Final Snow

On Saturday, the Kestrel Trio (a friend, my adviser, and myself) agreed to meet up at the Richard DeKorte Environmental Center within the NJ Meadowlands for a bit of birding.  (Someday hopefully I will learn that a bit of birding is never just a bit!).

The Meadowlands at that particular site contains embankments cutting through the watery meadows allowing good views of ducks, regardless of the position of the sun.  It also is an excellent site for raptors.  So when one wearies of ducks, a glance upward might be rewarded with raptors.  If there’s little luck within the park, just outside the entrance is Disposal Rd. a favorite spot for avian photographers.  The lay of the land creates an uplift of air, rewarding patient photographers with great images soaring hawks and darting falcons.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

While ducking (hey, you can owl, so why can’t you duck?) I didn’t take photos, but I switched from my binoculars to my camera at the end when we wandered along Disposal Rd.  We heard reports of Rough-leggeds, but didn’t see any.  There are also Short-eared Owls known to be in the area, but we weren’t there at the right time.  I hope to head out there some day after work, before the Short-ears depart…

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

We did see a lovely Long-tailed Duck, and a Horned Grebe hanging out on the water, but the surprise of the day was the Snowy Owl. The surprise was made sweeter simply by the fact I wasn’t out to see it: I had seen it at Sandy Hook, dipped on my return visit and had mostly accepted it was how things were meant to be. (Not that we didn’t debate whether the large white thing that flew across Valley Brook Rd on the drive into the meet up point was a Snowy Owl… my vote was plane.)

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands.  March 15, 2014.

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

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!