Tuesday, January 29, 2013

November New Jersey with Tucson Audubon: Day Four

Guest post by Rick Wright


When we set it up last winter, I’d called this field trip The Eider Express, in the cocky assurance that the now traditional flock of Common Eider at Barnegat Light would be present and accessible by the end of November.

Then came the storm called Sandy. Long Beach Island was shut off for a goodly while, and I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to get out to the famous lighthouse at its northern tip, much less wander around looking for coldwater waterfowl.

Happily — for us, but especially for the people who live on the barrier island year-round — the dunes had done their work in those places where they’d been maintained; and even where the tide had swept across nearly to the bay, the white sand had been plowed and piled, so that our drive north in places recalled a wintertime trip between snow fences on the Great Plains.

Barnegat Bay, that great winter haven for birds and birders of all kinds, was full of Bonaparte’s Gulls, and a little patience turned up half a dozen Laughing Gulls, a species sure to clear out by the end of the year.

Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and little family parties of Atlantic Brant were scattered out on the water and up in the rocks.

These little black geese seem to have had a good year, with bar-backed young nearly as common in most flocks as adults.

The real specialties of Barnegat Light are farther out, so we set out on the jetty-top sidewalk to see what we could see. It wasn’t more than a few steps before we found our first Harlequin Duck.

Between us, the members of the group had had hundreds of sightings of hundreds of harlequins over the years, but there’s just something about this bird that makes it impossible to move on once it swims into sight. This one was having a good breakfast,

diving constantly

and probably munching on blue mussels like these.

Knowing there would be more harlequins as the morning went on, we tore ourselves away and started the long slog out the beach.

To my relief, the Common Eider flock, still New Jersey’s most reliable, was in place, and the unusually calm waters let us check thoroughly for rarer species (nada). We counted 32 eider, among them a number of nice rosy-breasted, green-naped drakes, along with more Harlequin Ducks, Black Scoters, and the constant stream of southbound Red-throated Loons offshore. A lone Great Cormorant was out on the usual distant perch, and after a while a boil of about forty adult Northern Gannets (the brown ones must already be south) formed not far out and began to fish, diving and splashing spectacularly. Late birds often linger at the mouth of the inlet; this time we were surprised to see three Brown Pelicans and two Royal Terns, warm-weather birds that don’t have many more days at this latitude.

It was past our lunchtime, too, so we headed back to the van and to the nearest open diner, where our sandwiches were served with yet another generous helping of spray-tanned Jersey authenticity (what was that young woman thinking? And where was my camera?).

Flight times and Philadelphia traffic were on our minds already, but there was still a good stretch of bayshore to cover. Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers were the constant, but we weren’t seeing much else until Betty spotted a small heron flying across the spartina islands. The last day of November is late for Tricolored Heron anywhere in the state, but there it was, a great bird to end a great field trip on the Jersey shore.

Check out Rick's Blog to read about the rest of this tour.

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