious for me) as putting a misidentified species on my life list at stake, I want to take as much precaution with identifying the bird as possible.

After that, we boarded our bus that would take us to the southern end of the island.  The bus ride was very long (personally, I wished that we could have spent more time birding and less time on a bus), but they did spot two Wild Turkeys in a tree.  It wouldn’t have been a lifer, of course, but I didn’t see them anyway.  I would have liked to see a turkey (other than on my dinner plate), because I haven’t seen one in years, and I think that they are a very intriguing species, not only because of their looks but because of their history too (but that is for an entirely different post).

After about a half an hour on the bus, we reached our destination, Wolfe’s Pond Park.  It is a scenic place, even in winter, but further research shows me that the birding there is better during spring and fall.  We saw Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls, Long-Tailed Duck, a species of Scaup (probably Greater), Common Goldeneye, Brant, Mallard, and American Black Duck.

A saltwater Scaup species, which means that they are probably Greater Scaup

A flock of Brant flying away from us as we walked in their direction.

There was one specific Ring-Billed Gull that would let me get within feet of him, which proved to provide many good photo opportunities.

The Ring-Billed Gull that let me get very close at Wolfe's Pond Park.

There is nothing else to be noted about birding at this park, other than a great look of Herring Gulls trying to steal an American Black Duck’s food.

Here is the Gull trying to steal the American Black Duck's mussel

We got BACK on the bus and headed up to Greenbelt Nature Center to attempt to walk on some trails to get some forest birds.  We arrived, and headed into the nature center.  They had a band playing, and there were drinks and snacks for all.  I then went outside to a feeder right along the walkway leading into the front doors, where a Chickadee was letting people get very close (a Downy Woodpecker showed up, too, but left before I could get pictures).

"What are you lookin' at?" The Chickadee that was being very photogenic.

We then all attempted to walk on a trail through the forest, but then they all turned around because the snow became too deep.

We, for the last time, boarded the bus which took us back to the Ferry.  We took one final look at the Cormorant to try to determine if it was a Great, and then got on the Ferry.

The final excitement of the day was when a Rock Pigeon boarded the Ferry with us, rode it all the way back to the Manhattan side, and flew back towards Staten Island until out of sight.  I don’t know why, but that intrigued me…

This guy boarded the Ferry with us, rode it to Manhattan, and then flew back in the direction of Staten Island.

One of the Gulls that was following the Ferry

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!

Bombay Hook NWR 12/4/10

On December 4th, we drove down to Bombay Hook NWR near Smyrna Delaware.  Go to http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=51550   for more information.  Also, visit bombayhook.fws.gov/.

To kick things off, this was the first time that I was able to take pictures with my new camera that I was given on the 2nd.  It is a Nikon D5000 with a 18-55 mm lens.  I am eagerly awaiting a larger lens so I will be able to take close-up shots of birds from farther away.

To start off our birding day, we were met by White-Crowned Sparrows at the front feeder at the visitors center.  This was the first time I was able to see an adult male White-Crowned Sparrow, which bears the white crown.  I described juvenile White-Crowned Sparrows in a previous post, and for comparison, females are very much alike.  The males don’t just have a plain white crown, but three white stripes on their crown, and two thick black stripes separating the white.  Also, they have thinner black stripes through their eyes in the same patterns as the other stripes.  They look very similar to White-Throated Sparrows, but they have a yellow color on the part of the white stripes on their heads closest to their beaks.  The White-Throated Sparrows have pinkish-gray beak, a white throat patch (as you could have guessed), a gray chest and stomach, a brown back and tail, and pink legs and feet.  The male White-Crowned Sparrows have gray cheeks, stomach, and chest, a yellow-orange beak, a tan back and tail, and pinkish-gray legs and feet.

Not a great shot for comparison, but this is a White-Throated Sparrow. Compare this to the White-Crowned Sparrow so you can have visual comparison between the two species.

The striking male White-Crowned Sparrow.

Personally, I enjoy birding from the car on the wildlife drive at this particular wildlife refuge because of the great variety of habitats that the drive goes through, marshlands, lakes, deciduous woodlands, farmlands, and open fields.  In addition to the wildlife drive, there are a multitude of trails off of the drive to provide good birding to someone who doesn’t want to bird from their car.

On the fourth, there wasn’t really anything spectacular to be seen, other than the lifer for the day, Tundra Swans.  Tundra Swans only come around this area in the winter time, but at first glance may be mistaken for Mute Swans (which stay in this area year round).  At a quick glance, the only way to distinguish the two species would be the bill color.  The Mute Swans have an orange bill, and the Tundra Swans have a black bill with some yellow at the sides.

My only lifer for today, the Tundra Swan

Here is a Mute Swan shot for comparison between the Tundra Swan (granted, the Tundra Swan pic isn't too great, but you will still be able to see the differences between bill coloration, etc.)

This is yet another great birding location, which year round bears a bounty of birds.  I thoroughly enjoy all of my birding experiences here, and I eagerly await my next visit.

Even though these guys are pretty common (the "Blue Morph" subspecies of Snow Goose), I still feel like I have struck gold. I have always wanted to see one!

Jersey Birding…..Part 1

Happy Thanksgiving to all!  We drove down to Ocean City today, and stopped by Howard S. Stainton again.  It never ceases to amaze me.  My dad didn’t think that we would see anything, because at the time it was about 4:30.  He was wrong.  First, there didn’t appear to be anything on the pond, but then when we took a closer look, there were multiple duck species including Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and finally, Hooded Mergansers.  Hooded Mergansers are lifers for me, and a lifer that I really wanted.  They can be easily identified from any other duck by their large white hood (as you could have guessed)

Lighting was poor at 4:30 p.m

that is actually a large tuft of feathers rather than it’s actual head.  It has tan sides, a black back and face, and a white breast and stomach.  These are one of my favorite birds because of their amazing appearance, and they are typically easy to see in our region in the winter time.  I am excited beyond belief for Barnegat tomorrow, as long as the weather permits.