Life Changes

As you may have noticed, posts dropped precipitously this fall.  While the season was  steeped in birds, I just didn’t have enough time to write about it!  In September, I began a PhD program in Biology at the urban Rutgers University campus located in Newark, NJ.   For several weekends, I joined Montclair State University’s ornithology class as they traveled around the state to stellar birding locations such as Brigantine and Cape May.

At Rutgers my focus will be birds. (Dear reader, do you expect anything else?) During the first semester, we were required to join a lab for mentoring purposes and pick a small project or skill to build upon.  My adviser and I identified banding passerines for my mentoring project.  Most of the following photos were taken by cellphone since the purpose of the activities were science, not photography.

Early in the season, I joined the New Jersey Meadowland Commission’s (NJMC) banding project:

In 2013, the NJMC banded 5,503 birds. More than 26,000 birds have been banded since the program began in 2008. The information helps researchers learn more about how habitats in the Meadowlands benefit migrating birds. (link)

The NJMC runs an extensive operation with as much as a dozen nets operating at once, capturing 200+ birds on a busy morning.  On these days, they may have as many as 10-12 volunteers running the nets and banding the birds (hopefully!).  Some nets require a quick bike ride to reach.  It’s quite the challenge to bike and bird, but a greater challenge to bike and carry birds over one’s shoulder.

Early in the season I was at the Meadowlands about once a week, but as the season lengthened, things got busier and I was mostly at the Rutgers Station, pictured below.

Location of RUNBO:  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top of the stairs to the right.  October 2014.

Location of RUNBO: Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top right of the stairs. October 2014.

Claus and I decided to run the station twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, opening on Mondays if a day had been rained out.  Compared to the Meadowlands set up, you might think our set up was rather drab, but how many banding observatories do you know of with a Starbucks close enough to hit between net runs?

On my first day in the Meadowlands, one of our first captures was an American Kestrel. As my previous research focused on the kestrel, the other banders decided this was most auspicious.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program.  September 2014.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program. September 2014.

At Rutgers, in addition to banding birds twice weekly, we conducted two point counts, a deathwalk, and Claus leads bird walks on Wednesdays in October and May.  I’ve outlined our fieldsite below in classy yellow.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

The above map indicates the location of our banding station, “RUNBO”, the Rutgers University Banding Observatory, our fancy name for our banding cart; the location of our two nets (in previous seasons there was a Net 2); and the path we walk on our deathcount, or deathwalk.

The deathcount, or deathwalk, is a lap we do around the interior of the quad to collect any of the poor migrants who fly into the glass surfaces.  To date, we have a freezer with ~400 frozen bodies.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

However, sometimes we find more than corpses.  This young fellow, an immature male Common Yellowthroat was only stunned.  I picked him up, and having nowhere else to put him safely where he could recovered from his befuddled state gave him a ride.  He stayed with me for most of the perimeter until we encountered a stunned (or stunning?) female Common Yellowthroat.  The immature male instantly recovered and demonstrated his prowess by immediately flying into a nearby window, not once, but twice.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

We mostly catch Common Yellowthroats and various Sparrows, but sometimes we get an unusual visitor.  Pictured above was a silly challenge to identify correctly.  You don’t often get good looks at this fellow: a Red-eyed Vireo.  Note the lack of red-eye in this photo – very deceiving!

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning.  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

After removing them from the nets, and placing a USGS band on the leg, we release them.  Sometimes however, they’re more content to remain in the hand, particularly when it’s a bit nippy out.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

This fellow looks quite fierce, but like the Black-throated Blue Warbler, he stayed in the hand before heading for the bush.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

One of our most exciting captures was this Yellow-breasted Chat.  Not only did we get one, but we got two. (And we know they were different individuals thanks to the bands!) It was also a lifer.  (I saw it later perched in a London Plane tree.)

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A surprising, but common find, are American Woodcocks.  What is most unusual about this one is the fact it is alive (or at least was at the time of the photo).  All too often we find these birds dead or dying due to collisions with the glass.

So why do wildlife studies in Newark? What’s the draw?  While tropical and remote sites are fascinating to visit (until you acquire a botfly!), many areas are highly developed requiring the wildlife to interact with them in novel ways.  So often we look to study pristine regions in hopes of conserving them and we forget about the natural places right close to home for most of us.

So lots of birds, just not lots of words.

The Least I Can Do

On most days, 6:30 is the time I’m beginning to wake up, not arriving at the morning birding site. But spring is different. Even if I wanted to, most days I couldn’t sleep in: too many birds to see, including a mystery bird as I was soon to discover!

Monday started off no differently from any other Monday in May for people who like birds and live in northern NJ. At 6:30 I was driving the last of the way up Garrett Mountain.  My first priority was adding the reclusive and exciting Least Bittern to the year and life list.  I had dipped on the bird previously, when I had first learned of it’s arrival at Garrett Mountain. However, my birding-partner-in-crime knew where it was to be found on most mornings, so we agreed to meet earlier than normal to locate the bittern before beginning the day’s official birding.

We nearly flew down the slope to the pond and beheld the Least Bittern exactly where she anticipated it.  The least I could do was get a lousy photo of it crouched and stretching behind all the brush before it fled further away, out of view.

Least Bittern stretches its wings in the morning light. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Least Bittern stretches its wings in the morning light. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Then I became distracted by a female Common Yellow-throat.  This Monday, I didn’t have time to do much birding because I had to be at work for a morning program.

Female Common Yellowthroat. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Female Common Yellowthroat. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the trip list until several days and excursions later, so my recollection regarding what I saw before I departed and what the group saw is a bit rusty.  However, I definitely saw Least Bittern, Common Yellowthroat, and Kingbird since I have photos.

Kingbird sings its heart out. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Kingbird sings its heart out. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

And then there’s this next photo.

It’s actually a screen capture from a video I have yet to fully process.  It’s the best image I’ve isolated thus far.  This bird was spotted in the brush along a small stream, low to the ground, darting in and out of the shrubbery.

Three of us were on it.  Initial conversation suggested warbler.  Something like a female Tennessee. In the moment, my sense was chunkier and stouter than a warbler, particularly around the bill.  My thoughts were Vireo.

Mystery bird. Female Black-throated Blue, Warbling Vireo, or Philadelphia Vireo. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Mystery bird. Female Black-throated Blue, Warbling Vireo, or Philadelphia Vireo. Garrett Mountain, NJ. Photo taken on May 12, 2014.

Ultimately the birder with the most experience called it as a Philadelphia Vireo given the marks around the eye, lack of wing-bar or other distinction on the wing, and the washed yellow belly.

While the group was enjoying the bird, I literally had to run to make it to work on time.  Leaving early resulted in my not getting the day’s tally until several days had past, thus I didn’t submit our speculation, photo or list to ebird promptly.

I got tired of waiting for the list when the weekly RBA went out on Wednesday stating the discovery of a Philadelphia Vireo in the same park on Tuesday.  I posted what I could remember.

As I anticipated, the ebird sighting was flagged and I received a note from a reviewer, based on the above photo suggesting female Black-throated Blue…. which seems possible.  However, the only reason why I’m not sold is the tell-tale wing spot.  From what I can tell, the white spot is always distinct male or female.  While the primaries pale a bit where the coverts end, I’m not convinced that this is a distinct spot distorted by the bird’s movement as none of us noted any marking on the wing at the time.

However, with my posting of this photo after the public announcement regarding a regionally rare bird, it looks as though I’m jumping on the band wagon… at this point I just want to know what the bird is!  The more I think  about it, the less I’m certain.

More Truths

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single town in possession of a good fortune must be in need of a nature center. In Bergen County, where I live, work, and bird, nearly every town appears to have a nature center.  This leaves one with many choices for good birding.

I finally opened my eyes Friday morning.  I was going into work a bit late and could afford to sleep in.  Or I could until I saw the ebird notifications for what had turned up in the last 24 hours.  I bounded out of bed and was out the door within 20 minutes.  No breakfast, just a cup of tea to get me through.

This was me: Clara with her Tea| Doctor Who Tumbr

This was me: Clara with her Tea | Doctor Who Tumbr

Greater Scaup (1 report)
– Solitary Sandpiper (1 report)
– Greater Yellowlegs (2 reports)
– Bonaparte’s Gull (1 report)
– Northern Waterthrush (1 report)
– Savannah Sparrow (1 report)

Many of these were from New York, just across the border, about half a mile from where my folks reside.  I could make it there, get an hour of birding in and still be on time for work, all while getting breakfast at the local deli, to boot!

But it wasn’t to be.

The second truth universally acknowledged is when you want to get somewhere particularly quickly or badly, there will be traffic. Welcome to New Jersey, home of Bridgegate where we invented more traffic because there just wasn’t enough to begin with.

Despite the early hours, there was bad traffic on Rte 46, leading towards the GWB as a result of an accident.  I wasn’t going to make it to the Pier and to work on time.  Thus I began wracking my brain for an alternative.

I decided to go check out Demarest Nature Center of Demarest, NJ, home of the Redheaded Woodpecker. (We hope it’s occupying the tree for the season.)  Driving in, songs were dripping from the abundant greenery.

First stop was to look for the woodpecker, but there was no activity.  I began working my way along the very muddy trails of the center.  I had about 45 minutes there before I had to depart for work.

Surprise, a Louisiana Waterthrush bobs along the flooded pools. Demarest, NJ. Photo taken on May 2, 2014.

Surprise, a Northern Waterthrush bobs along the flooded pools. Demarest, NJ. Photo taken on May 2, 2014.

While there, I did locate Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Gray Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, and several Yellow-rumped in addition to our resident birds. I also picked up Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Pileated Woodpecker. Plus, I picked up a Northern Waterthursh (edited).  I had been going with Louisiana because the white screamed white.  However, as Lawrence points out, there are stripes along the throat which indicates Northern. The joys of warblers! This waterthrush nicely jumped up on the branches for a photo op..

I saved a few minutes for a scan of the trees when I returned to my car.  And there it was:

Redheaded Woodpecker remains at the Demarest Nature Center near the playground. Demarest, NJ. Photo taken on May 2, 2014.

Redheaded Woodpecker remains at the Demarest Nature Center near the playground. Demarest, NJ. Photo taken on May 2, 2014.

Truth #3 achieved. What ye seek, ye shall find.

Overload: Too Much of a Good Thing

On Thursday of last week, John invited his students to bird Great Swamp with him.  This time, three of us took him up on the offer.  Meeting up at 7:30, we quickly picked up a Yellow Warbler, GBH, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager view #2.

Scarlet Tanager view #2.

The Great Swamp is a great big swamp which has a few boardwalks and blinds great for birding when not off-limits during the hunting season.   In the swamp proper, we picked up Wood Thrushes, Veery, Ovenbird, and Northern Waterthrush.

The Wood Thrush belts out its electronic melody.

The Wood Thrush belts out its electronic melody.

The other two didn’t want to play bird-by-ear, so all the questions and quizzes were directed at me.  Being on the receiving end of these quizzes is intense – I didn’t realize how much so at the time.

At the blind, we saw more warblers, spotting Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Swamp Sparrow (not a warbler, but appropriately placed, in the swamp!).   I might remember the Common Yellowthroat – an association with the Lone Range and translating the call to what-d0-we-do-what-do-we-do? I finally heard the call of the Willow Flycatcher. Fitz-phew!  John has talked about this call for years, so it was well overdue for me to hear it!  Haven’t laid eyes on it yet but some day!

Afterwards, our group size dropped by 1 and drove to a drier portion of the swamp where we spotted a Baltimore Oriole, Yell0w-billed Cuckoos flying by, lots of Gray Catbirds. (We affectionately call them Garys because that’s totally what the call sounds like!) and a punky Lincoln’s Sparrow.

I think the Lincoln's Sparrow looks more punk like Puck, than esteemed like Abe.

I think the Lincoln’s Sparrow looks more punk like Puck, than esteemed like Abe.

Baltimore Oriole takes advantage of the sun.

Baltimore Oriole takes advantage of the sun.

We wrapped up at the education center just in the next county where we picked up Blue-winged Warbler and Great Crested Flycatcher. At this point, all my photos become non-bird related and I think I was physically and mentally done with birds for the day. I can show you photos of painted turtles, bull frogs, scouring rush, and cyprus knees, but no more birds.

Great Crested Flycatcher before he flew away.  We heard him at Great Swamp, but got good looks at Lord Stirling Park.

Great Crested Flycatcher before he flew away. We heard him at Great Swamp, but got good looks at Lord Stirling Park.

Afterwards, when I got home, all the birds sounds were jumbled up in my head and I couldn’t hear myself think over the cacophony.   By evening, I had the worst headache of my life: nauseous, room spinning – no bueno.   I suspect it was some product of audio overload, too much glare, or not enough water.  So I took some time off from birding to recuperate. I gave it a couple days and am slowly working my way through the calls trying to retain them in my memory.  I’ve lost some of the ones I had recently acquired, so I need to refresh some older ones and drill some new ones.

Great Swamp List: (lifers denoted with *)

  • Canada Goose
  • Wood Duck
  • Mallard
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Black Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee*
  • Willow Flycatcher*
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Great Crested Flycatcher*
  • Yellow-throated Vireo*
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Veery*
  • Wood Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Ovenbird
  • Northern Waterthrush*
  • Blue-winged Warbler*
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Magnolia Warbler*
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler*
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • American Goldfinch

New for the day at Lord Stirling Park:

  • Turkey Vulture
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Eastern Kingbird*
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • House Finch

Marvels on Mother’s Day

As I work every Sunday, I did not get to spend Mother’s Day with my mother.  For some reason she didn’t want to get up early to go on a Mother’s Day hike at the center.   However, I went in extra early to do a bit of birding with two other birders.  We had a lovely time despite the dearth of mothers.  The target birds were the Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, both of which we got within 15 minutes.  We got most of the birds early in on the Red Trail and along the pond.  At the pond, we spent some time stalking the green heron.  We were scouting for better looks at the green heron, and heard the wood ducks fly in.  We may have had as many as three green herons, but definitely two.  As we moved to the white trail which had less in the way of bird life to interest us, but more to speculate regarding plants, we found miniature broccoli bits strewn along the trail.  It took us awhile to confirm our suspicions, but the broccoli-like bits were the sweet gum flowers!

More reading on the “lofty, maligned sweet gum“!

Also, on the white trail we were treated to some closer looks at the singing Wood Thrush.  We returned to the main trail instead to watch a domestic dispute between two Baltimore Orioles.   As we were approaching the yellow trail, I heard the distinctive teacher, teaCHER, TEACHER! of the Ovenbird.  As we were currently chasing a Common Yellowthroat (which we dipped on) the other two were skeptical, but when the call repeated, they became believers.  It took several good minutes of tracking, but we did finally locate the Ovenbird scampering away into the bush on its scrawny legs.  I missed out on seeing the Ovenbird on the day of my defense. So I was very excited to move the bird to a bona fide lifer instead of just a lifer by ear.

Morning’s List:

  • Canada Goose
  • Wood Duck
  • Wild Turkey
  • Green Heron
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • Tree Swallow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Carolina Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Wood Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Ovenbird
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Baltimore Oriole

If a tree falls,

…in the woods and you’re there to witness the momentous occasion, how cool is that?   I didn’t actually see the tree, but I heard it fall while I was out birding on Thursday after the rains let up.  Two days of rain – what a relief!   I think it’s the first rain we’ve had since Easter and it was much needed!   There have been at least two brush fires in the area (and we’re not talking about Colorado or California here, it’s New York and New Jersey!)

As soon as the rain let up Thursday, I headed out to see what birds were active.  It was about 5pm so it would coincide with the natural uptick in activity.   I decided to go on foot because there’s really no good parking near where I wanted to go.  (The nearest lot is about as far as the house, so walking made more sense.)

There was some activity on the way, but nothing I didn’t see in the park, so I didn’t log it.

Getting to the entrance though was a different story!  On park lands, I could look under the bridge leading past the park to watch Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Barn Swallows swoop in and out.  I was mostly hidden by the trees along the bank so I wouldn’t disturb them.  Nearly all my photos are blurry because they’re swift swallows (not swalling swifts), but I do really like this one:

Barn Swallow reflection.

Barn Swallow reflection.

You see the lower image and think it’s the bird, but no it’s only the reflection. The actual bird is the blob on top.  Love it.  I also love how murky and plain the backdrop is; the clouds were actually working with me for once!

I headed into the park where it was hard to pick up anything due to the roar of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but peering into the marsh I did pick up a Canada Geese family and a Great Egret.

I didn’t have much luck until I reached the pool area.  At the pool, I climbed the slope so I could be at eye level with the trees, and plunked myself down for a bit to watch the wildlife. I know there’s more there than what I saw, but I am very excited by what I did see!  I got my first really good looks of a yellow warbler!

Yellow Warbler laments a lack of leaves.

Yellow Warbler laments a lack of leaves.

Isn’t he beautiful? Praising the sun gods for their return no doubt.  There were other birds flitting in and out of the woods, but my next exciting visitor was the Eastern Phoebe.  It was my second chance to get a good glimpse, and my first with my camera handy!

Proud Phoebe of the eastern variety.

Proud Phoebe of the eastern variety.

So distinguished!   I had some good views of him on the ground, and on a roof, so I’m excited that the one with the green in the background captured him the best!

Common Yellowthroat whose name I will likely never remember.

Common Yellowthroat whose name I will likely never remember.

Then my last exciting little fellow came about from some movement in the rushes below.  It took a white to spot him and longer to get his appearance on camera, but voila, a Common Yellowthroat!  And a lifer, too!   I spotted two males and one female.  It took me awhile to figure out the second was a female, but nothing else felt quite right.

After that I decided to wander away from the water in the hopes that I’d hear better, so I began moving up the mountain slope.   In the woods I didn’t have much beyond Blue Jays, and American Robins, although I did hear one American Crow fly over and come across a flock of White-throated Sparrows.

As night fell, it became more of a hike and less of a birding excursion, which is fine.  It was about two years since I had last traveled those trails so it was nice to see them again.  I wanted the one that looked over the Hudson, so it took some doing, but I did find it and was reward with my first Bald Eagle viewing of the month.  With the bluffs above the Hudson, I knew it was pretty good for Bald Eagles!   Soon the calls of the frogs, lured me onward.

At the western portion of the park, there are a number of “ponds” or artifical constructs that have since become ponds.  They’re quite lovely to hike along.  So I headed over to investigate the frog calls and picked up a Wood Duck and a Hermit Thrush.

From there I continued to the southern most portion of the park, and then after the sunset and a gentle rain began to fall, I made my way along the main trail about 1.9 miles to home.