Snow Break for the Birder

On Saturday I met up with my adviser, his wife and a friend from grad school and we headed back to Sandy Hook, home of the Snowy Owl spotted during our Big Day. I was excited to do my first real birding since my return from the Galapagos, but as departure time approached and I thought of all the snow out there, the thought of trudging through snow and cold caused me to drag my feet.  Granted I should have been thrilled that we caught a break between the storms and we were all free, but it wasn’t registering.

But it wasn’t so bad. There was no wind and the snow was manageable. You might notice there’s something off about the photo….

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

No footprints!  For the most part we were able to walk entirely on top of the snow without leaving footprints.  It felt very magical and many a remark was made about elves.   But also no owl.  I didn’t do any of the planning or scouting for this trip, so it went overlooked that the last time a snowy owl had been spotted was on January 20th.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows.  Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Like last time we also had nice views Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. New were Bald Eagle, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, American Robin, Common Goldeneye, Black Scoters and Field Sparrows. I got a glimpse of a Merlin while everyone else was mesmerized by a flashy immature Bald Eagle. So slow start to NJ birds, but getting good birds.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water.   Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Working Sandy Hook is slowly improving my identification skills of a few birds I only see about once per year. so yay! Just need to actually order my scope, so I can be a real birder.

Hermit Thrush. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Hermit Thrush. False harbinger of spring. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Call me crazy, but winter is rapidly winding up. While it cannot end too soon for many people (another several inches of snow predicted for this week?! whee!), to me I see the closing window of opportunity for Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls.

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!