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…

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

12 Days of Birding

I suppose it began with renditions of “Merry Schismus” and “O! Schismus Tree” during lab meetings earlier this month, but trudging through an empty Liberty State Park today on our annual Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count, I began to sing the following in  my head.

Sung to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas” (or not,  if you’re ill-favored like me) because there weren’t enough birds in it already. 


 

On the first day of CBC,  Audubon sent my way: a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

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On the second day of CBC, Audubon sent my way:  two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the third day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the fourth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the fifth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the sixth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the seventh day  of CBC, Audubon sent my way: seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers’ Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the eighth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: eight Northern Pintails, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the ninth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: nine Cedar Waxwings, eight Northern Pintails, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the tenth day  of CBC, Audubon sent my way: ten Ring-necked Pheasants, nine Cedar Waxwings, eight Northern Pintails, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the eleventh day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: eleven Piping Plovers, ten Ring-necked Pheasants, nine Cedar Waxwings, eight Northern Pintails, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers’ Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the twelfth day of CBC, Audubon sent my way: twelve Pileateds, eleven Piping Plovers, ten Ring-necked Pheasants, nine Cedar Waxwings, eight Northern Pintails, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, six Hooded ‘Gansers, five Goldeneyes, four Mockingbirds, three Moorhens, two Coopers Hawks and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

On the 13th day of CBC, Audubon  sent to me frostbite, warbler neck,  blisters, and a runny nose so the song ends here.


 

Please do add your own verses and variations in the comments!


 

Image sources: Pileated Woodpeckers, Piping Plovers, Ring-necked Pheasants, Cedar Waxwings, Northern Pintails, Orange-crowned Warblers, Hooded Mergansers, Goldeneyes, Northern Mockingbird, Common Moorhens,  Coopers Hawks, and a Saw-whet in a pine tree.

Doesn’t Rain, But It Snows

Right now it is  snowing, snowing, snowing snowy owls. Snowy owls everywhere. Up in in Rochester, Across the river in NYC, down in Bermuda.  Bermuda!  I missed the last snowy owl in NJ at Round Valley Reservoir in 2010(?) and the one half a mile from my folk’s place in 2007.  I never even heard about that one! This time around, I signed up for hourly updates which at this time indicate ~500 observations on Saturday.

I checked the data twice and plotted a route and contingencies.  Things were looking good.  Site 1 (Liberty State Park) had an owl in late November/early December, and then it was spotted again on the 27th.   Site 2 (Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, Bayonne / Bayonne Golf Club) was 6 miles further south and had frequent sighting the week previously.  My guess is that it could be the same individual moving between the two golf courses.  As a potential third site, should we grow desperate we could go to Sandy Hook (gap in sightings from early winter until the 27th) or the Meadowlands which also had a sighting on the 27th.  It wasn’t south Jersey that was racking up the owls, but my owling posse was not necessarily willing to make the drive to south Jersey, not even to Brigatine or Cape May.  The invite to join the owl posse went to 10 people and I had 3 acceptances.

Dunlin seeks food at low tide at Liberty State Park, NJ.

Dunlin seeks food at low tide at Liberty State Park, NJ.

At LSP, we had Dunlins as a consolation prize.  We also had two cases of sentient plastic bags and something else we’re still not sure what it is.

Not a snowy owl.

Not a snowy owl.

After three hours, we optimistically traveled to Bayonne, six miles further south along the Hudson to try our luck there.  We all agreed it was a beautiful, hidden gem of a park.  It faces the most bleak, industrial landscape.  There are cranes to be sure, but they’re the metallic kind.  But the scenery behind you is incredible.  The Bayonne golf course feels nothing like New Jersey, but rather some rugged Scottish highlands.  It’s utterly treeless and only the club house breaks the horizon from the walkway.  The club house looks like a cross between a spaceship and a castle drawn in a cartoon style; it’s actually remarkably charming.

Bayone Golf Course runs along the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway.

Bayone Golf Course runs along the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway.

At the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, we also struck out. We identified 2 Horned Grebes and had magnificent views of a Northern Harrier playing with the wind, and then hanging out with his friend Great Blue Heron.    Harrier, Horned, Heron. Owl.  Which doesn’t fit?   Yep.  No owl.

Horned Grebe rides the waves in the Hudson River.

Horned Grebe rides the waves in the Hudson River.

Northern Harrier momentarily hovers on the hillside.

Northern Harrier momentarily hovers on the hillside.

Harrier and Heron hunt together.

Harrier and Heron hunt together.

The group split early afternoon and I decided to try my luck at DeKorte where I had also struck out.  I had never been there either.  It is impossible to find!  But now that I’ve found it, I’m certain to return as it’s only about 20 minutes from my apartment.

Open wound. Pour salt.  Around 8 that night, I received another hourly ebird update.  The snowy owl showed up at Bayonne a few hours after we left.  Then a birder in Cape May logged 10 snowy owls.

To really rub it in, I wanted a better picture of where owls were on Saturday and how many I missed.

Here’s what happened on Saturday:

State # of Locations Probable # of Owls
Connecticut 2 2
Delaware 2 4
Florida 1 1
Illinois 2 3
Indiana 5 9
Kansas 1 1
Maine 5 9
Maryland 1 6
Massachusetts 5 11
Michigan 14 24
Minnesota 4 5
Missouri 1 1
New Hampshire 1 6
New Jersey 6 20
New York 24 33
North Carolina 1 1
Ohio 8 13
Pennsylvania 4 7
Rhode Island 2 3
Vermont 3 6
Virginia 1 1
Wisconsin 13 20
Procedure: Data submitted for December 28th.  Data acquired between 8pm December 28th and 9pm December 30th. Assume each county represents a unique bird. Assume with the fine weather and it being Saturday, that many people would be out looking and thus number would be reasonable lower limit of how many owls could be around in the continental 48. Eliminate repeat encounters by taking the highest count for each county, referencing a state county map as necessary to verify if there might be discrete locations within a county or a bird might be traveling cross county lines. Limitation: how quickly people put data on ebird. Some people are logging owl sightings more than 24 hours after. Data is only as strong as ebird is representative of all the snowy owls present.

Of Thee I Sing!

Rather it would be more like squawking if truth be told. But nevertheless, Liberty has been the theme of the month.  At the beginning of the month, I joined Montclair’s final ornithology trip to Culver’s Lake/Walkill River National Wildife Refuge where they surpassed my year’s record of 119 species with 124 for the semester.  At Culver’s Lake I picked up American Widgeon (I went 342 days without seeing one?!) and Common Goldeneye.  It was cold, occasionally bitterly so.  (Year species 192 and 193).

After lunch we found ourselves on Liberty Loop at Walkill.  Parts of it were in NJ, parts in NY.  We tramped about the loop in the declining winter sun.  The class picked up White-Throated Sparrows, heard but ne’er saw the Downy Woodpecker.  We were treated to beautiful views of gliding Northern Harriers and we all added a beautiful Rough-legged Hawk to our lists (194).  I opted not to bring my camera because I didn’t want to hold up the class progress, but hopefully I’ll be able to snag a photo or two to retroactively post. Further into the loop, along a wooded stretch we watched a Cooper’s Hawk sitting inches above the ground in a boggy area.

The sun sank further and the prize of the day remained elusive:the Short-eared Owl. John frequently scanned every hummock, but I held out for an appearance just before sunset.  Hand in hand temperature and hope dropped as we walked north along the western edge of the marsh and the light disappeared.  We turned towards the last stretch into the parking lot when the group lingering behind called loudly enough to capture our attention.  Out over the southern edge of the marsh (where we had been 30 minutes before!) a brilliant show of swooping, graceful wings danced on the horizons. (And yes, there are multiple horizons.  First there is the marshline, then the treeline; both are vital reference points).  From our vantage point we were witness to 5 Short-ears hunting at twilight (195).  Against the marsh and the trees, they looked like white; dancing against the sky, their silhouettes turned black.

Fast forward a week: Christmas Bird Count!  T’was very exciting to be invited to participate!  I had friends who were doing the count on Saturday (the day of the horrible snows), but I lucked out weather-wise with Sunday.  It started off bitterly cold (two hours in, I was more concerned about whether or not I had the first case of frostbite; couldn’t tell if my feet were just cold or cold and wet), but when the sun grudgingly appeared, my feet reached a tolerable temperature.  There were seven in our party tasked with surveying Liberty State Park in Jersey City.  The group was associated with Rutgers Newark of which I have previously posted.  We had a record 64 species, and a record low number of individuals due to really low counts of Canada Geese and Brant.  We were treated to nice views of Horned Larks and my best views yet of Snow Buntings.  We searched for owls in the conifer groves, but it was not meant to be!  I had a definitive Greater Scaup (196) and my first looks at a tricksy Long-tailed Duck (197)!  Away from the open water we picked up Rusty Blackbirds (198) and I had my first views of American Pipit (199)! Which is a lovely bird, if only for the name (pipit!), though I’m sketchy on the identification as I was instructed to know it by it’s slender bill and just the way it walks.  It has a way.  Which if it doesn’t walk while you’re viewing it, doesn’t help!  We had a surprise lunchtime visitor of two Orange-Crowned Warblers (200.)  All the details of our count can be found here.

We did quite well!  And in creating my list just now, I realized I had a miscount and have officially achieved 200 birds for the year! Woo! I guess I don’t have to go chasing a Snowy Owl after all.  But do stay tuned, in case I do, and for other amazing news.

P.S. Winter banner was taken at the CBC looking towards NYC!