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.

Binge Birding: CBC Bingo Results #1

Final results aren’t in, but this is what I remember after a weekend of binge birding. My recommendation is to fill out the bingo card as you go along, not after!

CBC Bingo Results: Liberty State Park

CBC Bingo Results: Liberty State Park

The official results aren’t in yet. I think we were at 55 species when we tallied around 2:30. We then went off to look for a Robin. (Which we failed at.)

House Finches spend the day at the beach. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

House Finches spend the day at the beach. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

There were no surprising finds at Liberty State Park, which is… surprising.

We're eying you, or sleeping with one eye open. Greater Scaups sleep in the same spot annually. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We’re eying you, or sleeping with one eye open. Greater Scaups sleep in the same spot annually. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Toward the afternoon we located the Greater (and Lesser) Scaup.  They seem to always sleep in the same area.  I don’t know if it’s their annual Christmas nap or their annual charity; either way, it works.

Lost civilization in NJ. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Lost civilization in NJ. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We had a quick detour to go see a lost civilization.  This castle is actually carved into the rock on site.

Area X at Liberty State Park. Restricted Access. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Area X at Liberty State Park. Restricted Access. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

The interior of Liberty State Park, “Area X”, is off-limits to most birders, but we have a permit and permission allowing us access.  There have been rumors of owls lurking here for years, but no evidence since I joined this CBC-team. Dipped both years now.

The satellite office of Rutgers Newark Holzapfel Lab. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

The satellite office of Rutgers Newark Holzapfel Lab. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

As a post-industrial forest, there are some unexplainable sights.  Such as this table. Why?

We're really serious in our quest for American Robins. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We’re really serious in our quest for American Robins. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We did a tally and realized we were missing some incredibly common birds: Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, White-throated Sparrow, American Robin.  Seriously who goes birding and misses *all* of those species?  It’s like we weren’t even birding or something, but from the photo, we were quite determined to find a robin as evidenced by our use of this climbing contraption.

American Kestrel - one of the final birds of the count. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

American Kestrel – one of the final birds of the count. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

As we returned to the cars, lo and behold we had a Kestrel in a tree (but not a partridge, and no pears, either), and then a Merlin flew by in the background.

We cut out an hour early (shush) and went down the road 10 minutes to where there were reports of a Snowy Owl.  Turns out there may be as many as three.  We waiting about 45 minutes, and just after the sun set we saw one flying low over the Bayonne Public Golf Course.  So that’s why it’s in a blue circle, not a yellow.  Cause it doesn’t quite count.

Next week, I’ll be heading out to Boonton for round 2, so stay tuned!

Following Alice Down the Rabbit Hole

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Alice, the House Finch

Do you have house sparrows living in the atrium and the food court of your local mall?  We also have them at Home Depot, in the garden section.  So today, I was very surprised to step into the campus train station to hear the same sound of bird chirps that resonate in those large structures.  As I headed up the stairs, I soon saw why.  There was a female House Finch, fluttering and flying at one corner of the stairwell.   I didn’t want to leave her there.  (Had she been a House Sparrow or a European Starling I could have cared less.)  Unlike Home Depot and the mall, there’s no greenery, no food court, no food source.   I tried cooing, chirping, and clucking to her with my hand extended, hoping hope against hope she would just land on my hand and I could carry her to safety.

She had other plans.  She looked at me; fluttered away and looked again.  After a few minutes of this, she decided to begin flying further up the stairwell.  So I followed.  Every pause, I would do my best to speak House Finch and reassurances to her.  So post by post, window by window we traveled through an empty passage way of light and glass.  She darted behind piping, balanced on beams, peered out the panes.  We got to the second stairwell.  She was so close to freedom, but then she flew back down the tunnel.  I weighed my choices of remaining with her, or going on to class.

Like the white rabbit, I was already running so very late, so I scurried off to class.  As I went, I mused about how following a bird felt much like falling down the rabbit hole.  Much more sensible than naming a bird Rabbit, I named her Alice.  I reasoned that if she was going by the time I returned, then she didn’t need my help, but if she was still there, I could help her when I had a slightly larger window of time.

Persistent little bird, she was still there, beating away at the glass holding her prisoner.   No Red Queen to keep her running in place to keep up, just an invisible wall of glass.  (A barrier of nothing seems very apropos of Carroll).   As I approached I could see a male House Finch mirroring her antics and distress on the other side of the glass.

I only snapped a few photos of her as it seemed cruel to stand there documenting her distress with the perfect photo while she beat away her energy on the glass.   As I stood there, talking to her, a second human appeared.  Alice’s plight resonated with her and we discussed how to best return her to her home.  Catching her and communicating with her clearly weren’t working.

We headed up to the walkway and tried to open the windows, but the windows required a special key.  The broken door at the East Entrance had been repaired and would no longer stay open.  She pulled out a notebook and decided to try fanning the bird down the West Stairwell towards the closest exit.  For lack of anything else to do, I ran down to open the door.  She got Alice close, when Alice turned and flew back up to her corner.  I took a risk and took out the binder containing the notes for all my classes this semester and used it to prop the door open and headed up to help herd Alice down the stairs.

 Upstairs, I had nothing to fan with as my binder was below.  To prevent her from flying over us, I began to climb the railing to block her from flying above our heads.  Alice panicked, flew above my head, and I stumbled, knocking my sunglasses off in surprise.  (That would have been photoworthy.)  So not the best idea. Next, I took off my sweater and hoped that unlike bulls, birds avoid red.  Or if she preferred red, I could catch her in my sweater and carry her to safety, without breaking a wing or a sweat.

The other student began fanning Alice down the rabbit hole, and I stood at the top, helpfully bonking myself in the head with the zipper as I waved the sweater about like a banner.

We navigated Alice to the entryway where she selected the corner opposite the doors and returned to pummeling herself at the glass.  I walked down and waved my sweater at her encouragingly, trying to guide her towards the open door.  She panicked and flew over me and up to the landing.  We retreated upwards, sneaking beneath her to not scare her further upwards.  In addition to the notebook fanning, I began to gently toss my sweater upward to entice her to move from her hiding spot on the beam.   We navigated her down again.  I crept out the door, retrieving the binder, closing the open door, and propping open the door closest to her.   After several more minutes of dancing back and forth with Alice, we then herded her out the door and into freedom.