Ghost Birds

This week I rejoined the birders of Rutgers Newark for the Wednesday Walks.  When I arrived, Claus immediately set off in pursuit of the Clay-colored Sparrow and Lark Sparrows he had discovered on his scouting excursion earlier that morning.

Well, we discovered sparrows galore! 200+ Chipping Sparrows, 100+ White-throated Sparrows, a few Song Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and even Eastern Towhees and Swamp Sparrows.  We searched long and hard, high and low…. located an unidentifiable (due to distance) falcon… Probably the American Kestrel who frequents the campus and had been seen earlier in the morning, but looked a bit Merlin like for the hopeful.  Woodpeckers were also scarce this morning with only a lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in evidence.

It was a chilly morning!  I was grateful I had pulled a lazy birder and thrown clothes over my pajamas rather than change – it provided just the right amount of warmth.  But the two birds that would have been new for the list: the Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrows were lost in the host of sparrows (reference).  I did see my first American Woodcock of the year – dead, but it was still a woodcock.   (They’re already on my life list so I feel less guilty about counting it!)

Unfortunately as the campus became more active, the sparrows became more restless.  A few times the host swarmed when someone walked too close and a few would inevitably fly into the windows.  We walked through the fall zone, practicing avian triage.   My patient was inclined to scramble away from the others, but for some inexplicable reason tolerated me.

RecoveringChipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on m arm.

Recovering Chipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on my arm. Photo by Claus Holzapfel.

He rode on my arm for a bit before he went to rest in a planter to resume his recovery. Claus Holzapfel, excursion leader also writes up the Wednesday Walks. His write up can be found here.  Additionally you can see all the bird species that have been idenified on the urban Rutgers Newark Campus as well as their efforts at wilding an urban oasis to increase biodiversity.


Is that one word or two?  Ah well, today I wish to draw your attention to two uses of the term, “touchdown”.

The first use, I believe (I don’t actually follow sports) is to indicate achieving some sort of numeric reward.  While updating my bird lists, I happened to note that I reached 200 birds for NJ.

196. American Avocet
197. Black Skimmer
198. Great Horned Owl
199. Blue-Headed Vireo
200. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The second use is much less celebratory.   On October 7, a tornado touched down in New Jersey.  The path of the tornado took it through what is, as far as I am aware, New Jersey’s only large scale bird/raptor rehabilitation center.  None of the birds were injured, but the damage was more severe than either of the last two hurricanes to strike the region.

They are seeking donations to help with repairs to get their birds returned to their aviaries and out of temporary housing as quickly as possible.  They’re a great center and resource for birders and birds alike.

For more information, you can visit their facebook page or their website.

Moments Like These

Tonight was the Annual Board Meeting.  I was collecting kindling from the campfire area when over the clattering of wood I heard a haunting wavering wallow.  My initial thought was wood duck, but it seemed too loud and too bold for a wood duck.  To me, wood ducks always seem surprised when calling out.  I’ve never heard wood ducks save for when I was right at the pond.  My second thought was common loon.  I’m familiar with the call of the loon from literature and television, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it in person.  Not like what I heard tonight anyway.  (I did hear a loon birding on foggy August morning with a coworker, but this was far more harrowing a call.)

I listened with half an ear for the remainder of the night, but the night remained silent other than the wind winding through the trees and missile acorns thundering down.  I asked my boss if she had heard the call; she hadn’t, but suggested it was some species of owl.  Now y’all know I would love for it to be an owl, but nothing in the melancholic call struck me as owlly.

As soon as my duties were over, I scampered down to the pond, by which I mean I made my way down there over roots and giant steps with great caution.  Once at the pond I extinguished my trusty cellphone flashlight and melted into the night.

I lay down on the dock (because that’s what one does) and just absorbed the essence of the night.  The north wind blew the waves toward me and beyond, some time in the next few days those waves will find their way into the Hackensack River and then the Raritan Bay.  The insects sang their final songs of summer.  I imagined the swarms of late warblers, like a very tardy white rabbit, scurrying overhead; making their way south where food is more plentiful.  No birds mourned the passing of summer, but it was one of those perfect autumn nights.  The forest is fully steeped in autumn now, in sights and smells and it’s not more evident than when the rains come or the night cloaks the forest.

Mystery Visitor Drops In Downtown, Literally

The mystery bird

The mystery bird

Today at work we received a call regarding a mystery bird.  The caller couldn’t see the legs, or the feet.   When this happens, we play guess the bird.  It generally involves some level of charades as the office tries to suggest questions to ask while one of us corresponds with the caller.

This bird was a pigeon-sized bird with a long, down-turned beak.  It wasn’t an Owl or a Hawk according to the caller. Flummoxed, we had another employee running errands in the neighborhood, so he stopped over and snapped two photos.  One went to the Education Director, and the second to me.   Despite the wealth of knowledge at our finger tips, we were perplexed.  We sent the photo out to some bird experts at an unnamed bird organization.

My colleague judged the bird in sound health, just resting along its migratory path in the middle of downtown Tenafly.

After work, I stopped by to see if the bird was there.  It was dark, but I found the bird still hanging out on the sidewalk across from 7-Eleven. The photo above and the follow photo are the ones I acquired.  (Considering what light I had to work with, I am happy with the results!  I must say I felt simultaneously professional and ridiculous as I lay flat on the sidewalk to minimize any shaking of the camera in the poor light. Lots of weird looks from passerbys but one lovely conversation with the woman who was parked inches from the bird.)

Shining some light on the subject.

Shining some light on the subject.

The bird organization we sent the original photo (pictured below) did some consultation and came back with the identification of King Rail. After seeing the bird myself, I disagree with the assessment and am inclined go with the significantly smaller Virginia Rail. However, before I submit it to ebird as anything definite, I’m posting it here.  It just doesn’t look like a 15 inch bird.

The Mug Shot in better light.

The Mug Shot in better light.