Thursday, May 17, 2012

Forsaken by Fish Crows

Last Saturday was the World Series of Birding, an event run each year by New Jersey Audubon. Teams compete to see the most species of birds in the Garden State or to win a variety of other categories while raising money for conservation. This year, for the first time, I was on a WSB team, the Middlesex Merlins. Patrick Belardo recruited us; my other teammates were Anthony Laquidara and Tom Ostrand, who compiles the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count. I had met and birded with Patrick and corresponded with Tom, but I had not met or birded with either Tom or Anthony before we started planning our big day attempt. Somehow, though, we all got along well and worked well together as a team. We competed in the Limited Geographic Area (LGA) category, which meant that all of our sightings had to be in Middlesex County, and the winner of the category would be based on percent of par (with a different par for each county) rather than the absolute species total.

We started the day with some pre-dawn nocturnal birding. Our first bird for the day was a Killdeer in a parking lot next to one of the marshes in southern Edison. We quickly tallied Marsh Wren, Northern Mockingbird, and Common Yellowthroat, all of which were singing near the edge of the marsh. Moving on to Raritan Center, which we had permission to bird for our big day attempt, we heard more vocalizing birds. American Robin – almost as familiar of a nocturnal singer as Northern Mockingbird – was a quick find. More importantly we heard Virginia Rail – giving its kidik call – and Swamp Sparrow at one stop, followed by Northern Bobwhite and American Woodcock at subsequent stops. Northern Bobwhite was a real surprise since that species has become increasingly scarce in the state.

From there we went to Rutgers Gardens, where we arrived before dawn. With the start of the dawn chorus, we started tallying new species more quickly. In the display gardens and hedgerows, we found Chipping Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Phoebe, Blackpoll Warbler, and Eastern Towhee. Several pairs of Wood Ducks passed overhead, as well as flocks of Cedar Waxwings. Along the edge of Helyar Woods, we quickly found Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Hairy Woodpecker, and a suite of warblers, including Canada Warbler. Inside the woods, we found three thrush species, including Veery (a personal favorite) and Swainson's Thrush, a hard species to find in the county. Other birds included Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Worm-eating Warbler. Somewhat ominously, some silent crows passed overhead.

We spent so long in Rutgers Gardens that we were already behind schedule when we left, even though we had arrived there ahead of schedule. A quick stop at the US 1 Bridge netted some common urban birds but not the Peregrine Falcon we had hoped to see. Once we arrived at Cliff Avenue in South Amboy, we walked back along the dirt road to check the ponds and woods. The local Cooper's Hawk did not make an appearance, but Anthony picked out a Black-capped Chickadee, an uncommon species south of the Raritan River. Out on the mudflats, we did not see nearly as many birds as we had hoped. We picked up Dunlin and a distant Red-shouldered Hawk but missed lots of shorebird species, Little Gull, and large terns.

Following on that stop we visited the other sites along Raritan Bay in Middlesex County. Pirates Cove produced a lingering Greater Scaup and Belted Kingfisher. A few stops in Laurence Harbor produced a Green Heron and not much else. At this point we decided to skip a planned stop at Cheesequake State Park and head to South Amboy Waterworks Pond. Here we added Glossy Ibis, Eastern Kingbird, Bank Swallow, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. Unfortunately an American Coot that Patrick had found while scouting did not make an appearance.

We started the afternoon portion of our itinerary at Raritan Center. As we ate lunch, a Bald Eagle passed overhead. A short drive around the roads produced more species we needed to see there. A Field Sparrow sang in the location where I had heard one on my point counts. A Lesser Yellowlegs and a Solitary Sandpiper were foraging in two of the ponds. An American Black Duck was paddling in the Raritan River near the old piers. A real surprise was seeing a Wild Turkey dart across Olympic Drive. We heard American Crows but still no Fish Crows.

Our next stop was the Kin-Buc Landfill, where we had permission to bird for our big day attempt. This former landfill is now a Superfund site and forms a complex of grasslands and early successional habitat with two other former garbage mounds. A friendly staff member let us in and showed us how to get to the top of the landfill. As we made our way to the top, we could hear Willow Flycatchers and Field Sparrows. At the top, we stopped and walked a bit on the road. We heard two Grasshopper Sparrows singing right next to the road and saw four Bobolinks fly up out of more distant grasses. The latter was a county bird for me, but not a particularly satisfying sighting due to its brevity. As we left the landfill, we listened for Blue Grosbeak in a patch of suitable habitat where they have been seen before, but none sang.

Middlesex Merlins on top of the Kin-Buc Landfill. L-R: Tom, Patrick, Anthony, Me. Photo by Tom Ostrand
After this we started to track down individual species. We made a quick stop in Johnson Park to see the nesting Cliff Swallows at the Route 18 Bridge, and then a visit to Giamarese Farm in East Brunswick turned up three species we would not see elsewhere that day: Mute Swan, Purple Martin, and Eastern Bluebird, all of which are breeding on the property. We had confidential information on a Great Horned Owl nest and stopped there just long enough to see one of the owls. American Crows were scolding the owls as we arrived.

We returned to Morgan Mudflats to look for species we had missed on our initial visit. Unfortunately Little Gull once again did not make an appearance, even though Anthony and Patrick combed carefully through the large flock of Bonaparte's Gulls on the beach. However, we did add a few more species. An American Oystercatcher flew in front of us as we made our way down to the beach. Anthony picked out a distant Common Loon, and Tom spotted a Least Tern that landed on the beach near the gulls. Patrick found a trio of Red-breasted Mergansers. A return to Zaunerowikz Road turned up a Seaside Sparrow across Cheesequake Creek – my 212th species in the county. It also turned up more silent crows – at this point we still had not heard a Fish Crow, even though we had seen numerous crows in appropriate habitat. For some reason, the crows were simply not very vocal that day, and we ended up missing an insanely common species as a result.

Our final stop was Cheesequake State Park. We walked out almost to the end of Steamboat Landing Road, where it meets Cheesequake Creek, and scanned the skies as the sun set and dusk set in. Lots of swallows were still flying, along with herons and blackbirds. The no-see-ums were annoying, but we persevered long enough to hear and then see a Common Nighthawk fly overhead.

At this point we wrapped up our itinerary and headed home. It is possible that a little more nocturnal birding could have turned up another species or two. However, without known locations for the species we still needed, our efforts may well have been unproductive. So the nighthawk was our last species for the day, and our final tally was 127 species – easily the most bird species I have ever seen in the single day and not bad at all for Middlesex County. As it turned out, we would not win the LGA category; the Meadowlands Marsh Hawks from Bergen County finished with 139 species and 83% of par. To beat them, we would have needed to find 151 species. Despite not winning our category, we had a great time and were already talking about next year before this year's big day had ended.