Thursday, September 24, 2009

Species Profile - American Bittern

Species Profile #1
American Bittern
Botaurus lentiginosus

The American Bittern is a wading bird, closely related to the much more conspicuous herons and egrets we’re all familiar with. While relatively common in New Jersey’s marshes and wetlands, the American Bittern is rarely seen. The solitary birds almost always stay hidden in dense vegetation, perhaps coming to the edge of the water to hunt. Like other herons, bitterns will eat fish, amphibians, snakes, crustaceans, small mammals, and just about anything else they can find that is edible.

These birds are some of the most remarkably camouflaged vertebrates you will find in the state. Their streaked breast pattern gives the appearance of reeds, and when the bittern remains motionless it is almost impossible to spot them. When they fear a predator is nearby they will raise their bills into the air, exposing their cryptic pattern and hopefully blending in with their surroundings. Incredibly, they have also been observed swaying back and forth when the wind is blowing the reeds around them.

The closest relative to the American Bittern in New Jersey is the Least Bittern, however this bird belongs to a different genus and the American Bittern actually has closer relatives belonging to Botaurus in other parts of the world. Scientists can actually create a phylogeny of the bitterns using information from sound recordings of their distinctive calls. These phylogenies match up with genetic phylogenies perfectly.

The American Bittern is truly one of New Jersey’s most spectacular animals. Their incredible camouflage and thunderous, booming call are unmatched. If you’re lucky enough to see one, watch from a distance and be patient. Watching them hunt, sway with the breeze, and call is worth the wait.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nature & Survival - For Kids!

Amy Manning, one of New Jersey's finest young naturalists, has put together a Nature Awareness and Wilderness Survival series for children grades 5 through 8. This is a truly unique opportunity to instill important values and knowledge in our youth. Please pass this along to anyone who might be interested, and check out the flyer below for more information.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

Show me a birder who says vultures are cute, and I’ll show you a liar. 

The wrinkled, carcass-like skin on their heads probably won’t ever make me smile like an Indigo Bunting’s bright blue plumage will.  Their hunched over walk and black feathers probably won’t either.  Watching them soar overhead, while amazing in its own right, isn’t going to compete with a Peregrine Falcon’s dive or a hummingbird’s mid-air hovering act anytime soon (at least not in my book). 

Don’t overlook these scavengers, though.  They are truly wonders of evolution and are as ecologically fascinating as any other bird you will find.  Take their feather-less heads, for example.  If a scavenging bird has to stick their face into a nice, fresh deer carcass, what would be the better option?  Having a bunch of feathers that are going to collect blood, guts, infectious diseases, and potentially parasites?  Or having a head that looks like a feather-plucking machine just got a hold of them, making those big spongy primates say “ew”?  I think evolution has ignored us on this one and chosen the latter. 

A Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture share a squirrel carcass they have just removed from the road (c) 2009

Vultures also serve important ecological functions.  They consume large quantities of dead flesh;  dead flesh that would otherwise be crowding our forests, streets, and parks.  Sure, there are other scavengers and agents of decay that would eventually do their thing, but few as quickly as the vultures.  And some of these other scavengers are animals like rats and feral dogs that carry diseases and act as pests in a variety of other ways.   

Unfortunately many species of vulture are in severe decline.  “Across the Indian subcontinent, populations of three formerly very common species of vulture have declined by more than 97% as a result of consuming cattle carcasses contaminated with the veterinary drug diclofenac. There have been mass vulture deaths in East Africa associated with misuse of chemicals, huge population declines in West Africa due to habitat loss, and the disappearance of vultures from large areas of their formers ranges in South Africa because of the continued use of vulture parts in traditional medicine and sorcery.” (Source: ) 

Today, September 5th, is International Vulture Awareness Day.  Check out the official site at and get some more info about the trouble vultures are in at BirdLife .  If you have a blog, please consider participating in the event by posting about vultures.  Could be something you write, paint, photograph, draw…anything, really.  Get the button and more info here: 

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Arrival of Autumn

While the calendar still reads summer, there are two groups of people who have already shifted into fall mode. Students, who know the end of August means the beginning of classes, and birders, who know that the second round of yearly migration doesn't wait until summer officially ends. Birds have already begun moving south to escape the cold that is quickly approaching. Shorebirds began moving last month, and now songbirds are starting to trickle through New Jersey on their way to the southern United States and the neotropics. Migratory warblers are being seen more and more, and in the coming weeks their numbers will continue to rise.

Raptors have begun to migrate as well, although the spectacle that is hawk-watching won't peak until October. It is then that thousands of raptors can be seen in a single afternoon. Hawk-watches around New Jersey, such as Chimney Rock, Raccoon Ridge, and Cape May Point State Park, offer extraordinary views of Peregrine Falcons, Broad-Winged Hawks, American Kestrels, Merlins, Bald Eagles, and even the occasional Golden Eagle.

Migration always brings some interesting and often unusual birds to the state. This week a Swallow-Tailed Kite has been viewed reliably at Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge. Although a few of these birds usually turn up in NJ each year, it's always a treat to be able to watch a kite in the Garden State.

Photograph by Derek Bakken

Baird's Sandpiper, Loggerhead Shrike, Franklin's Gull, Black Terns, and Little Stints are some other recent sightings. There are certainly more rarities to be discovered, and even more that haven't yet arrived but will shock us all when they do end up showing up.

Autumn is really an exciting time to enjoy the outdoors. Not only do you have great birding opportunities, but the weather is perfect for hiking, kayaking, or just tossing around the ol' pigskin. When the leaves turn the rich colors of the season become impossible to ignore, and it's always fun finding a great roadside market to buy some warm apple cider.