Collect Them All!

With the nicer weather, I am finally out birding more.  I managed to bird on Saturday and Sunday.  On Saturday, I picked up Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker. Downy Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker.

Northern Flicker adds the finishing touches to this year's nest. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

Northern Flicker adds the finishing touches to this year’s nest. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breaks its fast. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breaks its fast. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers abound at Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers abound at Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on April 12, 2014.

On Sunday, while listening to very active woodpeckers chase each other about the center and a couple calling Pileated Woodpeckers, I was quite content with my hall.

Then I received a text at work from an unknown number informing me of a bird I had been longing to add to my life list.  How awesome is that?!  I soon received a follow up email clarifying the identify of the sender.  A volunteer at the nature center was leading a bird walk locally  and had sighted a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Work ended. Did a bit of birding on site and then headed over in the fading light to Demarest. As I pulled up, I heard a funny chortle, looked up and then low and behold, this is pretty much the sight I saw:

Red-headed Woodpecker at the playground at Demarest Nature Center.  Photo taken on April 13, 2014.

Red-headed Woodpecker at the playground at Demarest Nature Center, NJ. Photo taken on April 13, 2014.

Never got a truly amazing look, just a reason to go back.

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A Bad Case

We all get them from time to time. You’re minding your own business, happy with your birds and then it happens. From the corner of your eye you see it. A long lens on a camera, a swoon-worthy scoop. Whatever it is for you, it hits.

I was working a school science day this Friday.  It should have been a stellar day.  I was hanging out with an owl. Then I saw it.

Who doesn't want to hold an African Penguin? Taken on April 11, 2014.

Who doesn’t want to hold an African Penguin?
Taken on April 11, 2014.

A penguin.

There was a penguin at science day.

There are people, locally, who get to work with penguins.  See penguins. Every day. Who get to be bitten by penguins. Who get to know each penguin by call. Who get to smell the stench of fish continuously.  Know their genealogies and personalities. Get to lug around all 7-10 pounds of penguins.

The penguin is an African Penguin.  The Jenkinson’s Aquirium has several penguins in their exhibit. These penguins prefer room temperatures, live in large colonies and can eat 20 fish in a swimming.  They need to live with at least 5 other penguins to be happy.  They can tell individual people apart and have preferences for certain people over others.  Some prefer people to other penguins.

 

Ooooh, the envy!

During one of my breaks I got to catch their workshop.  I caught up with them right before they left so I got to be up close with a penguin! I even saw penguin love from a mere foot or two away.  They make a twittery sound and lower their bobbing heads to show affection.  (Owls just balefully disdain you from afar.)

It looks horrible, but context is important! African Penguin in a traveling case to return to its aquarium. Taken on April 11, 2014.

It looks horrible, but context is important! African Penguin in a traveling case to return to its aquarium. Taken on April 11, 2014.

Turns out the woman who working with the penguin was experiencing similar angst.  She had a thing for owls the way I have a thing for penguins (and owls).

By the way, the owl and penguin weren’t sure what to think of each other.  Perhaps never in this history of this planet has an African Penguin met a Barred Owl.

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Searching for Spring

On Saturday, Tara and I original intended to go to Garrett Mountain – a local migration hotspot to see what was arriving.  I hard heard that earlier in the week there wasn’t much, but it seemed worth a visit, if for no other reason then getting a chance to say farewell to our winter birds.

However on Friday our plans changed when we were invited to join Montclair State University’s Herpetology class on their field trip.  We decided instead to go up to the school of conservation.  It was supposed to be 60 and sunny – sounded lovely.

Well, it wasn’t.

Despite the calender proclaiming April, ice and snow continue at the School of Conservation. NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Despite the calender proclaiming April, ice and snow continue at the School of Conservation. NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

The weather was just cloudier, colder, and winder than forecast.  Not ideal for migrating birds nor for luring herps from their winter hideaways. Plus, there. was. still. ice.

Our first stop was at Culver’s Lake – a good spot for winter ducks, particularly the Common Goldeneye.  We didn’t stay long – blackbirds, robins, and cardinals were in better attendance than ducks.  The whipping wind had caused the ducks to seek shelter elsewhere.  We had a few Buffleheads and Common Mergansers.  As we were doing a final perimeter check, we did witness a disagreement between a crow and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  having arrived at the scene belatedly, I cannot say who was the instigator, but it was clear each felt right and might were on their side.

We headed into state park land in hopes that trees would provide a more sheltered environment for the birds and ourselves.  It was also the first day of Trout season apparently.  So there were fishermen there.  One had a bird cage.  It even had a perch.  My friend insists it was an eel trap.  As she works with fish (in addition to herps, and now birds) I will believe her.

We went to the Steam Mill Area first.  Again, empty, although we did get our first Mallard of the day. (3rd water body, too).  He looked confused.  A Belted Kingfisher was about, defending territory.  I also caught the welcome chimes of a Eastern Phoebe before we located it in the trees.

At the school of conservation, we did a bit of hiking – checking for herps in preparation for the class and looking for birds before too many people pressured the birds into silence.    We heard additional phoebes and possibly a kinglet. Our nicest find was a Brown Creeper.  While not a spring bird by any stretch, it was missing from the year list so it was nice to see the numbers slowly creep up.

Brown Creeper searches for a morning meal. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Brown Creeper searches for a morning meal. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

After hiking we stopped at Big Timbers cabin to watch the feeders where the staff insisted we take hot beverage and brownies.  There we got some great views of American Goldfinch transforming into their summer plumage – they look so silly with their mottled plumes right now.   There were between 40-50 goldfinch on the feeder in addition to a House Finch, 1-2 White-breasted Nuthatches, 1-2 Tufted Titmice, a Red-winged Blackbird, and a Downy Woodpecker. At one point a Coopers Hawk slammed into the feeding area causing a quick exodus. This allowed us to drink and nibble before the birds returned.

Tufted Titmouse at the feeders.  School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

Tufted Titmouse at the feeders. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

American Goldfinch are molting into their alternate/summer/breeding plumage. Take your pick of bird jargon. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

American Goldfinch are molting into their alternate/summer/breeding plumage. Take your pick of bird jargon. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

After refreshment, we joined the arriving herp class. It must be so much easier to be a herp person than a bird person…. you can roll up at 12:30, no early mornings required!   We didn’t have much time left before we had to return home for unavoidable commitments.  We did locate a Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and Dusky Salamanders while  a Great Blue Heron coursed low over a stream.  I searched the hemlock and pines for slumbering owls, but no luck there.  Then it was onward home.

The slender Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and the bulky Dusky Salamander.   School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

The slender Red Phase Red-backed Salamander and the bulky Dusky Salamander. School of Conservation, NJ. Taken on April 5, 2014.

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Wings After Work

At work on Monday, our social media guru called the staff’s attention to a local RBA – a Yellow-Head Blackbird visiting the Meadowlands.  (The Meadowlands being my new local birding hole.) This particular Yellow-headed Blackbird was first spotted on the 27th.  (If you recall, I had birded the Meadowlands at Dekorte on the 29th.)  All the other RBA announcements pertaining to Yellow-headed Blackbirds were in south Jersey, thus a good drive away. However, an RBA within your stomping grounds deserts an effort at locating it.

So that being decided, I threw my boots and binoculars in my car for after class on Tuesday.  Now the days are longer and warmer, I have time to bird after class.

The scenic Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

The scenic Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

I got there around 4 in the afternoon.  I wandered through the Kingsland Overlook trail which is where the bird was frequently spotted according to ebird.  Without success, I decided to go do the embankment loops.  The day was pleasant – a hint of cool, but a vastly superior day compared to the last 80!  There were fewer birds today than on Saturday.  Mute Swans were most prominent in the pool, a Great Egret hunted along one bank.  In the back, along the New Jersey Turnpike, Redwing Blackbirds were staking out territories as American Robins, Song Sparrows, and American Tree Sparrows grazed along the path.  Rabbits scampered further out of sight as I approached, the only indication of their presence being the sounds of rabbit pitter-patter crashing through the reeds. At the end, I found a scattering of Buffleheads who appear to appreciate the seclusion of the reeds. Turning back, I saw a male and female Common Merganser coasting along in tranquility.

Common Mergansers at the Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

Common Mergansers at the Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

I walked the second embankment, studying the pools. A number of birds were at the far distance, black specs against a descending sun.  On the far shore, a solitary deer made its way through the mud.  In the interior waters however I found a slew of ducks: Northern Pintails, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Nothern Shovelers, more Buffleheads, Green-winged Teal, a Gadwall.

Great Black-backed Gull and a Mallard take advantage of the low tide. Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

Great Black-backed Gull and a Mallard take advantage of the low tide. Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

As I walked closer, I heard a curious call – like a garbled Killdeer.  Knowing Killdeer to be in the area, I listed again, but the caller did not repeat itself.

Attempting to watch a gull manage landing on the surface, my camera caught sight of three Greater Yellow-legs scurrying past.  I followed them with my eyes as they moved with purpose.  Then they called confirming the odd call heard earlier as the Greater Yellow-legs.  As a dog and its owner moved closer, the birds, five in total flew up and over the path into the duck pond.  Two more Greater Yellow-legs called from the far shore where the deer had been.

I finished walking the embankments and returned to the inhabited region of DeKorte where birders were beginning to arrive.   As I suspected, they were all there in hopes of seeing the Yellow-headed Blackbird.  In speaking with them, I learned that the bird would come in around the day’s end with a flock of Cowbirds.

In mingling with the birders, I ran into a familiar face – a birder who I had first met nearly a year ago when working a gig at the locally owned bird store – Wild Birds Unlimited, one of the top Bergen Birders.  I tagged along with him, learning a little more of the Blackbird’s recent movements, other choice birding areas within the county, and a who’s-who of the birders present.  For over three hours we scanned the skies and the trees from the parking lot, roads, and later the Kingsland Overlook.

This Yellow-headed Blackbird appeared by all accounts to be an obliging fellow – posing in trees and puddles easily accessible for birders.  Some birders had amazing views from their cars!

However, that was not to be our luck on this evening.  Despite the dozen or so sentinels keeping watch in the area, no evidence of the bird was seen.  Our best show of the evening  were the hundreds of Canada Geese streaming overhead and a hunting Osprey.  But here’s a consolation video I took of the Yellow-legs.

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Birds Before Breakfast

Rolled out of bed this morning and decided to bird before the rains came.  Headed back to the Meadowlands to see what migrants were arriving.   With the approaching rains, clarity and visibility were poor, but the birds were in good attendance.

Widgeon hangs out at the NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

A fuzzy looking Gadwall keeping warm on the windy day.  NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

I decided to walk the embankments (which is like walking the plank except it’s much longer and there are more birds, so it’s far superior an experience).   I had last been there two weeks ago, so many of the same winter birds lingered. (Dipped on the snowy though!)

I ran into at least 3 of my adviser’s ecology students.  He gives an assignment each semester where they need to find and photograph at least 20 species within a type of organism (e.g. plants, birds, insects, mammals, fish, molluscs, etc.)  They were very eager – had nice cameras and were also walking the embankments in the looming weather.  They had set their hopes on the Snowy Owl as well.

With my youthful appearance, they inquired if I was also out looking for birds for class.  When they realized I had some experience and knowledge (I knew why they were there and who had sent them without being informed by them – isn’t that omnipotent?!), they asked asked for tips for finding the Snowy Owl.   I asked what they had seen and they informed me they had found several Mallards.   I gestured to my left and informed them there were at least four species of ducks there, and another two species of ducks to my right.  I suggested they photograph every different looking bird they saw and then use their books later to ID them ( I didn’t see any guides on them).  I’m not sure they took my advice, except on the matter of the snowy owl, but we then separated ways.

Convenient side by side review of Snowy and Great Egrets.  NJ Meadlowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

Convenient side by side review of Snowy and Great Egrets. NJ Meadlowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

I continued on, picking up both Great and Snowy Egrets and Tree Swallows in that area before turning back as the rains began.  I debated calling it a day or being hardcore and birding in the rain. (My aversion to birding in the cold was making me feel I had gone soft!).

Returning to the intersection of all embankment trails, I decided to brave the rain and do the second loop along the Saw Mill trail.  After 100 feet or so in, the rains fell harder and I reconsidered, turning around and returning towards my car.  Then, they let up, and I turned yet again and headed back out over the waters.

An early arriving Tree Sparrow defends a  nest box.  NJ Meadlowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

An early arriving Tree Sparrow defends a nest box. NJ Meadlowlands. Taken on March 29, 2014.

I didn’t pick up much along that loop other than a Downy, bringing the total species for the day to 31 but I did a little wetter and a bit more exercise.  I decided not to do the Kingsland Overlook Trail much to my loss as I later learned.  Hopefully I’ll be able to write the follow up post of what I missed in less faster than the 3 days it took me to finish this post.

 

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Final Snow

On Saturday, the Kestrel Trio (a friend, my adviser, and myself) agreed to meet up at the Richard DeKorte Environmental Center within the NJ Meadowlands for a bit of birding.  (Someday hopefully I will learn that a bit of birding is never just a bit!).

The Meadowlands at that particular site contains embankments cutting through the watery meadows allowing good views of ducks, regardless of the position of the sun.  It also is an excellent site for raptors.  So when one wearies of ducks, a glance upward might be rewarded with raptors.  If there’s little luck within the park, just outside the entrance is Disposal Rd. a favorite spot for avian photographers.  The lay of the land creates an uplift of air, rewarding patient photographers with great images soaring hawks and darting falcons.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

While ducking (hey, you can owl, so why can’t you duck?) I didn’t take photos, but I switched from my binoculars to my camera at the end when we wandered along Disposal Rd.  We heard reports of Rough-leggeds, but didn’t see any.  There are also Short-eared Owls known to be in the area, but we weren’t there at the right time.  I hope to head out there some day after work, before the Short-ears depart…

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

We did see a lovely Long-tailed Duck, and a Horned Grebe hanging out on the water, but the surprise of the day was the Snowy Owl. The surprise was made sweeter simply by the fact I wasn’t out to see it: I had seen it at Sandy Hook, dipped on my return visit and had mostly accepted it was how things were meant to be. (Not that we didn’t debate whether the large white thing that flew across Valley Brook Rd on the drive into the meet up point was a Snowy Owl… my vote was plane.)

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands.  March 15, 2014.

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

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Trailblazing Turkeys

At work on Friday I was called into the museum room to witness an unusual sight. Gazing out the windows at the aviaries, we beheld a visitor. Not the usual red-tails that Ruby calls down, but a new species: turkeys. These turkeys decide to do a close inspection of the aviary.

Turkey stands on the aviary. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

Wild Turkey stands on the aviary. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

It was impossible to decipher what the raptors thought as first one turkey investigated the top of the aviary, and then a second. The turkeys initially kept to the wooden support beams, but soon braved the mesh, walking right over the owls. Initially the owls watched, then Mene coughed up a pellet and appeared to go to sleep.

Barred Owls receive a visitor. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

Barred Owls receive a visitor. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

After several minutes of running about and unsuccessful pecking at the air beneath the mesh, one turkey jumped off the roof. The other made a run for the edge and stopped short, thinking twice. We missed the second jump as we got distracted by work once again.

Haven’t done much birding or photo-editing lately. Waiting for warmer weather. Soon.

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