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.

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.

One in A Hundred

When one intends to embark on a Big Day, one brings along their own cinematographer, no?  If you haven’t tried this I highly recommend it.  Mind you, it wasn’t my intent.  That would have been very pretentious.

I was embarking on New Year’s Big Day 2014 with a friend from grad school.  When I arrived at her house to pick her up, she asked if I would mind if a friend of hers tagged along who studies cinematography and was interested in filming the day.   So three of us embarked for Sandy Hook.   Between the late start and  one of the party needing to catch a flight, we had a very small window.

Upon arrival, we headed out to the tip, to North Beach, which we frequently don’t get to bird much there is usually little time left by the time we arrive.  But ebird suggested that was the place to be with reports of good winter birds.

Our official first bird of the year was the Long-tailed Duck.  We crested the dune and right in front of us, close to shore swam a fine looking male.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

It was quickly followed by a Northern Gannet, the three gulls (Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed).   Watching the Long-tailed Duck swim south, we scanned and quickly came across a Red-throated Loon.

What a start to the year!

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

I was lying on the sand, working on capturing the loon and the duck, when a sanderling flew past twice, then landed and ran past.

Sandering zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

Sanderling zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

As we moseyed down the beach, we realized we were being trailed by at least 100 people.  A very bizarre moment.  Like a tour bus spilling its occupants out at Times Square.  Then it happened.

We were walking north and I spotted a white spec in the brush on the horizon.  Could it possibly be?  So snug and smug!  Not a sentient plastic bag, but a Snowy Owl!

IMG_5987 IMG_5992 IMG_5995I managed these three images from a safe distance.  As we stood there watching, other people quickly became aware of our find.   Unfortunately not everyone was as cautious as we were, and the owl spooked.  Our remaining looks weren’t nearly as good, but we saw a Snowy Owl!

We didn’t have much time remaining, so we made our way to the bayside where we picked up a flock of 20 House Finches and a number of ducks including Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, and a Red-breasted Merganser in flight.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

So that was the first day of 2014 down. Not too many birds, but enough to whet our appetites.  However our cinematographer found birding suitably intriguing, spent the drive back reading the field guide, and is hoping to return in the spring for round two.

I probably won’t get a chance to bird again until late January, at least not here!

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.