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.