Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sparrows on the Move

Recent cold fronts have pushed more sparrows into the area. Song Sparrows, like the one above, are present year-round, but in the last couple weeks, I have been seeing a lot more of them than usual. Some of that is probably post-breeding dispersal (yesterday I saw one that looked very young!), but migrants are surely part of the influx.

Yesterday I also saw my first White-throated Sparrows of the fall. I thought I had heard some calling (with their soft chip notes) once or twice before, but I had not gotten a visual confirmation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Birds Through My Window

Outside my bedroom window there is a line of crabapple trees, and close by, there is an eastern red cedar. Both tree species are fruiting heavily right now, and birds are taking advantage of the bounty. Yesterday afternoon I noticed a lot of bird activity in those trees, so I took some time to photograph birds through my window.

First off, this European Starling seemed especially fond of the cedar berries. When I have seen birds eating berries from that tree in the past, they have mostly been House Finches, so the starling's interest came as a bit of a surprise. This individual is interesting for another reason as well. It shows feathers from two different plumage stages, juvenile (the brown patches on its head) and formative or first basic (the white-spotted body feathers).

House Sparrows were part of the crowd. How often do you get to look down at birds sitting in a tree?

Northern Cardinals were also present, though they seemed more interested in the feeders behind the house than the crabapple fruits.

Last but not least, this American Redstart was a bit of a surprise. I have been seeing them around, in the yard and further afield. This was something of a lucky shot, too, as I only had time to take two photos before it moved on, and the first was affected by motion blur. Unlike most of the other birds, redstarts are primarily insectivores, so it would have been drawn by whatever insects were in the trees rather than the fruits.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Loose Feathers #362

Osprey with spotted sea trout / Photo by Mike Weimer (USFWS)
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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Phoebes and a Merlin

Yesterday morning I birded the Heathcote Meadows complex near Kingston, New Jersey. One of the more interesting sights was a series of Eastern Phoebes lined up along the fence surrounding the old plant nursery buildings. There were at least four, maybe more, flicking their tails and swooping down to catch insects near ground level. One even sat in the grass for a moment before flying back up to the fence. (One of them is shown above.) While I was still in the same field near the buildings, a Merlin (my second of the season) flew overhead at about treetop level. It seemed to be actively hunting rather than migrating. There were fewer warblers than I expected, but I was pleased to see a Blue-winged Warbler among them.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Loose Feathers #361

Swainson's Hawk / Roger Peterson (US Forest Service)
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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Green Heron

This Green Heron was in a shallow pond behind Morgan Mudflats. Shortly before I took the photo on top, the heron caught and ate a frog (seen below). I am not sure what type of frog it is. My guess would be Green Frog, since those are so common, but a few other species might be present there.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Loose Feathers #360

Herring Gull / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crested Caracara in New Jersey

Last Saturday while I was off birding elsewhere, Vincent Nichnadowicz discovered a Crested Caracara in a field at Grover Farm, a historic preservation site in West Windsor, New Jersey. The bird stuck around, and since then numerous birders have gone to see and document it. Yesterday morning I finally had a chance to see it. Getting there took more than twice as long as it should have, as traffic on US 130 was backed up for miles because of a truck accident that shut down the New Jersey Turnpike. By the time we got to the site, the caracara had already left its overnight roost on a utility pole and was foraging on the ground in a depression on the far side of the field. Its head was just barely visible above the alfalfa.

Eventually it did move around a bit more as it foraged. Several times it stopped walking to pick at something on the ground with its bill. Most of its body became visible when it walked up on the small rise in front of the depression, which allowed for more complete views of the bird and (relatively) better photographs. I think the one above is the best of the ones I took. In it, you can see the caracara's distinctive facial features — the orange base of its hooked bill, the black cap and crest, and the white face and neck. The tail banding is also visible. In the hour and a half that I watched it, I never saw it fly. This was the 300th bird species I have seen in New Jersey. Several other birders were present yesterday morning, including two who had driven down from New York City.

Crested Caracara is not a regular visitor to New Jersey. This species is normally found much further south, in southern Florida, the Caribbean, Texas, and south through Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It prefers arid or semiarid open habitats, such as brushland or agricultural areas. There are two other caracara species from which it was recently split: Southern Crested Caracara and Guadelupe Caracara (the latter now extinct). Caracaras are placed within the family Falconidae. Unlike other falcons, they run after prey on the ground and scavenge instead of pursuing birds in the air. Caracaras will feed on carrion or garbage if those are available; otherwise they prey on a variety of small animals like rodents, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. When they hunt on foot, they use their feet to turn over objects that might conceal prey.

This is not the first time a Crested Caracara has been reported in New Jersey, but it is still a potential first state record. Bill Boyle's Birds of New Jersey (which I reviewed here) mentions two previous records, neither of which was accepted by the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. The first was in Colonia in 1976 and was so tame that birders assumed it had escaped from captivity. The second was seen at Sandy Hook on May 5, 2007. In both cases, the NJBRC rejected the records because they were unsure if the birds were actually wild. Historically, Crested Caracara was considered a sedentary species, unlikely to travel much beyond its normal range. However, as Nate Swick and various commenters discuss on the ABA Blog, there have been enough sightings of the species across the continent in recent years to suggest that caracaras may be more prone to vagrancy than previously thought. Some local birders are speculating that this individual was blown north by the remnants of Hurricane Isaac. That may be true, or it may have flown here under different circumstances. Many birders from the area are seeing and documenting this bird's appearance and behavior so hopefully we will have a clearer idea of this individual's status than the previous two sightings.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

A Productive Day of Birding

Yesterday morning my friend Anthony picked me up for a morning of birding. Our first stop was a field in Cranbury that he discovered was one of the few reliable spots in Middlesex County for grasspipers and other denizens of plowed agricultural fields. The site itself is rather nondescript, down a side road next to an office park. When we arrived, a tractor was plowing the opposite side of the field, which initially caused some concern that it might spook the birds away. However, out target species were there. Anthony found about a dozen Horned Larks among the weeds in one of the unplowed furrows. The Horned Larks, in addition to being a county bird, were my 2,000th county tick* in New Jersey. Soon after, three American Golden-Plovers, another county bird for me, turned up further back on the field. In addition to the two target species, some Killdeer and Least Sandpipers were using the field. At one point, the sandpipers flushed, and we could see a larger and chunkier sandpiper among them. Unfortunately, the larger sandpiper flew over the far treeline instead of landing back in the field.

Having seen our target birds in Cranbury, we headed off to Sandy Hook to look for an Elegant Tern that was reported there earlier in the week. Elegant Terns normally reside on the Pacific Coast, particularly around Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. About 90-97% of Elegant Terns nest on a tiny island about a third of the way down the Sea of Cortez. They are frequent vagrants, but infrequent visitors to the Atlantic Coast. This bird was the first Elegant Tern recorded in New Jersey. Other eastern records have come from Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

We arrived at Sandy Hook at the same time as a thunderstorm, so we sat in the car to wait it out. When it stopped raining, we started out along the Fishermen's Trail. At the end of the trail, another downpour started, so we huddled under Anthony's umbrella until it passed, which was not long but long enough to make sure that our legs and feet got soaked. While we were waiting we saw a few Black Terns that braved the storm in among the far more numerous Common Terns. After we had followed the curve of the beach past the tidal cut, another birder signaled that he had the Elegant Tern and gave us a look through his spotting scope. In the photo above, it is the larger tern just beyond the Black Skimmer. The narrow, pointed bill was fairly obvious; the difference between this bird's crest and a Royal Tern's slightly less so. We looked for but did not find the Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Baird's Sandpiper that have also been reported from that area. A brief walk through the Scout Camp area turned up two very early Dark-eyed Juncos and a Palm Warbler.

On the way back from Sandy Hook, we stopped at Morgan Mudflats, but there was not much activity. The tide was high enough to cover the spit, so the only terns we saw were two Royal Terns in flight. At the end of the trail from the cul-de-sac there was a Green Heron in bad condition. An immature Cooper's Hawk was alternately chasing and being chased by a gang of American Crows. At that point we wrapped up a very good day of birding.

* County ticks are the sum of each county list in the state, i.e., a bird species counts once for each county it is recorded in. I would be unlikely to keep that tally myself, but luckily, eBird keeps it for me.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Loose Feathers #359

Nihoa Millerbird / Photo by S. Plentovich (USFWS)
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