Saturday, December 15, 2007

Liberty Larks

Most people would not choose to visit Liberty State Park on a windy day when the temperature is below freezing. Staying out of the wind, though, would mean missing out on some good birds. Liberty State Park in Jersey City covers 1,212 acres along the New Jersey side of upper New York Harbor. The main attractions for most visitors are the ferries that run to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as panoramic views of the upper harbor and Manhattan skyline. The south end of the park features a small marsh with a nature center and trails.

Starting from the nature center, we scanned the cove for waterfowl. The majority of ducks were gadwall, with a few brant and a single ring-necked duck. Moving further along the trail, we encountered a handful of American tree sparrows. (One difference in the avifauna between here and DC is that New Jersey seems to get a lot more tree sparrows in the winter.)

As the trail passed closer to the industrial buildings on the south end of the park, I spotted a small flock of birds rise out of a field, circle, and land again. Crossing the road, I saw that the majority were snow buntings, but that some were different. After I had moved again to get a better angle, their identity was clear - my first ever horned larks! I was surprised by how large the larks looked in comparison to the snow buntings. Their killdeer-like posture may contribute to that. The buntings and larks were in a field adjacent to the Daily News building. It later occurred to me that there may have been a longspur among the buntings, but I could not have confirmed it without my field guide, even if I had thought to check for one.

Out on the bay, there were several large rafts of waterfowl. Brant had the highest representation today, followed by greater scaup. Other water birds included buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers, ruddy ducks, horned grebes, and more gadwall. Several orange and white feral cats roamed the jetties. That may explain the complete absence of sandpipers from the rocks.

The marsh along the promenade featured more waterfowl such as American wigeon and black ducks. A northern harrier zoomed up from the marsh and zipped out over the bay. (I am not sure where it was headed.) Try as I might, I could not spot a short-eared owl, a species sometimes found in that area. A second check of the marsh revealed a great blue heron and black-crowned night-heron, hunched up in close proximity to each other.

Today's horned larks were species #297 on my life list. It feels good to be so close to 300. I am not sure if I will reach it before the end of the year, but it should come soon.