Sunday, January 02, 2011

First Birds of 2011: The Long Branch CBC

Since Christmas and New Year's Day both fell on Saturdays this winter, the scheduling for Christmas Bird Counts was even tighter than usual, and some counts had to be scheduled for New Year's day. So yesterday I joined Patrick and his friend Mike for one of those New Year's counts, the Long Branch CBC (of which Patrick is the compiler). Last year we covered a section that included Allaire State Park. This year, Patrick took over a section along the ocean front that includes all the coastal ponds between Shark River and Manasquan Inlet.

Before dawn we stopped at a few spots for owling. Two places had Eastern Screech Owls in the past, one had a Great Horned Owl, and another had Barred Owls. None of these owls vocalized, despite our attempts to call to them. In fact, my first bird of the year was a Mallard, which let out a series of quacks right after I did my screech owl call, as if it was mocking our owl imitations. We arrived at the ocean for seawatching just before sunrise. Being able to watch the first sunrise of 2011 over the Atlantic was a nice reward for waking up at 4:30 am for a CBC. Quite a few people were out on the beach photographing the sunrise. I was not sure if they had gotten up early to see it or if they were just finishing up a night of partying.

The coastal ponds were mostly frozen, with little patches of open water here and there. Our best results were at Wreck Pond in Sea Girt. In addition to large flocks of Canada Geese and gulls, we found about a dozen Hooded Mergansers there in the morning, plus two Snow Geese and a few Buffleheads. Later in the day we added two adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a Northern Shoveler in the pond. As we were watching the birds there in the afternoon, a Peregrine Falcon flew in and came within a foot or two of downing a panicked Mallard in flight. Wreck Pond also featured some of our best land birding of the day, highlighted by a huge flock of robins feeding on the open ground and the holly trees that line the south side of the lake.

Since the ponds were still frozen, we took a detour out of the count circle to follow up on a tip about a Dovekie seen at Manasquan Inlet early that morning. The inlet had also hosted a Pacific Loon and Black Guillemot earlier in the week, so a stop there seemed like a good use of our time. Unfortunately none of the rarities made an appearance while we were there; the Dovekie had not been seen for about an hour by the time we arrived. Instead we had an odd sighting: a Greater Scaup that had pulled itself up onto the beach. It was not clear whether the bird was sick or injured or if it was just resting, but the bird's odd posture suggested the former.

Spring Lake, Lake Como, and Albert's Pond were all mostly frozen. At Lake Como we found more Hooded Mergansers and a small group of American Coots. At Albert's Pond a pair of Northern Shovelers flew overhead. We also watched a white-tailed deer prance across the frozen pond; it must have been light enough not to break the ice and sink into the water.

Land birding was sparse at the remaining sites, partly because that area is densely developed but mainly because most of the ground is too snow-covered to walk (or even find) the trails through the few wooded areas. Sea watching was generally more productive. At several stops, we recorded all three scoter species, plenty of Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads, both Great and Double-crested Cormorants, a handful of Red-breasted Mergansers, Brant, both Common and Red-throated Loons, and Horned Grebe. At one sea watching stop near the corner of Ludlow Avenue and Ocean Avenue in Spring Lake, Patrick spotted an Eared Grebe, which all three of us got to see.

Our team tallied 52 species for the day. The Long Branch count as a whole recorded 104 species, including our Eared Grebe, a Western Grebe, a Harlequin Duck, and a Black-headed Gull. This count turned out to be an excellent way to open the new year.