Sunday, February 14, 2010

GBBC Day 2: Hordes of Mergansers

More snow than the Winter Olympics

The last month or so has been very tough for birds in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with very cold temperatures and several heavy snowstorms. Here in central New Jersey, we have at least a foot of snow on the ground, burying trails and making ground-feeding birds scarce. This creates a challenge for birding, particularly surveying birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

For yesterday's GBBC walk, I returned to my local park. With knee-high boots, I was able to wade through the snow and survey some good songbird areas more thoroughly than I had the day before. Almost immediately I came upon a large patch of songbird activity – mostly House Finches, White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, and the like. Then there was one surprise bird, a Gray Catbird. Back in December, we had recorded one for the Raritan Estuary CBC at a different location, but I had not seen one since then, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that one had survived this long through the winter. The flight feathers on this bird appeared rather worn, though that may have been an illusion prompted by the angle at which the bird was holding its wings. Scanning through the two dozen House Finches, I found one bird that was somewhat smaller and more crisply streaked, which turned out to be a Pine Siskin, the first I have seen this winter. Perhaps it got pushed south in the last few weeks.

As I was finishing my songbird counts, I spotted one of the local Red-tailed Hawks fly overhead. A pair has been nesting near the park for several years. On my way towards the river, I could see that the usual horde of gulls was waiting for me. Seeing another gray bird lift up near the river, I first thought just another gull, but then it morphed into a different familiar shape – a Northern Harrier! It was only the second I have seen at that location, in several years of observations.

Canada Geese were again strangely absent. I am not sure where they went, but yesterday there were only 20 along the river. Mallards were in their usual numbers. Common Mergansers, though, were present in much larger numbers than I am used to seeing. There were at least 70, the vast majority of which were males. This is probably low compared to what some areas get, but I usually do not see more than about 10 at a time at this site. It is possible that some birds were forced to relocate to the Raritan's open water by frozen water elsewhere.

There was nothing unusual among the birds around my home, except perhaps for a group of Canada Geese that flew overhead – notable in that I don't usually see them from inside the house. Otherwise it was just the same groups of House Sparrows, House Finches, and Dark-eyed Juncos that usually hang around at the feeders and bushes.