Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brigantine, Cape May, and Cumberland

Over the past few days, I was visiting some birding sites around Cape May and Cumberland Counties with my parents and sister. This was my first time birding in South Jersey since early November. It felt good to be back at its salt marshes and beaches.

On Thursday we stopped at Brigantine, where the highlight was an exceptionally close Bald Eagle at the gull pond tower. The eagle glided in from a long distance away and landed on the ice, at most 100 yards in front of us. This was about as close a view as one can expect to have an eagle aside from one in the hand. Elsewhere in the refuge, the breeding Peregrine Falcons were perched together on their nest platform. Even though much of the water was frozen, the impoundments hosted many of the usual waterfowl. The Black Duck flocks alone were impressive, numbering in the thousands. Adding to their number were smaller flocks of Gadwall, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Bufflehead, and Hooded Mergansers. There were also a few hundred Dunlin foraging in the shallower parts of the impoundments. Along the way I added two new species to my Atlantic County list: a Wilson's Snipe near the gull pond tower and a Swamp Sparrow along the Leeds Eco-Trail.

We stopped at a few birding spots in Cape May on Friday. Our first priority was to see the Eurasian Wigeons that have been hanging around in the state park since the fall. This was not a life bird for me, but it felt like one since this was the best view I have had of this species so far – two colorful breeding-plumaged males, at relatively close range on Lighthouse Pond, in good lighting conditions. (There was also a female on Bunker Pond.) The wigeons associated with a mixed flock of waterbirds, including American Wigeons, Gadwall, a single male Redhead, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and American Coots. A few Brown Thrashers, a couple Hermit Thrushes, and a Gray Catbird were present along the parks trails, along with dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Along the dunes I saw two Savannah Sparrows and a Horned Lark. One bird that I left unidentified was a very large accipiter that was dashing around the trees near the parking lot. Normally I was count a bird like this as a Cooper's Hawk except.......... that a Goshawk was reported in this park and elsewhere in Cape May within the past few weeks. Given that possibility, I cannot assume it was a Cooper's without a better look.

In the afternoon we walked through the Nature Conservancy's Cape May Meadows. I saw an Orange-crowned Warbler halfway up the west path. As with the wigeons, this was not a lifer, but it was the best view I have had of a member of the species. The bird was very yellow (for an Orange-crowned), so it may be an adult male. Other interesting birds from the Meadows included small numbers of Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, a flock of Snow Geese (a new Cape May County bird for me), and a very noisy Red-shouldered Hawk. Like in the state park, the shrubs at the Meadows were full of Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yesterday we made a tour of birding spots in Cumberland County. East Point Lighthouse, our first stop, had a nice raft of Greater Scaup mixed with a few Lesser Scaup. Many Bufflehead were swimming in the Maurice River. There were also about 40 Dunlin standing on the floating ice – a sight I have never seen before!

At Bivalve, we saw an adult Bald Eagle perched at the distant treeline, and three Northern Harriers hunting over the marshes. Most of the water was frozen so waterfowl numbers were very low. The species present included small numbers of Black Duck, Bufflehead, and Hooded Merganser, plus about 125 Snow Geese. The shell piles at the seafood processing plants were less fragrant than normal. At Fortescue, where we ate lunch, there were 20 Dunlin on the beach and 80 Snow Geese flying overhead. Not much else was moving around, either on the bay or on land, at this spot.

The best stop was Glades Wildlife Refuge, which we accessed from the Fortescue Road entrance. The woods were fairly quiet, except for a small flock of Cedar Waxwings. The birding improved once we emerged from the woods into the marsh. One subadult Bald Eagle (most likely 3rd winter) was perched near the observation platform, and two adult Bald Eagles were visible at the far treeline near Rt. 553. One Red-tailed Hawk and two Northern Harriers were hunting over in the marsh. As at Bivalve, the water was partially frozen, so waterfowl numbers were lower than I've seen in the past. Species included Black Duck, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, and Hooded Merganser, plus about 80 Snow Geese in flight.

I took the phot at the top of this image near the observation platform. It captures the general appearance of the marshes, but not quite the seemingly limitless expanse of marsh grasses that one encounters at sites like the Glades. It is an experience far removed from the suburban and woodland birding that I normally do.