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. 

Belated Big-Day Blah

On New Year’s Day after all the birders’ lists reset in a moment much like Anti-Christmas (instead of getting everything on your list, you lose it!), Tara and I returned to Sandy Hook hoping to repeat last year’s successes. It was just the two of us: the other six people intending to come along didn’t make it for various reasons.

This year we did not have our own videophotographer, nor did we have a repeat of 2014 success.  I say that, then I fact check it and I’m off.  In 2014, we had 22 species (+2 other taxa) whereas this year we had a grand total of….. 36! Another year under our belts and a scope makes a world of difference.

I believe the first bird of the year was a Sanderling.  It may also currently be the most photographed bird of the winter.  I was continuing to play with the borrowed Nikon 3200 and the rented Sigma 500mm.

Sanderling struggles with a snack. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sanderling struggles with a snack. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

A second day with the camera saw improvement.  This time I had a sense of where the camera wanted to focus.  Generally not where I wanted it to!  We’re continuing to work through our differences.

Tara scanning the ocean. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Tara scanning the ocean. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

It was a very small outing and a very cold day.  We typically start off at Lot B and scan the shore and ocean.  Well, Tara scans and I take photos of Sanderlings. Lots of Sandering photos.

Then we head over to the bay side where we discovered pretty much the same species as we did four days earlier.  I chased sparrows while Tara scoped out the ducks.  Sparrows were camera shy, but a disgruntled Greater Scaup put up with a few photos (and a misidentification!).

Ring-necked Duck on a bay-side pond. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Ring-necked Duck on a bay-side pond. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Next we headed to the forest interior.  I was searching for owls while Tara was searching for everything else. (We typically use the divide and conquer method.)  There were reports of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, but we dipped.

However, we did find some other species.  We heard the Cedar Waxwings before we could locate them.  Eventually they moved into the trees directly above us and I attempted to photograph at an 80 degree angle.  It was challenging.  My arm was trembling from fatigue!  It’s challenging to hold up a 5 pound lens.   So I decided to lay down on the cold, paved ground and shoot from my back.  It’s more effective than shooting from the hip when using a camera.

Cedar Waxwing, taken from a horizontal position. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Cedar Waxwing, taken from a horizontal position. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Along the path that follows the road we discovered a few Northern Cardinals, a sprinkling of White-throated Sparrows, and a devoted Downy Woodpecker.  In the photo, note the nictitating membrane covering the eye, protecting it from bits of flying wood.

A busy Downy Woodpecker. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

A busy Downy Woodpecker. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

We scanned Horse-shoe Bay picking up Common Goldeneye and a Greater Scaup somewhere along the way before heading out to the North Shore.  We opted to walk all the way out to the shoreline.  By this time I was carrying all the gear (scope and the camera!) through very loose sand. What a workout.  Warmest part of the day.  We got there to see there wasn’t much.

However, upon inspecting the grassy dunes behind us we witnessed formations of feathers.  I was curious to see how well the camera could handle flight so I snapped away.

Snow Buntings in flight. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Snow Buntings in flight. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

As we were watching, we noticed that sometimes the flock looked…. different.  Eventually I got a photo confirming our suspicions.  There were multiple flocks flying around the dunes.  Above you can see the Snow Bunting Brigade while below you have the House Finch Posse.

Sandy Hook. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sandy Hook. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

I like the way they’re flying directly at the camera and the complete chaos.  Eventually, the sun worked it’s way down the sky and we called it a day. January second would bring a 6am flight to Florida and there was packing to do.

Sunset at Sandy Hook on the first day of 2015. Sandy Hook, NJ Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sunset at Sandy Hook on the first day of 2015. Sandy Hook, NJ Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

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!