Monday, March 23, 2009

Towhee and Other South Jersey Birds

Yesterday morning we started out at Bivalve. The shell piles smelled even worse than the last time. This time there were many raptors: two Bald Eagles, three Northern Harriers, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The latter suddenly popped out of the phragmites; perhaps we disturbed it from a meal. Many Green-winged Teal were visible from the embankment. Other waterfowl included Snow Geese and Black Ducks.

A brief stop at Fortescue yielded more or less the same birds. An eagle was scaring up waterfowl on the marsh, while vultures turned in the distance. No birds were visible on the bay, except for a collection of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls standing on the beach.

Our target stop, however, was the Glades Wildlife Refuge, a preserve owned by the Natural Lands Trust. The entrance is not easy to find, as it is marked only with a generic "coastal heritage site" sign and not the name of the refuge. (This is one element of the Birding Cumberland guide that could use improvement.) The refuge itself is gorgeous. After passing through a woodland dominated by oaks and hollies, a visitor comes out into the middle of a vast salt marsh. A short boardwalk leads to an observation tower. From the tower one can see for miles across spartina and phragmites grasses interrupted only by distant treelines and an occasional house.

From that platform we could see many waterfowl. The birds at close range were mostly Green-winged Teal – about 750 by my count. There were also Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Northern Pintails. On the horizon we could also see distant skeins of Snow Geese – perhaps a thousand, perhaps more. I doubt that the flocks we saw come anywhere near the total birds in the marsh. As the waterfowl are massing for the journey to their breeding grounds, shorebirds are starting to arrive. A couple hundred Dunlin competed for space on the mudflats with a few dozen yellowlegs. Most of the yellowlegs appeared to be of the Greater variety, but there were a few Lessers in the mix. I enjoyed hearing the yellowleg calls again. As we headed back along the entrance road to the car, we heard a bird calling from near a vernal pool in the woods. The combination of grunts and squeaks sounded characteristic of a Virginia Rail.

On the way back, we stopped at Collingswood to see the Green-tailed Towhee that has been present in a yard there since January 1. It required about a twenty-minute wait before the towhee appeared, but we had plenty of other birds to watch in the meantime. The well-stocked feeders attract many common backyard species, as well as less common ones like Fox Sparrow. Suddenly the towhee emerged near the back fence and started foraged under the bushes. The bird moved plenty of dirt around in that time. Each kick was digging fairly deep into the soil for a bird of that size; it seemed to dig as deep as an inch in a single location before moving on to the next spot. Once we had all had plenty of time to watch, the towhee disappeared, and we departed. I did not take photos, but other birders have. Here is a photo study of the Collingswood Green-tailed Towhee from another New Jersey birder.