Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hits and Misses

Earlier this week, sandhill cranes were reported from a field in Somerset County, close to the D&R Canal. On Thanksgiving morning, a few of us went out to look for them. We drove up and down the roads around the reported location to no avail. A subsequent stop at Negri-Nepote turned up a ring-necked pheasant - my first in the state. The bird lacked most of its normally long tail; perhaps a fox got a hold of it. Several northern harriers were also present.

Yesterday was spent at Sandy Hook, which may not have been a good decision since it was extremely windy. The 30 mph winds kept bird activity to a minimum except in the few sheltered places. The highlight of the trip was a very close look at two American tree sparrows on Plum Island.

As I was walking around the salt pond by myself, a songbird flew overhead. I put up my binoculars as it passed and noted a swallow-like wing shape, a squarish tail, and a somewhat buffy coloration on the undersides. While entering my sightings in the nature center log later, I noticed an entry for two cave swallows from the previous day at that location. That is probably what my unidentified bird was, but since I did not get enough to identify it, I have to leave it aside.

Today we found out that the cranes had been sighted again, in the same location as before. So once again we went out to search the fields. This time the cranes were there, just visible beyond a small rise. There were three sandhill cranes present. At first only their backs were visible, but eventually they walked out and gave a clearer view. This was a life bird for me. (You can see photos of the cranes taken by other birders here, here, and here.)

Following the successful stop for sandhill cranes, we headed north to visit the Willowwood Arboretum. This lovely garden is part of the Morris County parks system. A central area holds a formal Asian garden and some historic buildings. The surrounding acres are managed as meadow habitat. The gardens had a surprising number of yellow-bellied sapsuckers - at least five, by my count. There was also a large flock of American tree sparrows along the edge of one of the fields. Having done most of my birding farther south, I am not used to seeing so many at once - perching in a multiflora rose thicket, pecking on the path, clinging to the heads of thin grass stems. They are beautiful little birds, and I am glad I am finally getting to see them on a regular basis.

At the nearby Bamboo Brook, there was a lot of activity in the shrubs across the road from the maintenance buildings. In a short stop, we spotted a fox sparrow, a few field sparrows, and more American tree sparrows. Some fruit trees around the buildings held a large flock of cedar waxwings and a purple finch.