Rusty Bird, Rusty Birder

On the following Sunday, I joined the Boonton Christmas Bird Count.  I did it last year as well and it’s a very  different experience from the LSP bird count in that we survey multiple localities throughout the day.

We began at Troy Meadows in an obscure fog. (Not just from  the early hour!)  The marsh could have been filled with silent, stalking birds and we never would have known.  The fog insinuated itself between the reeds and wrapped itself around every tree and high tension structure on the meadow.  With the silence, it was not the most promising of mornings,  but at least it was warm!

We did pick up  a few ducks (mostly Mallards, with two  American Black  Ducks) as the morning wore on along with Canada Geese,  Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles in flight.

From the boardwalk in Troy Meadows we made our way to  an abandoned airstrip where we were able to begin picking up some song birds. We got Song Sparrow, and Fox Sparrow, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird. Things were beginning to look up  even if we had yet to see the sun.

The place, like most abandoned places, seemed deserted — save for the flock of black birds at the far end of the strip. We made our way back there as the flock kept fluttering out of view.  It was here we picked up 100’s of Common Grackles (to supplement the ones we worked so hard for earlier!) and interspersed in the flocks of grackles were clumps of Rusty Blackbirds.  We probably had a conservative 60-70 Rusty Blackbirds there.

After Troy  Meadows, we tried our luck in Montville and Lake Valhalla which was surprisingly devoid of waterfowl despite the open water.  It seems as though all the water fowl decided to stay north this winter.   We did pick up Red-headed Woodpecker mid-day though, that was a nice find!

It was a pleasant day, albeit a bit quiet and slow. It wasn’t horribly cold or sunny or windy.  It was a good way to ease back into birding and brush up on the birds.  It was also nice to get to chat a bit with other birders and learn about what birding everyone else does in between Christmas Bird Counts.


Fox Sparrow surveying the abandoned landscape. Boonton Christmas Bird Count. Photo taken December 27, 2015.


Song Sparrow clinging to the reed. Boonton Christmas Bird Count. Photo taken December 27, 2015.


Common Grackle attempting to consume an acorn. Boonton Christmas Bird Count.  Photo taken December 27, 2015.

We contributed 46 species across our sites. We got nearly all the woodpeckers in the state.  We only missed Pileated. (We got Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed and Sapsucker!)


Entering the Bird Void

On a recent Sunday, I participated in the Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count surveying Liberty State Park for the third year running.

While we did not find a skeleton this year, it was still an atypical day. We did not stumble across any crows,  wrens, robins, or blackbirds. So, what did we see?

Well, we did see a dead mouse on a castle. And this…


Not actually a Great Blue Heron. Wood Stork would be more appropriate for this bizarrely placed lawn ornament. Liberty State Park,  NJ. Photo taken  December 20, 2015.

We may have had to modify our tally after a closer view.  They say to expect the unexpected, but who expects to find fake herons on  their bird count?! Fake ducks I’m cluing into and fake owls are at least owls, but this is a whole new consideration when  playing bird/not bird.


We did find Yellow-rumped Warblers basking in the rising sun: our only warbler. Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken on December 20, 2015.


Herring Gull, silhouette, flying with food. Liberty State Park, NJ.Photo taken December 20, 2015.

Everything seemed bathed in golden  light for at least an hour following sunrise,  but we could have used more birds. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets or very Common Goldeneyes would have made our  eyes shine. Perhaps  a glowing Ruby-crowned Kinglet or want-to-be gleaming Orange-crowned Warbler? We would have even settled for a Rusty Blackbird, or any blackbird really. Or any bird.


Hardy House Finch.  Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken December 20, 2015.


Male and female Buffleheads recorded during Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count. Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken December 20, 2015.

Baffled by Buffleheads without any Common or Hooded Mergansers we did one final pass for ducks around Liberte Point. We dipped on Wigeons over the course of the day, but were good with Gadwalls.


We looked really hard for birds.  Here we were scouting for coots and mergansers, but how many birders can you see? Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken on December 20, 2015.

Having examined the shoreline and the open water. Failing on Great Cormorant, Long-tailed Ducks, and Loons, we headed inland  to The Interior.

Then I tweeted this because it was true:owlcountry

Every year I go into the interior and spend so much time gazing into every evergreen I find every poky stick, but never any owls. Clearly I need to spend more time looking.

The afternoon lighting was strong and it made for beautiful sightings of what little we did see. As we walked through, the silence seemed very apocalyptic. Other than the drumming from the downy and chittering of the chickadee…


The bird team crossing The Interior after our numbers dropped by  three. Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken December 20, 2015.


The afternoon  light provided bold colors on the woodland birds we could find, such as this Downy Woodpecker. Liberty State Park. Photo taken  December 20, 2015.


And Black-capped Chickadees came so close, they were nearly too close for the lens I was using. Not a complaint! Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken December 20, 2015.

So, for a day  of birding with no crows,  wrens, robins, or blackbirds, we got a total of 44 species. Record low, replacing 46 after Sandy when apparently things were Just Bad.Total number of individuals across all species: 1226. Roughly 33% lower than the previous low record.

So why were there so few birds? Who knows. A quick guess may be that it was linked to weather patterns.  We had some cold weather earlier in the season, but the fifth  warmest November in the state this  year.  We  were in  short-sleeve weather the week  before.  Then  the temperature dropped, requiring winter gear for  this outing, so  perhaps the birds that might have lingered this far south had already headed out and birds that might have traveled down here, are hanging our further north? That’s my guess: it’s a bird void.


See all the birds? Nope we didn’t either. Instead, Statue of Liberty and Ellis  Island from Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken December 20, 2015. 

Same Old Goals

So, somehow, getting out to bird and blogging about birds has not happened as much as I  would have hoped  for 2015 (but I think all birders feel that way!) So here’s to more birds on 2016! The resolve of birders worldwide.

For the last two  years, I resolved that I would…

  • Continue working on warbler identification (this one for 3 years!).
  • Work on identification by song.
  • Learning more about my camera and how to take better photos. (from Prairie Birder)
  • Submit at least 1 paper for publication.

Reviewing the resolutions:

  • Warbler Identification: Still a work in progress, but isn’t it always?  Did some birding in the spring, but most of experience I gained through  the Bander’s Workshop I participated in at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory.
  • Birding by Ear: Spent the entire summer birding by ear as ~97% of all bird detection is done by ear in the tropics!
  • Camera: Fail. As you may recall, my lens broke upon arrival in Honduras.  I’ve just now replaced it and tested the new lens out.  Blog entry forthcoming (photos are edited, write up still needed).
  • Publishing: Working towards.
    • Kestrels: Are collaborating with other kestrel researchers throughout North America. Have submitted my components so publication timeline is beyond my control.
    • Migration: Need to send out our initial results to a recent ornithologist who visited campus and is interested in the results and will hopefully give us some new insights. In the meantime, I need to revisit some of the code and run it with  a larger subset of the data.
    • Rapid Bio-Assessment: Doing some analysis of species area curves for cloud forests assemblies.  Still working on coding and analysis. Much further behind on that then I want to be, but that’s what the break is for, right?

New bird resolutions for 2016:

  • Bird/blog more consistently. I live too close to a good patch not to do it more. One visit per month to my patch (unless extended travel comes up).  And one write up, even if it’s very brief or just photos per month.
  • Read one book on birds. This is probably my biggest shame. I read all the time, but when my life is overwhelmed by work, all I can stand to read in my limited spare time is light fiction. I surpassed my reading goal last year, so this year I will merge the two and try to finish one non-fiction bird book. I started Bird Sense over a year ago, I should finish it.  Last year with the best of intentions I acquired a number of other books as well.  I mostly read Lost Animals (previously mentioned here as inspiration for  an  older post.), and also have The Ghost With Trembling Wings and the Bedside Book of Birds. So, options.
  • Continue working on warbler identification.
  • Work on identification by song.
  • Learning more about my camera and how to take better photos. (from Prairie Birder)
  • Submit at least 1 paper for publication.


Male and female Buffleheads recorded during Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count. Liberty State Park, NJ. Photo taken on December 20, 2015.