Rusty Bird, Rusty Birder

On the following Sunday, I joined the Boonton Christmas Bird Count.  I did it last year as well and it’s a very  different experience from the LSP bird count in that we survey multiple localities throughout the day.

We began at Troy Meadows in an obscure fog. (Not just from  the early hour!)  The marsh could have been filled with silent, stalking birds and we never would have known.  The fog insinuated itself between the reeds and wrapped itself around every tree and high tension structure on the meadow.  With the silence, it was not the most promising of mornings,  but at least it was warm!

We did pick up  a few ducks (mostly Mallards, with two  American Black  Ducks) as the morning wore on along with Canada Geese,  Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles in flight.

From the boardwalk in Troy Meadows we made our way to  an abandoned airstrip where we were able to begin picking up some song birds. We got Song Sparrow, and Fox Sparrow, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird. Things were beginning to look up  even if we had yet to see the sun.

The place, like most abandoned places, seemed deserted — save for the flock of black birds at the far end of the strip. We made our way back there as the flock kept fluttering out of view.  It was here we picked up 100’s of Common Grackles (to supplement the ones we worked so hard for earlier!) and interspersed in the flocks of grackles were clumps of Rusty Blackbirds.  We probably had a conservative 60-70 Rusty Blackbirds there.

After Troy  Meadows, we tried our luck in Montville and Lake Valhalla which was surprisingly devoid of waterfowl despite the open water.  It seems as though all the water fowl decided to stay north this winter.   We did pick up Red-headed Woodpecker mid-day though, that was a nice find!

It was a pleasant day, albeit a bit quiet and slow. It wasn’t horribly cold or sunny or windy.  It was a good way to ease back into birding and brush up on the birds.  It was also nice to get to chat a bit with other birders and learn about what birding everyone else does in between Christmas Bird Counts.


Fox Sparrow surveying the abandoned landscape. Boonton Christmas Bird Count. Photo taken December 27, 2015.


Song Sparrow clinging to the reed. Boonton Christmas Bird Count. Photo taken December 27, 2015.


Common Grackle attempting to consume an acorn. Boonton Christmas Bird Count.  Photo taken December 27, 2015.

We contributed 46 species across our sites. We got nearly all the woodpeckers in the state.  We only missed Pileated. (We got Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed and Sapsucker!)


Wings After Work

At work on Monday, our social media guru called the staff’s attention to a local RBA – a Yellow-Head Blackbird visiting the Meadowlands.  (The Meadowlands being my new local birding hole.) This particular Yellow-headed Blackbird was first spotted on the 27th.  (If you recall, I had birded the Meadowlands at Dekorte on the 29th.)  All the other RBA announcements pertaining to Yellow-headed Blackbirds were in south Jersey, thus a good drive away. However, an RBA within your stomping grounds deserts an effort at locating it.

So that being decided, I threw my boots and binoculars in my car for after class on Tuesday.  Now the days are longer and warmer, I have time to bird after class.

The scenic Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

The scenic Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

I got there around 4 in the afternoon.  I wandered through the Kingsland Overlook trail which is where the bird was frequently spotted according to ebird.  Without success, I decided to go do the embankment loops.  The day was pleasant – a hint of cool, but a vastly superior day compared to the last 80!  There were fewer birds today than on Saturday.  Mute Swans were most prominent in the pool, a Great Egret hunted along one bank.  In the back, along the New Jersey Turnpike, Redwing Blackbirds were staking out territories as American Robins, Song Sparrows, and American Tree Sparrows grazed along the path.  Rabbits scampered further out of sight as I approached, the only indication of their presence being the sounds of rabbit pitter-patter crashing through the reeds. At the end, I found a scattering of Buffleheads who appear to appreciate the seclusion of the reeds. Turning back, I saw a male and female Common Merganser coasting along in tranquility.

Common Mergansers at the Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

Common Mergansers at the Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

I walked the second embankment, studying the pools. A number of birds were at the far distance, black specs against a descending sun.  On the far shore, a solitary deer made its way through the mud.  In the interior waters however I found a slew of ducks: Northern Pintails, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Nothern Shovelers, more Buffleheads, Green-winged Teal, a Gadwall.

Great Black-backed Gull and a Mallard take advantage of the low tide. Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

Great Black-backed Gull and a Mallard take advantage of the low tide. Meadowlands. Taken on April 1, 2014.

As I walked closer, I heard a curious call – like a garbled Killdeer.  Knowing Killdeer to be in the area, I listed again, but the caller did not repeat itself.

Attempting to watch a gull manage landing on the surface, my camera caught sight of three Greater Yellow-legs scurrying past.  I followed them with my eyes as they moved with purpose.  Then they called confirming the odd call heard earlier as the Greater Yellow-legs.  As a dog and its owner moved closer, the birds, five in total flew up and over the path into the duck pond.  Two more Greater Yellow-legs called from the far shore where the deer had been.

I finished walking the embankments and returned to the inhabited region of DeKorte where birders were beginning to arrive.   As I suspected, they were all there in hopes of seeing the Yellow-headed Blackbird.  In speaking with them, I learned that the bird would come in around the day’s end with a flock of Cowbirds.

In mingling with the birders, I ran into a familiar face – a birder who I had first met nearly a year ago when working a gig at the locally owned bird store – Wild Birds Unlimited, one of the top Bergen Birders.  I tagged along with him, learning a little more of the Blackbird’s recent movements, other choice birding areas within the county, and a who’s-who of the birders present.  For over three hours we scanned the skies and the trees from the parking lot, roads, and later the Kingsland Overlook.

This Yellow-headed Blackbird appeared by all accounts to be an obliging fellow – posing in trees and puddles easily accessible for birders.  Some birders had amazing views from their cars!

However, that was not to be our luck on this evening.  Despite the dozen or so sentinels keeping watch in the area, no evidence of the bird was seen.  Our best show of the evening  were the hundreds of Canada Geese streaming overhead and a hunting Osprey.  But here’s a consolation video I took of the Yellow-legs.

Ghost Birds

This week I rejoined the birders of Rutgers Newark for the Wednesday Walks.  When I arrived, Claus immediately set off in pursuit of the Clay-colored Sparrow and Lark Sparrows he had discovered on his scouting excursion earlier that morning.

Well, we discovered sparrows galore! 200+ Chipping Sparrows, 100+ White-throated Sparrows, a few Song Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and even Eastern Towhees and Swamp Sparrows.  We searched long and hard, high and low…. located an unidentifiable (due to distance) falcon… Probably the American Kestrel who frequents the campus and had been seen earlier in the morning, but looked a bit Merlin like for the hopeful.  Woodpeckers were also scarce this morning with only a lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in evidence.

It was a chilly morning!  I was grateful I had pulled a lazy birder and thrown clothes over my pajamas rather than change – it provided just the right amount of warmth.  But the two birds that would have been new for the list: the Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrows were lost in the host of sparrows (reference).  I did see my first American Woodcock of the year – dead, but it was still a woodcock.   (They’re already on my life list so I feel less guilty about counting it!)

Unfortunately as the campus became more active, the sparrows became more restless.  A few times the host swarmed when someone walked too close and a few would inevitably fly into the windows.  We walked through the fall zone, practicing avian triage.   My patient was inclined to scramble away from the others, but for some inexplicable reason tolerated me.

RecoveringChipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on m arm.

Recovering Chipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on my arm. Photo by Claus Holzapfel.

He rode on my arm for a bit before he went to rest in a planter to resume his recovery. Claus Holzapfel, excursion leader also writes up the Wednesday Walks. His write up can be found here.  Additionally you can see all the bird species that have been idenified on the urban Rutgers Newark Campus as well as their efforts at wilding an urban oasis to increase biodiversity.