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.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your story! We would like to suggest that you do a birding trip to Greenlee County Arizona! We would love to have you visit and enjoy our County!!


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