Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Winter birding in south New Jersey

I LOVE the Jersey shore.. but I love it in the winter. I was there this past weekend (1/5/2015) and I went to Wildwood. I haven't been there since college and I know the beaches are packed in the summer. 

In early January, it's a different matter entirely. I walked between the rentals and the condos and walked out onto the beach. Not one person to be seen. A wicked wind and a cold the envy of ice giants of Asgard. 

I had my son with me, who is a 17-year old not interested in birds so keep this in mind. There was a report of a Snowy Owl at Brigantine (now Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge) and we were off to see it and I thought we could hit a few sites on the way back to my parents that live in the Cape May area (ideal for a birder). 

We made an obligatory stop at WaWa to get a coffee and we get to Brigantine. I pay the $4 fee (a bargain), pee (not nearly enough), and off to the 7-mile wildlife drive.  Birds in the parking lot Dark-eyed Junco (1) and American Robin (2). 

Immediately we are greeted by two then three Bald Eagles (3). All immature but still totally cool. I'm not totally convince that the top bird isn't a Golden. There were no interactions between them and they circled overhead. Most of my pictures from the day were terribly out of focus so I'm not sure what's going on with my camera.

Awesome, right? Logan was even excited.  How could this get more interesting? Through in a Peregrine Falcon (4) diving at one of the eagles. So it went.

A Northern Harrier (5) flew by and I could see one off in the distance. Nice! Not a single good shot of them. Grrr. Then we went to the pond at the start of the wildlife drive and picked up some Black Ducks (6) and some Gadwall (7).

There were lots of ducks this go-round. I was there in November and it was quiet. Back onto the wildlife drive and lots of Green-winged Teal (8), Black ducks, Mallards (9), and Northern Pintails (10). Ruddy Ducks (11) were here and there with their stubby erect tails giving away their identity (see below).  I can't forget the Ring-necked Duck (12) in the ponds near the entrance to Brigantine. 

A shorebird zipped by that was probably a Wilson Snipe and some suspicious sparrows zipping around but the only one ID'ed was a Song Sparrow (11). Again, I'm with a teenager not interested in birds so I'm keeping my sit-and-stare down to a minimum. Buffleheads (12) were on the saltwater side. Fly over Eurasian Starlings (13) reminding us that we are in NJ (as if the backdrop of Atlantic City wasn't enough). 

The Snowy Owl, was reported at marker 12 and excitement was building. Apparently, so was the flock of Snow Geese (14) that was building up to several hundred birds. So finding a snowy was taking too long so we moved on.

So maybe there's a snowy owl lurking in the picture above. Let me know. Picked up Hooded Mergansers (15), Canada Geese (16), and very distant Brant (17). At this point I think we're 4 miles into a 7 mile loop and my bladder is full.. and getting fuller. We stopped to check out a cooperative Great Blue Heron (18) and there was a Snowy Egret/Little Blue Heron was off in the distance but, errr, full bladder. 

Speed limit is 15 mph but I it got the point of panic. Cars to the front and back and no cover. The woods were just off. I was going to make it. So close. And I made it. Thank you shrubs and trees of Brigantine. And no port-a-potty?  Why? Why? Why?

No stopping in the woods for sparrows or vagrant warblers. One day. I'm biking the Brig alone and, damn it, I'm hiking some! Last bird before leaving the wetlands were Mute Swans (18) and Turkey Vultures (19) were cruising over the fields as you leave the impoundments.  Also on the drive were Ring-billed Gulls (20), Herring Gulls (21), and a few Great-black-backed Gulls (22). No snowy owls. 

So we left Brig and we were off to Corson's Inlet State Park. This was a super-quick stop. Nothing added to the list. Next was Townsend's Inlet - one of my favorites any season. Temperatures started in the upper 30's and dropped with a wind that was getting nastier.  Pull into the parking lot on the north side of Townsend's Inlet and pick up two adult Bald Eagles. 

House Finches (23), Carolina Wren (24), American Goldfinches (25), and a Yellow-rumped Warbler (26) were working the dense vegetation around the parking lot. Out to the inlet and out the the left leads you out to the jetty. Love this rocky jetty.  Picked up a bunch of Black-bellied Plovers (27), Sanderlings (28), and a Least Sandpiper around or on the jetty. Checking out that sandpiper - it now looks like it might be a Western Sandpiper. Damn peeps. Boat-tailed Grackle (29) flew down for a minute. 

Beyond the jetty were some Long-tailed Ducks (30), Surf Scoters (31) - which I love, and Surf Scoters (32). There was also a Common Loon (33) in the inlet and no Red-throated Loon, which was odd. Out with the Long-tailed Ducks was an immature Common Eider (34). 

Left there and headed south to towards Cape May and discovered Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. How did I not know about this place? Black vultures (35) were seen at some point on the road. Mud flats were empty except for teal and Black Ducks. Son was bored so we're moving quickly along the shore. 

Went down to Cape May Point and the surf was too windy to bother stopping. Then over to the lighthouse and picked up American Widgeon (36), Northern Mockingbird (37), and that was that. Not impressive numbers and missed some easy birds (no grebes!, horned larks, pipits, etc) but had a great time with my son so well worth it. 

What I need is a Sandy Hook/Bargegat Lighthouse trip. 

School starts up soon and down into single digits tomorrow so probably that's that for fun trips for a while. 

** post posting edit: add American Oystercatcher (38), another favorite. 


  1. I note that you did not individually count the Blacks and Mallards, which are generally regarded as separate. Is this because, despite their distinct morphology, they hybridize so freely? Whatever ones view, the whole Anas genus is an excellent case study in the murkiness of speciation in recently radiated species with ongoing introgression. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1055790313003163

  2. It's because I wrote up all those species and remembered mallards after I was done and forgot to list the number. Funny to forget mallards - there must have been several hundred out there but they just don't register like pintails or teal.

    When I was in Louisiana I came across a stuffed pintail x mallard. I'll have to make it a point next time I'm in the AMNH collection to see if they have a special hybrid section. But this demonstrates, to me at least, how a single criteria for species delineation (like the ability to reproduce) may be misleading. I feel circularity creeping up on me every time I open that can of worms.

  3. I see black, mallard, and black x mallard just about every year in the watershed I canoe in up in NH. The mallards dominate in areas with significant anthropogenic disruption, the blacks in the less disrupted wetland areas. The fascinating thing that the genetic studies have suggested is that mallards tend to be more genetically related to local Anas (irrespective of species) than the more far flung members of their own species. In other words, the mallards I see in NH will be closely genetically related to the local black ducks, but less genetically related to the mallards in FL (which will be closely related to the local mottled ducks) or the mallards in TX (which will be closely related to the local mexican ducks).

  4. That is cool. Would be neat to see an animation of gene flow in that genus.