Thursday, January 21, 2010

DeKorte Park

With the Northern Shrike still hanging around the Meadowlands, I decided to give it another shot. Even if the bird didn't show up, some of the ice had apparently melted and there had been at least 9 species of duck in the early part of the week. So I ventured out into the dark at 5:45am and headed to Rutgers to pick up fellow birder Tom Reed. We ended up taking the "scenic route" to get there (translation: my GPS took us back and forth across Newark Bay), but still ended up arriving just as the sun was coming up.

Soaking in the first bit of morning light, we started down the Saw Mill Creek Path from Disposal Road. It wasn't long before we heard an odd sound coming from just up ahead. Soon enough we located the silhouette of a bird perched on one of the high tension wire bases. As it turned its head, we could make out the hooked beak and knew it was going to be a good morning.

We made our way slowly down the trail and put the sun to our backs. And there it was - the Northern Shrike, sitting and singing calmly next to a high voltage sign. As are many of my birding experiences in the Meadowlands, the entire thing was a bit surreal. With huge jumbo jets flying overhead, sirens going off in every conceivable direction, and the New York City skyline just behind us...this little predatory powerhouse didn't seem to be out of his element at all. The shrike sat and soaked up the sun as we watched and listened to him vocalize for about 20 minutes. You can hear a brief clip of a Northern Shrike at Cornell's All About Birds site. The last note in the clip is what this particularly individual was doing for most of the time we observed him, so it was a bit more attractive than the recording in the link.

Unfortunately a dog was walked by and the bird headed for the hills. He perched briefly at the very top of a tree (classic shrike behavior), and then dove down into some Phragmites.

With our fingers crossed for another meeting later that day, we continued down the path in the direction of the New Jersey Turnpike. A few Northern Harriers hunted across the water over the landfill, and a Red-Tailed Hawk flew overhead. The ducks were the real non-shrike stars of the day, though. On the first leg of the trail Northern Pintail were plentiful. These are extremely handsome ducks, and one drake even hung around the edge of the trail long enough for me to get some relatively up-close photos of him in the morning light.

Mallards and Black Ducks were abundant as well, and we eventually found a hybrid cross between the two. These crosses are becoming increasingly common, and can be picked out of a flock by their wigeon-like green face patches. A male is pictured below, showing that tell-tale mallard coloration in the head.

As we continued walking more and more duck species started popping up. Northern Shoveler and Green-Winged Teal were hanging out on the far shore, and Buffleheads occasionally flew by before splashing down and resuming their diving.

A few Ring-Necked Ducks were also enjoying the favorable weather, along with a female Common Goldeneye.

Common Mergansers flew back and forth across the water, and a few Hooded Mergansers were hanging around toward the end of the trail. We headed back the way we came, but instead turned right, toward the Meadowlands Commission building. After spotting a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, a Double-Crested Cormorant, and some Red-Winged Blackbirds, we started down another leg of the path to get a closer look at an enormous raft of Canvasback. The dozen or so pictured below were only a fraction of the more than 225 individuals! As we passed them, more and more birds kept flying in and joining the flock.

We also passed these Pintail on the way back, seemingly on their way to a double date.

Gadwall ended up being our 12th species of duck for the day, a fairly exciting total! We were on the lookout for Ruddy Duck and Red-Breasted Merganser, but couldn't extend the count beyond a dozen. Here's a quick rundown again of the ducks we ended up seeing:

Black Duck
Green-Winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Common Goldeneye
Ring-Necked Duck

As we turned the last corner before reaching the parking lot, something flew across the water and perched on some marsh elder near the osprey platform. After a quick inspection we realized our friend the Northern Shrike and come out for Act 2. He changed perches a few times, until settling in directly in front of the Empire State Building (pictured below). Another surreal sight.

Eventually a jogger came a bit too close and the Northern Shrike shot down into the brush. We searched a bit but realized he had probably exited out of the back of the trail and across the water. We headed back toward the car and called it a morning.

Northern Shrike and twelve ducks?! That's one heck of a way to start a Wednesday!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Scholarly Birding

Right in the center of Rutgers University's Douglass campus there is a small pond (referred to as "Passion Puddle") that I often frequent during my winter and summer lunch breaks. Despite being surrounding by the fairly urban New Brunswick, the pond and it's surrounding lawn and patches of trees is an oasis for many species of birds.

In the past I have seen Pied-Billed Grebe swimming casually in the pond, as well as Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, and Great Crested Flycatcher using the trees of its bank as perches prior to a hunt.

This winter the area has surprised me again with the wealth of bird-life I've observed. The usual species like Black-Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Dark-Eyed Junco, and White-Breasted Nuthatch have been joined by a few that are seen less often. Red-Breasted Nuthatch (pictured above) and Brown Creeper were both spotted in the trees up the hill from the pond (behind Foran Hall for those familiar with the area). At least four species of woodpecker have also been observed here (Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied, and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker).

Even when the species pool "runs out", interesting behaviors never do. Last week I observed this White-Breasted Nuthatch picking up bits of food (seeds, perhaps) and sticking them in between bark, presumably caching them for later.

It can also be fun to get to know certain birds. The Song Sparrow above greeted me every afternoon for two weeks straight in the exact same location (a small bush on the edge of the pond). After a few days I could tell just where he would pop up and how he would react to me and to other birds.

Even the most common birds around can be fun to watch and to photography. Observing a bathing goose shows just how well adapted these birds and their feathers are to a life on the water. With their well-oiled feathers held close to their body, the water runs right off of their backs. Photographing these "usual" birds in an unusual setting can make things more interesting for you and for anyone viewing your photos.

As always, click on the photos for larger versions and check out my Flickr page.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sibley weighs in on NJ Goldeneye

Controversy has swept through the birding community this week as disputes over a potential Barrow's Goldeneye in Somerset have heated up. Alright, so maybe that makes it sound a bit more dramatic than it has actually been.

What was at first called a female Barrow's Goldeneye (much less common than Common Goldeneye...well, duh) is now mostly agreed upon to be either a Common Goldeneye with an unusual bill color or perhaps a hybird Common/Barrow's. The female Common Goldeneye's bill in winter is dark with a yellow tip, while the Barrow's is yellow-orange (pictured below).

Photo by Len Blumin (c) 2006

The individual (seen with a flock of Common Goldeneye) has an orange-yellow bill, however other details have lead experts to believe it is not a Barrow's Goldeneye (at least not a "pure" Barrow's). David Sibley has even put forth his thoughts on the matter, and they can be found here.

Either way, it sure is fun to speculate!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Neighborhood Birding

As most of you probably know, it's been a wee bit chilly here in the Garden State so far in 2010. It's January, yes, so the cold is expected. Still, a little bit of added motivation to get off my butt and outside hasn't hurt. I decided that I would do a photo a day type of thing in 2010 - you can view the Flickr set here. Of course I usually end up taking more than one photo per day...but the rule is I must take at least one. Anyway, on a few occasions I've decided to walk down to the pond at the entrance to our condo development to see what was happening.

The ponds around our development have actually been surprisingly productive since we moved in a year and a half ago. Productive being a relative term and taking into account that we live right off of a very busy section of Route 1 - but we've seen Belted Kingfisher, a number of herons and egrets, and the usual assortment of gulls and waterfowl. Driving by last week, however, I spotted something among the Canada Goose flock in the main entrance pond. After parking and grabbing my camera, I headed back out and took the two-block walk back to the pond. To my susprise, there was a female Bufflehead calmly floating in the middle of it!

Of course if you want to see Buffleheads during winter, you can travel to any number of spots and reliably find them. To have one in my somewhat urban/suburban neighborhood was a real treat, though. Outside of the Bufflehead, it's been mostly the dreaded Gs - gulls and geese. Sure, there's always the slim chance of a Cackling Goose or an Iceland Gull mixed in, but so far it's been what you would expect. Ring-Billed and Herring Gulls, and lots of Canada Geese.

Now, I won't pretend that I appreciate every individual poop-producing Canada Goose and parking lot Ring-Billed Gull. There's just too damn many of the things. When you do stop a take a closer look, though, you realize these birds have just as many cool adaptations and behaviors as your favorite pelagic bird or the most interesting raptor you can find.

The tightly compressed, oily feathers of gulls keep near freezing water from coming into contact with their bodies. This allows them to swim, forage, and bathe without worrying about the water temperature. It's pretty incredible how the water just glides off their backs.

I found these neat "ice balls" as well (photo below). Not sure exactly what's going on here, but for whatever reason it appears the frozen water around the tips of this vegeation stayed frozen while the rest of the ice in this section of the pond melted.

This Friday the forecast is calling for a sweltering 43 degrees, so make sure to get outdoors and enjoy the winter season!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hunters feed the hungry

Wild New Jersey has posted a very interesting article with a CNN video about Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH), a NJ non-profit corporation. Working with local food banks, hunters are able to donate venison to needy families while simultaneously addressing the overabundance of white-tailed deer in the state. Click here to visit the site and read the article.

Photo by huntingdesigns (c) 2009

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shrike Out

I ventured to the Meadowlands over the weekend to try and find the Northern Shrike that has been hanging out there recently. Shrikes are bad-ass birds, preying on anything and everything they can get their razor sharp, hooked beak on. They often save food for later, impaling insects, reptiles, and even smaller birds on plant spines and barbed wire fences. The day before I took the trip up the Turnpike, the Shrike had been seen feeding on a mouse.

Arriving around 7:30am, I was disappointed to see that all of the water along the DeKorte Park trail was frozen over. It had been cold the last few days, but a few degrees above freezing, so I didn't think such large bodies of water would be totally frozen. After hanging out there for awhile I went over to the nature center and walked one of the boardwalk trails...again, everything was frozen! I couldn't believe it. Even if the Northern Shrike hadn't been hanging around, the Meadowlands is usually a great spot for wintering waterfowl - Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, merganser species, etc.

After returning to Disposal Road I continued to search for the Shrike. Plenty of Song Sparrows flitted about cautiously, and there were a surprising amount of Northern Harriers (one of my favorite raptors). A Merlin even zoomed by and vanished into some tall vegetation on the side of the road. No Shrike, though. After a very cold 4 hours I decided to pack it up.

Photograph by Rick Leche (c) 2007

After arriving home I logged into my email and found a message that had just been sent - "Meadowlands Shrike - YES". The bird had been seen literally 5 minutes after I had left! Five minutes! Boy, oh boy. I can accept a bird not showing up - that's just birding. But a bird coming out 5 minutes after a 4 hour failed attempt? That stings. It does, however, serve as a reminder that birds aren't just out there for us to check off or photograph. They have no knowledge of our hobbies and our obsessions. They're wild animals and they're acting accordingly.

It's a shame the day was such a wash, but the Meadowlands is definitely one of the hidden gems of New Jersey. Tucked away against a backdrop of the Turnpike, a skyline of New York City, and a dump, it's a great spot for raptors, ducks, and plenty of other species.