Friday, April 27, 2012

The Jersey Shore with Tucson Audubon

Guest Post by Rick Wright
Originally from the Birding New Jersey and the World blog

Have you ever arrived at the start of a birding trip only to spend the next six hours in the van, waiting, waiting, waiting for the thing to finally begin? It’s not that way in New Jersey. The early arrivals and I met up Thursday afternoon at Newark Airport–the very antithesis of the natural–and five minutes later we were birding the gently wooded shores of Weequahic Lake, tucked into Newark’s largest and most beautiful city park. Our first bird was a Mute Swan on the nest, and as we walked through the open woods, we enjoyed great views of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Black-and-white and Myrtle Warblers, White-throated and Chipping Sparrows, and the other common migrants of a mid-Atlantic spring. It was a lovely warm evening, and we found it difficult to believe that we were still within sight of the airport control tower.

After a couple of hours, we picked up the rest of our congenial group and set off for the Pine Barrens, where we checked in to our hotel and had our first meal together, in a genuine New Jersey diner. The night was a short one and the next morning early, but spirits were high and eyes mostly open by the time we got to Belleplain State Forest, one of the true jewels in the crown of south Jersey birding.

The voice of the woods was the loud chant of innumerable Ovenbirds, one of which finally gave us fantastic scope views as it sang above our heads. A Pine Warbler fed on the road right under our van windows, and Black-and-white Warblers squeaked and creaked everywhere we went. The undisputed highlight of the morning came as we were driving out of the forest, when a Broad-winged Hawk swooped low across the road to land on a nearby branch, where it was joined by another–and the pair proceeded to copulate before our eyes. We’d expected to see that species, but the behavior was one none of us had witnessed before.

After lunch we drove the short distance to Jake’s Landing, a vast expanse of salt marsh on the Delaware Bayshore. Ospreys were everywhere on the nest platforms scattered through the marshes, and a female Northern Harrier was probably one of the sadly few breeding birds of that species left in the state. Buzzing Seaside Sparrows posed for scope views and photographs, and we even got to see two of the many Clapper Rails grunting and rattling out in the spartina. Hands-down winners in the competition to be named Most Graceful were the Forster’s Terns fishing in the channels.

A brief stop at CMBO’s Goshen center produced our first Eastern Bluebirds of the weekend and the first Orchard Oriole of the year, a fine chestnut male singing his jangling warble from the bushes. The newly arrived Barn Swallows dancing around the parking lot were joined by a single Northern Rough-winged Swallow, strangely the only one we would see for the entire trip.

The beaches and sandbars at Villas were covered with Laughing Gulls, Forster’s Terns, and Dunlin–but the parking lot was covered with gnats, all of them annoying and a few of them hungry. We held out for a little while, then sought the breezes of the ocean beach at Stone Harbor. We paused along the way on Nummy Island, finding a nice selection of migrant shorebirds including numbers of Black-bellied Plover and Whimbrels. Two Tricolored Herons were a good find, too; this species has greatly declined in New Jersey since the abandonment twenty years ago of the large heronry in Stone Harbor.

The beach itself was cool, breezy, and bug-free, but not overly birdy. A scan of the ocean turned up five Northern Gannets moving north, a small foretaste of the great flight we would observe a couple of days later. As we pulled out of the parking lot, a Brown Thrasher struck up his song.

Already we’d established a routine: Dinner. Sleep. Up early.

We started Saturday at Brigantine. Tempting as it might have been to hit the eight-mile dike drive, we spent the first three hours of the day walking through the piney woods in search of passerines. House Wrens and Gray Catbirds were singing here and there, and we had excellent looks at Yellow Warblers; a single Eastern Kingbird was on the early side. By far the most abundant migrants among the songbirds were White-throated and Chipping Sparrows, some of the latter no doubt newly arrived local breeders.

The birding was even better out among the marshes and pools. Noisy, flashy Willets were everywhere, and the abundant Great and Snowy Egrets were accompanied by a couple of lovely adult Little Blue Herons.

There were a few wintering birds still around–four or five sad-looking Snow Geese, large numbers of American Black Ducks and flocks of Atlantic Brant still taking it easy in the south–but a couple of Caspian Terns and a flock of Whimbrels were yet more signs that spring really is here. Overhead there was a steady stream of Double-crested Cormorants, thousands flying north in sharp-tipped V’s; Common Loons passed over in ones and twos. Brig is always good for raptors, and besides the abundant Ospreys on nests, we also found two Bald Eagles and a very handsome adult Peregrine Falcon.

It’s tempting to spend the entire day at Brigantine, but after lunch we decided to head out to the Tuckerton marshes instead. The massive cormorant flight continued, and a leisurely walk along Great Bay Boulevard turned up a few migrant passerines. A Slate-colored Junco keeping company with a fine Yellow Palm Warbler was out of place and a little tardy so far south in the state. But the abundant Boat-tailed Grackles stole the show, rattling and buzzing from the trees and bushes and wires.

The weather had been good our first days, but Sunday dawned cool, windy, and damp.

Our fears that migration had been shut down overnight were immediately assuaged when we arrived at Sandy Hook to find the sky above the surf filled with northing Northern Gannets, hundreds of them powering their way to the Gaspe against the wind. The bay was filled with Brant and gulls, and American Oystercatchers piped past us as they worked the sandbars. There were good numbers of horseshoe crabs ashore on the bay side; while the Laughing Gulls in attendance seemed to be looking for eggs, the Great Black-backed Gulls took a more direct approach, eating the upside-down adults on the sand.
The strong winds had more of an effect on passerines. A few brave Seaside Sparrows still climbed up into the bushes to sing, and we glimpsed a couple of Swamp Sparrows around the edges of the marsh, but it wasn’t until we got into the protection of the holly forest that migrants began to appear.

Another Yellow Palm Warbler gave us great views as it fed on the roadside, and an assemblage of at least six Hermit Thrushes was plucking hackberries from the trees. Four Cedar Waxwings stopped in briefly, and a Purple Finch sang from high up in the leaves; he remained invisible, frustratingly, but a couple of House Wrens, on the heard-only list up to then, finally let us see them. Out on the leeward side of the dunes, large numbers of White-throated Sparrows and Myrtle Warblers were joined by a couple of Field Sparrows, a natty White-crowned Sparrow, and a White-eyed Vireo.

The promised rain had held off nicely all morning, but it started in earnest just about the same time our stomachs started to growl. We crossed back to the mainland and had a warm lunch overlooking the bay as gulls and cormorants flew past intent on their own. It was pouring by the time we started on our way back north to the airport: our timing couldn’t have been better.

In three and a half days, we’d seen a lot of birds, had a lot of laughs, and learned all about such non-avian Jersey specialties as jug handle turns, Wawa, and vanishing bagel boxes. And I hope everybody else is looking forward to our next adventure as much as I am.

Rick Wright led this special trip for Tucson Audubon in April of 2012. List of current field trips.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dastardly Duos - Yellow Female Warblers

By Larry Liese
From the Vermilion Vaults
Originally appeared: April 2003 issue

Ever notice how most exciting bird stories are about sighting and identifying some spectacular bird with bright red and blue and violet and …? But what about those tough-to-ID females that do all the work of getting the next generation going? Those of us who start getting serious about trying to ID every bird we get a good look at have to be familiar with females and young too. While males of many species advertise their fitness as mates with elaborate displays and bright plumage, females generally incubate the eggs so blander plumage is a plus.

This issue’s Duos are a threesome of mostly yellow female warblers. Two are common breeders and the other is one of our most common migrants. Guessed them yet? The Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) and Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) both breed here and pass through in significant numbers in migration. Along with the latter are many Wilson’s Warblers (Wilsonia pusilla). Though they don’t breed in Arizona, they come close, breeding in most western states and almost all of Canada and Alaska. Though Wilson’s Warblers have fairly consistent plumage patterns in their three subspecies, there are 43 Yellow Warbler and 13 Common Yellowthroat subspecies leading to a somewhat wide range of color patterns. In our area, the Yellowthroats have more yellow than in other parts of the country, but still have much less yellow than the other two. Wilson’s Warblers are always bright yellow underneath, while female Yellow Warblers usually are, but can look quite pale, particularly in first-year birds.

A good look at the undertail will easily distinguish Yellow from Wilson’s Warblers. The Yellow’s tail is quite short, with the undertail coverts extending closer to the tail tip than on the others. Furthermore and most evident is that the undertail is almost entirely yellow, with only dark corners on the tip. In contrast, Wilson’s have a solidly dark undertail that contrasts strongly with the bright yellow undertail coverts. Even a quick look is generally enough to see this difference. Common Yellowthroats are so often very low to the ground in their preferred marshy habitat that I can’t say that I remember ever seeing their undertails! Inspecting the specimens at the U of A Bird Lab showed a similar light/dark pattern to the Wilson’s, but with less contrast. The Wilson’s all showed an obvious notch, while the Yellowthroats did not and the Yellows were hard to determine. Various references didn’t seem to be consistent in this regard. It’s one field mark I plan on paying more attention to this spring!

A key difference to look for in Yellow Warblers is the yellow edgings to the feathers of the wings. The remiges[flight-feathers], coverts, and tertials all have this, giving a very recognizable pattern to the wing. Both the Wilson’s and the Yellowthroat have uniformly dark olive upperparts, with the Yellowthroat being darker with less color.

In overall size, the Wilson’s is smallest, though with its short tail the Yellow at first seems of similar size but weighs almost a quarter again as much. Yellowthroats are a smidge heavier than the Yellow and slightly longer.

Yellow warblers have a plain face and dark eye that give them a ‘blank’ look. Wilson’s have a dark area on the cheek and a dark crown (gets darker seasonally, at least on some subspecies), accentuating a lighter supercilium and forehead. Yellowthroat females have a whitish eyering if one looks closely, and usually show contrast between the lighter throat and darker malar area.

The males usually do the majority of the singing, but call notes can help. Yellows give a rich musical chip note, Wilson’s call is described as a husky or nasal chimp, and the Yellowthroat’s calls vary considerably but have a raspy quality. Take advantage of the abundance of these three species during migration to get familiar with their calls. As the really good birders-by-ear all say: watch the bird making the sounds and verbally describe what it sounds like to you. That is what locks the sight and sound together in your memory. Good advice!

So observe these three a little longer than normal as you run into them this spring. When you hear the male Yellow’s sweet, sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet; or the Yellowthroat’s witch-ity, witch-i-ty, witch-i-ty; look for the nearby female and take a good look at her field marks. This will help you become that better birder. Good luck!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Choosing the Right Binoculars for Birding

By Bob Bowers
First published in the February, 2012, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, SaddleBrooke, Arizona, and Bob's blog, birdingthebrookeandbeyond

When I first realized how much I enjoyed birding, I knew I needed some new binoculars. I owned a pair of Bushnell porro prism binoculars at the time. Porro prisms are the ones that have a ‘z-shaped’ optical path, where the objective lenses are offset from the eyepieces. These are the kind of binoculars favored by Navy admirals, or at least by the actors playing them, when they scan the sea for U-boats. They usually have a lot of magnification and weigh almost as much as an anvil. And they’re completely useless for birding. So I knew I wanted the other kind, called roof prism binoculars, where the objective lenses are in line with the eyepieces, giving you a lighter-weight streamlined shape. Unfortunately, I still thought I needed a lot of magnification, so I bought a pair of 12 X 50s. The first number is the magnification, and the second number is the diameter (in millimeters) of the objective (front) lens. The magnification number basically tells you how much closer an object appears than without magnification, so 12 X 50 binoculars ‘bring’ an object 12 times closer. Another way to put this is that a 12 magnification will make an object 120 feet distant appear to be only 10 feet away.

The second number, objective lens diameter, relates to light-gathering capability. The larger the number, the more light is gathered, and the more light that is gathered, the brighter the object becomes. One would think, then, that you should look for the biggest numbers available, both in magnification and in objective lens size. However, big numbers are not the whole story, and lots of magnification and big lenses have their shortcomings, especially when it comes to birding.

For one thing, bigger numbers generally mean bigger binoculars, and a 12 X 50 pair, as I quickly learned, weighed enough to take a lot of fun out of birding. There are other disadvantages, too. Higher magnification gives you a smaller field of view, something you definitely do not want when birding. When your friend spots a rare warbler in a mesquite tree 40 feet away, you want to be able to ‘get on’ the bird quickly, before it flits away. With larger magnification binoculars, your field of view is smaller, and you might still be trying to find the bird long after it has flown the coop. The larger field of view you enjoy with smaller magnification binoculars also lets you see more birds in a flock, and allows you to follow a moving bird more easily.

Larger magnification binoculars also take more time to focus, are less capable of focusing on close objects and they exaggerate any unsteady hold. When you’re birding, you want to be able to bring a bird into focus quickly. Some birds cooperate by sitting in one place, but the most exciting ones always seem to think the grass (or tree) is greener somewhere else. If you’re lucky, a rare bird might even fly onto a nearby perch, but most high magnification binoculars will not focus on close objects. Ideally, your binoculars should be able to focus on objects as close as ten feet or less.

For most of us on Social Security, a steady hand is a distant memory. For this group, even a 10X pair of binoculars will exaggerate an unsteady hold and keep you from getting a clear look at that special bird. After I traded my 12X binoculars for a pair of 10X, I still wasn’t happy. The 10X were smaller and lighter, but I continued to have trouble finding a bird that others could see, and when I did find him, even a slight hand movement would interfere with a clean look.

Binoculars come in many flavors, at a wide range of prices. If you have one of those pair that Sterling Hayden used to spot German submarines, or if you are trying to find birds with a compact pair of opera glasses, it’s probably time to trade up. The good news is that it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive binoculars around. There are some beauties at $2,000, but you can find excellent high-performance binoculars for $300 or less. Generally speaking, if you are serious about birding, you should avoid binoculars under $100, since these are less likely to have good optics. At the same time, there seems to be little advantage in the range above $350 until you get at least to $1,000. In my opinion, you will be happiest with a 7X or 8X pair of binoculars, and more than one good pair are available in these sizes at $200-350.

One of my favorites is the Nikon Monarch ATB 8 X 42. These binoculars are waterproof, provide an excellent field of view (about 300 feet at 1,000 yards) and will focus on objects as close as 8 feet. The nature shop at Tucson Audubon will match online reseller prices such as Amazon (currently $259) for members, and they waive the sales tax. This is just one of many reasons to consider joining Tucson Audubon. In addition, these binoculars come with an incredible 25 year ‘no fault’ warranty. Probably more than I need, but I’ve always been an optimist.