Monday, January 03, 2011

Birding in the Fog

Each year we seem to get dismal weather for the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count. Some years we get rain; other years we get sleet; one year parts of our section were flooded. This year, the count was postponed a week on account of a major blizzard, and then fog blanketed the count circle on the morning of the count's new date. Fog is generally insufficient to postpone a CBC, so my mother and I headed out to our section yesterday morning and met a third birder, Bill, who was participating in the count for the first time. (My sister was unable to join us because of the postponement.) The fog was dense enough to make birding rather difficult. Besides making it harder to see birds that are present and active, the fog seems to suppress or delay bird activity. In many spots that are usually quite birdy, I could not hear songs or even call notes.

As we covered our normal route, we counted fewer birds than in past years. In fact, there was so little bird activity that we completed our first stop by 9 am, when we usually need until 11 am to cover all of Johnson Park. Even so, we saw some good birds. One of the many Canada Goose flocks included an immature Snow Goose. I think this was probably a different bird than the one that stopped at Donaldson Park last month. While that bird's wings were entirely covered in immature plumage, the goose yesterday had partially molted into its adult plumage. We also saw an adult Peregrine Falcon perched at the large pond near the zoo. Two Belted Kingfishers had found enough open water to survive last week's freeze.

By our second stop, Donaldson Park, the fog remained dense at ground level but cleared above the tree tops. This presented the same challenges as before, except that we had a better chance to see and identify birds flying overhead. Bird activity was still lower than usual, but it started to pick up a little as the fog lifted. The usual Mallard X Black Duck hybrid was on the river, though most other waterbirds were difficult to spot in the lingering fog. The maintenance building and dumping area were pretty lively. Lots of Blue Jays, sparrows, and woodpeckers were calling and flying around enough to be identified and counted. Oddly, some of our best birding of the day (in terms of bird activity) was in the parking lot as we finished up our route. One tree featured three woodpecker species (Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker), plus House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, and a White-breasted Nuthatch.

In the afternoon, my mother and I did some feeder watching. It added a few new species for our count area, such as two mixed flocks of blackbirds that passed overhead, but none of the new species were unusual. After dark I walked around outside for a while in the hope of hearing an owl, but none called. In end, we finished with 36 species and over 3800 individuals for our section of the count.