Saturday, April 30, 2011

Birds at the Rogers Refuge

I was at the Rogers Refuge with my mother and sister yesterday morning to look for the rails and bittern that have been easy to see from the observation platform. Unfortunately we got there shortly after the Sora was last seen that morning, and it did not reappear. There were a lot of other birds to see, though. Many birds were singing, including Common Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole, and my first Scarlet Tanager of the year. There were a lot of Gray Catbirds chasing each other around near the platform and near some of the pumphouses. My first Green Heron of the year flew along the opposite side of the marsh and started getting harassed by Blue Jays. The jays are probably correct in seeing the Green Heron as a threat since herons sometimes take other species' nestlings as food.

There were also a lot of flowers in bloom near the platform and in the nearby woods. Some of them were downy yellow violets, like this one. There were also lots of spring beauties and other violet types.

After I entered my checklist into eBird, I realized that the morning's outing was just enough to push my Mercer County life list over 100. So with 101 species, Mercer became the ninth county in New Jersey where I have seen at least 100 species.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Loose Feathers #288

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grasshopper Sparrow

When I visited my patch yesterday, I knew there had been steady migration over New Jersey during the night, so I was hoping to see some warblers or other new arrivals. The southerly air flow over the state has brought us unseasonably hot temperatures but also several successive nights of heavy migration. As it turns out, the warblers I saw the previous day seemed to have moved on since there were fewer singing Yellow Warblers and a lot fewer Yellow-rumped Warblers. The orioles and catbirds were still around, though.

Shortly after I started my usual route I saw a small bird fly out of a small wetland area and land at the edge of the nearby ballfield, where it joined some Chipping Sparrows and started foraging. As I tracked it in flight, I saw that it had a short tail and looked yellowish, so I was expecting a Savannah Sparrow, a species I have been seeing at that park almost every day. Instead, when I focused my binoculars on it, I saw this guy:

A Grasshopper Sparrow! This was the first I had seen in Middlesex County, so I couldn't believe my eyes when I recognized it. Unlike with a few other sightings, this time I remembered to take photos. Even if they are not great, they show an identifiable bird.

Grasshopper Sparrows are locally common in areas with lots of grassland habitat. That habitat is scarce in Central Jersey, and as a result Grasshopper Sparrows are very hard to find outside of a few known breeding locations. New Jersey classifies their breeding population as threatened due to the continued loss of grassland habitat, either to natural succession or new subdivisions.

When I finally left the Grasshopper Sparrow, I figured that nothing else I would see on the walk could beat it, and that turned out to be true. However, it was still a fun walk as I got nice views of some of the bird species that have arrived over the past week. I saw a couple of Bank Swallows, my first of the year, cruising back and forth along the Raritan River. They seemed to be checking out the muddy banks on the opposite side of the river, but I have no idea if they will stick around for the breeding season.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More Birds Trickle Through

Yesterday morning was the first time this spring that I really felt like the migration floodgates had opened. I birded my patch again. The species diversity was the highest I have recorded all spring, and some numbers were impressive. There were dozens of warblers, including 22 Yellow-rumped Warblers, mostly in one small grove, and 14 Yellow Warblers, spread out around the park. I saw Gray Catbirds there for the first time this year, as well as my first Brown Thrashers of the year. Four catbirds were foraging close together in the same small woodlot.

I also saw my first orioles of the year: this Orchard Oriole and two Baltimore Orioles, all singing loudly.

Song Sparrows are also very vocal in claiming and defending territories around the park.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trout Lily Again

Since I posted some trout lilies before they had fully opened, I thought it would be good to follow up with the full blooms. The photo above shows a trout lily with its petals swept back.

This one shows another trout lily from behind. To me it looks just as striking from this side as the other.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Birds

This Northern Flicker was at my local patch yesterday morning. It perched on the same branch as another flicker; this one faced me, but the other one faced away. They froze when I raised my camera, and then sat still while I took a series of photos. Some new birds were on my patch in the morning: a few Yellow Warblers, an Eastern Towhee, and a House Wren. There was clearly some turnover during the weekend since some species were scarcer than last week and others more numerous.

I also saw crows carrying nesting material to a location outside the park. It will be interesting to witness a crow nesting attempt this summer, though I am not sure how visible the nest will be.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Few Tulip Photos and a Link

Tulips are blooming in this area, so I took advantage of that over the past few days to photograph a few of them.

I am not sure whether the one immediately above or the one immediately below is my favorite of the bunch.

I do not have many birds to report right now as the weather patterns have not been favorable for migration into central New Jersey. However, I did see my first Chimney Swifts of the season last night, and there has been a steady trickle of birds. Swallow-tailed Kites have been reported in a few places around the state, including some in central New Jersey, so I guess I should watch the skies here more frequently. 

Since today is Easter, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post this link about a bird that is a seasonal visitor to our area. See this link to learn more about their life history and behavior.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trout Lily

The last time I visited my local patch, I found a group of trout lilies blooming near the wet woods. I am not sure if these were planted or if they just spread there on their own. My guess is the latter since they do not seem to be arranged in any formal manner. Trout lily is a flower of early spring. Its name comes from the mottling on its leaves, which is thought to resemble the speckled sides of a trout. The elongated shape of the leaf probably adds to its trout-like appearance. The plant is low to the ground, so it may be easy to miss. They usually grow in groups, with numerous plants spread over a small area, only some of which are blooming.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Loose Feathers #287

Whooping Cranes at Patokah River NWR / Photo by Steve Gifford (WCEP)

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Drilling Spills and Hydrofracking

The one-year anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent massive oil spill was marked by yet another drilling accident. This time, the accident occurred at a drilling site for natural gas in Pennsylvania when a well blew out and started spewing toxic fluids.
Chesapeake Energy officials said a piece of equipment on the well failed.

Now a major response is underway to stop the leak of frack fluid and get control of the well.

Water is gushing from the earth at the Chesapeake well pad.  It has been all hands on deck to put a stop to the leak of fracking fluid that, according to company officials, spilled thousands and thousands of gallons into nearby land and waterways.

"We've been able to limit the flow. We're still doing additional work to regain full control," said Brian Grove of Chesapeake Energy. He added there is no telling yet how much of that extremely salty water mixed with chemicals and sand has impacted the nearby Towanda Creek, but no gas has escaped into the air....

Officials with DEP said the flow of frack fluid has stopped flowing into the nearby creek and its tributary.

Public safety officials in Bradford County said they, along with DEP, will continue to monitor the Towanda Creek which empties into the Susquehanna River. According to officials with Chesapeake Energy, the fluids that spilled all over farm land and into the creek have a very high salt content and contain numerous chemicals used to fracture the rock below.
Environmentalists have been warning about the potential dangers of fracking for quite some time. "Fracking" refers to a drilling process formally called "hydraulic fracturing," which involves injecting fluids into underground rock formations to break up the rocks and release the natural gas they contain. The major concern is that the fluids used for fracking – which often contain toxic chemicals – may leak from gas wells into aquifers and render the groundwater undrinkable for the people who depended on it. Another concern is that fluids from such wells are diverted to wastewater treatment plants, even though the plants are not equipped to process and remove the toxic chemicals found in fracking fluids. Only some of these chemicals are known to the public due to a lack of transparency on the part of energy companies. According to a recent government report:
Some ingredients mixed into the hydraulic fracturing fluids were common and generally harmless, like salt and citric acid. Others were unexpected, like instant coffee and walnut hulls, the report said. Many ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead.

Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals, including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. The companies used the highest volume of fluids containing one or more carcinogens in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

The report comes two and a half months after an initial report by the same three lawmakers that found that 32.2 millions of gallons of fluids containing diesel, considered an especially hazardous pollutant because it contains benzene, were injected into the ground during hydrofracking by a dozen companies from 2005 to 2009, in possible violation of the drinking water act.
As yesterday's incident illustrates, blowouts and the resulting contamination of farmland and watersheds are serious concerns as well.

The blowout occurred just as Pennsylvania was beginning closer oversight of the fracking operations.
The DEP and the industry appear to have been influenced by complaints from public water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, which say they are challenged by bromide levels whose concentrations have increased concurrently with the drilling boom.

The bromides themselves are not a public health risk - they account for a tiny part of the salty dissolved solids that create an unpleasant taste in water at elevated levels.

But bromides react with the chlorine disinfectants used by drinking water to form brominated trihalomethanes (THMs), a volatile organic compound. Studies have linked the prolonged ingestion of high levels of THMs to several types of cancer and birth defects.

Officials at several water authorities in the Pittsburgh area say their facilities have failed several tests for trihalomethanes in recent years....

Bromides, chlorides, and some heavy metals occur naturally in deep rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale, the massive deposit that underlies much of Pennsylvania and parts of several surrounding states.

In other regions where shale production has taken off, operators dispose of the wastewater in deep, federally regulated injection wells. But Pennsylvania's geology is insufficiently porous to accept large volumes of wastewater.
This week's incident ought to prompt closer examination and oversight of fracking operations, whether in the form of voluntary programs like Pennsylvania's or stronger regulations. Aquifers and watersheds are too important to risk contamination.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Perhaps Not Missing After All

Yesterday morning I did a little birding around Cape May Point before returning home in the afternoon. A dawn seawatch at the dune crossing near St. Peter's produced a lot of seabirds. Most striking were the Northern Gannets. Dozens of them were flying close to shore, in and out of Delaware Bay. Double-crested Cormorants were most numerous, with over 1,000 cormorants passing the point and heading north in the hour I watched from the platform. A few Common Loons flying overhead were a treat; I usually do not get to see them in their breeding plumage. Several Willets passed the point and flew up the bay. Meanwhile, a few dozen Black and Surf Scoters remain around the point.

At the next stop, Cape May Point State Park, I hoped to see some newly-arrived warblers since there had been a good flight into New Jersey the previous night. It ended up being quieter than I had hoped, with only a handful of the same species I had seen the previous day, along with my first Common Yellowthroat of the year. However, just as I was preparing to finish the loop and move on to the next place, there was a flurry of activity around the junction of the red and yellow trails. First, I saw a Swamp Sparrow on the ground. Then, I looked up to find the source of an odd Yellow-rumped Warbler song I was hearing. When I finally saw it, a yellow throat made clear that it was not an expected Myrtle, but instead the Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler that I had missed the day before. It was extremely cooperative, sitting out in the open and singing for several minutes. Other birders saw and reported it later, so it stuck around the same area at least through the morning. If it is the same individual, I find it interesting that it stuck around Cape May Point and managed to elude so many birders for a day and a half after its initial discovery on Sunday morning.

A stop at the Nature Conservancy's preserve (a.k.a. the Meadows) turned up a mix of waterbirds and landbirds. Even though they were few in number, the Willets made their presence obvious by flying around, calling, and sometimes perching on the tops of poles to call and look around. Along with the Willets, I saw my first Greater Yellowlegs of the year. I counted nine singing male Common Yellowthroats around the preserve's loop. A few other warblers were migrating through. One treat was a bright male Yellow Warbler, my first of the year. Some ducks and American Coots are still at the refuge, though in fewer numbers than their late winter peak. Gadwall are most numerous, with smaller numbers of Green-winged Teal, American Black Ducks, and Northern Shovelers.

Unfortunately, I was so excited by the Audubon's Warbler sighting that I forgot to take photos. (You can see ones by other birders here, here, and here.) In the meantime, enjoy this photo of a Snowy Egret from the Meadows.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Missing Life Birds

Yesterday I made an attempt to see the Painted Bunting that had been appearing at a feeder in Absecon, NJ. I waited in front of the feeder for about an hour and a half. In that time plenty of birds passed by the yard – resident House Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and House Finches; a Red-bellied Woodpecker; singing Carolina Chickadees; an Osprey; and a flock of Double-crested Cormorants flying overhead. However, there was no sign of the bunting. From what I understand, the bird was last seen on Thursday. The bunting would have been a life bird, and it becomes one of several that I have missed this spring. After a glut of life birds at the Superbowl of Birding, my life list building has slowed considerably.

In the afternoon, I tried to find an Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler that had been spotted the previous morning at Lake Lily in Cape May Point. I walked all around the lake, checking every warbler and warbler-like flying object. There were plenty of Myrtles, but no sign of the Audubon's. For those unfamiliar with the terms, Myrtle is the subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler normally found in eastern North America, while Audubon's dwells in the west. These forms were previously considered separate species and may one day be split again.

Even though I missed the potential future armchair-lifer, the trip around the lake was not a waste. The Myrtles were nice to see and hear, especially in their bright spring plumage. I saw several year birds. These included Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Great-crested Flycatcher, and Prairie Warbler. Even better, there was a very cooperative Yellow-throated Warbler in front of one of the houses bordering the lake. My only previous sighting of this species was a singing bird at the top of a tall pine tree in Virginia. The look was good enough to recognize it, but it was not very satisfying. This view was much better, as the warbler crept along a rooftop gutter like a nuthatch and then flitted through nearby trees and shrubs, usually no more than 10 feet off the ground.

I do not have a photograph of the Painted Bunting or Yellow-throated Warbler, so take a look at this Mute Swan instead.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Watching the Sky

Yesterday afternoon I walked over to Johnson Park to walk through the park and see if there were any new birds around. I was particularly interested in checking out the flocks of swallows to see if any Bank or Cliff Swallows had arrived yet. When I got to the railroad bridge, I found that I could not go any further because the river had flooded the park and covered the only safe way to walk into it with three or four inches of water.

So instead of walking through the park as I intended I birded the brushy areas along River Road and turned up a few common birds. I scanned the river where I could find openings in the tree line; I saw no swallows but heard one or two chattering. The river was too high and moving to quickly to expect waterfowl to be there, so I saw no geese or ducks. I also scanned the sky a few times: starting at the treeline and scanning right to left with binoculars, then moving up one field and scanning left to right, then moving up another field and scanning, etc. I picked up a few migrating Broad-winged Hawks and a Red-tailed Hawk this way. They were all very high, so high that I was not able to see them with my unaided eyes.

In addition to the hawks, I spotted one other interesting bird while I was scanning: a Common Raven. In some places, raven sightings are unremarkable, or perhaps it is better to say that ravens are the expected corvids. That is not the case in Middlesex County. Most raven sightings in my state are in the far northwest corner with a few scattered outposts further east and south. However, there have been a spate of recent sightings in Middlesex County: a few in the South Amboy area in the last couple weeks, mine yesterday, and then another yesterday a few miles west near River Road. (You can see the sighting locations mapped via the eBird gadget to the left of this post.) This makes me wonder if perhaps there is some raven movement this spring, with a few individuals seeking to colonize the lower Raritan watershed. It is worth noting that the southernmost documented nest in the state is at Chimney Rock, which is not that far west from here. Perhaps some of the recent sightings have been offspring from that pair.

I took the photo above shortly before I spotted the raven.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Recent Spring Blooms

Despite the recent bout of chilly weather, flowers are blooming. Here are a few that I have seen and photographed recently. The one up above was at Bamboo Brook yesterday. I am not sure what it is; it is not one I recognize and the closed flower buds make identification difficult. It was growing along the edge of a stream, in the same area as some trout lilies.

Daffodils have been blooming for several weeks now, but different varieties keep appearing. This one is particularly striking, with an orange center and white outer petals.

A lot of trees are in bloom, with more to come. This one is a Norway maple.

These tiny flowers were blooming in the mown lawn-type fields in my local patch. I doubt that the stems were taller than three inches. I think it is whitlow grass, a type of mustard, probably Draba verna.

Here is a closer view of the flower.

Flowers like this were growing among the whitlow grass. At first I thought they were the same species, but when I noticed that they had a different number of petals (four for whitlow grass vs. five for this one), I reconsidered that idea. I now think that it is probably mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum). I was interested to find this because two years ago, I found a Chickweed Geometer in the same location.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Empty Gulling

Yesterday morning I went back to South Amboy to check for the gulls I missed last week and to see what other birds might be around. Sad to say, none of the gulls I was hoping for (Glaucous Gull, Black-headed Gull, and Little Gull) were on the beach. In fact, there were hardly any gulls at all. I did not even see any Bonaparte's Gulls. Little Gull would be a life bird and the others are locally uncommon.

Pardon me, did you lose a fish?

Is Little Gull becoming a nemesis? It has strong competition in the form of Ruffed Grouse, but consider this. In the past month, I have been to locations where it was reported on three occasions and missed it all three times. On two of those occasions, the Little Gull was reported at or near the location on the same day, either shortly before or shortly after I was there. That seems like the makings of a nemesis, even if it is not quite there yet.

The woods across the railroad track were a bit more birdy than the mudflats. There were a lot of early-season warblers, mainly Yellow-rumped, but also Pine and Palm. Most of them were in bright alternate plumage, but one of the Yellow-rumped Warblers looked really ratty. I barely recognized it since its feathers were so worn and disheveled. A few Hermit Thrushes were around, and there were four Brown Creepers. One surprise was a Northern Bobwhite, a bird I was totally not expecting in that location. It called repeatedly for as long as I was within earshot. The bobwhite became my 180th bird for Middlesex County.

When birding in New Jersey, watch where you step!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Loose Feathers #286

Pine Warbler / Photo by Frank Miles/USFWS

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Hawks at a Distance

Most field guides present hawks the way you see them at close range. They show the perched raptor, and usually a view of the flying hawk from underneath, with all of the field marks visible. That works well if you are looking at a hawk flying a little above the treetops or perched across a field. But how do you identify a flying raptor from a mile away? Veteran hawk watchers are able to do that regularly; in fact, compiling a complete count may require identifying birds at such distances.

The secret is to pay less attention to details and focus more on shape, general plumage patterns, and flight style. If this sounds familiar, it is very much like what Richard Crossley encourages in the introduction to his new ID guide. These are all characteristics that remain consistent even at a very long distance, and in combination they are distinctive enough to make most raptors identifiable. It is these traits that are the focus of Jerry Liguori's latest book, Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors.

After an introduction to general raptor identification and migration watching, Liguori presents identification tips species by species. For each species there is a short description of key traits with particularly distinctive characteristics marked in bold type. These accounts vary in length, depending on the amount of sexual dimorphism, regional variation, how much adults differ from juveniles. The descriptions focus on flight posture and shape, with attention to which plumage patterns will stand out at a distance (for example, the belly band of a Red-tailed Hawk or the pale chest of a Peregrine Falcon). Each text account is followed by a series of plates showing the raptor species in flight, from different angles and in varied lighting conditions. (The photos do not include any perched raptors.) The photos are sufficient to show the characteristics described in the text. I found it somewhat distracting to have to flip between the plates and the descriptions; I am not sure how much of the textual information I absorbed without having a visual reinforcement on the same page.

In some ways this represents an updating of Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton's Hawks in Flight with better photography. While he does not use Dunne's colorful analogies, Liguori helps the reader to learn the personality of a species, i.e., its flight style and its typical behaviors. As I was reading, I felt that it would have been useful to have a book like this a few years ago when I was banding raptors in Cape May. Many raptors that passed by never came into the station, and some of them passed quite high overhead. Some of them I could identify; others escaped me. With a resource like this one, perhaps I could have identified a higher percentage of them.

Liguori's Hawks at a Distance, a companion to his previous Hawks from Every Angle, is clearly written and builds the skills necessary to identify migrating hawks, even under less-than-ideal conditions. Because of that I would recommend it for hawk watchers and anyone with a general interest in raptors. However, it does not give equal attention to every raptor in North America, as it emphasizes the ones likely to appear at migration sites. Therefore, I recommend pairing them with one of Brian Wheeler's excellent guides, either A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors or one of his regional guides, Raptors of Eastern North America or Raptors of Western North America. (Unfortunately both regional guides seem to be out of stock on Amazon right now, which is really a shame.) The latter two books, in particular, cover more species and provide more information about the birds' life history, though they are not as useful for flight identification as Liguori's guides.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New Birds Keep Coming

Yesterday I found two new arrivals on my local patch. One was a Swamp Sparrow, a species that I had seen in Cape May earlier but that I had not seen locally this year. Unlike the vociferous Song Sparrows, this bird did not sing, but its rich browns  and pleasing grays were a welcome sight.

The second came as I was leaving the patch. I glanced up, following the flight patch of a couple finches, and saw three large, dark birds flying in formation. I expected them to be Double-crested Cormorants since I had already seen them on the river, but I raised my binoculars anyway to make sure. When I did, I saw that the birds had the wrong shape. Instead of the stout head and neck and heavy bill of a cormorant, these birds had the thin neck and elegantly decurved bill of a Glossy Ibis. So Glossy Ibis becomes the latest addition to my Middlesex life list.

The other birds I saw were all ones that I had seen at the park already this week, in more or less the same numbers as before. One nice sighting was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet foraging among the leaf buds opening on a crabapple tree. I also enjoyed hearing Yellow-rumped Warblers sing, a sound I have not heard since last May.

Here are a few buds waiting to burst into bloom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Sparrows on the Move

My local patch has been full of sparrows lately – some moving in and other moving out. Song Sparrows have been the most prominent, as migrating birds inflating the usual crowd. The ones that plan to stick around for the summer are busy setting up territories and singing from the highest perches they can find. The Song Sparrow above was perched on top of a giant brush pile. Song Sparrow was the first sparrow I learned to identify (other than House Sparrows), so I always enjoy hearing them.

In the brush nearby, there were several other sparrows. Some of them were Song Sparrows, but there were also a Chipping Sparrow, a Field Sparrow, and two Savannah Sparrows. One of those Savannah Sparrows had what I think is the brightest yellow supercilium I have ever seen on that species. Chipping Sparrows are now singing all over the park, and there are even some Dark-eyed Juncos left.

Aside from the sparrow show, I saw my first Blue-headed Vireo and Northern Parula of the year yesterday.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Few More New Birds

The robin above had just emerged from bathing in one of Johnson Park's streams when I took its photo. I think the yellow flowers in the background are Lesser Celandine, which carpets the ground in much of the park right now. That robin was one of dozens I saw while walking through the park yesterday. I wanted to see if any new birds had arrived. I saw one new species for the year when a bright male Palm Warbler flashed past me. The look was not very satisfying, but there will probably be more of them soon enough. There were dozens of Tree Swallows; I combed through them for other species but only pulled out two Northern Rough-winged Swallows and one Barn Swallow.

Some migrating waterfowl are still moving through. There were seven Common Mergansers, most of which were down by the Route 18 bridge. In the same area, I saw two Green-winged Teal and three Buffleheads, with one Ring-necked Duck further upstream (closer to Landing Lane). New arrivals included one Black-crowned Night-Heron roosting on the far side of the river.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

New Spring Birds

Yesterday I was at Cheesequake State Park for the first time in a few months. As I mentioned once before, the park sits in an interesting position. It encompasses both the salt marshes around Cheesequake Creek and Pitch Pine and deciduous forests along the salt marsh's southern border. The habitat mix should make for varied bird diversity, though I have not quite figured out how to take full advantage of it.

When I arrived I saw the scene above out in the salt marsh. A pair of Ospreys had set up a nest on one of the platforms – I am not sure if they were incubating yet or not, but it seemed like at least one was on the nest every time I saw it. In the background, heavy construction equipment was clearing the way for another housing development (to add to the ones that already border the marsh).* It struck me that this was a typical Jersey birding scene: you can see the natural world here, but you rarely lose reminders of the state's urban character.

Other birds in the salt marsh included about a dozen Great Egrets (the most I have seen together for a while) and about the same number of Double-crested Cormorants. The latter were actively flying around as if they could not settle on a spot to fish.

At the edge of the pine woods, a pair of Carolina Chickadees were setting up a nest inside a dead tree. It looked like they were still excavating the hole to meet their needs. Further in, I heard and then saw my first Pine Warblers of the year. There were at least five singing males along the trail. A few Tree Swallows appeared to be laying claim to nesting boxes; these boxes resemble Purple Martin houses, but so far I have not seen any Purple Martins at them.

A second stop at Morgan Avenue flats in South Amboy did not turn up most of the unusual birds reported the day before. However, there were some Northern Gannets – a new county bird for me – visible out over Raritan Bay. A crowd of gulls on the sand spit were mostly Bonaparte's Gulls, with a few dozen each of Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and Herring Gulls. Farther out on the bay there was a raft of Greater Scaup, with handfuls of Red-breasted Mergansers and Black Ducks. Just as I was leaving, a Snowy Egret (my first for the year) flew out of the marsh and down along the beach.

* Update: The construction equipment is actually in the process of remediating the former Global Sanitary Landfill, a very toxic site.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Pale Male and his Partners

Pale Male, the renowned Red-tailed Hawk in Manhattan, has had trouble finding a new breeding partner since the disappearance of his last mate, Lola. The trouble is not a dearth of potential mates. Rather, his mates have been disappearing too quickly to nest and lay eggs.

So what has life after Lola been like? Pale Male was not down in the dumps for long, unless he swooped by a landfill for dinner, but this is about his hunger for the opposite sex. “As ever, because Pale Male is a real stud, a new female showed up almost instantly,” Ms. Winn said.

That was the one the Pale Male-watchers called Ginger.

But just when things seemed as steamy as that sex club on “Law & Order: S.V.U.” the other night, Ginger became an ex, or so the birders speculate — suddenly she was nowhere to be seen, and there was someone new: Pale Beauty. (Some birders called her Paula.)

Then she, too, was gone, replaced by “the one there now,” as Ms. Winn described the female that has been keeping company with Pale Male. Some birders call her Lima, but others wonder if she isn’t really Ginger. Pale Male’s girlfriends are not banded, Ms. Winn said, so there is no way to double-check their identities.
Prior to Lola's disappearance, the pair had not nested successfully for several years. Whether due to nest structure, infertility, weather, or other factors, the pair would produce eggs, but the eggs would never hatch. It will be interesting to see if Pale Male fares any better with a new partner.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Loose Feathers #285

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Yellow on a Cloudy Day

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Lesser Black-backed Gull

An adult, breeding-plumaged Lesser Black-backed Gull showed up at Donaldson Park yesterday afternoon at low tide. It is the gull in the foreground of the image above. Its normally sleek lines and small size relative to Herring Gulls are somewhat obscured since it chose the moment I snapped the shutter to fluff its feathers out. Other markings, like the slate-gray back and yellow legs, are visible, however. What impressed me about this gull was how brightly colored it was. The yellow legs really stood out, especially when sunlight hit them the right way. I have spent many winter days closely scrutinizing the legs of poorly-lit, dark-backed gulls in the hope of picking out a Lesser among the Great Black-backed Gulls. On this bird, the yellow legs gleamed almost as brightly as flashing neon lights. The white head feathers and yellow bill also seemed quite gaudy.

The other notable bird yesterday afternoon was a Pied-billed Grebe, my first of the year for that species. A little further downstream was a pair of Common Mergansers, which could well turn out to be my last of the spring for that waterbird species.

Red maple flowers are further developed than the last time I photographed them.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Backyard Diptera

Yesterday I posted a few of the bees and wasps I have been seeing in the backyard. Today I will cover a few of the flies, some of which were out before I started seeing bees and wasps. Yesterday was warm enough to get a lot of insects moving. Among them was the fly below. This appears similar to a House Fly but does not seem to be a complete match, so it is probably another species in the family Muscidae.

Here is another view:

Well before I started seeing flies like this, I had seen lots of midges and some craneflies at my mothlight. Back on March 11, this cranefly came to the light.

The same night, the two midges below also appeared on the sheet. The one with the feathery antennae appears to be a male Chironomus sp.

On March 18, this female Chironomus sp. came to the light (along with many other midges).

Monday, April 04, 2011

Backyard Hymenoptera

It has been really exciting to watch the re-emergence of bees and wasps this spring. There had been hints of insect activity before, but in the last week the activity has become much more noticeable. I actually heard bees buzzing and saw my first butterfly of the year while I was hiking in the Catskills last week. The last two days, I have found several bees and wasps in the backyard. Here are a few of them.

I put out my moth light on Saturday night since the temperature at sundown was above 50°F for the first time in a couple weeks. Unfortunately I did not identify any moths. The only moths I saw – medium-sized, noctuoid-looking moths – fluttered around the light and never settled down enough for me to photograph or capture them. However, I did get a very cooperative Ichneumon wasp that appears to belong to the Ophion genus. These often are attracted by lights, and in fact, I had another individual from the genus at my light back in September.

Here is a view of the same individual from the side.

During the day yesterday, a few other bees and wasps were active. One that was really tiny landed on my arm. I could tell it was a wasp by its general shape and its antennae, but I couldn't see much detail beyond that. It was barely 2 mm long. The sweat bee above was a little larger. It appears to be in genus Lasioglossum.

I originally thought this insect was a wasp, but after perusing my guides, I think it is a sawfly. In that case, it is the first sawfly I have identified. Like bees and wasps, sawflies are members of the order Hymenoptera; unlike bees and wasps, the adults are stingless. Sawfly larvae may be mistaken for caterpillars since they look similar and feed on plant material. This individual appears to be in genus Dolerus; it may be Dolerus nitens, an early spring species.