Monday, January 04, 2010

Shivering through a Christmas Bird Count

On Saturday, I joined Patrick and his friend Mike for a day of counting birds as part of the Long Branch Christmas Bird Count. Long Branch is one of the oldest CBCs in New Jersey, with the compiled data spanning 75 years. A handful of species have been recorded in every year of the count's history. Some, like the Bobwhite, have become scarce in recent years, while others, like the Bald Eagle, have flourished. Last year, Patrick became the compiler and took over a small area near Allaire State Park.

The Long Branch CBC encompasses some coastal areas that are well-known as rarity magnets. One of them, Wreck Pond, maintained that reputation with a possible Pacific Loon during Saturday's count. The area around Allaire, by contrast, has fewer unusual birds with more opportunity for watching common songbirds.

The three of us started our route at the restored village in Allaire State Park. The trail into the village had good numbers of sparrows, including a Field Sparrow and a Fox Sparrow, the latter of which I missed. We also spotted a Gray Catbird and a flock of Cedar Waxwings. A stream running through the village held a handful of Mallards and Hooded Mergansers. I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some conifers that I was checking for an owl. Following trails around the perimeter of the village proved fruitless, however; even a known Great Horned Owl roost site was empty.

At our second stop, a restricted area, we had an immediate identification conundrum: a Northern Mockingbird with no tail. How it lost its tail is unclear; it continues to act like a mockingbird, but at a size more fitting for a junco. Another oddity was a tree that held at least seven Northern Flickers. I have never seen so many flickers together at once before, unless perhaps on some crazy migration days in Cape May. The site had plenty of waterfowl if you judge solely by the 600 Canada Geese we recorded there. Most standing water was frozen, so the only other waterbirds were some Black Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, as well as a handful of white domesticated Mallards. The site proved productive for raptors, however. We saw an adult Bald Eagle, and as we were watching it, an adult Cooper's Hawk flew past. A little later, we saw two Red-tailed Hawks in the same field. These open fields and wooded edges are clearly good hunting grounds.

Returning to the state park, we walked a different set of trails but found largely the same birds. In fact we found hardly any birds at all outside of one or two small patches of activity. Patrick did his best to summon a Barred Owl but got no response. The only new species was a single Golden-crowned Kinglet.

After lunch, we walked around a wildlife management area near the Manasquan River. Few waterfowl were present, possibly due to the presence of waterfowl hunters. What we did find was an active foraging flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers joined by a few birds of other species. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings briefly joined them. One of the waxwings had an orange-tipped tail, a variation that may result from an individual bird's diet. The brushy edge of the entrance road also held another Gray Catbird, our second and the third for the count as a whole.

So far we had seen no Dark-eyed Juncos. A stop at the state park's campground changed that with a single flock of at least 40 juncos. A subsequent visit to a roadside lake produced a few more ducks, including a hybrid Mallard X Black Duck. One more stop produced a person building a screech owl nestbox, but no birds.

At that point we decided to pack it in. Even though there was some daylight left, the activity at each stop had been declining as winds picked up and temperatures dropped. Patrick and I went outside the count area to check for some alcids and other seabirds at Manasquan Inlet. There were no alcids to be seen, but we enjoyed the sight of Northern Gannets venturing so close to shore that they almost flew over the beach. There were a few Long-tailed Ducks and a couple Red-breasted Mergansers at the mouth of the inlet, and a Purple Sandpiper huddled against the rocks of the jetty. Beyond that, very few birds were visible. The wind was fierce, and we had to be careful that Patrick's scope did not end up somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Somehow we managed to spend a whole day birding without seeing any House Sparrows despite visiting some places that seemed likely to have them.

As the day drew to a close we headed for the CBC's roundup in Spring Lake. Patrick provided some pizza and shade-grown coffee for dinner to those participants who attended. As of Saturday night, the CBC had recorded 106 with a possible Pacific Loon. A few other species could get added as more checklists are submitted. So ended my Christmas Bird Count season. As with the Raritan Estuary CBC, this count was a lot of fun even if we did not tally any truly rare species in our section.