Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Most readers have probably already heard or read some of the buzz surrounding the newly published Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, and maybe you have read some reviews of it already. I mostly stayed away from the pre-publication buzz because it is hard to get a good sense of a book from a few pull-quotes and sample pages. Now that I have the book in my hands, I can see that it does something much different from previous field guides, and that it does it very well.

A major limitation of photographic field guides has been that birds appear in rectangular images that take up extra space on the page and make it difficult to include enough images for a reader to get a good sense of the bird's appearance and plumages. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America attempts to solve this problem by shrinking the photos and increasing the size of the book to include more images and a lot of text. Richard Crossley takes  a different approach. Each species plate has a single background image and photos of the species in various plumages and poses have been Photoshopped into the scene.

When I first held a copy of The Crossley ID Guide (in the company of other bird bloggers), my first impression was that the book was huge, even bigger than The Sibley Guide to Birds (see photo below). My second impression was that each plate contained a lot of images, so that some plates almost looked crowded. The guide includes about 10,000 photos, almost all of which were taken by Richard Crossley himself. Most are excellent, and even the ones that are not perfectly sharp or well-exposed are still useful for learning more about the shape and behaviors of a bird. The photos include some birds molting from one plumage to another, including some birds in flight with missing flight feathers. The photo editing is also very good. Most plates are put together well, so that the Photoshopped birds appear as a natural part of the scene, and some birds even cast shadows or reflections. In some plates, particularly songbirds on the ground but also some perched birds, the birds do not look quite right to my eye. However, birds in the water and birds flying generally look more natural to me than the perched or walking birds. There were some errors on the plates, and further review will probably turn up a few more.

The background images themselves provide information about where a birder might encounter a species and add a lot of charm to the guide. Killdeer appear in a farm field with a tractor in the background; Bar-tailed Godwits appear on a beach with bikini-clad beachgoers; Ruffed Grouse blend with leaves covering a forest floor; Whip-poor-wills emerge from a dark forest; Chimney Swifts fly over a house's chimney; Grasshopper Sparrows sing in a grassy field; House Finches perch on the branches of a tangled mass of vines. Cape May regulars will recognize a lot of scenes (some obvious, like a lifeboat labelled "Cape May" or the lighthouse behind the American Oystercatchers). I am sure that birders in other places will find familiar scenes as well. I found one apparent oversight in the backgrounds: on the Herring Gull plate, a background image of fishing boats appears to be flipped horizontally, so that the names on the boats are backwards.

A major advantage of Crossley's approach is that it allows him to show a bird's typical behaviors along with their plumage and how a bird's appearance changes in different poses. Scoters can appear up close, to show plumage details, and in distant rafts, as a birder would usually encounter them. Songbirds appear perched, in flight, performing breeding displays, and foraging. On the American Coot page, a Great Black-backed Gull is attacking one of the coots in the background – a scene repeated many times (link not for the squeamish!) in front of Cape May's hawkwatch. A male Vermillion Flycatcher is displaying in the background of its plate, and a Northern Shrike is shown perched at the very top of a tree. Black-and-white Warblers creep around a tangled understory and hang upside-down from branches as they seek invertebrate prey.

Crossley begins his guide with the statement, "I don't like text," to emphasize that his guide is presenting images and letting the reader interpret them. However, his guide contains a fair amount of text: an introduction, prefaces for each of the bird categories, and notes on each plate about the bird's behavior and identification. Crossley's writing is lively and informative, with personal impressions and anecdotes included among the birding tips. For example, did you know that Richard Crossley took his wife to a sewage outflow on their first date? I learned that from his commentary on gulls, which went on to discuss why gulls should be interesting to a birder. If you do get this guide, the introduction is particularly worth reading because it lays out Crossley's ideas about bird identification and what he tried to accomplish with the plates. The one thing I do not like about the introduction is that it emphasizes the importance of taking good field notes but does not go into much detail on what they should look like or include.

Some elements of this guide are likely to be controversial among birders. In particular, Crossley includes the four-letter AOU/BBL code for each species along with the English and scientific names, and he uses those abbreviations throughout the text. I think that providing these codes is helpful since many birders do use them as shorthand in their own notes (as I do) and some rare bird text alerts make use of them. However, these codes were designed for recording data, mainly records of banded birds. Using them in the text makes the species descriptions initially confusing, especially for birders unfamiliar with the codes. Besides the abbreviation issue, the guide abandons the strict taxonomic ordering found in most recent field guides. Instead groups birds based on categories such as "swimming waterbirds," "walking waterbirds," "upland gamebirds," and "aerial landbirds."

If you want a traditional guide to carry in the field, this is not the book you are looking for. While The Crossley ID Guide covers 640 species that occur in eastern North America, it will not be easy to carry and it does not offer the quick field mark reference that we have come to expect from field guides. There are plenty of good choices available for field use, such as the Sibley Guide (Sibley's eastern birds is still the guide I use in the field) and the National Geographic guide

That said, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds is a guide that all birders will want for study and reference. Its large and detailed plates come closer than those of any bird guide to replicating the experience of seeing birds in the field. It should be especially useful for intermediate birders who want to move beyond puzzling out field marks to identifying birds according to size, shape, and behavior. I plan to consult it ahead of time when I pursue unusual birds to familiarize myself with their appearance, and I want to study all of the plates in greater detail now that this review is finished. According to Crossley Books, three more guides are in the works: one for Great Britain, one for western birds, and another mystery guide. I am eager to see Crossley's future guides.

Note: This review was based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press.

If you are not satisfied with my review of the book, there are a lot more reviews in the bird blogosphere; you can find links to many of them at The Birder's Library.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Birds from the Great Swamp

Yesterday I did some birding at the Great Swamp NWR. The woods were very quiet. Much of the ground was still covered in snow or ice, and the boardwalk trails were still icy for long stretches. The quiet was occasionally broken by the calls of Pileated Woodpeckers as they flew around and hammered against tree trunks. The birdiest spots were around the two blinds with birdfeeders. A mix of Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Dark-eyed Juncos took turns snatching seeds and carrying them away.

The far blind, known as the Friends Blind, looked out on some open water, which a moving stream managed to keep ice-free. The waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there was a nice collection of ducks. I saw my first Wood Ducks for the year and added a few waterbird species to my Morris County list. I enjoyed seeing Wood Ducks in their breeding plumage since those are some of the most beautiful ducks but can be easy to miss, even in the right habitat. Other waterfowl present included Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, and Ruddy Duck. It is possible that waterbird numbers will increase there over the next few weeks as more of the ice melts.

You can see more of my photos from the woods at my Flickr account.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Storm Clouds

Yesterday brought wind and rain, in some cases very heavy, to my area. It also brought some dramatically textured clouds and changing light conditions. These two photos are an attempt to capture how this looked in the afternoon.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Loose Feathers #279

Birds and birding news
  • Scientists have found and described a new bird species, Mentocrex beankaensis, from the Beanka Forest of Madagascar. It probably will not surprise birders that the bird that eluded scientists for so long is a rail.
  • As the climate warms and winters become milder, gray-feathered Tawny Owls are likely to decline and be replaced with brown-feathered Tawny Owls. Brown-feathered owls have more trouble surviving severe winters, possibly because they are more visible to potential predators.
  • Individual gulls adjust their wakefulness to match what neighboring gulls are doing. This helps explain why gulls seem to sleep in waves.
  • An essay in The New York Times considers the fictional and real careers of ornithologists doubling as spies.
  • Several dozen Canada Geese have been found dead or disoriented without motor skills along the south shore of Lake Erie. Unlike a lot of other cases, the cause of their illness is so far unknown.
  • Connecticut plans to euthanize 16 white-tailed deer to protect the birds nesting on a 14-acre island. The deer wandered onto the island at low tide; the island has a large heron rookery that includes egret species listed by the state as threatened.
  • Some Bald Eagles in British Columbia are so weak from starvation that they are unable to fly. The birds have had little to eat because of low chum salmon runs, which are caused by a combination of overfishing and habitat degradation.
  • Yet another dead Whooping Crane was found at the Alabama-Georgia border. It was most likely shot around the same time as another crane found there previously.
  • Ten Whooping Cranes were released in Louisiana last week as part of an attempt to rebuild the state's crane population. So far the birds seem to be doing well.
  • About 200 birds were oiled as a result of a spill from a cargo ship.
Birds in the blogosphere

Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ready to Bloom

This tree in my local park looks ready to flower. The flower branching pattern seems to match red maple. I have been watching this tree for a couple weeks, and the buds seem to be getting bigger, as if it is going to flower at the first opportunity.

Daffodils are sprouting, too, though some of them are still buried under snow.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Goldfinch at Breakfast

The Great Backyard Bird Count may be over, but there are still plenty of birds in the backyard. Aside from the American Goldfinch in the photo above, there were lots of Dark-eyed Juncos, Common Grackles, and House Finches around yesterday. The weirdest sight was a White-breasted Nuthatch carrying something bigger than its head. It might have been a piece of suet, though I am not sure how one would fit that much through the bars of the suet cage. It probably was not a whole peanut since there are not any at these feeders or in the neighbor's yard. I guess that will remain a mystery.

As with the rest of my bird sightings, I entered those into eBird. Over several years, I have built up a substantial yard list of 68 species. There are probably more that missed or forgot to record.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 4 #GBBC

Yesterday was mostly gray with a bit of snow and rain. This seemed to make some birds stay under cover, and parts of the local parks became inaccessible due to flooding. On the upside, it brought a lot of birds to the feeders, so there was a steady stream of common birds to watch.

The birds that captured my attention the most were the Mourning Doves. A group of them alternated between perching out on a wire despite the unfavorable conditions and foraging under the bird feeders. Seeing them backlit on a wire against a gray sky emphasizes their shape: a small head and bill, a puffed up body (almost round on some of the birds), and a long, narrow tail. Even with barely any color, they were still recognizable as Mourning Doves.

This Mourning Dove was showing off its warm brown breast feathers and white-tipped tail feathers as it took shelter in the branches of a tree. The feature I found particularly intriguing was the white puff above its bill. It seems that the doves can fluff out those feathers in a way I had not previously noticed. Now matter how many times I have looked at a bird, there is always something new to see!

Yesterday was the last day to observe birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, but you can continue to enter checklists from the weekend until March 1. So if you watched birds this weekend but have not entered them into the GBBC website yet, make sure you enter them this week!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 3 #GBBC

Yesterday I walked through my local patch again to look for new birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I did find one that was new for my GBBC lists this year: Carolina Wren. Other than that, I found mostly the same birds as I did on Friday. It is clear that migrating Canada Geese, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls are all staging in the area right now. All three continue to appear in higher numbers than they did for the previous few weeks. The goose with a collar on its neck appears to have moved on, since I did not spot it among the 400 geese in the park today. One treat was a close look at some American Robins running and searching for worms in the wet grass. One is pictured above; I have a few more photos at the bottom of this post.

In the evening I took a walk around the neighborhood to see if I could hear any owls. Previously I have heard Great Horned Owls calling a few blocks away, and I am pretty sure that some live in the area even though I have not heard them here for a few years. I had walked a few walks when I was stopped short by the sound of an Eastern Screech Owl calling. I listened and heard it give its tremolo call several more times over the course of a few minutes. After listening long enough to be sure I was hearing an owl rather than some other sound, I kept going in the hopes of find the larger owl species, but I came up empty-handed. Eastern Screech Owl was a new bird for me in New Jersey; I had previously seen them in DC and heard them in Massachusetts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 2 #GBBC

Yesterday morning I did some birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Unfortunately, it was extremely windy, and that wind suppressed a lot of bird activity, especially songbird activity and activity in open areas. Gulls did not seem particularly bothered by the wind. They just hunkered down in an open field or played in the wind. Crows, too, seemed to find the wind to their liking. Not many other birds braved the gusts, though. Some Canada Geese and Common Mergansers flew over, but they seemed to have some trouble keeping their formations aligned. Songbirds stayed under cover. I heard a few recognizable cheeps coming from the bushes, but none of their sources popped into view.

There are still two days left for the Great Backyard Bird Count, so there is still time to record and submit checklists if you have not done so already. If you are curious about what birds have been reported so far, you can explore the results on the GBBC website.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 1

Yesterday morning I did some birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count. First, I did a short count in the yard. The highlight was a flock of Fish Crows passing overhead. Fish Crows have mostly been absent this winter, except for a stray individual here and there. So it is exciting to see their return, and yesterday's flock was the first I have seen since sometime last year. Blackbird flocks have also returned this week, and a few were around the yard yesterday. They are not yet at their peak migration numbers, when flocks of a thousand or more will sometimes appear in the trees around the house.

I followed that with a walk around the local park. There were no redpolls this time, unfortunately; those birds seem to appear and disappear quickly around here. I did see a lot of sparrows, including a couple of American Tree Sparrows, which I had not seen at that location so far this year. There were more Fish Crows; in fact the Fish Crows outnumbered the American Crows yesterday. A few hundred blackbirds were spread over several flocks. Somewhat surprisingly, Brown-headed Cowbirds outnumbered the others, but Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles both were well represented. Other returning birds included Killdeer, which has been mostly absent this winter. This week the local gull population has been shifting. For most of the winter, Herring Gulls were in the majority by far, with small numbers of Ring-billed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. This week, Ring-billed Gulls have had a clear majority. Yesterday they outnumbered Herring Gulls about 5:1.

One other interesting bird was this Canada Goose, wearing an orange neck collar with the code H8W1. It was with a group of about 20 geese. Most of them were wearing metal leg bands, but this was the lone goose with a neck collar. I took some photos of it and reported the code on the collar to the Bird Banding Laboratory. It will probably take a few weeks before I get a response, but I will post it here when I do.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Loose Feathers #278

Hooded Merganser / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
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Environment and biodiversity
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count 2011

The upcoming weekend is Presidents Day weekend, and that means that it is time again for the Great Backyard Bird Count! This count is an attempt to record all of the birds found across the United States and Canada over a four-day period. Doing this requires participation from thousands of observers across the continent. During this weekend, people count and report birds in their backyards, in local parks, in wildlife refuges, at the beach, in the mountains, in cities, on farms, or anywhere else where they happen to encounter birds. Anyone can participate, whether a skilled field birder or someone who just started paying attention to birds. In fact, this count more suited to amateur participation than most bird surveys since it uses simplified protocol and checklists are reviewed promptly by one of the many volunteer regional reviewers.

The bird count website has instructions on how to participate. Find a time and a place where you can watch birds for at least 15 minutes. Record the birds that you see and note the number of each species. Then visit and submit a checklist with your sightings. You can submit as many checklists as you want during the weekend of the count, and each time that you watch birds should be recorded on a separate checklist. If you have further questions about the protocols, check the FAQs.

For more information:
Finally, check out the incredible tally for St. Petersburg, Florida, which reported 1.45 million American Robins over the four days of the count.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Common Redpolls in Middlesex County

Yesterday I birded my local park, with the route that I normally take around its perimeter. As I approached the marsh at the upstream end of the park, I could hear a lot of finch-like chatter, so I paused to see if anything would emerge from the reeds or come down from the treetops. Seeing two small birds on a branch, I raised my binoculars with the expectation of seeing a goldfinch or sparrow. Instead, I saw a beautiful Common Redpoll sitting in front of me. Then I saw a second one nearby. There was other finch-like chatter coming from the reeds and the trees above me, but I could not spot the sources, so it is possible that there were other redpolls with them. Another birder reported seeing three redpolls fly overhead in New Brunswick an hour and a half later. I am not sure whether his were the same as mine or whether there were two separate flocks in the area today.

This was not a life bird for me; however, it was only my second encounter with them and my first in New Jersey. My first sighting was at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. (I learned recently that it was Corey who initially found and reported those redpolls.) This species is also uncommon in my county. According to eBird, reports of redpolls in Middlesex County peak in February, with the most reports in the third week. Common Redpolls appear on 3.6% of eBird checklists during the third week and somewhat fewer in the weeks before and after. Then they are absent for pretty much the rest of the year. There are probably some additional reports that eBird does not pick up. I remember a report of redpolls on a recent Christmas Bird Count that is not represented in eBird's numbers. However, it is safe to say that this is a noteworthy sighting, both for myself and for the county's bird life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blustery Local Birding

Yesterday afternoon felt a lot like late winter: blustery but mild. I walked around my local park to see if the weather change had brought any change in the bird life. The snow is finally melting significantly, which left the ground soft and mushy wherever it was exposed. For the most part, the bird species were the same as during the past few weeks.

One very noticeable difference was the relative absence of gulls. For the past month or so, I would see masses of gulls huddled on the ice on the river. On most days, the gulls numbered in the hundreds. Today, with no ice on the river, there were a lot fewer gulls. Another interesting change is that Ring-billed Gulls outnumbered Herring Gulls for the first time in a while. I am not sure if that reflects seasonal changes in the overall local gull population, or if it was just a one-day variation.

There were more Canada Geese than I have seen in a few weeks. They slowly returned as more bare ground became available for their foraging. These three geese were picking grass out of a puddle on one of the athletic fields. Mallards were also more plentiful than I have been used to seeing so far this winter.

My favorite sighting of the afternoon was a raft of Common Mergansers in the vicinity of the train bridge. (Unfortunately, they were too far to take good photos of them.) Usually I see a handful on the river, or maybe a single bird. Yesterday I counted one raft of at least thirty, with other individuals scattered along the river. Seeing such a large group makes me wonder if these birds are already staging for their northward migration, or perhaps stopping to rest and feed as they journey from points farther south.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cape May Weekend

This weekend I was down at Cape May. With slightly warmer temperatures in the last two weeks, this weekend offered a chance to check out some of the places that were frozen when I visited earlier in the season. The peninsula has been unusually quiet over the past two months or so, with very few reports of rarities. This weekend was no different. The first stop on Saturday was at Avalon, where an Eared Grebe had been reported from the seawatch location. There was no sign of that, or any other grebe, but there were Long-tailed Ducks fairly close to shore and a mixed raft of Surf and Black Scoters farther out.

Saturday ended with a trip up to Jakes Landing to watch for owls. I did not see the reported Rough-legged Hawk, but I did see a first-winter Bald Eagle, which flew overhead just above treetop level. A few other birds flew around: American Black Ducks, a Great Blue Heron, an American Bittern, a few Northern Harriers, and a Red-tailed Hawk. An American Coot swam up to one of the boat ramps and started walking up. Finally, a little after the sun had dipped below the horizon, three Short-eared Owls finally emerged and started coursing over the marsh. Occasionally, two of the owls would get too close to each other for comfort, which would result in a brief aerial scuffle before they continued on their way.

Yesterday morning, the first stop was the Beanery. It seemed more quiet than usual, without the mixed flocks of sparrows and other songbirds that are usually all around the perimeter of the back field. One flock of Rusty Blackbirds flew overhead near the entrance, and other blackbirds were flying around. A Wilson's Snipe flushed and then flushed again, showing its distinctive russet rump as it flew away. One American Tree Sparrow was along the back field's fence line, and in one of the bushes, there was a flock of 18 Savannah Sparrows. The pond near the farm buildings held some ducks, including a Gadwall and 7 Ring-necked Ducks. A stop at the Meadows produced more waterfowl, which included a half dozen Northern Shovelers, a lot of Gadwall, a dozen Green-winged Teal, and some American Wigeons.

An afternoon stop at Cape May Point State Park produced more of the same. There were 8 Hooded Mergansers on Bunker Pond in addition to the American Wigeons and Gadwall. One sighting I did not expect, mainly because it has not been reported for a while on the blogs or listserves. Three Tundra Swans (one adult and two immatures) were present along with some Mute Swans on the first plover pond. They moved around more than the Mute Swans, and they were less tolerant of human activity on the trail along the pond. The adult looked especially white under the afternoon sun. Click the photo at right to see more photos of the swans.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Patterns in the Ice

The process of melting, freezing, and melting again has produced thin sheets of ice in interesting patterns. I found this patch of ice covering a puddle of meltwater in my local park. This almost looks like something with tentacles, but I am having trouble deciding what it most resembles.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bare Branches

I often passed by this tree on my walks through my local park. It leans out well over the river bank. Part of the tree still has leaves, but this limb is dead. It has always appeared photogenic to me, partly because of the angles it forms and partly because of its gnarled appearance. This photo is from yesterday afternoon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Loose Feathers #277

Young American Kestrel / Photo by Steve Hillebrand (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
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Oil spills
  • Residents in Louisiana still show lingering symptoms from their exposure to crude oil and dispersant chemicals during the oil spill. This could have long-term health effects in the future.
Environment and biodiversity
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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Driftwood on a Beach

Driftwood at Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, South Amboy, New Jersey.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Ipswich Sparrows at Sachuest Point NWR

The day before the Superbowl of Birding, I traveled up to Massachusetts together with Corey, Andrew, and Jacob, the latter a member of a young birders team who needed a ride from New York. We decided to take a detour through Rhode Island to look for a Green-tailed Towhee that had been reported regularly at Sachuest Point NWR. Birders were leaving seed on the ground to keep a mixed flock of sparrows, including the towhee, returning to the same field. The towhee would have been a life bird for both Corey and Andrew; as it turned out, neither of them got it. You can read more about that misadventure in Corey's post.

The trip was not a total loss since a lot of birds were active in the field where the towhee should have been. We enjoyed good looks at a Northern Harrier and a couple Red-tailed Hawks. A Northern Cardinal stood in the snow, and a Carolina Wren flitted around the nearby trees. There were also lots of sparrows, though none of them was the expected towhee.

There were several species present: White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, and American Tree Sparrow made up the majority. There were even a couple Fox Sparrows in the mix. The stars of the sparrow show were "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps).

"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow is one of the many subspecies of Savannah Sparrow. They are larger than typical Savannah Sparrows, but very pale, with fine streaking on their undersides. Their pale plumage often appears almost gray, so that they blend in with the coastal sand dunes where they spend the winter months. This feeding station was the furthest inland I have seen an Ipswich Sparrow, as far as I can remember. In the photo above, two Ipswich Sparrows share space with a normal Savannah Sparrow, while a White-throated Sparrow jumps in the background.

While they get their name from the Massachusetts town where the type specimen was collected, Ipswich Sparrows breed further north. Their breeding range is restricted to Sable Island in Nova Scotia, which they build nests in marram grass and beach peas. Ipswich Sparrows rarely breed on the nearby mainland, and regular Savannah Sparrows rarely breed on Sable Island. They winter along the coast from southeastern Canada, through New England, and into the Mid-Atlantic states. I occasionally see them in New Jersey in winter, at sites such as Barnegat Light and the dune line in Cape May Point.

Beyond being relatively uncommon, Ipswich Sparrows are delightful birds to watch and study. Their presence at Sachuest Point helped relieve the pain of missing the vagrant we hoped to find there.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Silhouetted Trees

Bare branches reach towards the sky.

Two House Finches chatter at the top of a tree.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Local Birding

Yesterday I did a little birding around Middlesex County in the hope of finding some new birds locally. I started out with my mother and sister at the South Amboy waterfront in the morning. We crossed the snowy waterfront park to walk along a narrow strip of beach. There are often good birds seen in this area. Yesterday our best bird was a Bonaparte's Gull that flew in to join a large group of gulls loafing on a spit of sand. Other birds included a Red-tailed Hawk, singing Red-winged Blackbirds, Bufflehead, Brant, and a Horned Grebe. There was also a mass of starlings and House Sparrows roosting inside the park's pavilions. The metal roof amplified the sound of their chattering. A few of the starlings are shown above.

Our second stop was at the Waterworks Park just across the railroad. The pond was too frozen for there to be much out there, but we did see a couple Great Blue Herons, a Belted Kingfisher, two Bufflehead, and a Green-winged Teal in the little bit that was open. A subsequent stop turned up Great Cormorants, another Red-tailed Hawk, and a Northern Harrier. I scanned the distant landfills for Rough-legged Hawks, but I could not spot any. Instead I saw a few deer grazing on the top and side of one landfill.

In the afternoon, we stopped first at the Edison Boat Basin. Once again I scanned the visible landfills for raptors, but only found Red-tailed Hawks and a Northern Harrier. Some gulls and waterfowl were in the river. I had hoped to walk the new trail to look for winter finches among the fruiting birch trees, but the gate to the trail was locked. Just before we left, an American Kestrel flashed over the parking lot – a new county bird for me.

The last stop was at Olympic Drive in Raritan Center. There were some waterbirds out on the river, mostly gulls and geese, but also a few diving ducks. Two Northern Harriers and a Red-tailed Hawk perched along with the geese on an island in the middle of the river. It looked like it had been used as a pier at one time. The crows above are Fish Crows; a small flock of them was perched along the rotting pier. There are some marshes around the road that look like they might be promising in warmer weather, but yesterday they were frozen and snow-covered. It will be worth a visit in warmer weather.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Gulls, Ducks, and More in Gloucester Harbor

Aside from magnificent looks at Common Eiders and a White-winged Scoter, Jodrey's State Fish Pier offered views of some other waterbirds at close range. Some sleeping Red-breasted Mergansers are shown above. Other ducks in the harbor included Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, American Black Duck, and Bufflehead.

Gulls were plentiful as well, largely due to the fishing industry, which has fishing boats and processing plants lining the piers. The most interesting gull continues to generate discussion at 10,000 Birds. Opinions on its identity range from Slaty-backed Gull to Lesser Black-backed Gull to Great Black-backed Gull. I am undecided and still waiting to see if a consensus develops among more knowledgeable birders than me.

A lot of gulls were clearly Great Black-backed Gulls. Some of them were fighting a continuous battle over this fish carcass. One would win and get a few mouthfuls, and then another would come along, drive it off the rock, and claim the carcass for itself. You can see a few of the gulls fighting in the video I posted of a swimming Common Eider.

Besides the common trio of gulls (Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, and Herring Gull), the pier is a great place to find white-winged gulls. On the day of the Superbowl of Birding, we spotted a Glaucous Gull from the pier, as well as three Iceland Gulls. On Sunday morning I was able to photograph one of the Iceland Gulls, this one an adult. Unfortunately the photo does not quite render how pale the wingtips are or how beautiful these gulls look in person.

As I mentioned in my post on the Superbowl, we spotted three species of alcids from the fish pier during the competition: Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, and my life Dovekie. The Thick-billed Murre and the Black Guillemot were in the harbor again on Sunday. This time the murre was ridiculously close to the pier. It is hard to get much better looks at an alcid than this, especially from land!

Finally, Common Loons were also coming fairly close. In almost any other place, good looks at a loon would have been a highlight, but at the fishing pier it lags behind the other great birds in the harbor. They are still fine looking birds, though.