Wednesday, May 21, 2014

World Series of Birding 2014

On Saturday a week ago (May 10), the Middlesex Merlins competed in the World Series of Birding for the third consecutive year. My teammates were again Patrick Belardo, Tom Ostrand, and Anthony Laquidara, and once again we limited our big day to Middlesex County and competed in the LGA category for the WSB. This year we rebuilt the predawn and early morning portions of our route to take advantage of sites we learned about in the past year. Our songbird numbers in past years were respectable but suboptimal, and adding better habitats in the morning could improve those totals. We also wanted to ensure that we could reach coastal areas during low tide for shorebirds and gulls. For the second year in a row, we also faced a forecast of scattered showers throughout the day.

Our predawn birding was somewhat disappointing. This year our route included a marsh edge at the end of Mill Road, Raritan Center, and Oros Preserve. We heard American Woodcock at two sites but none of the rails or other wetland specialties that we have heard in past years. It drizzled on and off during these stops; I am not sure if that had any effect on our results.

Things started to improve during our early morning route. Although we included an evening stop at Warren Park on the border of Perth Amboy and Woodbridge last year, it was not really on our radar as a migration hotspot until more recently. This year we started there at dawn, and it turned out to be extremely productive for us. We recorded 16 species of warblers at that stop alone — more than our total for the day in any previous year. These included great looks at some singing Canada Warblers, a Blackburnian Warbler, and a Hooded Warbler. The latter is an oddly difficult bird to find in Middlesex County and was our first for the WSB.

From Warren Park, we moved on to Rutgers Gardens and found our Peregrine Falcon for the day along the way. In the woods we found a lingering Hermit Thrush, and I got a look at a Swainson's Thrush, which I had missed at Warren Park. Patrick spotted a Blue-headed Vireo, which, like the Hermit Thrush, was lingering past its usual departure date.

A few stops along Riva Avenue in East Brunswick yielded a Wood Duck and a singing Orchard Oriole. Davidson's Mill Pond Park had Purple Martins, a Bobolink, and a Least Flycatcher. A farm pond had a Mute Swan, and we rounded out the southern portion of our route with a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in South River.

To this point, things had gone fairly well. We missed some birds, but we found many that we had missed in previous years. The weather was also mostly cooperative. Things would become more difficult in the afternoon. When we arrived at South Amboy, people were walking around on the mudflats to collect shells, so most of the gulls were scared off. We still saw the five expected gulls but lost any shot at rarer ones like Little or Black-headed. Shorebirds were also scarce, and we missed Bank Swallows at the boat ramp. In the pond behind the marsh we had our best bird of the day: a Short-billed Dowitcher (shown below). This bird is pretty common in coastal areas during migration but, like the Hooded Warbler, is oddly hard to find in this county. A stop at a marina in Sayreville produced a Least Tern but the not the Seaside Sparrows we had seen in past years.

We had permission to seek grassland birds at the former Kin-Buc landfill, so from the coast we headed back to Edison. Unfortunately the Grasshopper Sparrows we hoped to find there did not sing or perch in the open. We did have a flyover Common Raven as a consolation prize. A quick stop at Edison Boat Basin produced Least Sandpipers. We had to call off a search for meadowlarks along Mill Road because a bolt of lightning ran across the sky and made standing in the open field and empty parking lot inadvisable. From there we went to see the Cliff Swallows that nest at the Route 18 bridge and a Cooper's Hawk nest that Patrick had found.

We returned to Raritan Center for some daylight birding. Our first stop produced a White-crowned Sparrow, a lingering Palm Warbler, a Bank Swallow, and a Belted Kingfisher. Our stops along the riverfront were less successful since we were suddenly hit with a strong gusting wind that made it difficult to keep optics steady or in some cases to get out of the car or stand. We also missed the Willow Flycatchers, Field Sparrows, and Brown Thrasher that I have come to expect from that location.

Our evening run was about as successful as we can expect evening birding to be. We spotted our Brant for the day at the Sewaren waterfront and visited the Monk Parakeets in Carteret. We added an American Kestrel on our return visit to Oros but missed the Red-headed Woodpeckers that had lingered there until recent weeks. A return to Warren Park did not add any species to our total. A final stop at the Triple C ranch end of the Dismal Swamp produced a Wild Turkey but not any of the owls that had been found there recently. The non-avian highlight of that stop was seeing a Spring Peeper that Patrick located. As far as I know, it was my first look at that frog species.

The turkey was our 125th species for the day. While that total includes a lot of birds, it felt a little disappointing since we backtracked from the 127 species we had recorded in each of the two previous years. Still, we saw and heard a lot of birds, the rain was not as bad as it could have been, we had a lot of fun, and I think we each saw at least one new bird for the county. So in the end it was a successful run.